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The Threat of Microtransactions Looming Over Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare

Profiting off of frustration?


There's an awful lot I really like about Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. I like that the bright and colorful world of the game demonstrates that the mechanics of shooters can be just as enjoyable when they're tied to goofy, charming aesthetics as they can when they're tied to the grim military or science-fiction scenarios that they're so often couched in. I like that the game tries to make players of all skill levels feel welcome; the variety of classes and abilities lends the action the complexity that seasoned shooter players want, but those abilities are introduced at a pace that should make even most genre newcomers feel comfortable with them. And I like the way Agent Pea looks. He's just so dapper!

But the way in which you unlock class variants like Agent Pea (a variant of the standard peashooter) is one of the game's few frustrations. Each standard class has five variants, and unlocking each one of those variants requires collecting the five stickers that depict them in the game's sticker book. You acquire those stickers by spending coins in the sticker shop. The 10,000-coin craaaazy pack of stickers has, according to the in-game text, "a high likelihood of a Rare character piece." The 20,000-coin supremium pack nets you nine stickers and "has the best likelihood of a Super Rare character piece." If you just want to be sure you're going to unlock a new class variant, though, your best bet is to save up 40,000 coins for the spectacular character pack. It contains five stickers, and purchasing the pack will always unlock a character for you. (How long it takes you to earn 40,000 coins depends a lot on the outcome of games you play, but it's a matter of a few hours of play, not days. Still, with a total of 40 class variants to unlock, that adds up to a significant amount of time.)

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So you can buy the spectacular character pack and guarantee yourself a character unlock. However, you can't control or influence which character that might be. You might really want to try out the ice pea you see other players using, for instance--a peashooter variant whose shots can freeze zombies--but instead, your 40,000 hard-earned coins unlock the electrician variant to the zombies' engineer. The potential for player disappointment and frustration in this randomized system is significant, and it seems to me that the developers of the game must have been aware of it, and could easily have designed around it. Which makes me suspect that maybe they didn't want to design around it. Maybe they want you to get a little frustrated. Why? So that you can alleviate those frustrations by spending a little money, once microtransactions are introduced.

Of course, PopCap and EA haven't said for certain that microtransactions will be introduced. But they also haven't said that microtransactions won't be introduced. When I asked PopCap producer Brian Lindley about microtransactions, he said that PopCap would look at player feedback and in-game metrics when determining whether or not to add them to the game.

So maybe I'm just being cynical, but it's hard for me not to see the frustrations inherent in Garden Warfare's character unlock system as deliberately laid groundwork for future microtransactions. Perhaps, rather than needing to constantly save up your 40,000 coins and take another shot at unlocking the ice pea, you'll be able to just unlock that character (or any character of your choice) for a few bucks. Are you tired of getting the relatively useless browncoat zombies in your reinforcement packs? Maybe you'll be able to shell out some cash to stock your inventory with more formidable newspaper zombies.

The dapper Agent Pea in action.
The dapper Agent Pea in action.

If they are added to Garden Warfare, it won't be the first time that microtransactions have come to the world of Plants vs. Zombies. Yes, you can play through the campaign of the mobile game Plants vs. Zombies 2 without spending a dime, but the game is designed to make doing so a lot less enjoyable than playing through it with the help of a few real-money purchases. And yes, you can earn the in-game coins that you use to purchase in-game boosts just by playing the game, but it's not fun to grind levels you've already played just to get more coins. Of course it's not. It's designed to not be fun. If it were fun, you wouldn't want to spare yourself the trouble of doing it by just kicking in some real-world coinage. (And there are some items, like the snow pea, that can only be acquired with real money.) There are a number of companies out there using microtransactions as a way to make their games profitable, and not all of them rely on frustrating players to incentivize them to spend money, but other games published by EA have relied on this model. The publisher's recent Dungeon Keeper was roundly criticized as one of the most egregious examples of microtransaction abuse, forcing players to wait for extended periods of time for in-game actions to take effect, or to pay to keep playing.

I'd much rather that Garden Warfare not go down the microtransaction road. But I'd also like to see the game give you some control over which characters the coins you've earned go toward unlocking. After all, the future cactus looks super cool, and I really want to try her out.

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