Notes on a Dungeon Wall: Microcreep

Permit me to introduce myself. I, the Samuraiter, am a relic. For all intents and purposes, I have been stuck inside a block of ice since the early ’90s. Except that, instead of ice, it is a block of 2-D fighters, JRPGs, and assorted curiosities. I may upgrade from one console to the next, but my taste in games has essentially not changed since the days of the SNES and the Sega Genesis. That being said, if you see me posting any articles here at Gaming Bus, I can safely guarantee that they are going to be discussing certain genres and how they have evolved—or not evolved—since the 16-bit heyday.

The topic for today—courtesy of a rather insistent site owner—dropped into my lap as soon as I decided to not be a complete troglodyte and start using Facebook. (In my defense, I managed to hold my ground for several years before surrendering.) Since I like to have a good idea of what I am getting when I open the box, so to speak, I decided, after the expected bumps and scrapes, to explore all the different aspects of the service, including the games. Anybody who has been using Facebook at all since its inception can guess the first stop on this impromptu journey. Say it together, everybody: FarmVille.

A typical ranch in FarmVilleYes, the beast from Zynga, the destroyer of free time, what have you. This is a type of game that is 100% alien to my sensibilities. It has no end, no purpose for the player, no real objective. It is a bundle of code that exists only to make money for Zynga and give Facebookers a(nother) means of killing time, a game composed entirely of either microtransactions or things that steer the player towards making microtransactions. “All sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as the quote goes. This is the antithesis of the games that I normally play.

But! Do not mistake these words for a rote condemnation. After all, I write about JRPGs. There is a point to this. There might be a pre-existing term for it, but I call it Microcreep.

Anybody who has played on the Internet at all has seen variations of this transaction model dozens upon dozens of times. If you play at Pogo, you can play for free, but you can customize, for example, your avatar, and many customizations are only available to you if pay real money. FarmVille follows this model, too, except swap coins and cash for tokens and jewels. You can play FarmVille at no cost (except for time), but if you want your farm to have a unique appearance, you have to pay for what you get. Think of it as keeping up with the Joneses, but not in real life. (For a step towards real life, you can still jump into Second Life, which also takes in money like this.)

Granted, my explaining this is nothing new to the average reader. (I imagine you have FarmVille open in another browser tab as you read this.) Try this instead: Looking at it from the JRPG perspective reveals the “creep” aspect of it. The “cascading microtransaction” model is a thing one encounters if one is gaming on the PC, correct? Yes, but as consoles continue to develop their online aspects and become more like PCs in their execution, this results in their adopting methods that have been seen to work for the PCs. You want online functionality? You get all the problems that accompany it.

If I may provide a recent example, let us say that I want to play Hyperdimension Neptunia on my PS3. (I enjoy the game, by the way, despite its unreadable menus.) If I go into the PSN Store, there is a raft of DLC for this game. It includes things one might expect, ranging from extra costumes for the characters to extra dungeons that drop neatly into the game. It also includes bundles of stat boosts for your party. These cost next to nothing, but if you play the game long enough to see how it is constructed, and because of how tedious the battles can be without those boosts, they start to look appealing. You get the boosts, you take them for a drive in one of the extra dungeons, and you wind up spending, to use a quick estimate, about $10 more on the game than you spent by simply getting the disc and popping into your PS3.

Combat in Hyperdimension NeptuniaFeeling hardcore? There is enough DLC for Neptunia—including extra characters with upgraded stats, if you want to bring the big guns—to double the cost of the game. You do not need any of it to beat the game, but if you feel like keeping up with the anime-inspired Joneses, there it is. I can already imagine conversations between fellow otaku in my head about who was the first to download the new swimsuit costume for Compa, or IF, Neptune, et cetera. JRPG fans—speaking from experience here, if the figurines on my desk are any indication—like their little odds and ends. In this, we are no different from the people
harvesting virtual eggplants.

Hence the microcreep. This transaction model is creeping—see there, a little subtlety for you—into your console games. You can get DLC for almost any title on the sit-down console market, be it for PS3, 360, or Wii, or for the 3DS, for that matter. Do you need it to play? No, but would it not be nice if you had it? Would it not be cool? Come on. Everybody is doing it! Or so the adverts would have you believe. And no one is immune. I refuse to pay more than once for a game, yet there I am, trying to get things for Neptunia, anyway. Why?

Why, indeed. It might be the same reason I am painfully aware that I, too, will have virtual eggplants to harvest in about forty-eight hours. Creeping into our games? Yes. Creeping into my brain? That, too. You might be next!

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