Videogame Microtransactions: Fad or Here to Stay?
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Video games have evolved rapidly and impressively since their humble Pong beginnings. And even more rapid and impressive is the past decades’ explosion of growth in this industry. Newzoo’s 2018 Global Games Market Report has an absolutely mind-boggling statistic that shows just how much it has grown recently: “The games market took more than 35 years to grow to a $35 billion business in 2007. This year, that same market is expected to generate $137.9 billion in revenues. In only 11 years, an astounding $100 billion of additional value was created.” (Newzoo, 2018) There are very few industries that can even come close to competing with this growth and, at the moment, there are no signs that it will slow down. Each year gaming grows exponentially larger and more prevalent; online gaming traffic in the United States alone almost quintupled from 2011–2016 and continue to explode as each year passes (Statista.com, 2018). As more and more countries industrialize and reach living standards akin to the US and other Western nations, global videogame traffic will only grow.
This explosion has certainly not come without major changes. One of the most prevalent recent developments (and certainly intriguing from a monetary standpoint) is a business mechanism called “microtransactions”. These allow users to purchase virtual goods by spending relatively low amounts of money (as compared to buying the game itself — although users can spend thousands if they want as it is all price encompassing). What is most surprising about the development of microtransactions is that the microtransactions themselves are already more profitable than game sales (Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft have already reported as such)! (Sillicur, 2018) (Henry, 2017) If this trend continues, there are no surface reasons for them not to become the norm across the board, the profit margins are just incredible.
But before diving completely into microtransactions as a whole, I’d like to backtrack a bit in order to see the full picture (or screen so to speak). At the end of the day, why do any of these issues really matter anyway? Granted, it is a lot of money (so that alone gives it some value), but this is to be expected as the global economy has been exploding as a whole anyway since the 1940s (and even more so recently as a result of globalization). Videogames could just be another outcome of this — the necessity of entertainment for now comfortably living, sedentary humans with more free time than they know what to do with it. And coupled with this, shouldn’t these same people be allowed to spend how they like? Spending a little more of that hard earned cash on a game you really enjoy is almost certainly not a bad thing. And the proof is very obviously in the pudding, as microtransactions are making all of this money for a reason; there is, at the very least, some easily attributable demand for what you can buy with them.
However, mixed into all of this are some complications that videogames naturally bring, being that they are such a unique form of what I like to call “experience”-based entertainment. For one, they are almost brand new so they have only recently budged into the already (variably) long existing experience market of sports events, movies, and TV (and the list goes on). And so while experience based consumerism is not a new development by any means, videogames bring a new spin to it. As such, they naturally divert some x amount of funds that normally would have gone to other choices. All of this “new” money (money that would have been spent on other forms of entertainment, other things in general, or saved) is thus being spent on intangible things, essentially for the experiences that videogames can give you.
To illustrate the difference between tangible vs intangible value, take food for example. You buy it and then eat it; it has a finite and short-lived use. Food is required for sustenance, so it holds value in it of itself because of this factor; its tangible value is that you can physically grasp onto it and “own” it. And most importantly you can do what you like with it (and while yes food has variable values due to preferences, at some point all edible food is valuable in it of itself). On the other hand, videogames’ value is all in the minds of the consumer (as in how much they enjoy it), and as a result the creators hold all of the power in this relationship. Once somebody buys a game, they are stuck with whatever the developers and companies want to do to it. So as such, the value of videogames are much more variable as the companies themselves can easily make or break your experience; they have the power to all of a sudden change whatever they like regardless of what their consumer base thinks.
And sure you can “theoretically” just quit and move on to another game, but in reality it is really not that simple. There are a multitude of reasons that keep people playing a game even if they dislike or hate it deep down. For one, if you have spent years or months or even weeks playing a game you will probably feel inclined to stay regardless of how much you may hate the change (more on this later), just because you’ve invested a significant amount of time into it. You might even continue to play just because you spent a bunch of money buying the game in the first place and you feel it would be a waste to quit. You might continue with a hope the changes will be reverted or because you are psychologically addicted or because all of your friends still play the game or a combination of all of these factors (and I could go on but you get my point). Many of these factors play into the sunk cost fallacy which keep players playing, even if they don’t fully want to.
