Micro-Transactions and the Next Generation for Electronic Arts

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When gamer’s talk about game studios, developers, and publishers, there are groups we love, groups we hate, and then there’s Electronic Arts. On a first date, it’s important to remember that it’s impolite to talk about politics, religion, and EA. If the French sentenced Jean Valjean to five years in jail for stealing bread, than EA has probably racked up enough infractions to earn the death penalty, and France doesn’t even have the death penalty. Let’s face it; no other individual game publisher has managed to garner as much bad press as EA. This isn’t to say they’re the worst company in America…oh wait. EA won the award for “Worst Company in America” last April.

Electronic Arts not only earns frequent flyer miles for agitating their customers, they seem to do it willingly. It’s like watching someone walk in front of a car, get hit, get up, and then do the whole thing over again. When day-one downloadable content was hailed as one of the game market’s worst practices, EA expanded it. When developers asked for more time to finish games, EA forced employees to work up to 100 hour weeks, and would still release half-finished games to make deadlines. If a company was small, popular, and a threat to EA, they were more than happy to purchase the company just to close the doors.

No other publisher has done more to eliminate creativity and squander intellectual property in gaming than EA. The company has no problem reinforcing the negative gaming stereotypes that other developers and publishers have tried so hard to distance themselves from. It has become painful to watch. Racism, sexism, you name it; Electronic Arts has mastered it all.

EA should stand for Enough Already. Unfortunately, “The blind leading the blind” continues to be their mission statement.

For example, EA’s CFO Blake Jorgensen recently reported that all future EA games would have built in micro-transactions. We know this because he said it in front of hundreds of people. (This is where you should feel free to insert your favorite face palming or shaking head meme.)

For those of you who are unfamiliar with what a micro-transaction in gaming is, play Farmville. Basically put, it is the ability to pay real money for things that would normally take time or effort to earn in a game. So you don’t want to play four hours to unlock that tank upgrade? No problem; own it now for $3. You like that suit of armor your favorite hero is wearing, but you don’t want to harvest the 300 wins it will take to earn it? Easy; it’s yours for $8.

Micro-transactions have been a staple of free games for years. It’s a decent business model. Rather than make a player pay for the game, the publisher or developer gives the game away for free. The catch is that they earn their money by offering you game components at a relatively low cost. In the end, the gamer can build their own game through long hours of play or paying to acquire the components they want. Not a bad deal.

So why is EA’s announcement a big deal? After all, this is the company that pioneered nearly every avenue to increase revenue during our current gaming cycle. What difference does it make in relation to the next generation?

Well, to be fair, it really isn’t that big a deal. “But Jimmy” you say, “you’ve spent the better part of this article on a personal diatribe against EA. How can you now say it’s not a big deal?” While I personal rank EA board members somewhere between college book publishers and Japanese dolphin killers, I think they may be on to something. This may not be the time to panic (yet). While I believe this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think we’ll need proof.

The first thing that Electronic Arts needs to prove to their customers is that they won’t be taking this concept too far. After all, EA has the same reputation as that guy who tries to round the bases on the first date. I firmly believe that escalation is the name of the game at EA. If it works, push it further. However, I do not think this is the case with micro-transactions.

For example Electronic Arts has been running micro-transactions in their games for years and we have yet to see an increase in pricing, a decrease in delivered product, or a coupling of the two. Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer has used micro-transactions for equipment packages since its release. While we’ve seen a lot of changes to the multiplayer element of the game, including the introduction of additional packages, Bioware and EA haven’t increased prices. They have introduced higher level packages with more equipment, but those packages are priced relative to the content. In fact, EA has also introduced challenges that give away similar packages for free.

Furthermore, Dead Space 3 and Madden have also used micro-transactions. When taking time and number of games into consideration, there has been relatively no change to the way the system has been used. Pricing has remained steady and content has remained available without purchase. While the number of games currently using micro-transactions has remained relatively small, if the test sample for EA’s pricing and availability remains the same, gamer’s have little to fear from price increases or content locks.

I also hope that EA can prove that micro-transactions will expand access to content across the board. If you’re like me, you look at each store’s pre-order offers before making your final decision. Do I go with the sniper rifle at Best Buy or the shotgun at GameStop? Do I skip both and go with the free DLC pack Wal-Mart is throwing in with a purchase? It’s an annoying ritual, and you always lose. Now consider the impact of micro-transactions. Now you can buy the game at the retailer of your choice and for a small fee, grab that shotty that looked great in the commercials. Personally, I hate sniping, so what good does it do me to pay $10 for a DLC pack containing everything when all I want is one or two of the weapons? What’s better is that you don’t have to wait months for a $10 to $20 DLC pack containing all the pre-order content, if such DLC is released at all. Instead, you can get the weapon(s) you want at $2 a pop.

One thing that everyone in the argument seems to be forgetting is that we’re dealing with a business. We buy their product, we sample their services, and we can call for changes by simply using money as our negotiating tool. Take Mass Effect 3 for example (again). While Bioware and EA screamed “Artistic Interpretation!” and “Developmental Choice!” the fact is that both are businesses that sell a product to a group of customers, and if you want to continue having customers, you have to deliver the promised product. In the end, the customer is always right, and Mass Effect 3’s developers released the promised product. FOR FREE.

Futhermore, Electronic Arts would only proceed with a business plan if it tested well in the market. In other words, if you don’t buy it, they don’t sell it. This is why we have pre-order content, map packs, DLC, micro-transactions, and expansion packs. It’s also why we’ve never seen another game sold in chapters like Fable 2 was; it didn’t sell. So while most gamers might be worked up at the thought of more money for games, the only reason this model is being implemented by EA is because gamers took advantage of it. Yes, I’m saying that gamers are as much at fault for the implementation of micro-transactions as EA.

Just like the never-ending sequels we see from game series like Call of Duty, the series only continues as long as there’s an audience. You are the audience. If you don’t like the way companies they buy games from are doing business, take your business elsewhere. Unfortunately, the vast majority of gamer’s will pay and complain. This methodology simply doesn’t work. EA has repeatedly demonstrated that they are more than willing to listen to you complain while they collect you payment.

To sum it up, EA is a business that reports to shareholders and enjoys profits. Pricing themselves out of the market is bad for business. Mix angry customers and the press together and you have a nightmare on your hands. For EA, Ubisoft, Activision, 2K Games, Epic, Naughty Dog, et cetera, the key to generating revenue is keeping their game in your tray as long as possible. I do not believe that EA would sell a full priced game that locks buyers out of content, overprices content, and still expect their games to be in you console by the time development of DLC has ended. They need the revenue too badly to introduce a system that drives away customers.

Regardless of your feelings on the subject, micro-transactions are here to stay. I think we have two ways to respond to this; run through the hills like a nun on drugs crying and begging for mercy or simply accept the changes. Time will tell if the masters of the slippery slope have found a fan favorite, or a way to put themselves out of business. And let’s be honest; we’re fine with either one.

Author: Jimmy Sharp

Dylan Zellmer

I split time between games journalism and making video games. My love of it’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), fitness and my family define me otherwise.