The Illusion of Playing for Free
On outlets such as Facebook, microtransactions are popular because people feel like they're spending less. For only $0.99, you can get an additional item, armor, or even make instant progress in the game. However, while it may look like microtransaction games are making people save money from buying games traditionally, they're actually making players spend more cumulatively, compared to buying games the old-fashioned way (source: Parks Associates).
"Players often cite the microtransactions model as a way to reduce their gaming expenditures because it allows them to spend according to their budget and play patterns," says research analyst Pietro Macchiarella. "However, Parks Associates research reveals that people who spend money on these games tend to spend amounts that are comparable to the cost of traditional games."
It may seem like it would be difficult to spend the same amount of money through microtransactions as you would for a normal video game, but in one study, it was revealed that people spend around $50 a month in this fashion. The reason for this is because many games rely on these purchases to affect the outcome of the game itself. In many games, the only way to make progress is to buy a strong weapon in order to defeat an enemy, or to even to buy an entire stage to fully complete the game.
Real Free-to-Play Games
While there are game developers that take advantage of the microtransaction feature, there are many other free-to-play games that stay true to offering optional-only content. For example, casual games like Imangi's Temple Run and Rovio's Angry Birds are titles that offer a real, free-to-play experience. People can play them to their fullest without making a single purchase. The free-to-play MMORPG titles on Steam also offer a real, free gaming experience with the option to purchase in-game items that don't really affect the gameplay in general.
The key to distinguishing games that offer the illusion of being free versus the ones that offer purely optional microtransactions is the game progression. If you need to purchase things to progress in the game, then it isn't really free, is it? But if a game allows you to finish it in its entirety, with real-cash purchases treated as just extras, then the game is truly free-to-play.
Hopefully in the future, game developers won't take advantage of microtransactions as a means to make more money by deceiving players. Microtransactions are a fun way to enhance a gaming experience, but they should never be used as a necessary means to beat the game.