Over on GamesIndustry.biz, Rob Fahey talked today about free-to-play games shutting down and the kind of consumer backlash that might ensue when that happens due to players “losing” the virtual items they paid for. In other words, if I spend $100 to buy outfits, boosts, and the occasional loot box, should I be upset if that’s all rendered worthless when the game disappears. Or, more to Fahey’s point, should game developers and the industry as a whole be prepared for irate consumers to take to the various corners of the internet if that happens en masse in 2019, as he thinks might be the case?
Fahey’s article primarily focuses on mobile games, but his general point is still valid as it relates to free-to-play gaming as a whole. To some degree, we all expect the small, fly-by-night games that were developed in a weekend to be unstable and have short lifespans with the very occasional surprise hit (Flappy Bird comes to mind), but as the industry becomes more saturated, even the mid-sized games that had decent budgets and hype might also face the same fate. Some recent examples in the free-to-play PC gaming world would include titles like WildStar, Orcs Must Die! Unchained, Total War: Arena, and Gigantic.
While the article also tends to talk about microtransactions as items, like skins and consumables, less emphasis seems to be put on services, like subscriptions, which are more prevalent in PC games than mobile. If you spent $100 for a year’s subscription to a game and then that game shut down, would you feel as bad as if you spent $100 over the course of a year on cosmetic items prior to a shutdown? I’d wager most people would be reasonably OK with the first situation – I mean, apart from the game shutting down in the first place – and somewhat less so with the second.
Here’s one way to look at it though: Any money spent in a free-to-play game is spent with the intent of increasing the enjoyment you get out of it. A subscription accomplishes that through whatever various bonuses – extra XP, a title, regular currency points, etc. – you accrue. Purchases of individual items – hats, vehicles, dyes, etc. – accomplish the same thing. You spend money to make your experience better.
Whether those “permanent” items are seen as more tangible and “yours” as opposed to a subscription that’s gone after 30 days (or longer) is subjective, but I think they’re closer than they first appear. I can understand people being upset over “losing” their items if a game goes away, but even if they spent on an expired subscription – or never spent anything at all – they’d be “losing” quite a lot: their character(s), items earned through gameplay, the social aspects, and so on. Sure, there’s some outrage and sadness when that happens for a few beloved titles, but I don’t think we’re in danger of that becoming the norm.
Obviously, it’s a sucky situation all around for players when their game shuts down. However, I don’t think we’ll see too much of a “consumer backlash” in 2019 if a larger number of games do so, taking people’s microtransaction money with them. There might be some exceptions based on individual cases, of course, such as if a game has a big push to bring in money and then quickly shuts down. Those kind of situations should be rare, if they happen at all (though if they do, don’t say we didn’t warn you).
Have you ever regretted money you spent in a game that shut down, free-to-play or otherwise? If so, were the bulk of your purchases “temporary,” like subscriptions, or “permanent,” like items? Let us know in the comments below!