Last week a friend of mine, who is near to releasing a computer game, asked me to explain my generally negative viewpoint on micro-transactions in gaming. In reflecting on my writing over the last three years, I came to realize that I’ve never actually talked about this issue independent of a game review. To fully explore this question, I think it best to establish some core principles for myself as a gamer and game critic.

1 – I will gladly pay for a computer/mobile/console game if it appeals to my interests and/or offers what I deem to be a unique experience.

2 – Not withstanding subscription based games in the vein of World of Warcraft or EVE Online, I will not pay for a game more than once.

3 – No game should exist exclusively as a means of tricking players into parting coin from hand, or use players as unpaid marketing drones.

Keeping these ideas in mind, let us delve into the world of micro-transactions.

A great many games which employ micro-transactions as their monetization model fail on my third principle a few minutes after completing their tutorial. Anything by Zynga (Farmville, Farmville 2, Cityville, Mafia Wars) or its competitors falls into this category. Their MO is to bombard players with “rewards” until almost every action yields a “victory” event. Once the player is accustomed to this constant stimulation, the game arbitrarily denies said action until such a time as players either pay for more actions, invite others into the game, a mechanism which is at best annoying and at worst an invasion of privacy, or wait until a fixed amount of time has passed. After this cool down period, the player returns to the pay-spam-wait decision gate, their resistance to the first two options ever so slightly worn down.

How does this break a gaming experience? First and foremost, it illustrates the pointlessness of the game. “Winning” at Farmville, and its kind, requires no particular skill when every action is a victory event. The game thrives on repetition so much so it feels like a form of unskilled digital labour.

Where the Sim City player is a P. Eng., a specialist who lives in a world where things can, and often do, go wrong, a Farmville denizen is a high school drop-out on a road crew shovelling road kill. The only thing which precludes success in such actions is a physical inability to carry out the task at hand. Otherwise, if you can manipulate a mouse, you can “win” at Farmville.

Other micro-transaction games, World of Tanks, Moon Breakers, Tribes Ascend, Battlestar Galactica Online and MechWarrior Online, do a better job at creating an actual game experience. Yet they still manage to fail, albeit to a lesser extent, on all three of my principles.

For the sake of discussion, let’s consider MechWarrior Online. As a die-hard Battletech and MechWarrior fan, I would have bought this game outright if Piranha Games opted for a traditional release model. When the developers released a founder’s package, allowing for early access to the closed beta, a small fortune of in-game premium currency, and a BattleMech which would always yield a better non-premium cash flow, I bought in. Absent the benefits of my founder’s package, MechWarrior Online would be a completely different experience. Generating enough non-premium cash to buy a new ‘mech and outfit it with custom weapons would take hours upon hours of play. Once again, the experience goes from that of a game to a labour exchange.

I had a similar experience with Moon Breakers, a space dogfighter MMO. To unlock an additional starfighter, without using real money to purchase it, would have required something on the order of fifty hours of game play. Suppose Wing Commander had said, “You’ll be flying a Rapier for this mission, but for 99 cents you can fly the Saber and have a distinct advantage over the Kilrathi.” Now insert such an inherent tilt in the playing field into a multi-player context, where those who spend the most money are flying the best ships.

The effective point of entry into the game becomes an ever rising median of what everybody else is spending. It makes great financial sense for the developers, but forces players into a place where the game is free in name alone. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that linear development rather than progressive growth (i.e. a proper conventional expansion) to the game will not invite players to spend more money to maintain the same baseline experience.

So what does work in the realm of micro-transactions?

The best micro-transaction model I’ve come across is Ndemic Creations’ Plague Inc. This game invites players to unleash a pathogen upon the world with the ultimate goal of wiping out all of humanity. What sets Plague Inc. apart from other micro-transaction games is its appeal to intellect, rather than tawdry addiction. Defeating Plague Inc. unlocks additional play types. To buy these unlocks is to suppress gamer vanity and admit the game has outfoxed you.

Note well that Plague Inc. exists as a fully realized creation, independent of its micro-transactions. There is a discrete goal and an end-point to the game. These two elements are often absent in other micro-transaction driven games. Yet without them, there can be no game, per se. By the very definition of the word, a game must have some sort of conditions for victory or loss. Without an objective beyond “just doing it for the sake of doing it,” or in the common parlance “grinding,” there is no game. Instead there’s an assembly line with workers pushing buttons to the benefit of owners.

Is it just me or is there a really Marxist streak to the industry of free-to-play gaming?

So to my friend, and anybody else who has read these words and is intent upon producing a game, I suggest considering these three questions when choosing a monetization model.

Have you actually created a game, or is it a gamification of player labour intent upon making you money?

If the reality of the situation is the latter, then go away. The internet is already so saturated with this variety of non-games that you’ll likely never make any money.

Do you believe in the value of your game as a creative expression?

There is nothing wrong with charging a flat rate for your product. I paid 99 cents to buy Plague Inc., and have found ample value for my investment.

Who is your audience, and what sort of relationship do you want with them?

If the answer is anything other than “I want everybody to be my audience so I can take all their money,” then tread very lightly in the realm of micro-transactions. Nobody wants to be nickel and dimed for things which are lateral outgrowths of the core game mechanics.

In games, as in any form of creative expression, good works will always stand on their own merit. Of course, consumers who spend money on good works want a sense of ownership over them. The free-to-play/micro-transaction model is at its worst when it turns ownership into a life-lease. While nobody should begrudge creators a right to profit from their work, the work in question should not expect much in the form of critical praise, at least from me, when it exists exclusively as an engine to make other people money.