Games have been around since times immemorial. Since long before humans appeared on the scene. Playing games is an archaic and primal activity. It’s something that the young of many if not all species do. At its core, the game is an exploration of the environment and oneself. The outcome is self-improvement. Improved skills and increased knowledge of the limitations and possibilities inherent in oneself and the environment. Every single game you have ever played in your life is based upon these fundamentals. From hide and seek to football. From Pacman to World of Warcraft. Explore, stumble, and improve are the three phases of a game and beyond them lies the alluring victory.
Everything about the game is not the same as it has always been though. In the information era we currently live in the game has become a business and as any business it needs to turn a profit. To generate profit the game need to provide the player with an awesome experience but it also needs clever monetization. Long gone are the days when gamers would buy unknown games in pretty boxes sitting on crowded shelves in offline stores. These days gamers expect a lot, have a lot to choose between, and don’t want to pay a lot.
Making an awesome game these days costs millions of dollars and turning a profit by pushing physical copies of a game has become virtually impossible for all but a few big brands. That’s why we are seeing a move away from offline to online distribution, from pay to play to free to play, and from publishers to crowdfunding. That’s also why we are seeing a move away from singleplayer to multiplayer games. When it’s free to play it must also be optional to pay – if there is going to be any profit that is – and this is where the multiplayer game wins over the singleplayer game. Few players are going to spend significant amounts of real money on virtual items and services in a game devoid of other players because it is obvious to the player that none of it is real. Add other players and persistence to the game world though, and everything changes. Suddenly it is real to the player and therefore worth spending real money on. And thus the potential for the microtransaction is born. And the microtransaction is the king of monetization.
The popular view of a microtransaction in the western world is a purchase of a useless in-game perk in a fully launched and playable game but this definition does not even begin to describe it. The microtransaction is there all the way from crowdfunding to finished product, from useless perk to pay to win, and from official market place to the grey market place such as RPGStash.com. It permeates every aspect of the persistent online multiplayer game whether it’s free to play or pay to play. And make no mistake, players don’t care much for useless perks whether they live in a western country or South East Asia. The more useful the microtransaction is, the more attractive it is to the player. The most popular microtransactions are always the ones with the biggest impact on gameplay whether we are talking stash tabs, extra experience gain, champions, pets, or better gear. Hardcore gamers and game developers alike tend to cherish ethical useless microtransactions and curse pay to win but their money tells a different story. The truth. And the truth is that players are just as goal driven as the game makers and pay to win is therefore the perfect monetization model.
But what constitutes winning? A game like chess has very clear rules for winning but things become muddy when you look at persistent game worlds like World of Warcraft and League of Legends where the goal is progression rather than closure. In this context where the journey is the true goal, paying to look cooler or to progress faster or to play expansions are all the same. It’s all pay to win or more accurately pay to progress, and it’s potentially very profitable for the game company.
So what does this mean for the future of the online multiplayer game? I think the game worlds will become more dynamic and volatile to prevent the player from getting bored and I also think there will be more black holes in the game worlds for the player to be sucked into such as sex, gambling, debates, political elections, and various legitimate ways of making real money. I don’t believe for a second that gamers play games to escape reality. I believe gamers play games to explore, improve and gain respect and that every hurdle, temptation, and encounter along the way is an opportunity for the game company to monetize.