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Is “microtransactions” a dirty word? It sure seems that way, especially at the moment. Microsoft has decided to experiment with microtransactions in Xbox One games, and as a result we have first-party launch titles like Ryse: Son of Rome and Forza Motorsport 5 offering players a chance to spend money on top of the R600 to R700 already spent on buying a copy of the game.

Naturally, people are looking at the timing of this experimentation and are concluding that this is what it’s going to be like for the rest of this new generation of console gaming. Honestly it amazes me that most gamers are still able to walk considering the amount of knee-jerking that happens. What many don’t see is that we’ve had microtransactions in paid-for AAA games for quite some time already. There was this little game called Mass Effect 3 – you might have played it. That game pulled a double faux pas by shoehorning multiplayer into an ostensibly single-player series, and then adding microtransactions to the unnecessary multiplayer as well. The fact that the unnecessary multiplayer turned out to be a butt-load of fun and the microtransactions completely ignorable, still didn’t negate the fan outrage.

Remember Dead Space 3? Remember the snot en trane EA created by adding microtransactions to the weapon crafting system? Yep, microtransactions aren’t new to the AAA gaming scene, but should we be accepting of them? Is there a place for them in AAA games? If I keep posing rhetorical questions, will people begin to think I know what I’m talking about?

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Ryse: Son of Rome is doing something similar to what BioWare and EA did with Mass Effect 3. The microtransactions in Ryse have been relegated to the multiplayer portion of the game. What’s more, the items that are being microtransactionalised (new word coined right here!) are armour upgrades that will affect online gameplay but will double as cosmetic enhancements for your multiplayer character. They’re being sold in blind booster packs, much like they were with Mass Effect 3’s microtransactions. However, and this is rather interesting, Mass Effect 3’s microtransactions were closer to a pay-to-win model in that the booster packs provided power-ups and weapons. Additionally, Ryse’s booster packs are tiered according to players’ character levels. In other words, you won’t be able to buy top tier booster packs until you’ve levelled a character to that point, essentially quashing any concerns of a “pay to win” imbalance. Bearing that in mind makes Ryse’s microtransactions seem rather innocuous. Obviously you’re able to accumulate the currency required to buy these booster packs by simply playing the game – as was the case in Mass Effect 3.

Microsoft’s Phil Spencer has gone on the defensive regarding microtransactions on the Xbox One, and is insisting that this is a learning curve for the company. He’s been championing the use of system analytics that will provide Microsoft and developers with feedback on which models of microtransactions work, and which piss off gamers to no end. The pessimists are probably yelling “PR SPIN!” at their monitors at this point.

While I’m inclined to give Ryse a free pass with its chosen microtransaction model, I’m finding it rather difficult to extend Forza 5 the same courtesy.

The Forza series first introduced the concept of Tokens in Forza Motorsport 4. By paying real money you could purchase these car Tokens in order to unlock faster cars earlier on in the career mode. One token cost around 80 MS Points (about $1 so around R10) and some of the most expensive cars in Forza 4 could be unlocked for three Tokens. It’s worth noting, however, that it was entirely possible to play the career mode and receive car and parts unlocks at a rate commensurate to that of previous Forza titles. It was also possible to drive every single car in the game through the free race mode. With that in mind, the Tokens were completely ignorable and really there for those who wanted a leg-up in the career mode.

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Enter Forza 5 – a game that has most definitely been designed (or possibly tweaked at Microsoft’s orders?) so that ordinary progress is slow enough to make the lure of microtransactions that much more appealing. All cars available in a free race mode? Not anymore, sorry.  Are paid-for, Day One DLC cars automatically unlocked? No, you need to race to get those or pay more to unlock them early. Do you get cars for levelling your driver in career mode? No. Do you get cars and parts through manufacturer affinity, like in previous Forza games? No. So how do you get cars? Well, you race to accumulate credits and Tokens, only it turns out that that takes quite a long time – way longer than it has in any other Forza game.

Turn 10 studio head Dan Greenawalt attempts to explain, however, that there are ways to boost your credit and Token accumulation. “Players can receive +65% payout for playing against the hardest skill level Drivatars [AI], up to +50% bonus credit payouts for turning off the assists, and up to +35% payouts for sticking with a favorite manufacturer,” he told Shacknews a few days ago. “That’s +150% bonus based on skill and strategy.”

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While that’s all very well and good, what about the people who are rubbish at driving games? I know I certainly wouldn’t be able to beat the hardest AI while having all assists turned off. Hell, I doubt I’d even be able to complete a lap with assists turned off. I’m also willing to bet that for very many people, Forza 5 might be their first Forza game considering it’s a launch title for the Xbox One. With new gaming hardware, a lot of people are more inclined to pick up a series they’ve never played simply because there’s a dearth of options. Are those people now going to have to pay more in order to unlock cars at a rate that doesn’t make the game akin to the grind found in most MMORPGs?

As for the pricing of cars, they vary depending on their real-world rarity. The most ludicrously priced car is the 2013 Lotus E21, which costs 10, 000 Tokens. If you had to pay real money for that amount of Tokens, it would cost you around R540. Only, you’d actually need to spend over R1, 000 because you can only buy Tokens in specific denominations, which means you’d have to buy a pack of 20, 000. I wish I was making this up.

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Obviously, many people are upset about this, and as a result Turn 10 has had to adjust the economy of Forza 5. We touched on that yesterday. As of today (Friday, 29 November 2013) all of the cars cost 50% less in Forza 5. Those people who belong to the Forza Motorsport 5 VIP program (yep, more money to belong to that) get that aforementioned and overpriced Lotus E21 as a “thank you”. At least Turn 10 is trying, right? I say no – it’s not good enough. Charging full retail price for a game and then implementing a “pay to make the game less annoying” strategy is just all sorts of appalling. It actually would have been better had they kept the pricing unaltered, but then changed the unlock rate in the game – that way players could unlock new vehicles at the same rate they have throughout the Forza series, and stupid people can still fork out loads of money to unlock the cars they want early. That latter group is probably made up of people who want to pay JHB e-tolls as well.

What’s of concern is that Polyphony Digital and Sony are poised to follow suit with upcoming PlayStation 3 exclusive Gran Turismo 6. It’s already been revealed that the game will feature microtransactions for car unlocks, and owing to how the system is described, it sounds like you’ll end up spending more money than you intended to thanks to the use of a stupid in-game currency. It’s that whole fixed denomination bundles rubbish all over again. That model is unforgivably scummy and anti-consumer.

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Sony and Polyphony, however, have an out. There is no doubt that they’ve been following their main competitor’s experience with microtransactions, and are certainly aware that gamers were not happy with Forza 5’s dicey monetization model. If Sony and the PlayStation brand really is for the gamers (as they take nearly every opportunity to remind us through their marketing juggernaut) then they will either tweak Gran Turismo 6’s microtransaction model, or scrap it completely. Microsoft has, in essence, handed Sony a loaded marketing gun, and Microsoft is prancing around with a target on its forehead.