Coupled with this, videogames also have the potential to last years and years (evident from games like Counter-Strike that have had playerbases for nearly two decades — that no doubt have some of their original players still chugging along) all the while holding no “real”, tangible value. And by the looks of it, I bet they have the potential to last many, many decades; I for one do not see games like Call of Duty or literally any sports franchise dying out anytime soon (I mean how is Fifa 50 or some variant not going to exist barring a world apocalypse — there will always be soccer fans who want to play a soccer videogame and likewise for any other major sport). There will always be kids and teens new to videogames that will have that same hunger to play them as I did only a few years ago (and still do now to a lesser extent). So with all of this in mind, what we have established here is that:
It is evident that a large percentage of people (67% of the Americans play some sort of videogame) like playing and thus willing to spend their money on videogames, so when also taking into account our continuously growing global population and living standards — we can conclude that videogame sales will only continue to rise. (Crecente, 2018)
Videogames are an intangible value that contain a theoretically infinite number of hours of entertainment (and as a result have true staying power in the “experience” based entertainment market.)
And when you combine the conclusions of one and two, it is pretty obvious that there is a whole lot of money to be made from videogames in the coming decades (perhaps it could even become a trillion dollar industry.) With this in mind, like nearly all industries in our current capitalist local and global system, the main (if not whole) point of videogames is profit. And while I’m sure there are some developers that would disagree and wholeheartedly say the point is giving people a fun time, the bottom line is and always will be profit in our capitalist system (certainly true in the eyes of the CEOs and the boards of the corporations that own these games). And so like any other industry in a for profit system, videogame companies can and will abuse and rip off their consumers for the bottom line (examples of companies ripping off and/ deceiving their consumers are not in short supply: planned obsolescence, branding, making food look much better than normal in commercials, general dishonesty like the Volkswagen emissions scandal, etc. etc. etc.). And being that it is such a new industry, regulatory bodies have been very slow to react or even know about these ills. As a result, many videogames have sneakily just become intricately crafted, purposely predatory gateways for scamming customers and increasing that oh-so important bottom line, designed to make the consumer make many more purchases past the original price for the game. So finally, this is where we get back to our good ol’ buddy microtransactions. Microtransactions are the perfect mechanism to suck out every last consumer dollar videogame companies can possibly get. In their current state, videogame microtransactions need to undergo drastic changes in order to promote the well-being of the full range of consumers; at the moment they make use of gambling, promote “pay-to-win” tactics, addiction, and drive the games themselves toward profit versus creating a “good” game.
To gamers, “pay-to-win” is a just about the most egregious phrase a company can be accused of. In short, “pay-to-win” is the use of microtransactions that allow players to get an advantage over other players simply by paying more. Fortunately nowadays, if there exists obvious “pay-to-win” tactics, there is often vocal and virulent backlash from the consumer base. EA saw this very clearly with Star Wars Battlefront 2. I will only venture a little into the actual specifics as the system they set up in this game was so unbelievably mishandled and jumbled that I could dedicate a whole separate paper to all of its flaws and shortcomings. The whole fiasco is so very telling of where videogames are headed if consumers don’t speak up. In short, it perfectly illustrates a fantastic juxtaposition between what makes a good game and what absolutely doesn’t. The juxtaposition comes from comparing new EA’s SWB2 to LucasArt’s SWB2 way back 13 years ago on the Playstation 2. 13 years seems like a relatively short time, but how videogames have changed since then is so apparent when comparing these two games.
