Titantransactions

Titanfall 2 has recently presented me with an interesting dilemma. After its release, Respawn’s tragically underperforming game opened a microtransaction store – or at least that’s what it’s been called in the press.

As somebody who quite notoriously rails against the practice of introducing free-to-play elements in premium games, I was ready to disqualify it from any year-end honorifics and be grumpy about the whole thing. However, after looking at them myself, my initial inclination was to not classify them as microtransactions – at least not in the way I would for other fee-to-pay games.

While some may think I’m being pedantic, I think it’s worth examining the items available for Titanfall 2 and seeing where one draws the line.

Obviously, for those who have no problems at all with microtransactions of any flavor, or consider anything cosmetic acceptable, this is a cut-and-dry issue. For the rest of us, there’s some meat to chew through here.

Rather than offer premium currencies, gambling systems, or other shady economic options, Titanfall 2‘s content offering is at the very least refreshingly direct, reminding me of older downloadable content from the late 2000s.

The store currently offers various cosmetic “packs” containing paintjobs and skins for the multiplayer, ranging from $1.99 to $4.99. It’s worth noting these skins do not represent indefinite purchases or random gambles like you’d find in free-to-play games. You pay for what you want, you get them, and that’s that.

On the flipside, it’s also important to consider these are not things you can earn in-game, which is a common justification for microtransactions. If you want these skins, buying them isn’t simply a faster option, they’re the only option. At least, as near as I can tell.

Before we go any further, I should say that these are absolutely microtransactions on a literal level. A microtransaction is simply a small payment for virtual goods – it used to mean tiny payments of under a dollar but has expanded over the years to at least cover anything under five bucks.

So yes, going purely by the objective definition, these are microtransactions.

What muddies the water for me is that while they are indeed microtransactions by definition, they’re not entirely representative of what I’ve so regularly called “fee-to-pay” elements. You’re not buying a $60 game that will then keep hammering on you to continue paying additional cash indefinitely. Electronic Arts – in this one instance – is not using a common free-to-play model in order to keep making bank on something it already sold us.

Any form of paid multiplayer content will have similarities with fee-to-pay problems. Even one-shot cosmetic items, like the ones seen in Titanfall 2, will create that “haves and have-nots” economic structure with those who paid to look cooler than other players, thus tempting more customers to stump up some cash.

The same is true for season pass exclusives and pre-order bonuses, as well as any traditional DLC that’s tied to an online community.

Part of what might make this contentious for me is that I remember clearly the time before “microtransactions” became part of the gaming lexicon. Before free-to-play games popularized the term, small payments for downloadable content in games were just considered part of the wider DLC smorgasbord.

Specifically, I’m thinking of things like Dead Space, which had always offered cosmetic skins as their own unique purchases. The big contention with those skins was not that they were “microtransactions” but that they were launch-day items as well as ludicrously priced. Five bucks for a single skin was stupid, and I even said at the time I’d have been willing to maybe buy some if they were a buck or less.

In the years since then, however, microtransactions became the go-to term for these smaller pieces of DLC, but it was so closely associated with the free-to-play market that it consistently represented premium currencies, keys for random loot boxes, and similar schemes that were often acceptable trade-offs for genuine F2P games but took on a grotesque vibe when shoveled into anything that charged money up-front.

Dead Space is actually a prime example of this. Dead Space and Dead Space 2 both had launch-day cosmetic DLC, and people were annoyed only by the fact this content was sold at launch. Dead Space 3 introduced a grind-flavored crafting system with a true fee-to-pay economy, and that‘s when the series was slammed for its microtransactions in ways the previous entries hadn’t.

Many of us, I believe, mentally distinguish microtransactions by their delivery method and impact, not just the amount of money being charged.

I think most of us can look at Titanfall 2‘s DLC as microtransactions on an objective level but it becomes significantly tougher to consider them representative of all the negativity that rightly surrounds the word. Yes, that word has a specific meaning and it applies to Titanfall 2, but language is always evolving and words that have established definitions can take on new meanings altogether with enough use.

