Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
28 September 2006
The dark future of microtransactions
As a GNU/Linux zealot, I used to worry that monopolistic Microsoft would lead us into a dark age of service-not-software applications, that if you didn't keep up your Microsoft Word lease then all your documents would become useless. Ah, poor Microsoft hasn't got there (yet) but Sony and Polyphony are doing their best to get videogame players accustomed to the idea for games. (Background reading.)

At least, that's one way to view the comments of Christian Svensson (of Capcom), speaking on's latest podcast about the model being proposed for Gran Turismo HD on the PlayStation 3:
If what they [Polyphony, creators of Gran Turismo HD] could afford to do in the scope of the development time frame was to provide 100 cars and 20 tracks, and that's what you got for 60 bucks versus with this [microtransactions] model -- it does take money to repurpose all these cars, it does cost money to recreate all of these tracks -- and hopefully, God willing, with this model ongoing, post-launch this becomes a service oriented business, not an "I put s--t in a box and ship it" business.
(In all this, emphasis is mine and typos are mine from transcription.)

So there you have it. We've gone from the software being licensed to you (which has been happening for years) to the software being a service that the publisher controls. I ask again: if there is some tether from the software to a main server, what happens when they pull the plug? Are they going to keep the data and service available for all time? Or will the terms of whatever license you agree to say "We can terminate this service at a time of our choosing"?

Svensson continues:
Publishers and developers want to keep people playing their games for as long as possible. Having an extended revenue stream is part of that.
Well, that's a new one. It used to be that publishers and developers wanted you to buy a game, finish it, and then buy another. Now they want you to buy (and I use that word loosely) a game and keep paying for tidbits for that same game for as long as they can. They're service providers, like your power company or cable provider.

Then there's this:
Let's say they do it [sell the base Gran Turismo HD disc] for 19 bucks. For 19 bucks you then have theoretically forty dollars to buy a whole bunch of other content that customizes that experience for you. And then ask yourself this, seriously, when you play Gran Turismo how many cars do you really use?
That's a slippery point, and I think it needs to be addressed.

For $50 (or less) I can get Gran Turismo 4 with 700 of cars and 50 tracks. How much to get that with this new model? Way more than $50, that's for sure. Moreover, the product I bought has resale value whereas the bits on my PlayStation 3 hard drive are essentially worthless to anyone but me, and then only as long as the system (both my console and whatever online service might be required for it) is functional. I really cannot see this as a win for the consumer, unless you are a consumer for whom customization is exceptionally valuable. As you might imagine, I am not one of those consumers.

Incidentally, at this point Gary Whitta said he didn't want to be down on microtransactions too much and that he didn't "want to sound like a curmudgeon". Heh. I should get him for using my trademark. Despite that, he does make the point I just made: if what we were getting before now costs more, then the consumer is getting the shaft.

Svensson is quick to respond with what has now become a common refrain by developers and publishers alike: Making games is now more expensive than ever. In particular:
The cost of development is so much higher. You just can't compare the two [the retail-oriented model and the new online model]. So let's say they were able to manage over three iterations -- and all they were doing was iterating, let's face it -- in Gran Turismo 2 and 3 [sic] on the PlayStation 2, they were reusing content and assets that they created in the prior ones. So ultimately you got the benefit by the time you bought Gran Turismo 4 of 600 cars but those were created over the course of three different games previously. Here, coming out day one, you've got to create everything from scratch.
Got that? Creating Gran Turismo (PSOne) helped in the creation of Gran Turismo 2 (also PSOne) which helped in the creation of Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec (PlayStation 2) which really paid off in the development of Gran Turismo 4 (also PlayStation 2). But -- hold on! -- to make Gran Turismo HD you have to create everything from scratch! I realize the models and courses will need to be more detailed, and I certainly expect that of a new game, especially one known for looking beautiful, but don't try to tell me that they're starting from a completely blank slate to create this game. Something from the previous games should surely be useful in the making of Gran Turismo HD!

Maybe Svensson meant that a brand new racing game by another company could start now and build itself through microtransactions, but as a justification for the game under discussion -- Gran Turismo HD -- it just doesn't make sense. Surely Polyphony, of all companies, will be able to utilize their previous work as a stepping stone to yet another racing game.

Finally we get to monopolies where Svensson raises the possibility that these online/microtransactional models will lock players into one game in that genre:
You can't expect the same amount of content at a reasonable cost to come into a single boxed product at the same time. The only way you could do this is by a microtransactional model, number one, and numer two, the other beauty of a microtransactional model is it allows you to build barriers to entry in the category. Given enough time and a long enough head start, someone else [a competitor] is going to have to come out with 250 cars, day one, and X number of tracks in a box to compete with what's available online six months, nine months, twelve months, two years later. I'm sure that when they ship, they're going to continue offering content online as long as it makes sense.
This is really troubling. Like getting locked into an iPod and the iTunes Music Store, the idea here is to make the investment so large that you don't want to switch to a competitor's system which is incompatible with all those bits you downloaded.

Incidentally, note the ominous phrase "offering content online as long as it makes sense". That could very easiliy turn into "as long as we feel like leaving the servers on".

But back to lock-in, you can imagine Gran Turismo metastasizing from its current form into all forms of racing, simply by tweaking their current system and offering the new stuff online. Certainly makes sense: if you have a general purpose racing system, why not go ahead and offer every kind of racing people are asking for? Why not a NASCAR download pack for Gran Turismo HD? (Yes, officialy licensing would be trouble, but you get the point.) Is it illegal for you to use your monopoly on realistic racing games to enter the market of NASCAR racing games? Let me fire up Netscape and look it up.

It's all very unsettling. More than ever before, I'm wary of these new services, and I do not look forward to a day when they replace physical media.
--Matt Matthews at 00:04
Comment [ 6 ]

Comments on this post:

The only way 700 cars are worth buying through microtransactions is if they actually add to the game. It seems to be most players would find maybe 5 cars they like to drive, and the rest is just collecting. Do they really think there's appeal in spending real money to complete a collection? I'm not seeing it...

By Blogger Zach, at 28 September, 2006 07:31  

This reminds me a bit of the very old days of PC gaming. For sports games you use to get the basic game without any licensed players or teams. Then you had to pay extra for the data disks, I hated this process.
I'm not keen on this microtransaction idea in any situation, but particularily in the case where the store bought game is just a skeleton with hardly any content. How can the developers balance the game if they don't know what content you will end up buying. I hope PC games don't go this way.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 28 September, 2006 14:06  

Looks like I'll be finding a new past-time.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 28 September, 2006 15:36  

pass time* =(

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 28 September, 2006 15:37  

"Heh. I should get him for using my trademark."

You could charge them a micropayment for the privilege.


By Blogger Michael, at 28 September, 2006 18:54  

Micheal, I think it's called royalties.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 28 September, 2006 22:45  

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