Looking back at all the games I’ve played over the years, some of my most fond and nostalgic feelings of gaming come from thinking about LucasArts PS2 version — there were just so many things that were done “right” in comparison to EA’s (something that becomes clear immediately). In EA’s version you literally had to PAY to play as the heroes at first. Imagine that, spending about 60 dollars on a Star Wars game where you can’t even play as Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker without spending even more money. And I’ll acknowledge that you could unlock them by playing an estimated 40 hours (to get one of them…..), but who in the world wants to grind a month of a game just to play as a character they should have been able to play with at the outset (like in past games so the bar was already set at that in the first place) (Byrd, 2017). To get every hero you’d either have to play literally 4000 hours (in 3 years of Counter Strike, I reached a little more than half of that) or spend approximately 2000 dollars. (Gravelle, 2018) At that point is there any reason to even buy the game? Star Wars is Star Wars because of lightsabers, the force, and all of the amazing characters; without them you have a cookie cutter shooter that is almost literally EA’s Battlefield games with a new look. It would be baffling to see that type of thinking even considered, let alone actually seriously and unabashedly implemented into the game. To add insult to injury, there were dozens of other measures that were also pay-to-win. A multitude of in-game “cards” that lowered grenade cooldown use timers, lowered health regeneration delay timers, reduced player damage taken and increased player damage output. (Machkovech, 2017) Not only are these measures just plain stupid and predatory, it shows how out of touch EA is. It shows a total lack of even a basic understanding of what even makes a fun videogame — almost as if a bunch of Wall Street bankers decided to all get together to make one designed to make them the maximum amount of money without considering any other aspects.
If you look at some of most successful games, you will see similarities between them as to why. For example, there is a reason the Counter Strike franchise has been successful for so long: its gameplay is consistent and fair. Each player has the exact same attributes and all that matters is your actual in game skill. If you look across at what multiplayer games stay successful long term, they all seem to share a common thread in that the gameplay actually rewards the better players. There is nothing more frustrating in videogames than consistently losing to players that you think are worse than you and this is exactly why pay-to-win games flop so often. It is all very simple: fair and fun gameplay keeps players playing. I’m certain that is a key reason (aside from being free to play) as to why Fortnite has blown up so quickly — the better you are at building (the main skill determinant, along with aim) the more you are rewarded. Watch literally any top player’s best plays on Youtube and you will see what I mean (to any casual player the building feats these players manage are unbelievable).
SWB2 at launch was the opposite of fun and it turns out almost everyone saw this too. Game sales fell so low to the point that EA actually had to respond to try to salvage the situation (surprise, surprise that sales were the reason they finally had to do something.) At first, they definitely didn’t get the point of all of the consumer rage. So at the beginning of the backlash, they (quite hilariously I might add) had the audacity to lower the prices for the heroes 75% as if that was in any way near to fixing the actual problem. (Byrd, 2017) One of the most obvious developments microtransactions have coincided with (and certainly have played a large part in) is that as videogames have become more and more profitable, companies have become more and more out of touch with their consumers. This development is not surprising by any means — corporations are at their core faceless and emotionless entities designed to make profit by any means. (Do you think your local Mom and Pop burger joint or McDonald’s is more truly genuine? — this same logic is easily applicable to videogames and their companies). To the shareholders, all of these obnoxious and now ubiquitous microtransactions are actually the correct decisions — that is until they get so bad that the backlash causes a loss in revenue. And thankfully that’s exactly what happened. EA actually ended up turning off all in game purchases, but of course only temporarily until the fans cooled down a bit. And apparently the cooldown time is about 4 months, because EA introduced microtransactions back this past March (however only for cosmetic items which is at least an upgrade from straight up pay-to-win). (Saavedra, 2018)
Now knowing all this, you needn’t spend more than an afternoon playing the LucasArts game to see the differences. If you take the games for what they were when they were made (ie: of course the graphics and some mechanics are smoother and better on EA’s because it is 13 years newer), the LA version is just objectively better. For one, all it took to play as the heroes was to play the game. Each game players got to play as Darth Maul or Darth Vader or Boba Fett or Obi-Wan (etc.) just depending on their map and team. Simply by just playing. If you were in any way competent, you could even play as them multiple times a game (if you died as them you could unlock them again later in the game pretty easily), but any casual player would at least get to play as one of them at least once a game by simply playing. The system was simple, effective, and most importantly fun. The reason the game was so great is every single time you played you could slash enemies up with lightsabers or blast em with special guns. (EA must have realized this because they recently unlocked all heroes in the game, but it is probably a case of too little, too late.) (Saavedra, 2018) No stupid micropayments or impediments — just fun without needing any sort of progression system. The game also had different classes of the normal soldiers and while some classes were obviously superior to others, good players could utilize any of them and be successful. The key takeaway from all of this is that making a good multiplayer game has already been figured out — does anybody really think these multi-billion dollar companies are just making bad games on purpose?
