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.

Keshav Sapru
Guest
Keshav Sapru

No Jim, while Titanfall 2 is objectively a good game (even though its singleplayer is drivvel, although, it’s not as drivvelous as Infinite Warfare), it cannot be excused from putting in microtransactions, although personally, I defended KF2s microtransactions, since they were cosmetic and unintrusive. Oh… I see why you’re on the fence about this. Nevertheless, perhaps provide it with an honourable mention, since it isn’t shoving it down our throats like IW and Halo 5.

Well, giving into microtransactions earlier has led us to this point where Titanfall 2’s mts are “soft”. What to do?

Jack Trevor
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Jack Trevor

Consider this Jim: Titanfall 2 is worthy of praise. Like game of the year praise. But praise doesn’t pay for the servers that customers want to keep running forever nor the developers’ paycheck for creating additional content that customers are demanding nowadays. The “pay once” price is only going to last for so long. While it sucks, I’m afraid for multiplayer games like Overwatch, Titanfall 2, and even Battleborn microtransactions are a needed business reality. Especially when you consider the non-existence of LAN in modern games and the fact that in a lot of countries just pirate the game (for… Read more »

Unoriginal1deas
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Unoriginal1deas

I gotta say I agree with ya jim. this could be a fair exception. Think of it like this if they didn’t put the option to buy them in the game itself and released the skins as “DLC” on the PlayStation network and steam store then we wouldn’t even be having this disscussion. And when you look at it like that I don’t see the problem at all.

Viking Mana
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Viking Mana

Honestly, although I’m just thinking about this now, I think I don’t mind microtransactions half as much if I’m allowed to purchase the things I want directly, rather than having to gamble enough times to get something decent. I would be more inclined to buy a box in Overwatch (Or buy Overwatch in general) if there was a box that contained something I knew I wanted. Basically, the way that it works in Heroes of the Storm, I believe. That system is so much better. Get rid of the “Haves and Have-Nots” systems, where you’ll end up never using a… Read more »

Jabberlove
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Jabberlove

Dear Jimothy, have a long comment, from me. Merry Chungmas. I have loved you since the very first Jimquisition on the Escapist came out and everyone else seemed to hate it, while I was laughing, feeling superior, like I got the “joke” of this character you were doing and they didn’t. I have been following your work ever since. The problem with doing a character like “Jim Sterling” for so long, and answering your critics in character, and acting like we should thank god for you for is that the personality can bleed over into the way you look at… Read more »

Goopay2002
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Goopay2002

I’m a little surprised Evolve and its crazy DLC structure didn’t come up in the article at all.

Qiserth
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Qiserth

Personally I don’t see any issue here. Those skins seems to be just plain old DLC to me, they may or may not be worth buying and that’s up to the individual buying them but I don’t think that it’s fair to call them microtransactions.

Hella
Guest
Hella

“…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. The principle remains, regardless of how normalized certain practices may become. Stay strong, Mr. Sterling.

Jason Murdock
Guest
Jason Murdock

I’m on the other side of this. For me, it’s one thing if there is a way to earn the items without actually spending money. I’m willing to spend time, which is money by all accounts, to earn the items. This is why I like how Overwatch does it’s thing. I’ve spent hours and hours in the game enjoying myself, and have all the items I want for the various characters I like to play. Because there is no way to earn these items in Titanfall 2, it’s just more BS ways of squeezing money out of consumers for a… Read more »

RipTide
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RipTide

I would say that Titanfall 2 is at least worthy of an honorable mention but stick to your guns about not putting it fully on the list. Here is my reasoning, every person walking around with a skin that can only be gained through real money purchase is a walking advertisement, and I shouldn’t have to deal with any ads in a full price $60 game. It all comes back to that idea that, the cost of a free to play game, is the constant assault of things giving both subtle and not so subtle hints that you should spend… Read more »

Ivan Sorensen
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Ivan Sorensen

I don’t have a stance on what something “should” be called and I ultimately watch the jimquisition awards for fun, not as any sort of education but the non-random nature of the purchases makes it a lot more palatable.

I will not buy anything with real money that’s a random chance (same reason I stopped playing magic the gathering in real life), but 2 bucks for a known item that makes a character look spiffy? I’ll consider it.

George
Guest
George

Titan Fall 2’s “Micro Transactions” are more similar to the DLC that was sold in SSB4 for your Mii. Just skins and other piddling crap.

However perhaps for your awards next year you could change the rule? Perhaps, “any game that offers ‘free-to-play’ elements while not being a free-to-play game” should get disqualified?

