Microtransactions have given game companies a new way to profit

by Glenn Battishill

Sometime a few years ago someone got the brilliant idea that instead of making people play a flat price to play a game on Facebook or on your phone it would be better to make it “free” or $.99 and then charge for convenience.

This is evident in everything from “Farmville” and even “Angry Birds”

Lets take the latter for example. If you’ve never played “Angry Birds” before you must understand that it is one of the most infuriating games every created and called “fun”. Lets assume for this discussion that you are playing “Angry Birds” for the first time and you are starting to get really into flinging flightless birds at pigs hiding in flimsy castles.

“Angry Birds” assigns you a number of stars for completing levels with a certain score. (Don’t try and figure out the scoring system with this game, it’s completely insane.

So after playing a level so long that your phones battery entered the twilight of it’s life you begin to wonder about that eyeball button that you’ve never touched before despite its prominent position in the display. You click it and a menu comes up with the silhouette of a massive bird and texted proclaming an end to all of your frustration if you just pay another $.99 for unlimited use of the Eagle.

For a minute you consider it, $.99 for so much ease? It’s almost worth it. Your finger hovers over the button before you decide that it’s basically cheating and move on. But one day you are playing “Angry Birds” and maybe something a professor said rubbed you the wrong way or someone took your seat at lunch and you, in your drained mental condition decide to bite the bullet and just buy the freaking eagle.

That might have been less than a dollar for you but Rovio just double their profits off of you.

Adding insult to injury, Rovio locked the last set of levels in their newest game, “Angry Birds: Space”, hiding them behind another $.99 microtransaction. The cheating eagle isn’t $.99 for unlimited uses, he’s not $.99 for twenty uses. But hey, whats another buck between friends? If you buy the last levels and just twenty eagles you have tripled their profits.

People have an unconscious desire to complete things. Seeing the outline of three stars but only having two or one of them filled in is a frustrating feeling and one that people will go great lengths to remedy.

Most games don’t sell power, they just sell convience. Sure, you could take the time to painstakingly try to get all of the stars on all of the levels in “Angry Birds” the old fashioned way that kids in the 80s and 90s had to, but playing the game over and over until you were perfect at it.

Even bigger games have been getting in on the fun. “Mass Effect 3” features a store wherein you can buy randomized equipment for real money. It’s cleverly done too because you can genuienly unlock all the equipement just by logging some serious time in the multiplayer modes.

It’s a fairly simple formula too, you can afford the best equipment packs after playing an average of four games.

The thing they are banking on is jealousy. The first week “Mass Effect 3” was out I played the multiplayer for hours on end. I got enough in game credits to buy the most expense and best equipment pack. The first pack i bought contained mostly useless equipment not well suited to my personal playstyle. One of my friends playing with me got the rarest and arguably best weapon in the game on his first try.

Motivated by envy and jealousy I decided to use a balance of real money on my Xbox Live account to “catch up” so to speak and I bought three more rare equipment packs at $1.99 each. After seeing the rare characters I unlocked in my packs both my brother and another friend used the balances on their real money balances on their accounts to buy equipment packs just to try and get something better than my stuff.

The easiest justification is “well, it’s only a dollar” and for most people that isn’t a problem, especially those with relatives who have completely given up on trying to come up with decent Christmas presents and have opted to just get iTunes gift cards for their younger loved ones.

Microtransactions aren’t by nature a bad thing, especially when it’s just convience. You just have to worry about when players can buy power, especially competitive power.

“Battlefield 3” for example now offers players the chance to unlock all of the weapons and vehciles in the game for a fee ($39.99) to give players with big wallets but little free time a chance to compete with the players who have logged dozens upon dozens of hours. That’s not convience, that’s power.

Microtransactions are quickly becoming a stable of modern gaming for better or for worse it looks like the pay extra for convience or power is here to stay.