On a recent Giantbomb Podcast, Jeff Gerstmann was talking about micro-transactions in free-to-play (FTP) mobile games, quipping that players were essentially paying to play less of the game. This bizarrely accurate statement got me thinking about my recent experiences playing FTP role-playing game Neverwinter on Playstation 4. A massive, multiplayer online (MMO) game, Neverwinter is the perfect example of impatience as a business model. Because it allows players to purchase the premium currency (known as ‘Zen’) with both regular money ($) and in-game currency (‘gold coins’), the developers have set up an economy in which the only advantage of paying real cash is the acceleration of one’s progression. The whole point then is to complete quests (consume content) and accumulate wealth at a faster pace than those who don’t pay a dime. So why does anyone do it? Impatience. The entire business model is predicated on the players growing impatient and taking out their wallets to alleviate the feeling. Hell, it worked on me. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve spent much more on Neverwinter than the full price of a so-called AAA game. And when I reached what they term the ‘end-game’ (completion of the main quest-line and highest character level) I summarily quit. Why? Because once I had reached the ‘destination’ and my fantasies evaporated, I was faced with the emptiness of its actuality. ‘End-games’ rarely live up to expectations.
Spend hours laboring… or just buy some currency!
Nowhere is this more glaringly obvious than with ‘incremental’ games like Virtual Beggar, which have no end-game by their very nature. They focus instead on giving the player a series of short-lived moments of gratification that eventually give way to impatience. When this occurs, the player either grows disillusioned and quits altogether, or ponies up some real money to renew the feeling of gratification by jumping ahead at a greater rate. But towards what? In the Neverwinter community, end-game is discussed often, even if it is just a satisfaction-fantasy. The developers and the players both make efforts to sustain the illusion of its existence. Not so with incremental games, which could be seen as proof that we have grown so engrossed in materialism (consumption and accumulation of wealth as ‘progress’) that we no longer care if there is, in fact, any destination at all. But does the fault lie solely with the player? I think developers are aware of impatience as a driving force and are in fact designing their games to generate more of it in the player (in the hopes that they will then spend their monies to alleviate it). We are in the age of the ‘good enough’ game, both hard to put down and hard to enjoy. I’ve been playing Virtual Beggar on iOS, and it’s a perfect example of just that (among other things). I’ve also argued that Pokemon Go fits the bill perfectly.
I think developers are aware of impatience as a driving force
The irony of being offered micro-transaction-based acceleration in a game about throwing coins to a beggar…
But what about the players? Are we really unable to appreciate the act of patiently waiting, or toiling slowly towards a single goal? I doubt it. More than ever I believe we yearn for “games of labor” (as developer and video game scholar Naomi Clark so eloquently put it). We watch TV shows that never quite arrive to climax, delaying gratification endlessly, season after season. The Dark Souls series is another example of a commercial success predicated on the players’ willingness to be patient and perform repetitive actions for little to no short-term reward. Like children developing our sense of boundaries, we want to be told there are limits so we can develop a sense of meaning in relation to the world we are exploring. Whether we enjoy respecting or breaking them, its hard to find a sense of purpose without rules. Micro-transactions are divisive precisely because they muddy our sense of order and ability to define our morality within it. Here’s a visual representation of the spectrum of ‘honesty’ and how it has shifted with the arrival of micro-transactions and the FTP model:
One could argue that none of the ‘moral stances’ available to the player in the new model are particularly satisfying. Even the most ‘honest’ of players will watch their ‘dishonest’ brethren pull ahead of them. Those who manage to rationalize the ‘cheaters’ away will still have to reckon with ‘honest’ players who simply have more money than them (and are willing to spend it on micro-transactions). In this way it becomes increasingly difficult to find a stable framework of game rules within which to understand oneself as a player. What we are seeing, in fact, is the arrival of wealth-inequality in the world of gaming. As in the real world, the poor are forced to work in ‘unsatisfying’ conditions for longer just to maintain a base level of ‘progress’. The incentive to become ‘dishonest’ is thus much higher within this community of have-nots (the vast majority). The rich, on the other hand, profit not only from working in ‘more satisfying’ conditions for better rewards with less work time, but also benefit from the snowball effect of accelerated wealth-accumulation and personal development. Thus the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In games, as in life. Fun times!
What we are seeing, in fact, is the arrival of wealth-inequality in the world of gaming