It would be a bit more specific. That said, I think it’s too late in the year to change now.

adalore
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adalore

I have no problems with this at all. This is coming from a perspective of a business university student and this seems like the best case without being too problematic. While I agree effort has to be put into making sure there isn’t just cool appearance stuff on purchase only, and to keep base visuals looking good which if the game is at all well designed it will be. I get the expectation of the market pressure of seeing people with these cosmetics will spur more purchases, but that is a completely normal part of the product life cycle for… Read more »

Camilo Fernández
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Camilo Fernández

I can understand were the dilema comes from. Since yes, there are the leeser shit-like ways of microtransactions, and also added to a game that otherwise, it was doing everithing right. No bullshit season pass and all tht bolloks. Buuuut… yeah… these are microtransactions, added after the release (and reviews) in a game that you pay $60 to play (plus the suscription if you play in the Toss-Box one). Even if it’s the only shitty thing the game has done, and even if the shitty thing itself is not all that shitty… it is still shitty. As someone who unironicly… Read more »

Jim Digby
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Jim Digby

I hate microtransactions that give people a gameplay advantage. Even in single player games these are egregious because they’re the equivalent of paying for a difficulty setting that should be free and games are often designed to push them on you.

However, I just can’t feel the same way about purely cosmetic packs, even if they’re earned randomly a la Overwatch.

I have a hard time believing people crave these like they yearn to progress through their favourite game.

BigDerf
Guest
BigDerf

I don’t understand why to give this a pass. While it seems innocuous now, one skin that’s harder to see later, and suddenly you’ve got an advantage you can only get by paying EA for. From where I’m sitting, I’d much rather have Overwatch and their loot boxes (Which seem even easier to get nowadays with the arcade mode boxes) constantly accumulating and have the ability to get what I want by playing, than have a game where people paid for an advantageous skin. Like even if the skin isn’t actually better/harder to see, but is just perceived as better,… Read more »

darkmage0707077
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darkmage0707077

If anything, this reminds me of the days JUST after the Expansion Pack boom of the late 90s/early 00s, when developers had realized that dividing the content up got more people to buy it since it was in more easily digested payment form. So this feels less like “braking” and more like “full back-pedal”. I would love to return to that era, so I’m in favor of praising this one. Go ahead, Jim: keep it on the list, mentioning it’s not as high as it could be because of these transactions. Or at least give it its own “distinct” award… Read more »

crispyn64
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crispyn64

Agreed. Overwatch’s loot boxes are fucking shit.

Rhombas
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Rhombas

This was a great article and really got me thinking of how I define microtransactions and what I define as good and bad products. I think this is where everyone has to think of what they value as a product and how they define those products to themselves. I think that the crux of the issue faced in the article is if the Jimquisition awards should be defined by products and the definitions of what that product is based on public and publisher perception or if that the products should be evaluated with business practices. The Overwatch microtransactions can be… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

I’ve long since started classifying microtransactions by the kind of content rather than the price. Microtransactions, to me, are payments that you can make again and again for expendable in-game stuff. The price doesn’t enter into my consideration. For example, there are $100 microtransactions on some smartphone games, and they serve the same purpose as the $1 options that everyone would consider to be microtransactions. The convenient thing about separating microtransactions from DLC in this way is that there are no arbitrary price lines. DLC has pros and cons, microtransactions have cons (and let’s face it, very few pros). They… Read more »

CaitSeith
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CaitSeith

Nice to hear you sound better Gav! The Podquisition isn’t the same without your low sexy voice. Past week your voice sounded so tired that it sounded like you were hosting an Extra Credits video.

gasmaskangel
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gasmaskangel

I’m reminded of your and Conrad’s comments on the jokes in Postal, where you both basically said that if you’re going to make these jokes, then this is how you ought to do it. This whole situation feels similar to me. Is this a good thing to do? Not really, no, but if you’re going to put microtransactions in a 60$ game then this is how you do it without being a total shit.

VinLAURiA
Guest
VinLAURiA

Would you really consider this an “it could be worse” or rather “signs of improvement”? I get the slippery-slope argument when the publisher is thought to be *better* than this, but in this case it’s an act of restraint from a publisher who has precedent to be much worse. Shouldn’t we be rewarding at least *steps* in the right direction, even if it’s not completely out of the woods of scumbaggery yet? While it would be nice to see, you can’t *expect* to completely reform someone in one fell swoop.

Liquid_Vegeta
Guest
Liquid_Vegeta

Allow it Jim and give them their own special award, I think “This is how it’s fucking done” would be an apt title.

Let’s face it:

They don’t offer an advantage.

Cannot be unlocked in game.

Were made (or at least released) after the initial launch window.

This is acceptable DLC from a publisher known to take the royal piss, we should be shining a fucking spotlight on this.

LangleyTerra
Guest
LangleyTerra

I typically view it as anything with premium currency, gambling, boosters, or early unlocks is a microtransaction. The “micro” could just as easily be “many”, as these are purchases that you are typically asked to make repeatedly. DLC, on the other hand, is something that you buy from a storefront to expand the game (even if just cosmetically). It is only available from the store, so if you want it, you buy it and you’re done. At least, this is how I define it. To use an example from a fighting game, buying a new character is DLC. Buying skins… Read more »