There's been a big cafuffle in the past week about EA's release of a new Dungeon Keeper game, because of its seemingly never ending paywalls, despite it being "free to play". Even if it wasn't part of a beloved gaming (and British) franchise, gamers would still likely find cause for concern, as it seems to epitomise everything that's wrong with microtransactions and the free to play model in gaming.
It's not that the F2P genre is bad or that even microtransactions are intrinsically so, it's that their implementation with Dungeon Keeper was so obtuse, so blatant and so self-aware, that it left a very sour taste in everyone's mouths and managed to even tarnish some people's thoughts of the original two master pieces of gaming which were Dungeon Keeper one and two.
So if that's the case, what is an ok way to implement micro-transactions? Chances are this will differ depending on the gamer you ask, with some saying all are fine and others saying the opposite. But in this instance I'm going to use myself as a cross section, as there's been micro-transactions I have input my payment details for and there's others that I've gone to extreme lengths to avoid paying.
With that in mind, developers, listen up. Here's some hard and fast rules on getting me, Jon, to pay to get through that wall.
1: I'm not paying for anything that just speeds up the game.
If your game takes a long time to do something, requiring me to essentially stop playing in order to progress, I'm probably going to put it down and never play it again. If you offer me an option to speed up that timer by giving you money, I'm even more likely to do so. Why? Because by you just broke every bit of immersion I could ever have felt with the game. You deliberately crippled me, in order for me to pay you not to.
That's ridiculous. You're not offering me anything new by paying to speed things up, if anything, I'm paying you for less, because one feature of the game is that things take time. There's also the fact that I know something else is going to take a long time to do, so this payment will just get me to the next time sink quicker. So when do I stop paying for this? At some point I'm going to have to wait.
For a specific example, let's look at Double Fine's Middle Manager of Justice. It features hero training which can take upwards of 20 minutes at a time, which you can bypass with in-game currency (that can also be bought in large quantities for real money). This isn't so bad, but it just means I'm going to put my phone down and walk away and come back when it's done. I'm not going to pay real money to get past it, because again, what happens next time it's going to take ages. Do I pay again?
Not only does this type of micro-transaction offer me nothing but continued gameplay, I know I'm going to need to do it again and again and again. So I'd rather not start going down that road to begin with.
2: I will pay for unique content.
Two games I have put money into, albeit not a lot: League of Legends and Hearthstone. In both instances, the micro-transaction for a skin or cards, offers me something that there is no other way for me to obtain. In the former it's even better as the upgrade is completely superfluous, but it's a way of supporting the developers and at the same time, making myself stand out.
In Hearthstone, again, I have the potential to get something rare and different from other players, but it does have an impact on the game – that's more of a flaw with collectible card games than micro-transactions.
The common trend here though, is that I'm much more likely to give you money for something extra, if it is actually something extra. I'm not going to give you money for 5,000 of whatever I can earn playing normally, even if you make it a pain in the ass to earn that. I'd rather not play in that case.
Make your paywall content unique, or I'm not dropping anything on it.
3: I'm not paying to make the game easier.
There is no way I should feel like I need to pay for something to advance in a free to play – or even worse, commercial – game, but even if it isn't necessary, I am not paying for something that will make the game a doddle. EA did this with the last Deadspace, offering some of the more powerful weapons in the game to players much earlier than they would get them otherwise, for a small fee.
While you could say this was being marketed at impatient gamers who just want to run through the game with the biggest gun insta-gibbing everything (that's what cheats are for, but that's another article), what it in-effect does, is make the game far easier. The same sort of thing could have been achieved with a simple difficulty setting. This example also falls over my first gripe, since it's offering me something I can already get in the game, just quicker.
Developers, I'm playing your game because it's fun and I want a challenge. I don't want you to charge me extra for an easier experience. If anything, the hardest difficulty should be behind a paywall, as that's offering me something more. By making things easier, you're taking it away.
4: I will pay for something that's had effort put into it.
Nothing is worse, than half-assed money grubbing. Energy replenishing, cash buys, fake currencies, they're all symptoms of a quick-buck spin attempt that's more to do with filling coffers than offering players something extra.
Mini-DLC packs, as much as I don't like content being held back from release, often can offer something a little extra just to top up the gaming experience. Sure, most of the time you can get mods that do the same thing, but they at least tick the boxes of being unique and not game changing. They don't speed the game up, they don't make it easier, they give you something extra to do or add a new feature. Whether they're new items in games like Just Cause or the near-full-expansion like additions to an MMO like Lord of the Rings Online.
5: I'm not paying for something mid-game
If you're going to try and charge me for something, you need to do it outside of the game itself. If I need to get out my credit card, or put in Paypal details, I don't want to do it when I'm about to death-punch the ork king in his junk. It kills the immersion.
I don't care if you get all clever with it and put it inside a weird space vending machine (Dead Space 3 again), it still makes me remember that I'm playing a game and not saving the universe.
Do it right and do it away from gameplay.
6: I will pay for it if you treat me with respect
This is the crux of the whole problem people had with EA's latest Dungeon Keeper 'efforts:' it felt like a massive middle finger to the audience. You could almost hear the narrator's voice saying: “having fun are we keeper? Good. That'll be $2 if you want to avoid having nothing to do for the next 12 hours.”
It was a “free to play,” game that blocked every bit of gameplay with a paywall, which spits on the very notion of free to play and suggests that gamers are idiots and will just blindly throw money to progress through a game without thinking about why they're playing in the first place – to have fun. If the developers think they can wring money out of you in every conceivable way and make it as blatant as EA did, then why do they deserve supporting?
So what's the crux of all this? What's the tl/dr version?
Don't treat gamers like idiots. We're not, trust me. Don't shove the micro-transactions down our throat or use them to block, or take away from the gameplay, use them to expand the game itself. Use a carrot, not a stick.