As I planed this post I entertained the thought of naming it Microtransactions, the future of gaming. However it's clear that Microtransactions are not the future, it's just part of our everyday gaming life. Before I go through some reasons why it's a good thing and explain my concerns I'd like to clarify what a microtransaction is. A microtransaction is when you pay a small amount of money, usually between $1 and $5 for some virtual goods in a game or on a Online community. It could be anything from a special avatar to gear in your games. Originally an Asian phenomenon it became world wide with the beloved or hated Farmville on Facebook. You know, the game that spams all your friends when you get a golden cow for some reason. When I first encountered it I didn't understand why people would spend money on it, but as more and more games convert to this scheme it's clear that I have to update my thinking around it.
Funcom recently announced that Age of Conan would include to a free to play model. This new model would allow users to gain access to some content for free and it would be optional to pay for extended premium content. This is also similar to the premium content model in the upcoming Age of Empires Online (currently in beta). World of Tanks is another sweet example with growing popularity, worth a few hours of testing if you ask me. It's clear that more and more games adapt this new payment model. The question is how does this affect us, and why are these new models taking form?
First let's address the how does this affect me part. Remember back in the days before the Internet? You might not, but back then we bought gaming magazines not only to find out what the future had in store, but also to get our hands on the sweet demo games included on the CD. This allowed us to really test games before we bought them and it was glorious. With the free to play model this feeling is revived. I can download a game, play around with it to see if I like it before committing to a $100 purchase. A good thing for users, especially now that demos are almost all but a distant memory.
Some might complain that paying players have all the fun, and to a certain degree this is correct. Many microtransaction games allow users to buy powerful benefits or gear for real money. I think this is only fair, if someone pays to support the development of the game, why should he or she not benefit from it? I see non-paying gamers as people who want to test the game before going all in, if you want to have full access you have to pay for it, whether it's microtransactions or the full $100.
Before we look at why we need to take a look at what you can buy in most games. First we have the buy gear option, this is how it all started in Asian browser games and continued on with in Farmville. It's simple and to the point, might give you a slight advantage over other players, but nothing game breaking. This is the solution used in World of Tanks as well, however it's a bit to powerful here as some of the bullets you buy almost singlehandedly kills any other player. A good idea, but occasionally it has some bad implementations.
Another option is pay to get more solutions, either where you pay for bonuses like leveling, faster movement or more actions in a single round. This allows you to pass other players, but everyone will reach the same if they play enough. Want to play a game that your friends have played for a while? Don't want to spend weeks catching up? Well, pay for faster progress! What I like about the Age of Conan idea is that non paying players get access to most of the game just like paying ones. They can level up with some restrictions to classes, play around and learn the game, then make a decision to pay to join the rest of the playerbase. It's not often I say this about Funcom, but good job!
So, whether you pay for a magic black sheep with machineguns in Farmville or faster levling in your favorite MMO Microtransactions will be a more prominent part of gaming in the future. This is an overall good thing as it allows us to try more games before making a rather costly investment in them, it also allows you to support your favorite gaming studios without having to go for a monthly subscription. Come to think of it, isn't it about time Blizzard looks into this? Who knows, maybe the upcoming project Titan from Blizzard has some of these ideas incorporated?