I want to be stereotyped/ I want to be classified: This week I like microtransactions in my games on my phone

Those words right at the top there are the opening lyrics of Suburban Home, a song by punk band Descendents .In many ways it’s the archetypal eighties Californian hardcore/punk track; a biley swipe at the status quo emanating from a group of disaffected young people. They don’t like the stagnation of consumption-driven Middle America. They don’t like society’s attempts to constrain them. They don’t like talking frankly and often prefer the shield of sarcasm to carry their sentiments.

This type of anarchic protest runs through every era of American punk. I tend find it a little more interesting, however, as bands get older and begin to reflect upon their once-youthful selves. Instead of outright dismissal, we’re often witness to more thoughtful examination. This can go anywhere from simply exploring topics in a more objective manner, to harshly critiquing one’s very attitudes as a youngster. It’s this spirit of weary self-reflexivity that finds me compelled to re-evaluate them ‘orrible money-grabbing phone/browser games and wot I fink of them. 

Last time I delved into the grubby subject I was on message, as it were, spouting off about their insidiousness and cruel ability to separate us from our money. I spun it as a little story in an attempt to make it a bit more engaging for the reader, going as far as personifying SimCity Social (SCS) as a cackling business type, though I’m not sure if it entirely worked. I was almost certainly drinking heavily at the time, which undoubtedly made me more susceptible to the game’s revenue generating practices. Being drunk made me reckless and impatient and SCS was more than willing to take my money. To be fair though, so were the supermarkets and off licences that kept me suitably lubricated along the way.  All told I ended up spending about fifty quid in a week on SCS, although that doesn’t cover any of the booze that facilitated the whole episode.

It’s this interaction between helplessness and power that I’ve always found fascinating when it comes to these types of games. As Jamie Madigan discussed on The Psychology of Video Games - and I attempted to convey in my own way - games like SCS are constantly playing with us psychologically, trying to see if we’re in a state to give them some money. While this time I’m looking at flavour of the year match three puzzle games, many of his SCS observations still hold true. 

Typical freemium puzzle games mete out rewards and mechanical additions in a very rhythmic pattern; spiralling outward from a dense and stimulating early-game into an increasingly dilated cycle of repetition. It is within these early experiences, full of overwhelming progression and explosions of confetti and fanfares, where a sense of false-power is created. We’re winning - constantly, it would seem - and so we inevitably begin to feel a certain superiority over what we’re playing. We are given free power-ups which make the game even easier, then introduced to a means of purchasing them for ourselves. At this point we don’t need them of course; we’re just too good at the game for that.  

We’re all aware of what comes next, for it seems that anyone with access to the internet has, at some point, dabbled with the bit of the old free-to-play (F2P). Difficulty begins to rise as if from nowhere and success starts to occur less frequently. We’re offered those tempting power-ups again, the ones we wouldn’t have thought about using a little while back. We run into the problem of failing so many times that we aren’t even allowed to play for a couple of hours, unless we invest some dollar. We’ve been had. Our sense of power was simply us being gently indoctrinated by the game, our successes all preordained and artificial. I understand that none of these observations are groundbreaking or revelatory - they are frequently fielded criticisms - but I’m not convinced that this narrative is really the only way we can frame our discussions of F2P puzzle experiences. 

Common thought often attempts to redress the power/vulnerability balance by highlighting the generosity fallacy discussed above to show a game’s true intentions. This enables a widespread dismissal of freemium puzzle titles as meritless money guzzlers, bereft of any redeeming qualities. It’s this perceived dishonesty within the games that appears to irk the people who identify most closely with Traditional Video Games (TVG). (TVG meaning products that are purchased and played in traditional and ‘legitimate’ ways on a home computer or console, you know, proper video games.)  It’s why the games press rarely discusses them beyond purely fiscal terms, except when lambasting their evilness, though the King candy-trademarking debacle is ridiculous. It’s why I feel cheap and dirty when I’m playing one on the tube, constantly telling myself that I’m ‘researching’, and not simply lowering myself to the same level as my fellow Candy Crush Saga (CCS)-playing commuters. At least the ones the mountains of bad press would have me believe are being unwittingly exploited. 

