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.

CaptainDustTree
Guest
CaptainDustTree

From my standpoint, I support these as a way to let the relatively small audience for this game continue to support the game they love.

If it’s a choice between this and no more Titanfall, I’m sure they’re more than happy to spend the cash. It’s why I bought into SFV’s season pass, because I love the game and I want it to stick around.

fireaura08
Guest
fireaura08

Ah, good to see Jim writing an article on this. I too was reluctant to support the microtransaction model but I personally am okay with the way they are going about it, so I bought a handful to continue to support the game. I do hope Titanfall 2 makes it into his final list, it is a truly fantastic game that I bought on Jim’s recommendation.

Benj
Guest
Benj

The crucial difference for me is that we know exactly how much money it takes to get all the content that Titanfall 2 is offering and that amount will always be the same for everyone.

Not so for Overwatch. You could potentially spend the entire US GDP and still not get the one really great item that you friend managed to get for nothing.

Doom Video Vault
Guest

What ever happened to unlocking shit as you played more?

goodbyejojo
Guest
goodbyejojo

i find this alarming at all, its not like everybody bought the fucking game 😛

Billy Bissette
Guest
Billy Bissette

The hard stance against microtransactions made sense as a statement of standing against what microtransactions would become. That ship has long sailed and/or sank. The “prevention” or “warning” aspect is long gone, and all that is left is a broad arbitrary and arguably hypocritical stance. It seems time to reevaluate any such stance into something more meaningful. Consider this, many years ago people argued against buying any game that had DLC. Would you keep that stance today, now that everything has DLC? Would a “Game of the Year” award even mean anything if you had to strike your first 20+… Read more »

Nitrium
Guest
Nitrium

To those that claim “this is just DLC not microtransaction”, then EA blatantly lied in their presser when they said ALL Titanfall 2 DLC would be free:
https://www(DOT)vg247(DOT)com/2016/11/02/ea-explains-why-all-post-launch-dlc-for-titanfall-2-will-be-free/ (replace the (DOTS) with . ).

sillyskeleton
Guest
sillyskeleton

Stick to your guns, man. This is the developer trying to squeeze a few more dollars out of a $60 game, same as always.

In all honesty I’d see it as extremely hypocritical for you to knock down something like Overwatch’s microtransaction system, but give Titan Fall 2’s a pass. Both are purely cosmetic.

K. Scott Ross
Guest

If we didn’t have the term “microtransactions” already associated with things you buy in games, I would have just called this “DLC.” You buy it, you have it. Sure, it might be $5 Horse Armour, but I’m buying exactly what it says on the tin. When I hear “microtransactions” I think “random drops.”

Shui Gor
Guest
Shui Gor

So long as microtransactions cannot affect myself, my teammates and my opponents in online multiplayer matches, where it can give all parties a particular advantage of in gameplay, purely cosmetic-based DLC is fine with me.

John Sarasien
Guest
John Sarasien

Titanfall’s skin micro-transactions remind me of Minecraft’s (console editions) skin micro-transactions. Both purely cosmetic and a way to define your own character in the game.

As long as they aren’t random or require “X” amount of in game money that has to be purchased with real world money, then this is a call back to old DLC rather than “accepted” fee-to-pay.

mth
Guest
mth

In the literal sense of the words, “downloadable content” would be all content that is downloaded to your PC/console, regardless of how you would unlock it. I’m not sure whether this is a useful definition, but at least it’s a clear one. By this definition the vast majority of cosmetic-only content would be considered DLC, but things like XP boosts, consumables and item unlocks would not, since they don’t add new content, only remove restrictions on accessing it. Another way to look at it is to say expansions are large content additions, DLCs are medium-sized and microtransactions are small. Of… Read more »

09philj
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09philj

As a rule of thumb, letting you buy a thing that doesn’t give you an inherent advantage once is fine. Making it pay to win, or making you buy the same item over and over, isn’t.

Bilateralrope
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Bilateralrope

If you do decide to let Titanfall 2 qualify for an award, make sure to set an objective standard for what gets a game disqualified.

