Sci-fi survival shooter Dead Space 3 includes micro-transactions, Eurogamer uncovered last week, as a way to save time with the game's weapon-crafting system. The response to this news was fairly one-sided: that publisher EA had switched into full money-grabbing mode to nickel-and-dime hardcore gamers. It was another example of a company initiating a "pay to win" scheme, and an encroachment of free-to-play principles into a game that already costs £40. But is it really such a controversial move? Is it that unexpected? Or is it, like other time-saving examples in console games, something you can just ignore?
Handing over your cash to progress faster is nothing new. Spending money on micro-transactions is a bit like sitting on the phone to EA's cheats and tips phoneline before GameFAQs was invented. Nowadays there's no holding music, no dialling an 0900 number while EA browses the internet for you. You get help directly sent to your game in the form of more money.
A more recent version of this is time-saver DLC. It's a concept that, to me, seems a little ridiculous. If I have bought a full-price game, the last thing I want to do is spend more to unlock on-disc items faster than normal. If you are enjoying a game (and presumably you are if you are willing to spend extra), then why use your money to boost through the experience faster? If I was committed enough that I wanted to fully explore how a game's complex weapon-crafting works, I would devote the time needed to accomplish this.
But time-saving DLC must work or it wouldn't stick around and spread into yet more AAA games. There must be people out there who do spend the money. It's not me - it may not be you - but whoever they are, it's their decision. Maybe their gaming time is limited. Maybe they appreciate a slightly easier ride. Maybe they simply have the income to burn. For me, none of the above reasons are enough to push me over the line where I part with more money. But that's fine. It doesn't stop me enjoying games that include an option for others to do so.
I don't begrudge that these packs exist, as long as it doesn't affect me playing through the game at my own pace. It doesn't change how I play Need for Speed, should others spend 560 Microsoft Points to unlock every car straight away. Such options are now a staple of the series and are something I simply ignore - something I hope to do with Dead Space 3, too.
The problem comes when the existence of this stuff affects everyone; when a game has been designed to hinder your playthrough or halt it altogether until you cough up. It's a point that Rich Stanton argued in his own column on micro-transactions last week and I completely agree with. Just like the game's 11 flavours of day-one DLC to speed up loot gathering and customise hero Isaac Clarke's clothes, paying to time-save has no place in how I play a £40 game.
The day a £40 game unexpectedly forces me to spend more money is the day I take it back to the shop, but Dead Space 3 developer Visceral has now explained several times that this will not be the case. The studio told Eurogamer that anything available to buy via micro-transactions can be obtained through the natural collection in the game. It was a point that the Dead Space 3 executive producer Steve Papoutis reiterated this week.
"Resources are a key part of the Dead Space 3 experience, and their placement in the game has been well thought out by our game designers," he explained in a blog post addressing the issue. "Whether by looting enemies, opening lockers, or exploring the world, you'll find more than enough resources in-game to fully experience DS3 on any difficulty level."
When downloading a free iOS game it is natural to search for an in-app-purchase catch. You try to calculate how long it will take before you're asked to spend money, how much in total you're going to part with. I expect this. I don't think we're at a point where the developer of a £40 console game can expect people to fork out money for extra gubbins with anywhere like a similar regularity. But, should you really want to part with your cash, systems like Dead Space 3's micro-transactions are available in the background for you to do so.
I don't think Visceral is targeting the hardcore Dead Space gamer with this stuff - those who were predictably outraged by the system's very inclusion. I do think it is comparable to time-saving DLC. And it's because of this I'm not overly worried by its inclusion. We've been able to cheat through tough spots for decades, and signs point to the feature being tuned to affect the few rather than hinder the many.
The rise of free-to-play has gamers worried that the opposite will become the case, that this is a slippery slope for all full-priced games and the slow acceptance of among consumers begins with such optional business models. But I don't see the line in the sand between free-to-play and full-price games disappearing - and judging by the reaction to this news, neither do gamers.
I don't doubt that some publishers will see how far they can push micro-transactions while retaining a full-price tag. But while the option to power through Dead Space 3's weapon system and craft weapons faster can undoubtedly make the game easier, there seems a conscious effort that this option remains just a bonus. At its most innocent it seems an attempt to introduce the traditional time-saver packs seen in many other titles, and at its most sinister, a device to tempt OCD players into collecting every part, placed in the game by Visceral to satisfy publisher EA's "bear hug".
EA boss John Riccitello previously mentioned that he expected sales of Dead Space titles to accelerate with the franchise's third entry. With EA's eye on the bottom line, and the series' long-term potential likely riding on Dead Space 3's success, it may be that those who do delve into the game's micro-transactions help make the series' future a little safer. For the rest of us, it's time to ignore the messages tempting you with help items and do what Dead Space does best - go it alone.