There are plenty of other examples of pay-to-win (parts of Rainbow Six Siege, dozens of mobile games, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, etc.) across nearly all companies and genre. EA Sports’ FIFA franchise in particular a clear-cut example of pay-to-win. In order to play with the best players, and thus the most sought after players (like Ronaldo, Messi, and “legend” cards like Pele and Ronaldinho), in their most popular game mode “Ultimate Team” you have to have a massive amount of coins reaching to the tens of millions (which would be worth thousands of dollars in the US). Any casual players not paying close attention will not notice the predatory actions EA has taken in past years regarding the game mode, all under the disguise of seemingly good intentions. EA has virtually ignored all other game modes in Fifa for years (Career, Pro Clubs, Seasons) in favor of ramping up Ultimate team, their cash cow. If those game modes had as much work done to them as UT, they would look drastically different than 5–6 years ago, but they have stayed basically the same because of the fact they aren’t what makes the real money for FIFA.
Now, this might be nit-picky on first glance, but in full context, it is not.
Back in the FIFA 12–14 days, there were three different ways of getting enough coins to afford to buy those elite players. During those days, simply the playing the game each and everyday was not enough, even if you played everyday for the whole year. Players were limited to: a. buying “FIFA points” (a secondary in game currency to buy “packs” that contained randomly awarded players that could then be sold for coins), b. buying coins from 3rd party services that farmed them at mass scales and sold them to the gamers, and c. by trading players (flipping them for higher prices than what you paid for them). Fast forward to FIFA 19 and two of the three are curiously outlawed. All coin buying was banned in FIFA 15 (and to be fair these coin sellers were causing massive inflation, but the fact that demand for coin sellers became so high that it caused such extreme inflation just plainly shows the lack of options EA gave for making coins in game.) And now in FIFA 19, traders are being banned for trying to make coins within the confines of the system. Evident from hundreds of tweets depicting this, if you buy and then subsequently sell a lot of the same player card (in order to make coins if their price goes up) you can get banned and lose your account without warning and with little hope of recovery. So, EA has essentially systematically removed all other forms of coin making, leaving the obvious fact that EA wants you spend, spend, spend. And once again to be fair, they have definitely improved coin making as far as solely playing the game goes. However, with constant promos of limited edition and time sensitive cards that require large amount of coins to be able to afford all of the ones you want each and everyday is impossible (lest you spend thousands of dollars on FIFA points). And I’m not saying that this daily content is a bad thing, but the intent is obviously to make money (again they are a company so this is to be expected, but there are right ways to do so.) By pressuring and nudging players with short time limits and flash sales, EA entices you to spend at any opportunity it can. 5 dollars here, 5 dollars there, 20 bucks for a big event, and all of a sudden as months go by you realize you’ve spent 200 dollars on a 60 dollar game.
And unlike past FIFAs, the newer games show vast differences in the actual performances of top players versus all others. This may seem like an obvious conclusion, but the fact that they’ve widened the gap between elite players’ performances and cheap players shows what they are trying to get at. Back in FIFA 12 and 13, lower rated players could be used to a lot of success and in most ways felt very comparable to the high rated players. An elite player with a bad team could easily dispatch a bad player with an elite team, thus the game was more oriented towards skill versus how high-rated (and thus expensive) your team is. But that has been flipped nearly on its head, a high rated good team is much more important than ever before. Succeeding with a cheap team has become much harder as a result — leading to the logical conclusion of wanting a better (more expensive) team. And the quickest and simplest way to get to those expensive players is buying those packs. (As an aside, this passage may seem like a matter of opinion, not fact. However, I would contend that many of my friends who have played as long as I have agree with me readily. I do not believe I am exaggerating, the difference is pretty noticeable. Which begs the question: Why would EA do this?)
EA has revamped the game over the past 5 years by implementing more and more subtle pressures that push players towards spending more. If you don’t believe me with all of the above, one simple change tells all. Back in FIFA 13 you could play with a “legend” team that had the best players from all of the early years of real life soccer. However, they decided to take this team out only a couple years later. But for what reason? That team was so much fun to play with and really a tiny part of the game as a whole. Why remove a popular and little extra team that had no real effect on the game as a whole? I believe they took it out for a simple reason that you can guess at this point: money. Of course now in FIFA 19, the only way to play with these legends is through Ultimate Team. To buy a whole team of legends equivalent to the old free-to-play team literally costs thousands of real life dollars. Removing the team was perhaps the easiest economic decision EA has made in years — by limiting them to their one money-making game mode it just gives more incentive to spend a lot to get them.
