The micropayments backlash

This is interesting. Or odd. Since the Xbox 360 launched, and even before that, Microsoft has been talking a lot about how you’d be able to buy new costumes, cars, weapons, etc. through Xbox Live for “micropayments.” It’s all ostensibly part of the strategy to appeal to the supposedly growing madness for customization. Hence the interchangeable 360 faceplate, which I haven’t seen any numbers on but I’m guessing hasn’t been a huge seller. To look at it another way, it’s a naked attempt to separate gamers from their money in such small increments that they don’t notice how much they’re ponying up.

So we’ve known about this for a while. I was skeptical; in my very first post on this blog in November, I said, “does anyone really get excited about being able to pay Microsoft to change out the 360’s faceplate?” In my review of the 360, I said, “The Xbox Live Marketplace service could end up offering some cool downloads, though being able to buy game pictures for a quarter is useless to me.”

Now Xbox Live is offering some of this customization: You can download horse armor for Elder Scrolls: Oblivion for $2.50. And suddenly everybody’s hating on micropayments. Chris Kohler at Wired is “wondering about the lasting effects of this pay-for-game-content movement. Sure, I can see paying for extra levels, if it doesn’t affect the main gameplay experience. But bling for a horse? Weird, and vaguely troubling.” Kotaku pours it on: “Love being gouged just as much as you like aimlessly wandering around cliché and lifeless fantasy worlds? … Seriously, Bethesda. If you’re going to charge for a mod, give us new character classes or abilities, or an exciting new city, towering in ebon minarets from forgotten sands, or Cthulhu-like underwater sea monsters attacking coastal towns. Something that actually took some professional effort. This is the worst ‘mod’ ever.” GameSpot says the message boards are furious. 1up doesn’t seem bothered, though: “$2.50 (or slightly less, depending on your hardware preference) isn’t too bad for a completely new item, and Bethesda says the price won’t fluctuate very much for future items.”

Zuh? Why is this surprising to anyone? The complaints seem to be split on whether the problem is too high a micropayment or that the micropayments should be for more significant content. Microsoft was never clear on whether these downloads would be true micropayments, so $2.50 for horse armor is unexpected (it’s also not a true micropayment — a nickel would be, but even 50 cents pushes the definition). As for the lame content, that’s what Microsoft has been pushing all along. New costumes, new skins, extra weapons. Wired says those kinds of downloads are huge in Asia, though the story also stretches the definition of micropayment (30 cents to $10 an item). I think offering useless content for sale is lame even if it’s just cents per download. But I thought it was lame when Microsoft announced it a year ago. It’s not a surprise.

— April 4, 2006

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