Glen
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Glen

As far as I see it, a microtransaction is a kind of DLC or in-game purchase that you are pushed to make repeatedly, for what is functionally the same thing each time. It sounds like Titanfall 2 has ordinary DLC, albeit “cheap DLC” (referring both to price and value). Kind of like, say, Hyrule Warriors, where you could buy certain outfits for characters… but once you bought the outfit, you had it permanently. Even if the “DLC” is just an unlock code for something in the game already (like skins), it’s DLC, because you pay for it once, and have… Read more »

Wraithy2773
Guest
Wraithy2773

Here’s my thing on Microtransactions: 1: If it’s Microtransactions for Multiplayer only 2: If the game either has a strong Singleplayer Campaign or is MP-Only but like $20-30 3: If the game has zero, ZERO paid DLC for Multiplayer when it comes to content but will release free DLC for like a year or more? 4: If NONE OF THIS CRAP TOUCHES THE SINGLE PLAYER. Then fine. I ceed the ground. Just don’t make it Pay to Win. My rationale is basically that if the company is going to continue to develop content for the game post-release, they’re going to… Read more »

greyXstar
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greyXstar

I have to say that while I totally get your stance on this, I don’t it’s necessarily fair to disqualify games from year-end honors because of microtransactions. I think you can absolutely say that Overwatch is the best multiplayer experience of the year, while also devoting time to talking about how Blizzard screwed up the loot box system. Similarly, you could say Mankind Divided was great in spite of that weird extra mode that the microtransactions exist for. Ultimately if a game deserves recognition, then it should get it. I don’t think it makes any sense to have year-end awards… Read more »

Drake Warnock
Guest
Drake Warnock

For me this isn’t really a cash shop. It is more an in game marketplace for their DLC. For me the difference isn’t that there is more stuff to buy but how it is sold. The problem for me is charging people for the game then trying to psychologically manipulate people into buying more. That’s why they use seperate currencies; so you don’t notice how much you’re spending. This isn’t the same thing, this is just giving you an easier, more streamlined option for buying the DLC instead of needing to exit the game. As far as I can tell,… Read more »

Kotaro
Guest
Kotaro

Looking at it, this just comes across as regular cosmetic DLC to me. Not a problem at all.

Alayen Eisenfell
Guest

“[…] “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.”

I’d like to see some scientific literature done on the effect DLC has on players in multiple kinds of games and also during multiple stages of it (e.g. adding different prices/models down the line). Because right now, you have a convincing theory, but no actual proof. I might be looking into doing a small scope study… If anyone can refer to me some relevant literature, you’d be a darling.

Belsameth
Guest
Belsameth

To me this is DLC, not a microtransaction and thus TF2 should win game of the year.
Its dubious DLC, but DLC still.

Sned
Guest
Sned

The line is only drawn for me if I feel the game forces me to buy them. For example, in DX:MD, the game’s economy was balanced to be played perfectly fine without microtransactions. For this reason, I felt like the game was fine, as I could player the whole singleplayer campaign without thinking that I could have a better experience with microtransactions. Games that feel like a grind, but offer microtransactions in order to make the game ‘more fun’ is what really annoys me. In that case, the developer deliberately messes with the economy to make the game less fun… Read more »

dsmush
Guest
dsmush

I understand your predicament Jim just looking at the comments on your article and already its awash with people defending it with the term “it’s not as bad as…” why are we justifying the industry BS. It’s not as thought Respawn said there will be cosmetic DLC to come soon. People who don’t like a have and have not economy may have already bought the game by then.

krazykain
Guest
krazykain

this remins me of Killing Floor 2 getting a micro transaction shop an people losing their shit… even though Killing Floor 1 has these mini dlcs that they just don’t call micro transactions.

Scott John Harrison
Guest
Scott John Harrison

When gamer gate was ironically talking about “Ethics in games journalism” I find things like this and Laura’s recent post about the PS4 slim/Switch leaks are some of the most interesting pieces of Ethical discussion. This,This is a beautiful piece of work about how you are going to Define your Ethical Standards of the Jimquisition Awards – You have a few years back put a ban for nomination of games which include “Microtransactions” but now the term has shifted from your definition and a game in the running has been seen to have “Microtransactions” by some. Your final decision is… Read more »