We Lost the Battle on Microtransactions

We’ve lost the battle on MTX. Outrage for horse armor has been replaced with joy on the Carleton dance. Most people are OK with cosmetics in the store, it’s simply the price point that is debate point. 

Asmiroth (2019), Dark Clouds at Acti-Bliz (Leo’s Life)

Asmiroth’s post as you may have gathered by the title focused most on the rumoured impending lay-offs at Activision Blizzard. I replied with a comment before I left for work, but the above quote has stuck with me through the day.

Did we actually lose?

And was it ever even a battle?

Now, I’m not experienced in the games industry. I have no insider contacts. For all I know, they’re every bit as evil as we’d sometimes like to believe.

But I doubt it. I don’t have experience inside the games industry, but I do have strong parallel experience from working in product and propositions for a corporate in another industry that people love to hate. We sometimes have to make decisions that make media in less than positive ways.

We have people very focused on the business interests. The short term profitability, tactical decisions. But we also have people whose job it is to put the customer first and advocate for their needs. Long-term success requires a healthy tension between the two.

Decisions in favour of the business (e.g., microtransactions) are often the very things that allow for decisions in favour of the customer (e.g., Anthem giving story DLC to all players for free).

At the very least, consider this an alternate perspective.

First, Let’s Talk Money

In 2004, when Half-Life 2 launched the ‘Bronze’ edition (i.e., standard) cost US$49.95 ($US66.43 in 2019 money). It had a development budget of US$40m (US$53.2m 2019).

If the box-price of games followed in line with the growing costs of AAA development — we would be paying ~$US97.50 for a game’s standard edition.

Last year’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider cost $US59.99 to buy, and had a development budget of up to $US100m.1

In real dollar terms, that means we’ve had an almost 11% reduction in cost to purchase a day-1 title vs. an increase in cost to develop a modern AAA title by 46.8%.

If the box-price of games followed in line with the growing costs of AAA development — we would be paying ~$US97.50 for a game’s standard edition.

And Shadow of the Tomb Raider is not even a particularly exceptional example. Some titles have cost more, and the predictions indicate development costs for AAA titles will only continue to increase.

Of course it’s a little more complex than this. This doesn’t cover all the material factors. One could also consider the growing addressable base as more and more people accept gaming. The relative ease of cross-platform releases now compared to then. Or likely a dozen more factors I’m not presently thinking or even aware of being an outsider to the industry.

But the bottom line of it is, that MTX subsidise the increased costs of development where a box-price increase of the required magnitude could well price AAA games out of reach for many.

Test & Learn, Adapt

Sometimes, the money-people get a little too much power, or get to make one decision too many. This appears to be where Activision-Blizzard are at presently. It would have been the case in EA, when decisions on monetisation in Star Wars Battlefront II for launch were made.

To an extent it is their job, to push the envelope and find the edge of profitability, the edge of what consumers will bear.

But ideally the balance of power internally is not so far off that when it becomes exceedingly clear that edge has been found? Or even surpassed? That the customer-focused advocates in the business cannot pull things back.

There has been no indication as yet that Activision-Blizzard has found how to rebalance. EA by contrast does appear to be learning its lesson. Possibly out of fear, as I noted in an earlier post.

I think EA has been sufficiently frightened off being too obnoxious for a time by the fallout over lootboxes and the intense backlash they’ve received; not only by their customers but by legislators and as a result their shareholders.

Naithin (2019), Why Anthem? Why not The Division 2? (Time to Loot)

They appear to be in the ‘adapt’ phase, with full removal of paid loot boxes in current and upcoming titles such as Anthem, giving solemn promises not to introduce them after launch.

Anthem will have MTX for cosmetics, but real money will not be the only means of purchase. They will also be obtainable purely through ingame means. That neither the real world cost nor the time required to gain sufficient ingame currency has been revealed is certainly the cause of consternation in some quarters.

I might be crazy, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in this until proven wrong. I feel not screwing over their player base on this to be inline with where they’re at on the corporate swing at the moment. Time to adapt.

It’s Not All Roses Though…

As you may have gathered throughout this piece (or from the original comment I left) I wouldn’t exactly jump with joy for a Carleton dance, I am fairly accepting of cosmetic MTX. At least when handled in a fair and reasonable manner.

In the transition to MTX, there have certainly been losses though. I want my expansions back, dangit. No — not little pieces of DLC with a few tidbits of story and maybe one or two no areas. I want the good stuff. The expansions that essentially came with all new campaigns, like Neverwinter Nights!

Sure, they still exist in pockets here and there. WoW is a pretty easy example to point at. But there was a time when it was essentially a given that any truly successful title would gain at least one full expansion.

I would happily pay for them. But they’re also a much greater risk to a company than the more bite-sized content. Perhaps a topic for another day. :)


  1. Given came out Sept 2018, I have not adjusted for inflation. Also worth noting these costs are development only and do not reflect marketing costs which can easily double the overall spend.


Gamer, reader, writer, husband and father of two boys. Former WoW and Gaming blogger, making a return to the fold to share my love of all things looty.

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