Game Theory: MicroBucks

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Some gamers treat the mere idea of microtransactions with contempt.

“Pshaw!” they snort, “like I’d pay real money to buy horse armor in Oblivion….” And then they usually trail off into a semi-coherent rant about their rights as gamers and greedy corporate pigs.

But microtransactions—which allow you to spend a few dollars on things to enhance a game, such as extra weapons or spells—are here to stay, and gamers just need to come to terms with that.

My little epiphany came when I took my son to the local Games Workshop store for some Warhammer love. There, spread out before me on shelves crammed with figures, books, paints, and all the rest of the paraphernalia of the hobby, was the world of microtransactions writ large.

Back in the day (as I say when I want to clear a room), if you wanted to play as Eldar, you bought the Eldar books and figures separately (and spent at least $100). If you wanted to play as the Chinese in Advanced Squad Leader, you bought Gung Ho! (about $50). Collectable card games? Booster packs.

It’s only in PC and video gaming that we expect to get everything in one neat little package, and then bitch if it isn’t all there. How many times have we read, “$20 is too much to pay for 10 levels and a new race”? I’ve written it myself. We’ve gotten spoiled.

BattleForge, a nifty collectible card game/RTS game mashup, drove that point home for me. For the base price, you get the game and 3,000 points to spend on booster packs or other enhancements. If you burn through that, you can buy $5 worth of points, which will get you a couple of booster packs to expand your deck. We’re likely to see more of this.

I’m not defending RPGs where entire classes are nerfed unless you pay extra money, or designs that punish people who don’t spend extra. But the future of PC gaming will likely be driven by the “Korean model,” in which hardcore gamers spend extra to support a game and expand their experience, while more casual gamers pay less or nothing at all for a simpler experience. The question will be: Which kind of gamer are you?

Thomas L. McDonald has been covering games for 17 years. He is Editor-at-Large of Games Magazine .

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