The game industry is well aware of this, and has taken steps to mitigate bad publicity.

EA once tried to use the labels “macro monetization” and “micro monetization”, attempting to retroactively normalize microtransactions by dressing them as the natural flipside to traditional post-launch content.

It benefits the game industry to keep terms loose and ill-defined, to keep switching the language and attempting to confuse the audience so things can slip past the radar. With that in mind, you can look up microtransactions to see them defined in fairly broad terms, while different platforms all use different words – in-app purchases, free-to-start, in-app billing, etcetera.

Mileage varies on what is or isn’t acceptable here, and there is no right answer whatsoever. The acceptability of DLC practices is defined only by the individual customer on a case-by-case basis. If you’re buying keys for loot crates, then clearly they’re acceptable for you and I wouldn’t tell you you’re wrong – it’s your money to spend as you see fit, even if I personally hate to see business practices I’d consider scummy get rewarded.

For me as a critic – one who has strong feelings about fee-to-pay that directly impacts my coverage of games – it’s an intriguing question and a knotty issue. Titanfall 2, for example, made the shortlist for the Jimquisition Awards, but my rule that microtransactions in premium games disqualify them for consideration has been pretty hardline and this, by virtue of the wording I’ve used, is easy to shoot down as a violation of that rule.

But I can’t claim to find Titanfall 2‘s DLC to be truly galling due to their one-shot nature and mostly decent pricing. It’s not what I think of when I use the term “fee-to-pay” which, admittedly, is a term I made up myself and never exactly took off outside of my own tiny pocket of influence. I wish it caught on as well as “asset flip” did.

At the very least, Titanfall 2 may well represent the softest possible side of the thorny microtransaction subject. In a year where Overwatch sported a mutilated, unsatisfying reward system and Square Enix royally took the piss with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, it’s hard for me to take offense at Respawn’s little marketplace.

Like I suggested only recently though, the “it could be worse” excuse starts us down a rocky road where previously dismal practices gain acceptance because even worse ones keep rising up.

That just leaves me back at square one – on the fence about Titanfall 2, caught as it is in the space between the true definition of “microtransactions” and the excess that is “fee-to-pay.”

It’s something I’ll be giving a lot of thought before my year-end wrap-ups start (which will be very soon!), and it’s definitely something I’ve found rewarding – if frustrating – to mentally tear into.

God though, Overwatch‘s loot boxes are fucking shit.

MermaidShadow
Guest
MermaidShadow

Honestly? From what you describe – haven’t played Titanfall 2 myself – I’d take this system over the one in Overwatch. At least it’s upfront in what it offers you and you get exactly what you paid for. Yes, it creates a haves-versus-have-not situation in the community, but at least the lines are clear-cut – you see a person wearing a certain skin, and you know “Ah, this person paid money.” You might be jealous, yes, but at least it’s fair and clear-cut. From what I remember, Champions Online (F2P) a game that’s also big on cosmetics, worked the same… Read more »

Tallcat
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Tallcat

This absolutely counts as fee-to-pay, and should not be an award contender, Jim. At least not anymore. If you wanted to say that the way it launched, and what it represented then was award-worthy then I would agree with you. Otherwise I wouldn’t risk the integrity of your little awards show.

Shaamaan
Guest
Shaamaan

Here’s a (possibly) stupid question. What’s the difference between the two DLCs for the Witcher 3 and the cosmetics for Titanfall 2? Scope, obviously, and if you go by some dollars per content count, then I guess Witcher wins hands down. But, on a very basic level, both are the same. So where does one draw the line? I’m not a fan of microtransactions, but I did buy some ship paint jobs for Elite Dangerous and I’m seriously considering getting a prime titan (or two) for Titanfall 2. I know what I’m getting, I know the price, and I want… Read more »

Anon Amiss
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Anon Amiss

Thing is, if Fee to Pay didn’t exist you wouldn’t even consider not considering Titanfall 2 for a Jimquisition Award because it hasn’t done anything egregious. Now you might just because what it’s doing can technically be described using the same words that describe what shaddier games are doing?

