There are exceptions to everything, and this article takes a narrow viewpoint based on my personal experiences. The goal is ultimately to present an optimistic, hopeful opinion on the potential of character progression and micro-transactions, and to fuel discussion. But I need to get some things out of the way first:
Micro-transactions were inevitable.
There was a time when you bought a game for $50, and then a year or two later you bought the sequel for another $50. Then there was the expansion pack, which arrived sooner, for around $35. Then there was the downloadable content, which arrived even sooner, for around $20. Now there are micro-transactions which are available at launch, for around $5. Freemium is the hungry sarlacc waiting at the bottom of this slippery, sandy slope, but I won’t go there today.
Micro-transactions were inevitable. No one should be surprised by them, or be surprised when something happens like Electronic Arts deciding to put micro-transactions into all of it’s future games. It won’t end there.
Micro-transactions are inherently evil.
The trend in micro-transactions for blockbuster games seems to focus on convenience. You can either unlock that gun by playing the game and ranking up over time, or you can purchase it immediately via micro-transaction.
That’s good, right? It means the micro-transactions are optional. You can get access to the same content without having to buy anything!
“This means that by buying the content, you are paying to not play the game. The only reason to pay not to play a game is if playing it is more unpleasant than paying not to. That means, portions of the game have been intentionally designed to be unpleasant.“
Character progression is artificial.
Let’s change topics for a moment and talk about character progression.
Imagine this scenario: you’ve beaten the singleplayer campaign of your favorite FPS game. There you stand, triumphant, with every piece of armor and weapon you gathered along the way. Now you’re ready to play multiplayer!
Suddenly someone pulls up in a pickup truck, steals all of your armor and weapons, and drives away. But they put all of your gear in the back of the truck with the tailgate down. And it’s a bumpy dirt road. So as you chase after the truck, every few miles you’ll find another piece of your gear that fell out. Sometimes it’ll be a random piece. And after several months and countless miles of running, you finally reacquire everything that you already had in the first place. Now, don’t you feel like you made a lot of progress as a character?
Restricting a player’s access to gear is artificial character progression. If a game is good, it should be fun to be played, and continue to be played, with all of its elements available to the player from the beginning. The game itself should keep you invested—not the urge to acquire something you’ve already had in singleplayer, or with the promise of something you’ll eventually attain.
Micro-transactions and “character progression” work against each other.
Now imagine right after the truck first started driving away, a police officer pulled up and offered to get all of your gear back right now, if you gave him $15.
No matter what choice you make, you’re being robbed—either by the truck driver or the police officer.
Not only is that kind of character progression artificial, but it is devalued by corresponding micro-transactions (the police officer). Ultimately, it makes this kind of artificial character progression truly meaningless: having that gun or armor (that you should have had in the first place) proves nothing about you as a player. Maybe you earned it, maybe you bought it—who can tell? You? How do you feel about someone else having a gun instantly for $5 that you spent weeks unlocking? Does that make you feel like you accomplished something?
Making character progression meaningful again.
If you’re a Halo fan, you’ll instantly recognize this symbol:
The description for the Legendary difficulty in Halo is: “You face opponents who have never known defeat, who laugh in alien tongues at your efforts to survive. This is suicide.”
And when you complete the campaign on Legendary, you’re awarded with that symbol. Character progression wants you to get +2000 XP for beating a level on Legendary, but I would suggest that it’s missing the point. The point is this:
You did that. You defeated the opponents who have never known defeat. You laughed at those who laugh in alien tongues at your efforts to survive. That is meaningful character progression. When someone looks at your profile in Halo and they see that Legendary icon, there is a clear indication of what you have accomplished. When someone looks at your profile in Halo 4 and they see a piece of armor, what the heck is that supposed to represent? You unlock armor with XP, and you can get XP for idling in a custom game by yourself.
I hope, for future Halo games and for Destiny, that character progression stops being about meaningless aesthetic armor and emblem unlocks or access to weapons and starts being about genuine game-based accomplishments, both specific and accumulative:
-Complete a level on Legendary.
-Complete a level solo on Legendary without dying.
-Fill in your medal chest in Halo multiplayer.
-Get a kill with every weapon in Halo multiplayer.
-Win a CTF game on Exile.
-And so on. Stuff you do. There is a reason nearly every game on any platform features some form of Achievements. Even DLC features them! They appeal to players. I would suggest that Achievements could be a better form of character progression than any kind of XP could ever be.
Accumulative character progression/stats, and how XP spoils it.
