The next-gen cash grab: why ‘paymium’ fundamentally compromises console game design

Every car in Forza 5 can be bought with standard credits or the alternative ‘token’ currency. Tokens can only be purchased with real cash at an exchange rate of 100TK to 79 pence. Buy 10,000 for £64.99 and you’ll receive another 10,000 for free.

The name is as ugly as the concept. ‘Paymium’, where you’re encouraged to buy content in a game you’ve already paid for, has been lurking in the shadows for years, but it’s become overt with the arrival of a new generation. This is particularly true on Xbox One, where the model has been embraced wholesale, with developers even compromising design to make the cynical system work.

Almost all of Microsoft’s launch exclusives featured in-app purchases of some kind. Take Forza Motorsport 5. While players could pay real money for virtual vehicles in Forza 4 and Horizon, the system moved to the foreground this generation. Your real cash currency is forever visible in the game’s menus; the value of in-game currency is now limited, with reduced prizes for victory and huge price tags on the most desirable cars; and the Free Play mode has been gutted to force you to spend more money just to sit behind the wheel of a Lotus F1 car.

Internet forums are filled with gamers reacting with indignant horror to the paymium creep, while game sites post hand-wringing editorials on where it will lead. Players’ reactions to Forza 5’s use of the model were so hostile that the game was patched within a month, slashing car prices by up to two-thirds and upping the prize pots.

The problem is fundamental, though. Paymium means pairing two diametrically opposed business models. In free-to-play titles, there is an understanding that the basic experience is free, but in return the studio can encourage players to pay for certain elements throughout the game. Indeed, free-to-play titles are designed from the ground up as monetised systems, their core compulsion loops built around concepts of friction and conversion. Everything is geared towards getting the player to the point at which they’ll spend.

“We call it the threshold of engagement,” Chris Wright, CEO of research company GamesAnalytics, says. “We have done a lot of work to understand what motivates players to spend money and when that crossover occurs. We find there is an optimum point in all [F2P] games where players who spend money exhibit a very different behaviour. These players will become very engaged in the game, change how they play and often become advocates, driving viral activity. Getting players to this point and not pushing them to spend too early is very important.”

Forza 5’s most expensive vehicles are the Ferrari 250 GTO and the Lotus E21 F1 car, at 6,000,000 credits (or 2,334TK), pre-patch. The December update cut both the credit and token prices for the highest-end cars by two thirds.

In a retail purchase, the contract is different. You have paid a premium price, which is ostensibly for all the content necessary to enjoy the game. In this context, free-to-play conventions can feel exploitative. “F2P evangelists will insist it’s about player choice,” says Size Five designer Dan Marshall. “They’ll insist that you can skip all this nickel-and-dime stuff if you want, but it’s not even remotely true. Gameplay is bent out of position right from the off to accommodate F2P mechanics, and the whole game crumples flat as a result. It becomes about how you get the player to pay, not how you get the player to have fun.”

Microtransactions in full-price games aren’t new. As soon as broadband speeds allowed for widespread digital distribution and seamless post-release billing systems, the business model started creeping into mainstream retail titles. EA’s The Godfather was among the earliest examples. Borrowing the ‘grind or pay’ mechanic from the eastern MMORPG world, the title allowed players to purchase in-game money to boost their crime empire’s fortunes. The Godfather might be patient zero for paymium but FIFA Ultimate Team made it viable as gaming’s most toxic revolution. Ultimate Team charged for packs of player ‘trading cards’, the constructed teams available to play with online. It was fun and players loved it, in part because it felt fair and because it felt like it belonged – the kids who traded World Cup stickers in the playground could now trade virtual men in FIFA 09.

Mass Effect 3 and Dead Space 3 microtransactions followed, and in February 2013 EA’s chief financial officer, Blake Jorgensen, told delegates at a media and telecoms conference that the company would be putting paid-for content into all its titles. “Consumers are enjoying and embracing that way of business,” he declared.