Stephen
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Stephen

This is a very well written and thought out article and I don’t particularly disagree with any specific bit, but I do think that it would be hypocritical to exempt these particular microtransactions just because the way in which they’re presented is a bit less egregious. I completely understand why people don’t like Overwatch’s system. I don’t have a large problem with it, but that’s mostly because I’ve seen how Blizzard prices individual skins in Heroes of the Storm. Legendary skins are $10 a pop there, so if you gave me a choice of spending $10 on one skin for… Read more »

Reverend Slim
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Reverend Slim

Titanfall 2 does it right. No season pass nonsense… free maps going forward, and they monetize it with cosmetic stuff that will sell just enough to keep them invested in making new content for everyone. The problem we seem to forget is that game budgets have inflated over time, but people’s expectation of what a game should cost has remained at $60. So if you’re in the industry, which route do you go? Do you try to release the game at $80 and hope the backlash against the expected $60 norm is overcome by the value of the game? Do… Read more »

Alenonimo
Guest

There’s no gambling and don’t affect gameplay? Doesn’t involve buying arcane currency? Sounds actually nice.

RedWolf
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RedWolf

I think there are many sides to the microtransactions argument, and it’s definitely a discussion worth having. For me personally, microtransactions in pure free-to-play games are absolutely fine, but I still draw the line on microtransactions in premium titles. Then again, if a piece of optional (not game-critical) downloadable content is available as a one-time purchase with no RNG bullshit at a reasonable price, then I can write it off as more or less acceptable. In the end, it all comes down to what you want and what you expect for your money. I mean, I spent nearly a tenner… Read more »

Ulf Liller
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Ulf Liller

To me, this feels like splitting hairs. I can’t see a significant differnece with there being ten skins you buy for real money directly or a hundred that you get for an ingame currency that you get for real money. The thing that makes system like Overwatch’s or CS:GO’s shitty is the random element that means if you want a specific skin, you can not know beforehand how much money you will have to spend to get it. Or if there is a pay to cheat element rather than just cosmetics. This is not where you drew the line in… Read more »

Turdsley
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Turdsley

I am not at all a fan of mircotransactions but Titanfall 2 is a game I honestly can’t get offended by. There isn’t a loot crate type of system, the packs contain a fair amount of content, they don’t affect gameplay what-so-ever, and they’re all fairly priced. Not to mention we’re still going to get free modes, maps and weapons doesn’t hurt.

Killer_Tapir
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Killer_Tapir

If it’s cosmetic only I couldn’t care less. I know what you’ve said on the subject and I still disagree. Cosmetic stuff is not the same.

That said, if Overwatch is excluded from your list, Titanfall 2 damn well better be as well. Fair is fair.

Ryuuken
Guest

Well, Borderlands 2 had them. 5 Headhunters, the Skin/Head packs, etc. So, these little packs are along those lines, and if that was just micro-DLC, than this is the same regard, correct?

Caleb
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Caleb

I’ve always felt that there is a right way for MT’s and a wrong way. For the right way, Titanfall 2 and Rocket league (pre-key boxes) technically do have MT’s but they’re cheap and you know exactly what you’re getting like a titan skin or the Back to the Future car. It was post-launch and felt more like dlc. Unfortunately, games like Gears of War 4 and Overwatch have brought such negativity to MT’s that when we hear the word we assume that the MT’s will always be bad.

galactix100
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galactix100

While I was never much of a fan of skin packs etc. I do think that there’s a difference between them and what we’ve come to expect from fee-to-pay systems. I think to be considered what has become commonly accepted as micro-transactions there needs to be certain characteristics such as: (a) some sort of prize box purchasable through either a slowly earned in-game currency, a premium currency sold in various amounts at various prices or just plain purchasable with real money (b) there needs to be some element of luck or gambling to it (c) whatever it is real money… Read more »

Scaper
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Scaper

What personally surprises me is the presence of those art packs, which seem more like things a fan would buy if they were interested rather than something that would be forced upon a player thanks to a fee to pay economy. When you think about it, microtransactions of this nature seem a bit more like DLC than actual microtransactions.

nikolas orava
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nikolas orava

To me they look a lot more like DLC than microtransactions.

