Last week, the developer of Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, rushed out a tweeted promise that the upcoming Crash sequel won't have microtransactions, following days of fan speculation. This came about after the Xbox storefront included a "contains in-game purchases" warning for the title, in an apparent mistake.
This tweet from Toys for Bob came as a relief to many - as it was this new generation of Crash that is so reminiscent of a simpler time, when the majority of titles had an upfront fee, and that was that.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, is (excluding remakes) the first new entry to the series in ten years. The success of the Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy proves there's both still a market for these classic-style platformers, and also that Activision is able to deliver this.
This is why it's so concerning that Activision could be on the verge of disregarding this goodwill, and tarnishing the hard work that has gone in to the recent Crash and Spyro remakes. Because while Toys for Bob has said in-app purchases aren't in the game - we've been down this road before, and it's hard to see why we should take these promises at face value.
We're seeing confusion about #MTX in @CrashBandicoot 4 and want to be 💎 clear: There are NO MICROTRANSACTIONS in #Crash4. As a bonus, the Totally Tubular skins are included in all digital versions of the game.
— Toys For Bob (@ToysForBob) June 30, 2020
Why's this? Well, let's look at last year's Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled. When this Crash remake hit shelves, it quickly raced up the bestsellers list, and for good reason. Not only was it a loving recreation of the adored 1999 classic, Crash Team Racing, but it was released in a time where good-faith was high in the series. Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and Spyro Reignited Trilogy were heaped with praise, having been faithfully remade, reminding us of the much simpler time of the 1990s.
Activsion may have its ups and downs in the public eye, but it was evident that if it wanted to throw out a good platforming romp, then it could.
Initial reactions to Nitro-Fueled were just as full of praise as the remakes that came before it. The game controlled brilliantly, the design oozed charm, and it was so filled to the brim with content that it really felt like a love letter to the franchise. And, more importantly in the context of this Crash 4 debate, it contained no microtransactions, and received praise because of this.
Then, just one month after release, microtransactions came to Nitro-Fueled, pitched as a way to "fast-track" your way to unlocking items. This was in spite of an interview just a month prior to release where, a member of the Nitro-Fueled team stated that "the entire game would avoid microtransactions, instead offering new content for free during the game's life-cycle." Just like what's happened now with Crash 4.
Before the microtransaction update, there was still a microcurrency ("Wumpa Coins"), but they were unlocked through winning races and completing in game challenges. Post-update, this was still possible, but the price of anything on the store-front was increased, making not paying real money for in-game coins a complete grind. Worst of all, being post release, Beenox and Activision could bask in the positive reviews - many of which specifically praised them for not having in-app purchases - and also sell this game to those of us that avoid these business practices.
This is why I struggle to trust this twitter pledge. As good as Toys for Bob's intentions may be, the game is still published by Activision, who are far from shy when it comes to monetizing games (the Destiny and Call of Duty franchises being obvious examples.)
So what if Crash 4 does sell a few cosmetics on the side? That's fairly uncontroversial by today's standards, right? Well, a bit of bad PR is the least of their worries, the main concern is how this would affect the actual quality of the game.
Thanks to Nitro-Fueled we have the perfect demonstration of how microtransactions influence how people play the game, and as an avid player of both the original and remake, there was a clear difference in how both felt to play. For years, I would boot up the original, do a few races, try and beat a few time trials, and maybe start the adventure mode. I had longed for the day where I could play this game online, and when I got it, it started well - but quickly became a chore. And now Nitro-Fueled collects dust while I go back to the other remakes.
The reason for this? It's simple. The game is made to make money, at every turn, and tried as I must, that couldn't be ignored.
Seasonal events were the biggest reason for this. This is standard bit of game design for when you want players to buy cosmetics - have "seasons" in game, which last a few weeks, and make certain items and characters available temporarily in the store. Nitro-Fueled had seasonal events, and initially this didn't phase me. I looked forward to them, especially the Spyro themed one. But then, I missed one, and the game never really felt the same.
I would race with friends, seeing them using costumes, karts and other cosmetics I had missed because real-life got in the way. Or alternatively, during events I'd play online for much longer than I had intended, because I was so agonizingly close to unlocking a character - knowing they may disappear from the storefront tomorrow. I wanted to just play for fun, but I wasn't allowed to unlock content at my own pace, so I couldn't.
Eventually, feeling like the games primary purpose was to have me fork over upwards of $29.99 for some Wumpa Coins, my motivation to play the game disappeared; it all felt too cynical.
That's the problem with these features - it puts in a cycle of playing the game not always for fun, but because you need that login bonus, or make use of the extra points you earn by playing on the weekend, or grind for that character you're after before the storefront resets the next day.
But hey, why not skip the stress entirely, and throw in a few dollars?
This is not a complaint against all microtransactions. Indeed, the practice has funded many free-to-play games such as Fortnite and Team Fortress 2, so it's clear that there is a place for them in the market. However, to add them to a game just one month after release, then dramatically up the cost of the skins - this is a cynical and shady way to make more money from your game, especially when there was already an upfront cost.
It might seem ridiculous that this is over a few costumes and characters. Admittedly, I am not usually one to care about skins, but it's a matter of principle - when we see half the lobby decked out in the latest skins and characters, while we use the basics, we are reminded that this is a game that is monetized. A game which favors those who pay more than the admission price. For me, that's enough to dampen the experience, because I don't have that feeling with the 1999 original.
Multiplayer Crash Team Racing was the dream for years. But now sadly, Nitro-Fueled was a quick burst of fun that ruined its own momentum. Having a classic title ruined with modern business practices was bad enough, but Activision not even being honest about it from the start makes it worse.
Are Toys for Bob telling the truth about the lack of microtransactions in Crash 4? I hope so, but if not, it wouldn't be all too surprising. Beenox, Bethesda and many others before them have gone back on this promise. It would be a great shame to contend with the "fear of missing out" that microtransactions rely on while we try and enjoy Crash's first new adventure in a decade.
But if there's one thing that Activision has proven, it is that any apprehension is warranted, and they are certainly not ashamed to exploit our nostalgia and change the entire feel of a game, so long as it means getting a few more wumpa coins out of us.