Why we need to conquer our fear of micro-transactions

EA's commitment to the model isn't the end of the world

Sometimes you have to wonder whether EA's mouth is on speaking terms with its brain. This morning's revelation (care of chief financial officer Blake Jorgensen) that all future EA titles will support micro-transactions might have been plucked from a handbook of ways to royally cheese off the internet (admittedly, his remarks were directed at an audience of investors, not consumers). It follows a series of PR blunders that began with the discovery of a micro-transaction system in Dead Space 3 - a feature EA could have unveiled itself in order to explore the ramifications appropriately and avoid the charge of harbouring guilty secrets, but instead chose to leave lying around in preview code.


Not long after, the publisher posted details of no less than 11 day-one DLC packs for the game in one go, thus gifting the press a couple of days' traffic-intensive controversy on the subject of greedy execs stiffing first-wave buyers. Then, in the wake of warm but hardly ecstatic reviews, it released a statement to the effect that the game had achieved a launch day score "average" of 91 on the strength of four, suspiciously early scores, denting its credibility for short-term gain.

These are missteps that would trouble a vastly more anticipated release - and Dead Space 3 has spent a whole year not quite getting its message across, burying that faithfully preserved action-horror DNA beneath divisive new features like cover combat and co-op. All told, EA must be thanking its lucky stars for the arrival of Aliens: Colonial Marines, an even more underwhelming shooter created in suspect circumstances that are still making themselves plain.

As regards the micro-transaction stuff, of course, it's more than a problem of presentation. There's sound reason to be distrustful of attempts to hit up players for digitally distributed pocket change, much as there's sound reason to be distrustful of giant, publicly-traded, expansion-driven companies in general. The possibility of "paying to win", or at least of being "cheated" of content traditionally included with the upfront cost, tends to preoccupy most pundits, but I'm more bothered by the idea that future games will be designed, consciously, to break apart into itemised pieces, rather than forming convincing, fluid wholes. You can see shades of this in the on-going obsession with collectables, which threaten to turn games like Tomb Raider and Assassin's Creed into grindy chores.

These risks aren't new, however - as Edge's Mike Gapper observed on Twitter just now, EA has been testing the waters for years - and for all the upset, they aren't criticisms I'd level at Dead Space 3. At the centre of that hurricane of negative perception lurks a skilled, sensitive compromise between the wishes of consumers and publishers, a compromise franchises like Activision's upcoming Destiny (said to support in-game weapon purchases) could learn from.


To recap: the payments aren't compulsory, they aren't forced down your throat, and exactly what you can buy is determined by where you are in the game, which means that you can't quite leapfrog the campaign's natural progression. It's claimed that the in-game resource system (theoretically) necessitated by the introduction of micro-transactions has forced an emphasis on scavenging - on trawling through environments for crates to stomp on and closets to empty out. I struggle to distinguish looting health jars, circuits and weapon-specific ammo packs in prior games from looting gel and scrap in this one, myself, and I think the use of salvage robots to track down deposits makes for a pleasant change of pace.

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