I'm a pretty avid college football fan, which has absolutely nothing to do with the world of open source or freeware. Or does it? I just made my yearly donation to Electronic Arts in the form of a cash gift, of which they happily accepted and used, in part, to bestow me with a copy of their latest carbon-copy of last year's sports title of choice.
I'm referring, of course, to NCAA Football 2011. But when I fired up the title on my trusty Xbox 360, I nearly threw up. That's not because I was pregaming my ritual Ohio State-M*ch*g*n match-up, nor because I was sick to my stomach at the omission of a Toby Gerhart-like tank of a running back for Stanford's offense. No, I was upset because the first screen I saw upon loading up the title was one that asked for my special online multiplayer code.
As it turns out, Electronic Arts--in an effort to thwart used game sales--has made it so that you actually have to enter a physical code to unlock portions of the game (many of the multiplayer options) that have previously been part and parcel for any of its sports titles under the sun, if not "video gaming" as a general concept. If you want to access these parts of the game, but find that your code has already been used by another, you have to pony up a small fee to, you know, play what you purchased.
It's a pretty ingenious move on EA's part, I'll give them that. And it got me thinking about my at-work hobby: The never-ending stream of software and applications that always need rounding up and reviewing in some capacity. Obviously, the closest we have to microtransactions in this environment is good ol' shareware--I don't often see many programs saying, for example, "for 500 uses the paint bucket tool, please pay $3 to..."
But why not?
You heard me. Why not? Consider this not quite shareware, more like a "freeware-plus" kind of a concept. It works like this: A developer releases a core application to the world, gratis. Super-basic functionality, perhaps with all features time- or use-locked to a set degree. Only, instead of releasing, "full," "lite," or "kind of spicy" versions of the app, the developer restricts each individual feature to an a la carte menu.
Power-users can just up and purchase the whole shebang and call it a day, whereas novice users can tinker with the bits and pieces they understand (or care to use) instead of hunting down a true open-source or freeware solution. These simpler users get the benefit of an (ideally) more stable and updated application that's, perhaps, easier to use; developers don't lose a sale because someone didn't want to pony up $50 for a program they just don't understand on sight.
You can mess with the equation any number of ways. Though, to be honest, I'm a bit loathe to do so. The last thing we want to encourage is for big-name developers to follow EA's footsteps in locking down common elements of a program--like file saving, or printing, or what-have-you--behind a fancy little mini-payment gateway.
There's a right way and a wrong way to integrate the microtransaction model into software and gaming. It's kind of like... the cherry on the top of the sundae. You can't just omit an expected scoop of ice cream or two under the guise of suckling more money out of your user base. Microtransactions are either all or none--a piecemeal effort to give users supreme customizability over their software or fancy add-ons, for fancy people, that aren't critical to the raw performance of said software.
While I still think we're a long way away from microtransactions coming to desktop applications, I strongly believe that the growth of this tactic in social gaming and mobile apps will make us all a bit more accommodable to the concept, at the very least. You might not ever have to pay a $1 fee to paint a digital box purple, or retune part of the chord on some sheet music, but you can bet your BSA that someone, somewhere, is envisioning the next great way to squeeze more money out of your typical software experience after-the-purchase.
And, when that day comes to pass, I hope--for all our sakes--they throw in the multiplayer package for free.
David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. If you befriend him on World of Warcraft, you'll learn his real name.