Just Tell Me What It Costs – in Dollars! Rejecting Obfuscated Monetization 

Could you imagine if Wal Mart didn’t allow you to pay with cash or a credit card, insisting that you use “Wal-Bucks” instead? How frustrating would that be, especially if Wal-Bucks could only be purchased at rates that were offset from real dollar values? Consider a scenario where $99.99 gave you 14,000 Wal-Bucks – the conversion rate that’s used in Clash of Clans for gems. Would 800 Wal-Bucks be a fair price for a box of Life Cereal?

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I accept that a publisher can value a game’s content at thousands of dollars. It’s hard to swallow at first – how could any game be worth 100+ times the cost of a masterpiece like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? But value is relative, and some people really do feel happy funneling thousands of dollars into games they have played with friends for years.

I also understand that hard currency allows publishers to offer bulk sales, price things at less than $1, account for in-game inflation, and ensure that small allotments of currency can be given to players as prizes. Many games would break without being able to sell hard currency. If you are playing a game that requires this mechanic, and you are happy and in control of your spending, keep doing what you’re doing. I’m not here to criticize you.

What I’m here to say is: If a publisher wants ME to spend money on extras, they MUST be transparent, selling their goods at a clear dollar value.

For me, the cons of buying hard currency outweigh any pros. I reject the mechanic, and if hard currency makes you uncomfortable, it’s okay for you to reject it, too. You don’t have to roll with it just because the sales tactic has become ubiquitous.
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When I am hit up for hard currency, I feel disrespected. I can’t shake the feeling that the seller wants me to lose track of what I’m spending. Purchase prices become very confusing, particularly when dealing with layered conversions (ex: buying purple elixir in Clash of Clans with gems that were acquired with real money). I feel more like I’m at Firestone or Comcast than Wal Mart: worried that I’m likely to be mislead or tricked into spending more than I intended.

Another problem: I find that gems are easier to spend in a game than real dollars are. I really need to be pushed to spend $19.99 for 1600 gems, but once my currency is virtual, it’s spent incredibly quickly. I’ll happily spend 620 gems on a speed-up that I’d never spend $7.74 on – even if those currencies are equivalent.

Contrast this with Super Smash Bros. on WiiU and 3DS, where you can purchase a new character outright for $6.99. I understand the pricing – there are no complex monetization systems to try to keep track of. I’ve spent more than $700 on that game (when you include the amiibo figures), and I’ve done it happily, because I could see the dollar value of every single item as I’ve paid.

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So, it’s a hard pass from me on hard currency of any kind.

Of course, that’s not the only form of cost obfuscation you’re likely to see in modern games… let’s talk about loot crates (also called gacha in CCGs).

What if you went into a sporting goods store like REI, and you were told that you couldn’t buy the ice skates you wanted directly… but that you could buy raffle tickets for them instead?

That is how loot crates feel to me.

Again, if you love the mechanic, and you have a strong grasp on how much you’re spending – more power to you. But I submit that it’s totally reasonable to reject the mechanic, too. I won’t participate in loot crates because it induces the same neurological response in players that gambling does (I’ll dig deeper into this in a future post). It’s a brain hack, and it’s one that I’m personally vulnerable to. Just like slot machines, loot crates provide players with a variable ratio schedule, which B.F. Skinner determined dramatically increases the desirability of rewards (when compared to offering identical rewards at fixed intervals). This feels like a dangerous practice for gambling addicts when it’s presented as pay-per-pull, without spend caps. Just as with hard currency, I feel disrespected when loot crates are offered to me – particularly when companies don’t even disclose drop rates.

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The good news is that there are a lot of amazing games that offer transparent monetization… even when they could have made more money going the other way. Nintendo’s ARMS and Splatoon 2 are great examples of this. Both are popular online multiplayer games that are entirely transparent in their pricing – you get everything for $59.99. This week, I’ve been deeply engrossed in Sonic Mania, Undertale, and Horizon: Zero Dawn, which also keep their pricing above board. I admire when publishers are totally clear on pricing, because while it’s rarely the most profitable way to go… I believe that it’s the most respectful way to engage with customers.

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One comment

  1. Completely agree with you here Ethan. I’ve never really thought of it being easier to spend virtual currency, because your brain may not see it in the same way. Probably because I don’t partake in this stuff either. I’ve never purchased hats for Team Fortress 2, I don’t want a GTA V Shark Card, and I don’t care about purchasing lunch boxes in Fallout Shelter. A lot of it really is like gambling, and should probably be regulated as such.

    Just give me my game up front without jerking me around.

    Like

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