In the world of free-to-play racing games, if you want to get to the good stuff then you have two options: be prepared to endure some serious grinding, slowly rising up the ranks whilst being drip-fed in-game currency, or part with your cash to bypass it altogether.
It’s a practice that’s been adopted by Microsoft and implemented into Forza Motorsport 5 - in-game tokens can be purchased with real world money to gain access to some of the game’s more prestigious motors.
Except there’s one crucial difference: Forza 5 isn’t free-to-play. Far from it, when you consider the steep cost of the Xbox One, plus a Thrustmaster TX 458 wheel for more serious racers in addition to the £54.99 RRP of the game. And therein lies a serious problem.
As outlined by the outraged NeoGaf community, some of Forza 5’s most sought after cars are inexcusably extortionate.
Case in point: the Lotus E21 formula one car, one of Forza 5’s new star attractions keenly publicised by Microsoft as this is the first game in the series to feature open wheel racecars. What they failed to mention was the astronomical price of admission. In-game, it costs a whopping 6 million credits. Alternatively, at the time of writing you can buy it for 10,000 tokens – in real world cash, this equates to over £60.00. £60.00 for one digital racecar? That's more expensive than the actual game. No. Just no.
The average player, then, won’t ever be able to experience the pleasure of driving this car unless they’re prepared to grind through around 60 hours-worth of laborious racing. And that’s before you take into account sifting through menus, tuning the car and practicing to stay competitive. In practice, you could be spending over 100 hours just to drive one car. Yes, there still needs to be a sense of progression and car rarity, but this is unfeasible.
Of course, Microsoft will argue that micro-transactions are entirely optional. But in the case of Forza 5, it’s abundantly obvious that the fundamental game design has been detrimentally altered to endorse in-game purchases.
Unlike in Forza 4, free cars are no longer regularly rwarded for winning races and levelling up – in Forza 5 you have to purchase each and every one of them using in-game credits or tokens. This restricted access is only compounded by the fact that players who don’t have time to grind in the career and simply want to test drive their favourite cars at their leisure can’t experience them in free drive mode. In Forza 4, every car was available to drive in free mode – the catch was that you couldn’t customise or upgrade them outside of the career, which was a fair compromise for casual players. In contrast, free drive in Forza 5 has been stripped-down to just 40 cars.
There are other changes that were clearly engineered to encourage you to pour more money into Microsoft’s pot, too. The much-loved manufacturer affinity, where sticking with the same manufacturer reaped regular rewards in Forza 4, has been scrapped altogether, so you can say goodbye to free upgrades. Auction houses to sell and share cars are also gone, and you can’t gift cars either.
Meanwhile, the game is constantly reminding you that you can double your XP and credits by buying tokens, or recommending you cars that can only be bought as DLC. Again, this is the sort of tactic you expect to see in a free-to-play mobile racing game - not in a full price retail console game. Worse still, you can’t even buy a car on its own in the majority of cases – Microsoft obviously want you to buy the entire DLC package. It's pure unbridled greed.
This all has bleak implications for the next generation, as monetisation mechanics start to seep into more racing games. Gran Turismo, for example, has always required excessive grinding before you can afford the more desirable cars - the announcement that optional micro-transactions will be in-place for Gran Turismo 6 could exasperate this debacle. Let’s just hope its arcade mode will give access to the full car roster this time which would alleviate the problem somewhat, as rumours suggest.
At least DriveClub Plus Edition will actually be free-to-play in the proper sense, with the option to buy the full game and access all the content. It’s an exemplary business model that allows everyone to have a free test drive but doesn’t punish players who have already purchased the game – a concept that Microsoft don’t appear to have grasped.