Microtransactions, Video Games and UX design. Oh my!

Hey there beautiful people,

So this week I was hurling down the freeway while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Experience Points Podcast. Their episode this week was concerned with microtransactions in video games. For those of you who don’t know what microtransactions are, a quick reminder. Microtransactions are smaller purchases in an already existing video game or digital experience; think buying packs of cards in Hearthstone or buying more level attempts in Angry Birds. These purchases usually are pretty small in size but can happen frequently depending on how much you want to dive into a game. The boys at the Experience Points Podcast were mostly echoing the opinions of the vocal users on the internet that have a major distrust of microtransactions. They saw that more and more major game companies are even some outside of games are moving more heavily towards microtransactions and some are even integrating it into their already existing model. For a significant portion of the game companies rolling this model out, there has been a large amount of backlash, fear, anger and all other things icky towards the shift. But why? The answer that most give is that they don’t want to pay more for a game they already own, or don’t want to give more money to a company they judge to be rolling in the bankroll. However, I think there may be a different answer and it has more to do with game design and the UX surrounding it. Let me explain.

Way back in 1982 the game designer Chris Crawford wrote that games are a form of fantasy fufillment. He said, among other incredibly and impressively smart things, that games like movies, books, or music are a form of escape. Games allow us to shed the worry of the our day, week or month and for a moment be someone else. Rather than being the Assistant manager at REI, we’re Commander Shepard of the starship Normandy. Rather than being unemployed and looking for work, we are The Master Chief of the UNSC. We’re unstoppable, able to conquer any challenge. These games allow us to be someone else for a few hours out of the day. By Crawford’s metric, when a game is good it really pulls you into the universe. The line between yourself and the screen begins to blur and it becomes easier to exist in the other world that lay beyond your TV. Now, where do microtransactions come into play?

Well, say you’ve just spent an hour playing as Big Boss of the Metal Gear series. You’ve snuck through one of the most heavily guarded bases in the game, extracted a high priority target and did it without ever being seen. In short, you feel accomplished and perhaps even a little sense of badassery. Crawford might say that you have become a little more Big Boss and a little less you. Now, imagine that to accomplish your next mission Big Boss needs to “rest”. If the game were based on a microtransaction model, the player would be offered a choice: wait an hour to play another mission or pay a buck-fifty to play now. Perhaps this isn’t a huge amount of money, but let’s take a look at our fantasy fulfillment. What this prompt does is rip our suspension of belief right out and plants us directly in the real world. What could be more mundane expression of being in reality than having to pay up for something? The experience we were having moments ago of feeling larger than life, badass, and unstoppable now seems distant and fallible. Even if the money is no objection, the player has been taken out of the experience of the video game and now must climb back into the game world, barring anymore prompts for money. The feeling of being betrayed by the game designer is a valid one; the world she worked so hard to create and insert you into is now farther away. Akin to Marty McFly holding up a diet pepsi and making sure the audience sees it, the prompt for money shows us the man behind the curtain, it shows us the money changing hands, and grounds this fantastical experience in the doldrums of the world we worked so hard to escape.

Now, as a UX designer, what can we take away from this experience? The most obvious is that if your digital experience asks the user to live somewhere outside of the real world for a moment, for god’s sake don’t push them back into it until they are ready to return. More on the financial side of things, people seem to want to know what the experience is going to cost. Clearly define that upfront. If your app costs a lot to make and maintain, say that and build a payment model for it. Giving your work away for free may seem like the just thing to do, but if you’re just going to put half of your work behind a prompt for a credit card then it may do more damage than you want. Again, allow your user to pay for admission and then shed whatever notion of this world they want to. This may seem a bit much for a to-do list app, or an online calculator, but I don’t believe that the lessons of good UX design in video games need not apply to other mediums.

For more information check out the Experience Points Podcast or any of Chris Crawford’s writing (seriously read some of it, the dude is clever).

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