Stuart Scott
Games Developer
Senior Lead Designer

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    11 May

Episodic gaming – a new hope for microtransactions?

As the number of games incorporating microtransactions into their design fabric has increased, so has the outcry from some consumers concerned about additional charges and so called ‘pay-to-win’ schemes. The lines between premium and freemium titles are becoming blurred, leading many gamers and reviewers to express increasingly negative responses to some of the methods used by big publishers to offer added desirable content to their games.

In comparison, it seems the smaller development teams of the mobile market are experiencing a more accepted opinion of the freemium approach to monetise their products. Typically, users can download a free limited version of a game or app with an option to pay a small fee to unlock the full range of features if they wish. An obvious case for the differing opinions between the inclusion of microtransactions in premium and freemium content is likely to be linked to the price of entry and associated budgets for each project. Adding a £3 charge on top of a £40 new release just to purchase a different texture appearance for your avatar may leave some players feeling cheated.

Coming soon in the Next-Gen episode…

So if premium titles plan to continue their efforts to include microtransactions in new releases, is there a more acceptable method that could be utilised to keep both consumers and publishers happy? Perhaps the answer lies with a feature mentioned at the Playstation 4 announcement presentation that took place in February this year. CEO David Perry suggested on stage that his Gaikai technology would allow users to start playing any game with the press of a button within the online store. Differing from the standard demo and lite versions already available to consumers, the game would be unrestricted and would not require any purchase before playing.

Gaikai CEO David Perry talks during the PS4 announcement

 Gaikai CEO David Perry hinted of instant free access to new games during the PS4 announcement at the Sony conference.

Ignoring the technological, business and infrastructure demands imposed if such a feature were to be a widespread reality, there is a plausible alternative to the premium microtransaction issue within this concept. If players can suddenly have access to any available game on the market for free, publishers may have to incorporate even more microtransactions to make up for the potential loss of the high price of entry. However, it will either take a lot of small desirable content to compensate this, or worse, increased price transactions that suddenly aren’t so ‘micro’.

Player benefits

What if the alternative to such a reality was to adopt an episodic format for content distribution and monetisation? In such a scenario, episode 1 of a title would be the free download available on the online store, providing consumers with a demonstration of the game to hopefully whet their appetites for more. Each subsequent episode would become available for a fraction of the price of a full retail release. Suddenly, the price of entry on all titles has been reduced, providing consumers with more control over their spending, as well as removing the perceived risk of spending large amounts on a new unknown title. This could lead to more players experimenting with new games and genres, as well as potentially reducing the necessity to purchase pre-owned products to save money.

These positives would also benefit the development and publishing teams with an increased potential market for their content, though this also presents them with new challenges. If the high price of entry is removed on the product then encouraging players to purchase all episodes is necessary to compensate. This could lead to teams consolidating project budgets in order to front load their games with the ‘juicy’ content which is likely to receive more visibility. The onus then becomes on the developers to ensure that the high watermark of the beginning content is maintained throughout the product to increase player retention. To put a positive spin on it, this may lead to a new breed of incredible and compelling titles that somehow manage to improve upon each episode, guaranteeing players want to spend a little more to continue their adventure.

In addition, publishers could provide consumers with an option to purchase all episodes for one up-front price much in the same way that products are currently retailed. The recent success of Telltale Games Walking Dead series is perhaps a small indication of what can be achieved with strong episodic content that is sold individually or as a whole.

Telltale Games Walking Dead game

 Telltale Games Walking Dead series demonstrated the potential of strong episodic content.

Attempting to view the direction that premium and freemium monetisation models are heading amidst the blurry lines they travel is an ever increasingly difficult task. What may appease one demographic is likely to result in negative connotations for the other. The introduction of new hardware and services may provide options and control to consumers, but will also require an adjustment of production techniques and creative endeavours on behalf of development teams. Whatever the resulting transition, the reliance on microtransactions and free-to-play models is likely to provide contention between both parties until that unknown middle ground is finally reached. Let’s just hope that the price both parties have to pay to reach that ground is mutually beneficial.


  • Ricky says:

    Awesome read stu 🙂

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