Knowing something is wrong and still going along with it doesn’t alleviate the sins of going along with it in the first place; it’s arguably worse. However, just like that gleaming ‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’ chestnut, I think there’s scope to entirely reposition freemium puzzle games - especially the match three variety - as examples of how stimulating gameplay experiences are being created out of these much-maligned practices. As it stands at the minute, I find much of the discourse surrounding them needlessly inflammatory, and just a bit condescending towards the millions of people who happily play them.     

I’d like to posit that, instead of implementing the looming shadow of microtransactions to gouge players of cash, developers are simply using the threat of having to pay for something as a means of heightening tension within their otherwise risk-free games. 

A radical stance to take, I know, but remember; I’m not necessarily saying that it’s true in every case, simply that it’s another way of looking at things.

While advantages and extra lives can be paid for, it’s valid to argue that these are simply options to be given to the impatient player - ala car packs in a racing game - and not something designed to take advantage of our frustration and momentary lapses in self control. Money is clearly made through the sale of these things, but I think it’s okay to question whether this is simply a circumstantial by-product of systems designed to introduce danger, and not a long-con cash grab. 

Last week Mary Hamilton highlighted the rather derogatory terms flung about the person of Dungeon Keeper for the iOS. Apparently it’s not even a game because it’s got more in common with a phone game than the old ones for the compewter. An instance like this goes some way to showing how disquietingly insular TVG-espousing individuals can often be. They were once crudely caricatured as fat and ‘orrible crusty man-babies, though now I feel it would be more pertinent - though no less reductive - to boil them down (for the sake of this discussion only) to a group of stubborn old Yorkshiremen bemoaning the very passing of time itself.

I understand that F2P microtransaction payment models are still a bit foreign to the business of video games as they stand today. Since we stopped going to arcades and paying piecemeal for our experiences we’ve become accustomed to purchasing large products for relatively large sums of money. That doesn’t necessarily mean that alternative types of experiences, paid for in alternative ways, are wrong; they are simply different. The widespread dismissal of an other is a terribly dangerous practice, something the video game community as a whole would be best to steer well clear of. Having a look at the vitriolic responses to Ellie Gibson daring to get behind CCS, however, shows just how earnestly people are willing to defend their ideals, regardless of how exclusionary they prove to be.

I’m not suggesting that the business model would be a valid option for All Of The Video Games, or in fact, that it is even sustainable as it currently stands. Furthermore, I can’t argue with the notion that spending money on F2P games is very easy. I’ve done it myself. All I would say, though, is that a little more rational thought would be welcome when we’re discussing new ways to play and pay for games. Some examples, to go back to SCS, do overstate their attempts to make money, but that’s generally to their own detriment and not their players’. Players - even casual ones - aren’t idiots: if what they are playing isn’t enjoyable enough to counterbalance the waiting, or the repetition, or the actual money they are spending on it, then they will simply - as happened with SCS - stop playing. Besides, the way microtransactions are implemented in management-style F2P games is vastly different to their puzzle-based counterparts. Once you strip away the waiting or expediting-through-cash in the former, you are left with almost nothing resembling traditional (or otherwise) gameplay. The latter category fares much better; still providing a limited number of fully-functional gameplay instances per day to the non-paying player. To dilute any conversation about a good (or bad) F2P game by simply calling them evil - or worse, non-games - is to do a disservice to all video games and many discussions waiting to begin.

Them microtransactions in Candy Crush Saga can be a bit of a bugger, I’ll agree. But for many people they aren’t an issue, whether they choose to spend their money or not. I shan’t personally be playing any more match three puzzle games on the tube. That isn’t because I’m morally appalled by the way they make money, nor am I outraged at their (insidiously) addictive nature. It’s because I’ve always found them to get repetitive after a while, and besides, they’re just a bit too fiddly to play while standing up.