Mark Lawson
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Mark Lawson

Expansion = Large amount of content in one purchase. Typically includes new campaign, story, maps, gear and ways to play. (Destiny: Taken King)

DLC = One shot purchase for a specific thing. (CoD map pack or TF2’s skin bundles)

Microtransactions = Currency, packs, boxes that can be bought/spent infinitely to play a lottery for loot. (Halo 5 REQ, CoD Points, Deus Ex whatever it was called)

I’m not too interested in arguing what’s acceptable or not but this is how I define the terminology.

Alex Wheatley
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Alex Wheatley

If you bend your rules now, you can never unbend it; if you stick with it now, you always have the option of changing your mind later. Particularly given the very short decision time, it might be better to err on the side of caution.

Also, props for the full version of etcetera 🙂

VanessaMagick
Guest
VanessaMagick

What I find muddies the issue is when microtransactions are almost completely unnecessary – Steep, for example, has it’s usual in-game currency that you can optionally buy with real money. The problem is, the pricing for those microtransactions are absolutely absurd considering the game throws credits at you like mad; it’s easy to be able to get even the most expensive gear within only a few hours of playing challenges.

So nobody *would* buy those microtransactions; and at that point why are they even there?

Scars Unseen
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Scars Unseen

As someone largely into single player content, I’m probably not the best person to judge this sort of thing. That said, rather than a slippery slope, I see a large rift between single purchases and a system that encourages infinite purchases, regardless of the nature of those purchases themselves. At worst, an a la carte menu of trivial content is something that preys on the completionist in a visible manner with a definable end. You may be able to nickle and dime someone out more cash than the game may be worth, but anyone can take a quick glance and… Read more »

Polishfury5000
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Polishfury5000

I tend to find instances like this to be a less egregious form of microtransactions. There’s no season pass being shoved down throats and no gambling aspect either. Any content with actual depth (new maps) was advertised as being free updates as well (we’ll see if that holds true, but the TF1’s extra maps were all made free over time, so there’s some precedent to believe). I wouldn’t have a problem with what Overwatch is doing if it wasn’t for the random loot crate system. They too at least have made all new maps and characters added as free updates,… Read more »

Stormagedon Dark Lord Of All
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Stormagedon Dark Lord Of All

Maybe if you made an exception for Titanfall 2 this could send a message to EA and other developers that this were we could compromise with micro transactions if there is no getting away from them maybe we should say “Fine but we want them this way”

BAH!
Guest
BAH!

It’s nice to know you make that distinction as well, Jim. I’ve always argued that the philosophy of microtransactions is to offer consumable items/services that the player must buy over and over. And skins like this? Not the same thing. Not even the same ballpark, in that regard.

But I can still see the problem. And frankly, if you find yourself unable to firmly decide, I’d err on the side of caution. Because let’s be honest: your Game of the Year award, or lack thereof, is not going to influence the game’s sales and success. EA already took care of that.

Rachel McVeigh
Guest
Rachel McVeigh

I’ve always felt there was a difference between cosmetic DLC downloads and ‘microtransactions’.

From me the big issue with microtransactions are the following:
the gambling aspect
the fact that the game will be tailored to encourage you to purchase them
the fact that they can give a person an advantage over someone who doesn’t pay.

Maybe this is just because I’m an older gamer but the ability to purchase cosmetic items directly from a store or just alternative skins, like in World of Warcraft, Mass Effect 2, Team Fortress 2 etc, never seemed as bad as the ‘fee-to-pay’ model.

Kevin Douglass
Guest
Kevin Douglass

Coming soon – $5 DLC hammer to bash Trico in the head, downloadable map packs with yellow painted ledges, and in about a year Brazzers will come out with the parody.

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