Never be afraid to mislabel a product - Rule of Acquisition #239
Jim Sterling has brought up the issue of Triple-A video game companies reaching into gamers’ wallets to yank out additional cash AFTER they have originally paid $60 for a video game again and again and again. He has repeatedly stated that he will stop talking about this anti-consumer practice immediately once these game companies stop doing this. Well, good luck with that, since apparently game companies seem disinclined to stop.
Let me be fair to these companies. Businesses exist to make a profit. And I’ve argued before that companies can be as greedy as they want. But I’ve also maintained that they don’t need to be jerks about it. I could go on about this, but for now I want to focus on this video made by Jim Sterling. The subject is how to have microtransactions in games correctly. I will expand on this video by comparing the advice he gives with Star Trek Online, which does all these approaches right. Notice I said right, not perfect. I urge you to watch the video first so that you know I’m not misrepresenting his views.
And welcome back. So, let’s take these concepts and apply them to Star Trek Online (STO). It is an MMO based on the Star Trek license. Let’s see how STO stands up to regular triple-A games.
As explained in the video, microtransactions are psychologically manipulating. They tempt the player into paying money for additional game content (whether it’s been held back from the game initially or created later). In his opinion, once you pay for a $60 game, all the content should be accessible in some way without paying additional money (virtual or real). You should not have to pay twice. That’s like paying for a car and paying again for seat belts to be installed later.
STO is a free-to-play game. You can create an account, download the game and play all the story content for free. There are 13 groups of missions, with 115 total missions, all inspired by the rich 51-year history of Star Trek. There is even a story set in the Kelvin Timeline from the recent Star Trek movies. These are mostly good stories, which includes characters like Seven of Nine, The Doctor, Spock and Geordi LaForge, voiced in most cases by the original actors. Let me remind you again that all this story content is free to play.
|Ever wonder where the Prophets sent the Dominion Fleet in "Sacrifice of Angels? You find out in this game.|
So where are the microtransactions? They are the starships you buy, the bridge crew, the uniforms, the alien races, and so on. You buy virtual currency (Zen) with real money or with in-game dilithium you can collect or mine in the game. Does the game give you free starships and bridge crew while playing? Yes. Are they good enough so that you can breeze through the story content? Also yes. You can play the whole game without ever spending a cent. Does the game tempt you by waving pictures of starships in your face and reminding you of what you can buy? No. You are never tempted to buy the U.S.S Enterprise for 500 Zen (equal to $5.00). But you can go into the store, look at the ship and make your own decision whether you buy it or not.
|Any fans of the Robotech novels out there? If so, you'll get the starship name reference.|
This, in my opinion, is how you do microtransactions right. Star Trek Online makes the game free-to-play, then tempts the player to pony up for additional in-game items. Like I said, if you mine dilithium, you can exchange that dilithium for Zen, which is then used to buy anything in the store. It just takes longer to save up the Zen for the ship you want. This goes for everything in the game. So, everything in the game is free. It just takes a long time to get all the in-game items that way. Spending real money simply makes acquiring those items faster. What’s more, there is no paying for power. The game is almost ruthlessly balanced, so that the only advantage you get over others is a cooler-looking ship, or a better-looking avatar.
In the video, Jim asks the question (in a whiny-voice) “But how do these free-to-play games make money to pay for the servers and support the game?” Well, in the case of Star Trek Online, they must make a lot of money, considering they’re able to pay for actors like Robert Picardo, Leonard Nimoy, Chase Masterson, LeVar Burton, Tim Russ, Garrett Wang, Jeri Ryan, Ethan Phillips, and Denise Crosby to voice-act the roles they’re famous for in the game. So, they’re probably doing very well for themselves. And for the record, they’re putting out another series of missions on October 3. That means they make enough to pay programmers to make new content. Another sign STO makes more than enough money.
Here’s another question posed by Jim; “But if we’re not forcing people to buy them, why would anyone buy them?” Here’s a large sample of what I bought in STO over the years with real money:
the U.S.S. Enterprise; a playable Federation Klingon Race; a playable Trill Race; the Future Enterprise ship from the episode “All Good Things”; 3 Star Trek Uniforms; 3 other starships.
All these items I was never forced or manipulated to buy. I wanted to buy them, and thus reward STO for their hard work. Not just in creating these stories, but setting them in the Prime timeline. These stories are set after Voyager came home. And this is the only licensed Star Trek property (other than the novels) that are doing this. Not even Star Trek: Discovery is doing this. I am never manipulated into buying STO’s stuff. They tempt me. They seduce me. But they never manipulate me.
|Got this for 2600 Zen ($26) at a sale. Money well spent.|
Games like Overwatch, Middle Earth: Shadow of War, NBA 2K18, Destiny 2 and Dead Space 3 are all $60 games, and all of them have microtransactions that psychologically manipulate people just by their very presence in those games. Like Jim, I also have a mildly addictive personality, so if I buy these games, there’s a very good chance I won’t enjoy these games because I will always wonder how much of the game is being cut out and gated behind a microtransaction paywall and being sold back to me. And I might buy something to find out. And buying something once in a $60 game with real money is once too often in my opinion.