The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 29, 2013

Joe Hadsall: Microtransactions mark generational divider

By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor

JOPLIN, Mo. — Ever since I turned 40 a few weeks back, I've been wondering when I would find the generational divider -- the thing that clearly proves to me that I am getting old. That old "walk to school, uphill, both ways" kind of thing.

I'm not talking about those namby-pamby, good ol' days pictures that circulate on Facebook that talk about how we used to play outside, ride bikes and enjoy Saturday morning cartoons. I'm talking about specific things that affect me and my ability to identify with younger generations.

Cue grumpy, old man voice:

I've found the thing that makes me a bitter coot, ready to slather old-man rub on my arthritic video-gaming thumbs: Video games loaded with microtransactions. It's the thing that makes me realize the younger generation got ripped off and is experiencing an inferior lifestyle.

Over the past few weeks I've dived into "Candy Crush Saga," a "Bejeweled" clone puzzle game by King.com that challenges you to swap pieces of candy in order to form three identical pieces in a row.

It's a clone in every sense of the word: Instead of jewels, there are pieces of candy in bold, bright colors. The strategies are the same: The bonuses for getting four or five in a row are duplicated and the graphics are pretty cool-looking -- except for what was ripped off from Candy Land.

What makes the game different from "Bejeweled" are some unique challenges. The game boards take on many different shapes, from four separate small grids to bizarre hourglass grids. Those add a pleasant surprise to "Candy Crush Saga" and make the game kinda worth the time.

But the good stuff ends there.

"Candy Crush Saga" asks for money more than any other game I've played. It's like a politician, the way it begs for cash. Want power-ups that you unlocked? Pay up. Out of lives? Wait 20 minutes to play again or cough up 99 cents. How about some huge power-ups that last forever? The game wants up to $40 for those.

Are you just one move away from beating a level? Too bad, unless you buy five more moves for 99 cents. I did that once on a particularly infuriating level. And finally, I got past level 35, a challenging grid that has several holes, which make clearing certain spots tremendously hard.

Glowing with triumph, I prepared to see level 36, only to be told that the only way I can do that is to connect with three friends on Facebook, or pay 99 cents.

Popcap's "Bejeweled," on the other hand, has incredible graphics that include blazing, satisfying explosions. The graphics of the jewels are so much smoother, the variations are just as compelling and the system of ranks, badges and achievements is much more satisfying -- there's plenty in the game to earn, in other words.

The biggest difference is in the sound. Where "Candy Crush" offers cutesy pops and plinks after a big run, "Bejeweled" has explosions, lightning and a much better soundtrack. A version of the game even focuses on sound: Zen mode lets a player bash gems for eternity with a number of ambient sounds designed for relaxation.

And all that costs $3.99. One purchase. Done. It's such a good game that I'd pay $10 for it.

It's the perfect example of the "freemium" games littering app stores these days. Sure, the game says "free" on the front, but there are plenty of ways within the game to spend like crazy. Those microtransactions -- which have caused parents' credit cards no small amount of of wear -- let players buy up things that should be earned.

Take "Team Fortress 2," a team-based first-person shooter by Valve Software and available on Steam. The first versions of the game came bundled with other games ("Orange Box") or for sale by itself. Then Valve redesigned it a bit: The game itself became free, but there was now a store in-game, where a player could buy weapons, defenses or even hats.

Today's version of "TF2" has a virtual shopping mall inside of it, where players can buy mystery boxes and raw materials to craft other unique weapons (a la "Minecraft"). Sure, you can still find some of those unique weapons randomly in the game, but only rarely.

I'm content to play without all the special power-ups. It works to my favor, actually: Using my gaming know-how, I can usually pwn a punk who bought a huge weapon.

Duncan is not as patient as me. He's content to spend his allowance on such microtransactions. He's a good player, so he knows what's worth his money.

He also plays games where the currency of a game is difficult to come by naturally, and easy to stock up on with a few bucks.

But there have been plenty of times where he's seen the nice, shiny BFG on the shelf, and couldn't resist spending $5 in the Steam store for it.

And there it is: my generational divider. These kids today have no idea what it means to earn something in a video game.

In my day, when games got good enough to have endings (Nintendo, 8-bit era), the games were brutally difficult. You had to mash play on small, red buttons and endure a painful callous on your left thumb to get past Bowser in "Super Mario Bros." Games with continues were treasured and cheat codes were crucial pieces of arcane information that became as guarded as the secrets to magic tricks.

Every accomplishment was earned.

Not these days. A kid with his parents' iTunes password can buy everything they need to plow through a game. And that's just wrong.

I'm going to breeze past the argument of how that is borderline unethical of video game designers to build. It's a good argument -- one that has evidence of Apple paying back parents in a class-action law suit.

Just the simple act of not earning your power-ups flies in the face of video game logic, to me. A game, no matter how hard it is, is meant to be beaten. Every puzzle has a solution, every enemy has a weak spot. Those should be discovered in the natural course of playing a game.

If Duncan is going to learn anything from playing video games, I'd rather it be the lessons of patience and perseverance.

And as a gamer, I really like the model of paying money for a full game up front. I don't buy into downloadable content or other microtransactions unless the original game is fantastic. But this new era of microtransactions -- Popcap even has a version of "Bejeweled" that has plenty to buy -- will be the death of enjoyable video games for me.