Electronic Arts has been laying the ground work for the future of video game sales for years. Head all the way back to 2009’s Madden NFL 10 and you can see the process at work: Madden Ultimate Team mode slapped microtransactions right into the middle of one of the biggest games in the world. The publisher may have backed away from its claim that microtransations will be in every game EA makes going forward, but its games say otherwise. Battlefield 3, Dead Space 3, SSX, Mass Effect 3 all prominently feature microtransactions. And with the winds blowing that direction, it’s been strange to watch EA’s biggest competitor, Activision Blizzard, keep its biggest seller out of the same pool. Call of Duty has been selling the paid downloadable content for almost a decade now, but piecemeal purchases haven’t been part of the equation so far.
Come Wednesday, Xbox 360 owners will be able to purchase Personalization Paks for 160 Microsoft Points, or $2. These includ cosmetic modifications for weapons and “Calling Cards” used in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2’s multiplayer. There are also World Calling Card Packs for $1 that give access to new flags, then there are also $2 Extra Slots Packs that give ten extra create-a-class slots.
All told, these are the sort of purely cosmetic add-ons that bring zero change to how the game is played, but have been the bread and butter of the mobile and social game markets for years now. It’s a marked difference from the sort of microtransations in EA’s games. Dead Space 3 and others let you purchase weapons that actually change how you experience the game. Activision’s partner company, Blizzard, pioneered an entire thriving sub-economy in the game industry based around the trade of in-game funds and goods beginning with World of Warcraft and more recently Diablo 3, but items in those games also change the way the game is played.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2’s microtransactions may be purely cosmetic now, but they will likely turn into far more than that as Activision plums forward. It’s smart business to release such innocuous small-purchase content. The Call of Duty audience is reaching a saturation point, and Activision risks fan backlash if it starts selling piecemeal upgrades to the multiplayer core audience. By the time Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 4 comes around though, don’t expect these items to just be for a funny new reticule on a gun.