Enabled by digital storefronts and internet downloads, more game studios are selling new content after the initial sale of a video game in a bid to keep people engaged and coming back for more.
LOS ANGELES — The latest digital version of the world’s most popular sport, “FIFA 18,” will cost $59.99 when it’s available in a few months.
But if the soccer video game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, gets its way, the transaction won’t stop there.
Player packs are sort of a digital trading-card set that unlocks real-world players for use in “Ultimate Team” game modes, and they can be purchased for a few dollars each. The dice roll gives you a chance at landing one of your favorite players for use in competitive play and special tournaments.
The feature isn’t new, but it has gained traction in recent years as part of a broader industry trend of asking players for smaller payments to gain in-game items or new features after the initial game sale. Increasingly, they’re happy to oblige.
Billions of dollars
Historically, the vast majority of video games were sold in one-off transactions. Players bought a boxed CD, loaded it into their PC or game console, and played their way through.
But enabled by digital storefronts and internet downloads, more game studios are selling new content after the initial sale in a bid to keep people engaged and coming back to their games.
That ranges from so-called microtransactions that cost cents or a few dollars — like the trading cards in “FIFA” — to expansion packs or other major face-lifts that cost from $10 to $40.
Together, such sales and services bring in billions of dollars a year across the $100 billion global video-game industry, said Sartori Bernbeck, an analyst with video-game consultancy EEDAR.
“Games are becoming more and more not just a boxed delivery, but a service,” Bernbeck said.
That shift was on display here at the E3 video game trade show, where companies have been marketing special editions of games that hint at a wave of future content.
For the video-game industry, the added bells and whistles have helped avoid the piracy that harmed other disc-based entertainment industries during the shift toward digital distribution.
Consumers are more likely to opt for the genuine article rather than a pirated game if it gives them access to the latest features or the ability to play together online, said Mike Gallagher, chief of the Entertainment Software Association trade group.
“The transition to digital shrank the revenue of the motion-picture industry,” he said. “It shrank dramatically the revenue of the music industry. In the video-game industry, it’s been a remarkable catalyst for growth.”
Making their way into mainstream
That road began with massively multiplayer PC games in the late 1990s. “Ultima Online” and “Everquest” proved that players would fork over subscription fees to play with others in an online universe.
In the 2000s, their spiritual successor, “World of Warcraft,” was a smash hit that kept some players interested for a decade.
“People figure out, hey, I can play the same game for a long period of time,” said Phil Spencer, who leads Microsoft’s Xbox unit. “More and more when people finish a game they’re saying, ‘How do I stay engaged in this?’ ”
Xbox helped bring that trend to consoles early in the transition from physical discs to digital downloads with the launch of the Xbox Live service in 2002.
For a monthly or annual subscription, which today costs $59.99 a year, the service links players who want to compete online. Xbox also offers a digital storefront for other developers to sell their games.
Excluding sales of new games, that business — Xbox Live subscriptions and sales of add-on game content through the Xbox store — tallied more than $1 billion in quarterly sales for the first time late last year, Spencer told investors last month.
That growth comes as post-sale transactions make their way into the mainstream.
The latest “Hitman” assassin stealth game wasn’t released as a completed product, but rather as a series of episodes released periodically.
Mega shooter franchises “Call of Duty” and “Battlefield” now come with a road map of added content after Day One — from expansions that add new maps and single-player campaigns, to small in-game purchases that change the appearance of weapons or characters.
“Destiny,” the sci-fi shooter from Halo creator Bungie, underwent a major face-lift a year after its 2014 release that changed many of the game’s core elements. The expansion pack cost almost as much as the base game — but it broke sales records for Sony’s PlayStation.
The Bellevue studio is currently working on a sequel, “Destiny 2,” set for release in September.
“Part of what makes ‘Destiny’ a great hobby is things are changing,” said Mark Noseworthy, an executive producer with Bungie. New content “makes the game fresh, or interesting.”
Risk of backlash
Still, there’s a risk of consumer backlash if game players feel studios cross the line from adding new and interesting content to an effort to nickel and dime people who have already shelled out for a game.
“It can be somewhat of a divisive topic,” Xbox’s Spencer said, particularly if consumers feel “a developer (is) forcing people to buy things in their game just so they spend more money.”
“FIFA” is walking that line. Some players in online forums, and some reviewers, have taken issue with the company’s microtransaction push, arguing it doesn’t add much value to the game.
Still, the California publisher isn’t likely to turn off add-ons. People keep buying them.
Across EA’s stable of sports games, from “FIFA” to “Madden,” such “ultimate team” features brought in $800 million in sales last year.