It’s easy to see why the model is so appealing to publishers. During an investor call in September 2012, Ubisoft’s worldwide online director, Stéphanie Perotti, stated, “Free-to-play is a very flexible business model. The player has the capability to spend more than in a traditional model.” And when players are already paying £50 on FIFA before doubling that on Ultimate Team with a smile, it must seem like
a model to emulate.

But FIFA Ultimate Team is special. It’s a part of the game kept separate from the main career modes – an opt-in extra lots of players have come to enjoy, rather than the entrenched game-compromising cash grab Dan Marshall mentions.

FIFA’s lucrative Ultimate Team mode adds paymium features without harming the core experience.

Indeed, there are key differences in the structure, psychology and game design philosophy of free and paid-for titles. Jamie Madigan, who blogs at psychologyofgames.com, talks about free-to-play games and the concept of ego depletion. “F2P systems hinge a lot on hitting us when our willpower is exhausted,” he says. “Recent research has suggested that willpower is like a muscle: it gets worn out and needs time to regenerate. While it’s low, our brains are more likely to rely on the faster moving, less demanding systems; we become susceptible to irrational decisions and routine biases, so hitting us with offers after mentally demanding tasks or portions of a game is effective.”

Interruption and disruption via lengthy build times in the F2P Clash Of Clans can create a willing customer, whereas in retail games the desirable state is usually one of flow and of total immersion, with the gameplay being its own reward. The constant reminders of the things you could achieve if only you would pay 79 pence will drag you out of that zone, and monetised systems disrupt the feedback loops. Crimson Dragon is a Panzer Dragoon sequel in all bar name, but the game’s swooping cinematic pace has been dissected into tedious grindable chunks. In Diablo III, many players feel the whole appeal of hunting for loot was destroyed by the online auction house, where everything was available for a price.”[It] can short circuit the natural pace of item drops, making the game feel less rewarding for some players,” wrote ex-Diablo III game director Jay Wilson. The auction houses are being dropped based on player feedback.

Even if the implementation of microtransactions genuinely has no effect on a game’s design, it can still fundamentally damage the relationship between player and developer. “From a buying psychology perspective, you risk breaking the trust of the player,” explains Oscar Clark, a specialist in free-to-play mechanics. “They bought the game by paying an up-front [cost] based on an expectation of utility. In-app purchases can undermine this sense of invested value, unless you can clearly demonstrate that the additional spend is bringing them something amazing.” For the sceptical player, the gameworld is no longer a virtual environment in which to abandon oneself; now it’s a shop, and the creator is just another salesperson.

Once commerce enters the scenario, so does suspicion. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is filled with collectible trinkets that are hidden throughout its world. Is that to offer replay value and to reward exploration, or are they there so that Ubisoft can sell desperate gamers a Time Saver pack revealing the locations of undiscovered items on their map?

We described Crimson Dragon as a game “aggressively geared towards microtransactions” in our review.

But publishers don’t really want to answer these questions. When we approached Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Microsoft for comment, the first two failed to respond, and Microsoft declined. The philosophy at the moment is to implement microtransactions quietly, then apologise and tweak the economy only if players complain. In this way, it is hoped the modern paymium model will creep into games largely unnoticed.

So if paymium is something to be furtive about, why do it? Some game developers talk about using microtransactions in order to expand the audience. “There’s a lot of players out there, especially players coming from mobile games, who are accustomed to microtransactions,” Dead Space 3 producer John Calhoun told CVG in January 2013. “They’re like, ‘I need this now; I want this now.’ They need instant gratification.”

But there are other ways to appease those players. Call Of Duty: Ghosts has redesigned its multiplayer unlock system, making all weapons available to players of any level so long as they can amass the Squad Points, which are given out for completing operations in-game and ranking up. It’s not instant gratification, but it’s closer, and it doesn’t break the systems built for players to enjoy.

“This is a problem that game designers already understand and appreciate,” Ste Pickford of Zee-3, creator of Magnetic Billiards, says about player frustration. “This is why we have relatively new features like sliding difficulty levels, so players can [skip past] a boss or difficult battle, or Nintendo’s Super Guide, or giving players [an invincible] white Tanooki suit in the new Mario game if they fail a level too many times. There’s a sense that the player has bought the game, and they have a right to access all the content, even if they’re not very good at the game itself.”

