Microtransactions Are Great For Game Companies, Less So For Players
Assassin's Creed Valhalla, the latest installment in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed franchise, came out in November 2020. Like most AC games, it was highly anticipated; it sold more copies in its opening week than any other game in the series. Needless to say, fans were excited.
And yet, just over four months after its release, fans are castigating Ubisoft for including and leveraging overpriced, in-game purchases –– more commonly called microtransactions.
You've probably heard of microtransactions before, even if you're not a hardcore gamer. Take a look at your phone's app store, and almost all the games in there will have a little textbox that says "In-App Purchases."
Microtransactions come in all shapes and sizes. Most of the time they're simply cosmetic, like buying a swanky set of rainbow armor for your avatar. Other times they affect actual gameplay; a player might buy an upgrade that puts them in a better position to beat an opponent online.
When it comes to cosmetic in-game purchases, most players don't seem to mind. Spending money simply to change how your character looks doesn't affect gameplay itself, so why should it matter?
It matters to gamers like Filip Eriksson –– one of those flabbergasted Assassin's Creed fans –– who recently went viral on Reddit for posting about his frustration with the new AC game.
"There are now 9 armor sets in the microtransaction store –– just as many as in the entire base game." Eriksson said in his post. "Are we just gonna let this slide?"
Visuals are important to players. When they buy a game, they expect an escape, a journey into some unknown world filled with action and adventure. And the scenic terrains aren't the only visuals that matter.
"The cosmetic part, for me, is something that's pretty important," Eriksson tells me. "I like customizing my character. The customization was a bit lacking [in Assassin's Creed Valhalla] ... which made it a bit sour when there was so much available in the microtransaction store."
Eriksson's concerns come down to the price tag: Do players really want to pay more money –– in this case around $20 for a set of armor –– for in-game content when they've already spent $60 on the game itself?
"Generally, in the past Assassin's Creed games, they drop a couple of expansions, too," says Eriksson. "The last big season pass cost about $20. It included a new map, countless quests, and it costs around the same price" as just one of the new armor sets.
To go by the replies on Eriksson's original Reddit post, a lot of AC fans feel similarly about Ubisoft's microtransactions in the new game. One reply stuck out in particular:
"This is why I wait a year or so until it's dirt cheap on Steam," wrote /u/NoHelp_HelpDesk. "I'll pay what I feel is an honest price if they're going to nickel and dime me at every turn."
Players just want the chance to customize the main character, Eivor, without feeling like they have to empty their wallets to do so.
"In Assassin's Creed Valhalla, we are continuing to work hard to create the best possible experience for players," Ubisoft said in a statement. "That includes offering a wide array of both free and paid content, which is regularly updated, with the goal of enabling players to make Eivor's story their own through personalization."
Microtransactions aren't just about the cosmetic upgrades; often, they're important to the actual gameplay. Dr. Ellen Evers, a marketing professor at the University of California, Berkeley who researches microtransactions, says that can take away a video game's magic.
"Games in general, not just video games, have their own set of norms and rules that you're supposed to follow," says Evers. "It's not against the law to steal money from the bank in Monopoly, but clearly you're violating the spirit of the game."
According to Evers, when a player spends money on in-game purchases, they stray from the game's original purpose.
"The implicit assumption is that by playing the game and building up your character, you're supposed to get better," says Evers. "Microtransactions basically make the game easier. They violate those rules and norms that are part of the game."
Some games have even become infamous for their "pay-to-win" use of microtransactions, like Star Wars Battlefront II or the mobile game Clash of Clans, where players could simply buy the most powerful upgrades and easily defeat their online opponents.
Certain microtransactions fall somewhere in between cosmetic enhancements and pay-to-win. The well-known mobile game Candy Crush Saga encourages purchasing what we'll call "status boosting" microtransactions, where your online ranking may be influenced by how much you've spent on the game. While these in-game purchases can't give you an edge against an opponent (Candy Crush is a single player game), they affect where you fall in the rankings.
"If you play Candy Crush, you can compare your ranking to other people," says Evers. "And if your money gives you an edge [on the rankings] ... that seems to be a situation where people get the most upset."
But not all in-game purchases are cause for concern. Downloadable content –– or DLC for short –– is a type of microtransaction that adds content to an existing game. A player can purchase new DLC to access more content after the game's main story is complete, whether that's a new storyline, map, characters or a mixture of all of it. "When you get DLC, you get something that's more or less worth your money," says Eriksson.
And that's perhaps the most significant part. Too often major game developers overcharge for their extra content. Whether it's a pay-to-win purchase or a basic cosmetic upgrade, a dedicated gamer could be throwing money into microtransactions that promise little in return.
It would be unfair to say that all game developers are only trying to snatch our wallets; many creators offer free DLC knowing that their fans will return the favor with positive reviews and free advertising. Take games like the magnificent Hollow Knight or Stardew Valley: They offer their players hours of extra content for very little, even adding more free DLC after the initial purchase.
But for the developers that may be hesitant to give away content for cheap or even for free, prepare for some backlash from the all-powerful internet.
Keller Gordon is a columnist for Join The Game. Find him on Twitter: @kelbot_