FIFA, in particular the packs, provides a perfect segue to address another problem that microtransactions have created. Currently, the point of many videogames are just to serve as another avenue for gambling. This is especially dangerous because one of largest demographics that play videogames are people under 21. A demographic where if they were “traditionally” gambling on the daily it would be seen as egregious. And just like in a casino, “the house always wins.” In the case of gambling, I’m once again only referring to online multiplayer games (mobile, console and PC), because, thankfully, it is not as prevalent in single player and offline games at the moment. (And because of the recent power and prevalence of the internet to connect people across the world, multiplayer games have far surpassed single player games in recent years. (Newzoo, 2018) I believe it will continue to trend this way.)
Multiplayer games are almost always competitive in some way or another, so recently videogame companies have realized that they can add these pay-to-win mechanisms in the packs/lootboxes/lootcrates. Also offered are cosmetic items (new costumes for characters, “skins” for guns and weapons, etc.) and game-specific items (usually more useless items like consumables, parts, etc.). Lootboxes are so obviously gambling — working the same as a slot machine but instead of dispensing real life currency you get some digital items that are usually worthless outside of the game. Its honestly impressive that these game companies have managed to create these systems that make them millions of dollars each year at the statistically irrelevant comparative cost. Coupled with flashy colors and animations, the parallels to gambling are plain to see. Counter Strike employs this to the highest and most financially successful degree. Keys to open crates cost $2.50 each with the chance of receiving a gun skin worth anywhere from a cent to thousands of dollars. The “Dragon Lore” skin literally costs 1,500 USD at the moment, and dozens more cost hundreds all just for for a different color and design for a virtual gun. The game only costs $15 itself! These skins have and are literally being used to bet on Counter Strike pro matches or placed in roulettes where winners take all the skins placed in the bet (the more money you put in the bet, the higher chance you have to win) as currency, like a makeshift bitcoin. Everyday at least tens of thousands of dollars of skins pass from account to account like stock trading. Pro players have been caught throwing matches because they placed large bets of thousands of dollars worth skins on the other team to win. (Warr, 2015) Videogame cosmetic items now have a market of their own and they differ in form and function in each and every game. And while most games don’t allow skins to be bought and sold like this, the skins still have perceived value just because the members of their communities value them for how they look as well as their in-game rarity.
The AWP: Dragon Lore
It also turns out that (just like in gambling) the average person will more often than not lose out. The chance of getting a desirable item by opening lootboxes is extremely low in most cases. For example, EA was recently forced to show the odds of receiving a certain rating when opening a pack. The findings in this reveal are not surprising at all. For those unfamiliar with FIFA, I would describe a “good” pack as receiving an 82–84 rated player, a “great pack” as 85–86, and a “fantastic” pack as receiving any player above that (scale out of 100). However the odds of receiving an 84+ rated player in the “Premium Gold Pack” is a measly 4.5%. This means approximately 2/45 packs will even be considered “good” (with a much higher likelihood of getting a low end 84 player anyway in the “good” pack), meaning the odds are that literally nearly every single one of those other packs are not worth what you pay for them. And even in the case of those “good” or better packs, you might not even make your money back. So in reality, the actual occurrence that any given player will actually receive a player they “want” (that makes the pack worthwhile to open) is probably even lower than a 1% percent chance. Even when EA release “promo” packs which provide better bang for your buck, they are still by no means worth it the vast majority of the time. Yet everytime EA announces these promos, people flock to buy them at obscene rates (for example 50,000 limited edition packs sold out within one minute back in 2017, according to my friend who bought one, opened it, and then couldn’t buy another because they sold out so quickly. And that’s just one example, a similar response can be seen each and every time EA releases new packs.) During Black Friday, EA don’t even put their packs on sale, they just release a lot more promo packs than usual. They just know that these packs will sell like crazy regardless of what they put in them, as long as they look special and flashy and have some urgency to them. The Call of Duty franchise has also began to heavily employ the use of lootboxes. One COD youtuber tried an experiment out by spending the maximum $1000 dollars possible on lootboxes to see what he would get. He received only one “weapon variant” (the most sought after item in the game) out of all of the hundreds of boxes he opened. (Gravelle, 2018) None of this is surprising — I would even venture to say that nearly every form of lootboxes across all platforms and titles are a rip-off even just in terms of the return in in-game rewards (not to mention they wouldn’t be worth it even if the rewards were improved to their absolute limit in terms of real life currency.)
