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Micro-Transactions: A Slippery Slope

Posted on January 2, 2014 AT 10:01am

Having recently discussed at length the issues of micro-transactions in video game nowadays, it seems to me the most disturbing thing about it all is that the line of what is DLC and what is a micro-transaction is already becoming blurred. In that light, let me go right ahead and shine as bright a light on the difference between the two so we can know what is okay and what is trying to ruin gaming. Before I go into detail let me just provide what I think is a pretty solid line between the two: DLC is content not originally in a game that is permanently unlocked by a one-time payment; a micro-transaction is when money is payed to either to speed up the process of unlocking content or to obtain items/currency that can be used up.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into some examples here. DLC is a fantastic way to allow developers to increase the longevity of their game by continuing to put out content after the title has launched. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very easy for this to be exploited, especially when the content is available on day one and should have existed for everyone, but doesn’t because of deals with retailer exclusive pre-order deals. By and large, this is mostly harmless though, because that content ends up being stuff like costumes and weapons skins. What we really think about when we consider DLC are the large-scale additions to the single and multi-player campaigns.

A great example of DLC done right is the Borderlands series. With the constant stream of high-quality DLC coming out for those games, they stayed relevant long after their initial launch. Not to mention the fact that the original package came with a healthy amount of content even without any of the downloadable extras. More and more we’re also seeing standalone adventures built with the engine of a full-sized game as DLC. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is the perfect example: you don’t even need the original game to play it, but the game would’t have existed without the original title. DLC has its dark sides, but mostly it has found its stride in doing good things for gaming.

Now micro-transactions are a completely different story. They do have their place as well, but when people start to get greedy, they are far more easily abused and can harm the quality of the overall experience in games. Let’s take a look at something like Candy Crush Saga to start. Your initial investment in the game is absolutely nothing, they are handing it to you for free. To either speed up your progress or aid you during rounds, you can purchase consumables to help get you through. Several people won’t ever end up paying a dime and some will spend a healthy amount of money. This works out for the developer and ends up allowing them to make money on a product they initially released for free.

Here’s where it starts to go a little wrong: at a certain point, it is in the developer’s best interest to make the game less pleasant to play if you don’t buy those consumables. I get it, you need to make them worth paying for, but there’s a fine line here. The way this is most-often handled is with an “energy system” where you are given some sort of consumable energy that you need in order to play the game at all. You can either wait for it to refill, or purchase more for a small fee. Here’s the problem though, if you’re artificially amping up the difficulty in order to make the energy more appealing to purchase, what happens when you purchase energy and still don’t progress because of the amped up difficulty? That’s when it goes from understandable to a little shady.

The most disturbing part in all this is that these trends are starting to appear in games that weren’t released for free. Let’s take brand new next-gen game Forza Motorsport 5 for the Xbox One as an example. In this game, you earn new cars by earning money from races. Okay, so far that sounds pretty standard, no problems here, right? You can also get new car packs for a small fee. Okay, well that sounds like DLC, so that shouldn’t be a problem, except for one small thing: it doesn’t actually give the cars right away. The payment unlocks the ability to earn the cars with the in-game currency, not the cars themselves. Now add on the ability to pay for that in-game currency with real money and you’ve got yourself a shady-looking deal. With the fact that the amount of currency you unlock per race already having been increased to due outrage about this, it’s already a problem. Your next question might be, but what’s the problem if you didn’t pay anything for this game? Let me tell you that despite how similar this micro-transaction model is to the free-to-play games, this title has an initial price tag of $60.

Some might say that the free-to-play model is simply the modern version of what used to be arcades. I would say that it is and it isn’t. In one respect, arcade games are tuned to be particularly difficult so you will continue to feed quarters into the machine. Very similar indeed to the free-to-play model. The difference is that arcade games are not free, you have to put money into them in order to play them at all. They are never implying that the entire game can be enjoyed for free and the only thing you’re paying for is the ability to continue playing when you lose. Still very similar, but a difference I think is worth noting.

When looking back at this year, these trends of free-to-play and micro-transactions have really started spiraling out of control and need to be halted as soon as possible. The best way to do this is to speak with your wallet. If a full-priced game has micro-transactions in it, either don’t buy it at all or at least don’t spend anything on those micro-transactions. If not, before you know it, you’ll have to wait for your energy to refill before starting your next mission in Assassin’s Creed.

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