Micropayments destroy game credibility

Micropayments in videogames have gone on for a long time. But the way these systems are implemented today destructive to the credibility of games. Now, everyone needs to make a buck in order to keep producing games and I get that businesses are out to make money but the degree in which game design choices are viewed within the lense of “How can I convince the player to give me money?” instead of “How does this bring more fun/happiness/fear to the player?” is infuriating. To me, these games feel more like casino slot machines, using psychological tricks (like machines at the end of the rows payout more) to get quarters.

There are two goals of most current micropayment games. Increase the amount of users in your base. And get as many users as possible to buy as many things as possible. The way these games accomplish this is

  • Put artificial roadblocks or incentives that require users to recruit more users. Much like many pyramid schemes those within the user base have an imperative to recruit otherwise they cannot be successful within the organization.
  • Put shortcuts within the game that bypass intentionally clunky or difficult features. This would be similar to a Windows product charging an extra 15 dollars in order to use the mouse. Although technically you can use the keyboard to get to nearly everything in the OS, the OS is specifically designed for a mouse interface. The same with these games, you are specifically intended to harvest crops, build things, but in order to do it effectively you have to put money into it.

Ultimately these tactics cheapen games as a whole. As users begin to realize they are being bilked by these games which millions of users play, it will turn off users to playing all games as they generalize their own experience towards the rest of the games industry. This is not good design and the companies behind it are creating games to provide only enough incentive to continue paying out, not to forward our medium.



  1. Substitute “subscriptions” for the word “micropayments” and you can timewarp back a decade! This isn’t a new complaint, just the topic is original this time around.

    Business models are a tool, and like any tool can be used for good or for ill. You can use micropayments responsibly, just as you can use retail charges to gouge every last dollar out of a customer (c.f. the Star Wars movies and the few dozen different versions released with minor differences). Micropayments don’t destroy game credibility, misuse of micropayments (or any tool) does. And, again, this isn’t a new issue; this is just the newest generation of the age-old art vs. commerce argument.

    This is one reason why it irritates me when people try to pass Zynga off as an aberration; they’re the ones abusing a lot of the tools that could be used responsibly, such as micropayments or metrics-based feedback. But it’s obvious that they use these tools merely to maximize profits, which reflects poorly on others who would like to use the tools to push the medium forward.

    But, let’s keep some perspective here. Despite the roadblocks and irritations, only a single digit percent of players of the large social games put any money in according to reports I’ve read. That means that to the 90%+ people playing these games, those roadblocks or irritations that you identify are simply part of the game for them that they don’t feel it’s worth paying to remove or just quitting the game in frustration.

  2. I agree Brian. Although I have friends at a lot of social media companies (who may or may not have been a tad upset) there are several out there that do just as you say.

    But I think that even though 99% of people may be playing for free, its a big issue because of the huge amount of people that will start to recognize the roadblocks. Quitting in frustration is something I want to see all developers avoid, it hurts all of us.

  3. I’m not so sure if people will start to recognize the roadblocks as we do. One concept I like to consider from the world of pro wrestling is marks vs. smarts. Marks are the people who watch wresting and think it’s a sport, get caught up in the storylines, etc. Smarts are those who understand it’s fake and appreciate the artistry and showmanship of the event. Obviously it’s the “smarts” that came up with this terminology, but I think it’s useful for looking at how people view games.

    Obviously, being experienced game developers, we see the game design elements behind the game itself if we look for them. But, where we see a roadblock someone else might see an obstacle to be overcome. In my own experiences with free-to-play MMOs I’ve challenged myself in how to best spend my resources in the game so I don’t have to throw more money into it. I find that fun, whereas someone else might find that an irritating roadblock to them having fun. (I suspect that this might be what defines the hardcore vs. casual divide we are familiar with in other games.)

    Ultimately, I agree: game (and all entertainment) should be about providing a good experience to the user while ensuring that people can make a living. This hyperfocus on profit above all else is cancerous to the games industry, and to society as a whole. But, I don’t think microtransactions or even the “roadblock” design is necessarily to fault here. As I quipped in my first comment, a lot of people said similar things about MMOs and subscriptions when they first came on the scene, how it motivated companies to simply keep players hooked into the game longer. But, I like to think we still gave players a lot of good experiences.

    Further thoughts for consideration.

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