A video game could be about schoolgirls using the power of friendship to make Nazis explode, and the most fantastical part would still be the marketing campaign. Gamers have accepted sketchy marketing as the price we pay to shoot zombies (in addition to, you know, the literal money we use to buy the games that tricked us). We all know that "free to play" means "you won't have any fun unless you pay," that "early access" means "pay us for the privilege of beta-testing a game that might get finished," and that "actual in-game footage" means "we made this up for E3, just like we do every year." But there are other terms that we continue to be tricked by, so let's all agree to learn from our mistakes and enjoy two weeks of peace before marketing departments think of something else.
Once, when the Earth was young and we were all children who knew nothing of sadness and fear, you would buy a game and own it, and that would be that. Sometimes you could buy an expansion pack, which was like buying a second, bonus game on top of your first. And life was good, and the lands flowed with power mushrooms and vespene gas.
Then came downloadable content, with its sultry promise of more fun in exchange for more money. DLC is often reasonable -- 10 to 15 bucks for three to five hours of new gameplay is a good deal, considering the same price would get you a ticket to a two-hour movie or a mere 70 pages of Helicopter Man Pounds Dinosaur Billionaire Ass. Other times you just get horse armor or a couple more multiplayer maps for teenagers to teach you racial slurs on, but either way, DLC has a pretty clear message of "You give us X dollars in exchange for Y gameplay addition," and you can judge for yourself whether it's worth it. Then someone had the bright idea of rebranding DLC as "microtransactions," and that someone is Satan.
Winking acknowledgements of how terrible you're being doesn't make it OK, Satan.
Listen, developers. There is nothing "micro" about me giving you money. I'm not paying you with tiny, adorable coins, like what a gerbil would use to buy an itty-bitty burrito. I am giving you legal currency in exchange for a product. Don't try to disguise that fact by drawing attention to how small and cute it is. That strategy doesn't work with the women I date, and it doesn't work when you try it on me.
For example, let's say I experienced a sudden loss of self-esteem and took up World Of Warcraft. Many of the available microtransactions would be purely cosmetic changes to my Warcraft ... er, which is fine. But if I wanted to transfer my Worldman to another server so I could play with my friends, that would cost 25 bucks. That's not pocket change for some cute but inconsequential bonus; that's 14 hours of work (I'm bad at contract negotiation) for a key feature. That money adds up -- WoW has an entire Microtransaction Strategy business unit, which is a lame way to announce that we're living in a science-fiction movie. League Of Legends made over $1.5 billion from microtransactions in 2015. Hey, remember when we wrote about a guy who dropped 9 grand on microtransactions in a terrible iPhone game?
They're popping up everywhere now. Dead Space 3, a game about fighting hideous space zombies, let you buy better weapons with microtransactions. That's like if, halfway through Aliens, the marines turned the tide of their vicious struggle by getting out their space credit cards and asking space Walmart for an emergency supply run. Or how about the fact that Microsoft wants 10 bucks a year from people who want to play Windows solitaire without ads? It's fucking solitaire, Microsoft! I could just find a deck of cards and not remind myself about Nissan while I deal.
"Upgrade to premium and get access to clubs!"
I get that, to some extent, these are a necessary evil. Games are ludicrously expensive to make, but players would balk at being charged 100 bucks for one, so the rest of the money has to be made back in bits and pieces. If that means making space warlocks pay for new dance moves, so be it. But let's stop selling the ability to beat other players and win your games with ease, then pretend those features are in some special separate category of economics where the money is irrelevant because it's "micro." I can't get away with that on my taxes, so why should you in your marketing?
4 "Preorder Bonus"
Hey, Assassin's Creed fans! Were you excited to preorder Unity and get an exclusive pair of pants?!
"Men's sizes only!"
Laugh all you want, but these weren't just any fictional pants -- they were go-faster pants, because apparently Unity is so terrible that being able to expedite your journey through it was considered a bonus. Usually preorder bonuses are more compelling, but, regardless of content, "bonus" is not the right word to use.
Before games could be purchased digitally, preorders were useful. There would be only so many copies of a game available, and if you didn't get your hands on one you'd be stuck having to go to work or talk to your loved ones. But now you can download most games, and even if you can't or prefer not to, the industry has become big enough that there are almost certainly going to be enough copies to go around. GameStop might run out of Teenage Witch Touchers 4: Vulva High School Hijinks because they underestimated the number of local perverts, but they're not going to sell out of Grand Theft Auto.
Now the only purpose of preorders is to build marketing hype (announcements of preorder bonuses make it easy for gaming sites to regurgitate press releases and then take an early lunch) and to let developers and retailers get a sense of how sales will be. But to fans they're saying, "Give us your money in advance, before you have the chance to read any reviews and, if the game happens to be good, your gamble will pay off. If you wait to see feedback before you buy, like an intelligent consumer, we will punish you for your lack of faith by making you buy those bonuses as DLC. Sorry, we mean as microtransactions."
And you'd forever lose your chance to get some classic physical bonuses.
Take Alien: Isolation. Its preorder bonus was a pair of missions that let you play scenes from the original movie. That obviously sounds fun, but the last Alien game, Colonial Marines, is an orphanage fire disguised as a video game. Isolation did end up being well-received, but fans who were quite understandably doubtful then had to fork over additional money for those cool extra levels. They were punished for acting rationally instead of blindly throwing their money around.
Preorder bonuses ask you to guess whether a game will be good, and they're often not. No Unity players were able to enjoy their vroom-vroom pants, because the game was a rushed, buggy mess. But by the time buyers found out, it was too late -- between the marketing hype, a review embargo, and the fact that the series had previously been good, gamers had no way to know that the game was garbage before shelling out preorder money. It's even worse when the "bonus" is something that gives players a clear advantage in multiplayer, or when the "bonus" is exclusively available at a certain retailer. "Trust us, our game will be great! Just make sure to buy it from our friend. And beg. Beg for it like the little whore that you are."
"NOW LOOK AT THE MONSTER YOU CREATED. LOOK AT IT."