Kills, deaths, kills with weapons, games won—these are all things that a player does. These things have meaning. Halo: Reach introduced Commendations to track and reward players for doing these things, but it obscured their significance because they were turned into +XP opportunities. You used the Target Locator to grind the Splash Damage Commendation to get XP (okay, cR) to get the armor you wanted (a meaningless piece of aesthetic that should’ve actually been available to you at the beginning of the game anyway). There would be no incentive to Target Locator grind in the first place had Commendations stood on their own, as symbols of character progression, and not XP opportunities.
When you’re matched up with a player in Halo 4 matchmaking, you’re presented with their SR number. That number represents how much XP they’ve acquired by doing anything in the game (seriously, you can get XP for idling in a custom game by yourself). You’re supposed to feel invested in your player’s appearance—because, after all, you had to get all that XP to rank up and unlock those armor pieces.
In Halo 2, when you were matched up with a player in matchmaking, you saw a competitive ranking. A number that was determined by their win/loss ratio. You checked their stats. You saw the things they had accomplished, not the amount of free time they had. It was about what the player did, not how the player looked. There wasn’t any armor to unlock. All aesthetic customization options were available from the moment you started your first game.
XP obnoxiously stands in front of stats, waving it’s arms and distracting you from what a player has actually accomplished.
Will someone just ask XP to leave.
In Halo 3, you could play campaign cooperatively with scoring turned on. Each time you killed an enemy, you would score a few points. It was fun to try to have the highest score at the end of the level. That is an accomplishment. Having a player stat that displays your highest score on each level is what I would call character progression. You get better at the game, you get a higher score, and everyone can see it.
XP wants to give you a few points each time you kill an enemy, but instead of recording those points in a meaningful way, all of those points go into a giant cyst growing on an alien organism. Occasionally it gets large enough and bursts in a grotesque display. And there, from the ick, a faceless clone walks out wearing a new piece of armor. What has that clone ever accomplished? No one knows.
XP just needs to go away.
Keeping players playing.
But, without XP, how will we keep players playing our games?
Halo 4’s Spartan Ops experiment is a step in the right direction. A total of 50 missions were released, 5 at a time, for free, on a semi-weekly basis following the launch of Halo 4. I looked forward to playing next week’s missions. Had 343 Industries simply released all 50 missions on launch day, players would have beaten them within the week and there would be nothing to look forward to. 343 Industries would have missed out on the opportunity to draw players back to the game.
Timed release of genuine content is incredibly smart. That, I propose, is the right way of keeping players playing your game. Not taking away their guns and giving them back, grudgingly, one at a time, unless they fork over their lunch money.
There is no such thing as a free lunch.
If no one is making money, there won’t be new missions to play. Which brings me back to micro-transactions. The people that make content need to and should be paid for it. Everyone loves free, and there are easy examples of video games that were overpriced, but hear me out:
Micro-transactions: The New DLC
Using Halo 4 as an example, the Majestic Map Pack released 3 new multiplayer maps for $10: Monolith, Landfall, and Skyline.
Your mileage may vary, but I feel that Monolith is lacking compared to the quality of Landfall and Skyline. What if you could buy each map individually for $3.33? I would expect Landfall to sell significantly more than the other two maps, with Monolith coming in last.
That kind of transaction will provide direct feedback to the developers. It will make them more accountable to make each piece of content higher quality, instead of creating a grab bag of mixed quality content that they feel hits the traditional DLC price range.
This kind of system could improve DLC, while simultaneously solving the shallowness of micro-transactions. Micro-transactions replace DLC, but as real content. And that new content is the long-term appeal.
Of course, no one wants to spend $3.33 every time a new map is released. That adds up. But I would suggest that you would get more enjoyment out of that map than a Starbucks coffee—and the map took a lot more time and money to create.
It costs money, but it’s an investment. Developers want you to be invested in a franchise. Publishers want you to be invested in a franchise. You should want to be invested in a franchise–you should want to play games that are worth playing long-term. Hobbies generally aren’t cheap, and a good game can be a hobby that is absolutely worth investing in. And if the game isn’t worth investing in, then don’t.
In conclusion, or TL;DR.
Games should be open and fun on their own, from the beginning, without limiting player access to items under the guise of character progression. Time-release and micro-transaction DLC can provide fresh content to keep players interested long-term, while selective purchasing can keep developers accountable for creating quality content. Relevant stats and real in-game accomplishment tracking can become a meaningful form of character progression to keep players invested long-term and seeking out that fresh content.
Nothing is perfect.
Just as blockbuster games are released with pre-planned or even launch day DLC, micro-transaction DLC will entice game developers/publishers to “hold back” content that should be, or sometimes IS, on-disc so that it can be sold later. It’s a problem that already exists and will always exist–after all, micro-transactions are inherently evil. We can try to make the best of them, but the sarlaac’s tentacle is already wrapped around our ankles. There’s no escaping that reality.