Easter Eggs: The (Fun) Microtransactions of Yesterday

How developers’ early experiments in the arcades forged a modern game economy

Easter Eggs: The (Fun) Microtransactions of Yesterday
Photo by Joanna Kosinska / Unsplash.

Since the invention of video games, the most immediate concern of video game publishers after “is it fun?” has been “how can we make money?” (because capitalism). Recently, with the advent of microtransactions, there have been arguments that publishers have supplanted fun with greed; but really, some of your fondest memories in games have always been brought to you by the pursuit of the bottom line.

Many video games, after all, are designed to be replayable. These days some of that replayability comes with a price tag attached, in the form of downloadable-content, expansion packs, story add-ons and, yes, microtransactions that do everything from enabling you to defeat a difficult boss effortlessly (for a few simple payments of $0.99) to custom skins for your characters and beyond. Often bemoaned as a sign of the diminishing quality of video games in the modern era, publishers insist that microtransactions are entirely optional and are in no way forced upon players — though actual mileage of that claim may vary.

But, are these microtransactions the end of gaming as we know it? Short answer: no, not by a longshot. Make no mistake, “microtransactions” have always been a thing in one way or another, but developers used to be more creative about hiding them.

What microtransactions are trying to accomplish

Before we get into how microtransactions used to take the form of Easter eggs, let’s break down what microtransactions actually are. They are usually small in game purchases that you can make to do everything from unlock a weapon to make the game easier to custom skins. These come in games that you, the player, already own, and are on top of the price of the game itself.

The answer for why publishers use microtransactions is very simple. Basically, it’s a question of the bottom line. Video games are very expensive to make. Like all media these days, just how expensive is only increasing over time. Microtransactions are a way to cultivate both a loyal player base and a consistent revenue stream, both of which are valuable things for a publisher.

They exist in both big and small games. GTA V, a game that has been out for years, still rakes in cash and has an active player base that supports an in-game economy that has a 100% profit margin. Mobile games are notoriously filled with microtransactions, some to the point where many of the games mechanics are locked behind paywalls or lengthy wait times to encourage payment.

Example of microtransactions in the free-to-play Gems of War mobile game. Source: Author.

Games with microtransactions typically do not accept straight cash purchases for their items. Typically there are multiple in-game currency types — for example, a payment of $1.29 might buy you 100 gold pieces, but 2,000 gold pieces will buy you 100 gems, and 10,000 gems will buy you 5 rubies. The hope is that the player will have lost track of the actual exchange rate by the time they get to the ruby stage, to encourage the player to spend that fake currency more readily. Games with microtransactions also typically offer a pathway to earn any in-game currency as a result of regular gameplay, but with a steep difficulty curve or necessitating such a high level of grind so as to make the microtransaction more appealing.

This is how free-to-play games make most of their money (supplanted sometimes with ad revenue or sponsorships), but it is also a tactic used by triple-A studios to recoup some of their investments. For good or ill, microtransactions have become a staple of current generation game design, used as a way to extend the shelf life of games and increase publisher profit.

Early arcade Easter eggs filled the same sort of gap, in much the same way, but were a lot more focused on curating an experience to bring people back rather than offering a quick get-out-of-frustration card.

How arcade Easter eggs encouraged replay and reinvestment

The mystique of Easter eggs is a holdover from when people used to have to go to arcades to play most of their games. Machine play was expensive and people needed to ration their investments. Therefore, publishers were incentivized to come up with ways to ensure that players spent most of their money on their machines, balancing things like the difficulty curve, unique mechanics, and graphics to keep players coming back. Eventually, publishers started turning to other tactics, such as unlockables or real world prizes, to encourage replays and for players to drop massive amounts of real world cash on machines in small, numerous transactions.

Now, don’t get me wrong; Easter eggs are much more fondly held to heart than microtransactions, and perhaps did not have the same cut-and-dry money making intent at first, but functionally, they once held the same role.

Source: Author.

Let’s consider unlockable Easter eggs in machine play games. In the 1992 arcade game Mortal Kombat, there was the first ever secret character to appear in a fighting game, hidden for super fans to unlock and use after meeting an intense series of criteria. In order to find this Easter egg, a player must earn a Double Flawless Victory without hitting the block button once and then successfully perform a Fatality, upon which the player would be dropped into a Pit stage and if a random “event” happens in the background of the screen, the player will then be transported to a new stage where they may fight Reptile. Only then would gamers reap the rewards, after dropping many small payments into the machine to get to that stage and meet the game’s very specific requirements.

Though basically just a palette swap of the two other ninjas on the roster (Scorpion and Sub-Zero) with both their move-sets, Reptile was a game changer. Other games quickly followed Mortal Kombat’s suit, and eagle-eyed fans who played games again and again and again were rewarded in game with new characters and experiences or sneak peeks into development or even heartfelt thank yous.

Was the presence of a super secret character with a difficult summoning ritual the reason behind the success of the franchise? No, of course not. But the existence of Reptile did push a few super fans into spending all their arcade money on one machine, over and over with basically no advertising dollars spent from the Mortal Kombat team, and that’s kind of loyalty is more than worth the effort to just basically lightly recode what was already in the game and hide it. The mystery and the journey was what made it fun, not the reward.

The difference between Easter eggs and microtransactions

Writ short, the main difference between microtransactions and Easter eggs is scale, and the same is true of video games now versus thirty or forty years ago. As video games have moved into our homes and onto our phones, publishers needed to adapt their business models to remain profitable.

Easter eggs today sometimes get flak for being underwhelming. The term has started to encompass a lot, from anything like a few surprise celebrity voices to Marvel Studioes-esque callouts to future games in development. Functionally, today’s Easter eggs are no longer a means to separate players from their cash because we are not paying for every play. The industry has evolved to find a far more effective tactic in microtransactions and the business is booming, but many are still combing their favorite games for the mystery and fun of yesterday.

Cherry picking one example, when GTA V’s multiplayer mode came out, many eagle-eyed fans noticed something strange about Mount Chiliad — namely, graffiti that lead many to believe there was a jetpack hiding around somewhere, an Easter egg unlockable for the fans who put in the time to figure it out. Of course, in this age of the internet, publishers have mostly shied away from including free content that just one person has to figure out the mystery for and then post the answers on Reddit for the rest of the world, but the fervor and belief was real. So real that the developers took notice, and Rockstar made it a reality.

Source: Author.

A free DLC did eventually unlock the jetpack, but with a hefty price tag of $3 million in game dollars. You could of course do missions with your friends to lower the price and raise in game currency, or you could purchase in game currency via microtransactions and just simply buy yourself a jetpack — at an estimated real world value of around $90. GTA V’s multiplayer is littered with trade-offs like that, and it is paying out for them in a huge way. Expansions to the thriving multiplayer sandbox of San Andreas come with a mighty big asterisk. One way or another, playing or paying, you’re covering the costs of developing that “free” DLC.

As the functions of microtransactions and Easter eggs have evolved, the question of what publishers can get away with hiding behind a paywall has also evolved. Several relatively recent big profile challenges to microtransactions have sparked a period of reassessment, and a game including them is no real guarantee of success or profit.

Still, with game production only getting more expensive, companies and publishers will continue to look for ways to extend profitability — and unlockable content done right has worked since games were first unveiled.


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