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Press Start

Video game news, reviews and commentary with Gazette reporter Jake Magee.

Press Start: The foggy future of microtransactions and single-player games

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Jake Magee
Wednesday, November 1, 2017

For the past week or so, I've been playing "Middle-earth: Shadow of War," and I've been having a lot of fun with it—so far.

I've spent hours killing orcs, hunting down warchiefs and building an army of orc captains to do my bidding. The combat is solid, and it's a blast using my myriad powers to slay thousands of Mordor's most foul creatures.

But one thing has been bugging me: "Shadow of War," a single-player game, contains chests full of powerful gear, weapons and orc captains that are primarily opened by spending real money, and I've heard the final part of the game is a slog without buying them. It sounds like "Shadow of War" walls players from the game's conclusion to encourage them to spend their hard-earned cash on an already $60 game to speed up the grind.

These microtransactions and the practice of nickel-and-diming players are becoming more and more common in full-priced retail games, and I'm not a fan.

Back in the days of the PlayStation 2 and original Xbox, microtransactions weren't even really a concept. When you bought a $50 game (yes, games were cheaper 15 years ago), everything you'd need to complete and enjoy it was on the disc. This was largely the case even in the last console generation with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Somewhere along the way, mobile games exploded in popularity. To this day, lots of mobile games are free to download and play on a cell phone but eventually become so difficult to complete that you either quit or spend real money to advance. Games such as "Clash of Clans" immediately come to mind.

I should have known the shady practice would find its way to full-fledged retail games. It's a trend I don't want to see continue.

So far in "Shadow of War," I haven't even been tempted to purchase loot boxes. In my mind, not only is spending real money on already expensive product a waste of cash, but it dilutes the experience. Why would I want to spend more money to shorten my time with a game by making it easier? Talk about counterproductive.

The problem will get ugly if retail games ever become so difficult that the only way to beat them is with microtransactions, as several mobile games do. I've yet to see a retail console game attempt this, but "Shadow of War's" loot box philosophy is a step in that direction.

If you're thinking of protesting with your wallet by never buying microtransactions in hopes they eventually go away, you can forget it. According to studies, less than 1 percent of gamers make up half of mobile games' revenues, meaning a fringe group is spending ludicrous amounts on microtransactions to make the practice lucrative. Thanks to a crazy few, microtransactions are here to stay.

Not all microtransactions are bad, though.

Pay-to-win microtransactions are those that make a game easier to complete. They buff your character or otherwise make playing the game far easier. As with "Shadow of War," they're not ideal in single-player games. But in multiplayer games, they're straight-up unethical.

The other, far more palatable type is cosmetic microtransactions. These are purchases that make your character or gear simply look better. "Destiny 2" and "Overwatch" are two multiplayer games that allow players to buy outfits and other cosmetics that do nothing more than look cool to other players. So long as these purchases don't affect gameplay, I have no problem with them.

The problem is cosmetic microtransactions serve no purpose in single-player games. Who's going to buy a new outfit for a character only you will see? Such microtransactions won't net a profit, so developers are instead using pay-to-win practices.

I don't know much about the business side of gaming, but these decisions always come down to money. Games have cost $60 for years, but they no doubt cost much more to make than they did even five years ago. For a single-player game to be lucrative, microtransactions will unfortunately sometimes be part of the picture.

This makes me worried for single-player games in general. Almost all single-player games already have some sort of online component. But if they stop making money, will they disappear?

Publisher EA recently closed down developer Visceral Games and announced it would rework the single-player "Star Wars" game it was working on. The story-based game Visceral was developing wasn't going to be an experience fans would "come back to and enjoy for a long time to come," EA said. It sounds to me like EA is changing a single-player game into a multiplayer one to make more money. Yikes!

Still, I'm not ready to say single-player games are on their way out. I think the market will always demand linear, story-focused experiences. But I'm pretty confident single-player microtransaction practices will become more common and aggressive in the future.

To developers, I humbly request that if microtransactions are the future of single-player games that they never become necessary for victory. Provide them for those who don't have the patience to beat the game organically, but always let a single $60 purchase be enough to see a game's story through from beginning to end.

And to companies such as MachineGames, the developer that made "Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus" a single-player-only game with no microtransactions because multiplayer would have "diluted" the story, I say, "Thank you."

May companies that value art over money never die.


Last updated: 11:15 am Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Video game columnist Jake Magee has been with GazetteXtra since 2014. His opinion is not necessarily that of Gazette management. Let him know what you think by emailing jmagee@gazettextra.com, leaving a comment below, or following @jakemmagee on Twitter.


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