Dead Space 3 producer John Calhoun has said that the addition of microtransactions to the game merely reflected demand.

Developers seem to want their games to be generous, then. Turn 10’s Dan Greenawalt has explained that Forza 5’s token system is to allow players who want shortcuts to access ‘cheats’ for a nominal fee. Perhaps the studio believes that to be true – it was true of Forza 4, certainly – but Forza 5’s clear design compromises result in a game that makes frequent attempts to encourage withdrawals from players’ wallets.

A better defence for Turn 10 and other developers is the sheer brutal cost of game development. With each new technological advance, the costs of triple-A development are increasing, but sales from retail games remain relatively static. EA’s Jorgensen has forecasted a five to ten per cent rise in development costs on eighth-gen platforms. Passing that cost on to players, they might argue, is the only way to support the failing development model.

But it’s unfair to pass the buck. Shouldn’t the burden instead be on Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo to lower licensing fees, and on publishers and developers to better manage product development? “New technological and creative solutions, and changes in the idea of how games should be sold, mean that budgets can come down,” Rebellion co-founder Jason Kingsley says. “While some areas of development, such as making a high-quality main character model, have become more costly, who’s to say you can’t make smaller games sold at a lower price point that provide a triple-A experience? Game design is more about creativity than money.”

If the thriving indie sector has shown us anything, it’s that creativity can win out over technology. One of the most highly rated games of the next-gen launch window has been Resogun, a 2D shooter that harks back to Defender. Minecraft has made millions from charming chunky visuals. DayZ and State Of Decay each provided more post-apocalyptic tension than Resident Evil 6 and Silent Hill: Downpour combined.

Resogun’s success suggests that next-gen spectacle isn’t a matter of budget, and needn’t have microtransactions built in.

Certainly games have to amaze, but that doesn’t necessarily involve doubling the budget every year. “Spectacle comes in many shapes and forms,” says Marshall. “It isn’t just the level of bump mapping on a character model’s eyeballs. Spectacle is No Man’s Sky stealing the show at the VGX Awards. It’s art direction that takes your breath away. It’s scriptwriting with twists that make you gasp. It’s mechanics that have you itching to play while you’re stuck at work. That’s spectacle. That’s what the game industry does like no one else. That’s where we need to focus, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.”

The alternative, for some titles, may be just to embrace free-to-play entirely – at least this way players know where they stand, and the design needn’t be compromised. “Any creative process is as much art as science, and game design is no different,” says Nicholas Lovell, the founder of Games Brief and author of F2P monetisation book The Curve. “The traditional paid model has bred a bloated and difficult-to-manage creative approach, which leads to high-profile failures – think RealTime Worlds and 37 Studios. [It also leads to] games that sell well but fail to meet internal expectations, such as the recent Tomb Raider title. The free-to-play business model enables companies to create smaller experiences, validate the market demand and then to continue to support it.”

Sony once suggested the notion of Gran Turismo as a platform in its own right, a base game into which you’d slot your favourite cars for a real cash price. Of the 1,200 cars in GT6, how many will you drive? Will you stump up for a GT-R or a LaFerrari, knowing you’d never race in any other car anyway? Would you be excited to try different cars every week on a short-term trial basis?

Gran Turismo 6 allows players to buy cars and upgrades rather than earn them. The system is subtly integrated through the GT Store, but the prices are steep: a 7m credit pack costs £39.99. A GT6 Jaguar XJ13 costs just under £120.

Since Sony floated the idea in 2005, League Of Legends has become the biggest game in the world based exactly on the latter model. If Forza 6 or Gran Turismo 7 were free-to-play games piped into every last Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in the world, how much money could those games make from casual players willing to buy their favourite cars?

Paymium is a tax forced onto players by an inefficient industry, and better alternatives are available. It will take players rejecting the model entirely to force developers in that direction, but perhaps it will only take a few more Forza 5s – games so abundantly compromised that they need their economies rewritten from scratch – to turn the tide against paymium for good.