In the summer of ‘95 I blew more money and time than I’d care to admit trying to unlock the “secret ninja” that friends said lurked within the aging Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet at our local bowling alley.
20 years and a slew of sequels later, the latest Mortal Kombat game seems refreshingly upfront about the price you’ll pay to unlock its extra fighters - players on PlayStation 4 can “Press X to purchase Goro” right from the character select screen.
They can also pay ninety-nine cents to buy a pack of five “Easy Fatalities”, in-game items that can be spent to let players execute one of Mortal Kombat's notorious finishers with a very simplified version of the (historically difficult) requisite button combo.
Every player gets a free "Easy Fatality" and more can be acquired just by playing the game, but players willing to pay money to make things a bit easier for themselves will find plenty of opportunities to do so in Mortal Kombat X. It’s not quite as crass as say, charging ninety-nine cents to let players jump higher -- but you could see something like that from here, if you squint.
This is the sort of microtransaction that some free-to-play monetization specialists might call a “hard” boost; players pay a bit of real money for limited-use consumables they can burn to make the game easier for themselves.
And while free-to-play games like Candy Crush Saga have long relied on selling boosts as part of their money-making strategy, this is the first time they've appeared in a high-profile fighting game. Thing is, Warner Brothers Interactive is charging $60 for Mortal Kombat X -- King gives Candy Crush away for free. Now, some fans are publicly venting their frustration at NetherRealm Studios for layering in microtransactions on top of the sticker price.
Diluting the experience
“When you pay a price like that up front, the feeling that you are being nickel-and-dimed for even more rubs a lot of people the wrong way,” observes long-time fighting game player and developer Seth Killian. “It's like going to a nice restaurant, then having the waiter ask ten times if you want to add cheese for $1, a side-salad for $3, etc.”
“You're free to say no, and maybe the meal doesn't need any of that stuff to be good, but just the experience of having that stuff put in front of you can leave you feeling less happy about the experience overall.”
I talked about this issue with Killian and a few other folks familiar with both fighting game development and the business of game monetization because to me, this feels like a bit of a watershed moment in big-budget game design.
Not because F2P monetization systems are cropping up in a console game -- EA was selling randomized weapon/resource packs in games like Mass Effect 3 and Dead Space 3 for real money years ago -- but because NetherRealm is now allowing paying players to circumvent one of the hallmark mechanics of its flagship franchise: fiendishly difficult finishing moves.
As mobile game companies like Supercell continue to reap gobs of revenue on the back of F2P earners, publishers would be crazy not to push developers to implement similar monetization mechanics in premium games. But how far can we go in that direction without meaningfully compromising game design? Has NetherRealm already crossed that line?
The answer, at least according to the folks I spoke with, is no -- not yet. But it's getting close enough for discomfort.
“It's really just cosmetic and for fun, and doesn't ruin the game competitively,” notes competitive multiplayer game designer (and Gamasutra contributor) David Sirlin. “It has a strange feel to it, like it shouldn't be a thing. I wouldn't actually protest it though, just kind of shake my head in sadness at it.”
Competitive fighting games revolve around mastery -- players learn to master executing basic moves, then climb a mastery curve by learning how to effectively use those moves against opponents while defending in kind.
Selling “Easy Fatalities” doesn’t interfere with that -- you still have to beat an opponent fair and square before you can “finish him” -- but it does seem to undermine the core focus on mastery that underpins fighting game design.
However, the driving force behind their inclusion in Mortal Kombat X is unclear; NetherRealm declined to answer my request for comment on the topic. Killian points out that these sorts of design decisions are often driven by the financial needs of the publisher, and that studios with popular established franchises -- like Mortal Kombat -- are often pressured to drum up sales in order to shore up their publisher’s bottom line as it experiments with other less well-known games.
“These demands can be a strain, especially if the team wants the core of their game to remain untouched, so you could imagine them sneaking it in at the edges with stuff that doesn't directly affect the game," says Killian, estimating that the addition of cosmetic and consumable DLC often boosts a game's bottom line by anywhere from 5-40 percent. "They do their best to meet the publisher demands while leaving their core experience intact.”
Walking a tightrope between players and publishers
It's not hard to imagine NetherRealm enmeshed in a similar situation; Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon has already taken to Twitter to state that the makers of Mortal Kombat X would prefer players unlock in-game content by playing the game, rather than paying real money. And when you compare it to a free-to-play competitive game like Hearthstone, which is reaping beaucoup bucks selling randomized booster packs of cards that significantly affect gameplay, the monetization of Mortal Kombat X begins to seem almost laudible in its commitment to maintaining an even playfield.
“It's so difficult to make even a fraction of the money you could make with an uneven playfield game, that if anyone is even TRYING to make a fair game and monetizing extra stuff, we should be supporting that,” adds Sirlin. “Yeah, this is a weird and uncomfortable example, but it beats the hell out of opening a random pack of Mortal Kombat cards [Kards?] that you can equip for +5 damage or something that would immediately render it as uneven playfield.”
And as monetization consultant Ethan Levy points out, Capcom -- one of the more august names in fighting game development -- already did just that in 2012 by building a system of performance-boosting gem power-ups into Street Fighter X Tekken and then selling extra gems as DLC.
The PR kerfuffle that followed was likely one of the (many) reasons SFxT sold less than expected; NetherRealm's DLC experiment, by contrast, seems more sympathetic to the values of the fighting game community.
“[Easy Fatalities] do not affect game balance and were, in all likelihood, very cheap to produce,” opines Levy, predicting that they will "almost certainly make a positive return on investment" at a time when that phrase is more important than ever in big-budget game development.
“In a world where development costs continue to rise while the price of base games remains static, these sorts of experiments are just as necessary as cosmetic DLC, day one DLC and Season Passes have been over the past few years,” adds Levy. “I think easier fatalities gives a look at the new normal for AAA games. Over time, this type of in-game purchase will be so common that it's mere existence will no longer make headlines on its own.”