Simultaneously, these game companies are quite obviously targeting people that enjoy the click-reward system that gives them an addictive dopamine reward when receiving a good reward, just like winning a slot machine. So not only are the lootboxes themselves rip offs, they designed in a way to want to continue opening them regardless of that fact. The few times I’ve pack an expensive player in FIFA, I scream in joy and I won’t lie, it absolutely feels amazing. I know what EA is doing to me, but my reaction is nonetheless as if I didn’t know. And once you get a good pull from a lootbox, you’re only going to crave more of those rewards. There is no such thing as satisfaction in constantly updated games that have new loot every single month, if not week, if not day. There will always be a hot new item that everyone wants. Game companies are essentially conditioning people to react in these ways if they play the game and the scary part is that many are little kids. And in the case of CS:GO, opening their crates literally has the potential to “win” hundreds of dollars any given crate. There is no doubt that these lootboxes are setting up at least some of these kids for a life of gambling and betting (and it is definitely more harmful to expose kids to this than adults who at least know clearly what they are actually doing with their money, or at least know the true value of it). Lootboxes are enabling gambling like never before, all in the comfort of people’s homes. My own roommate unknowingly (as in didn’t realize how much the expenses were adding up) spent hundreds of dollars from his Mom’s credit card on FIFA points back when he was a 13 year old — I’m sure this is a experience that many parents may have to deal with or have dealt with. Videogame companies are quite simply getting away with very obvious (only after examination) predatory schemes and getting away with billions of dollars of hard earned consumer cash. And it seems like every single major game is moving towards using some form of lootboxes to the point of being unavoidable (Overwatch, Call of Duty, Madden, FIFA, League of Legends, etc.). (However as recently as November 27th, the US federal government has begun to investigate lootboxes so some reform might be coming soon.) (Kent, 2018)
Loot boxes are reminiscent of slot machines
Microtransactions also promote addiction in other ways through these lootboxes. For one, the simple relationship of investment and time creates an almost obligation to keep playing. Nobody wants to put in 20 bucks on virtual loot and then just quit soon after, that will feel like a waste of money. So as a result, you keep playing and playing, which will probably end up with you spending more. And if you end up spending more… you get where this is going. And at the same time, playing a lot of the same game each day leads to a psychological addiction. I would often get cravings to play a game I had been playing for a couple months if I had not played yet that day. Videogame addiction is already a serious problem for many people and microtransactions serve as a very clever way to reinforce that cycle of positive feedback. And like I said before, investment creates a perceived necessity to play even more (sunk cost fallacy). I’m sure many people play each day just to play, not because they are actually enjoying their time doing so.
Last but not least, microtransactions are one of the worst things to happen to videogames — this is because of the simple fact that they drive the games towards profit and not towards crafting a “good” game. As evident by looking at literally any industry, going from just sufficient profit to focusing on maximizing profit to its limit only serves to drive out beneficial attributes for the majority group. For example, providing workers with jobs turning into forcing workers to work in awful conditions and lower pay, or raising free range animals with lots of room to move around turning into pens with nowhere to move in order to save money and fatten them up more. Before microtransactions, the goal of videogames was to create an amazing game that will sell itself because of that fact. Nowadays, while obviously creating an objectively good game is still important in order to sell it at all, this aspect has taken a backseat. Profit has always been the main motive to make videogames, but microtransactions have changed how videogames make profit, and since they have become more profitable than the games themselves, they will always take priority. The new goal of videogames is thus to balance these two aspects by intricately designing a game that at the very least nudges (if not shoves) players towards spending more and more. At the end of day, the whole reason people play videogames is for their enjoyment and this is the reason they were even created in the first place. The simple fact is that microtransactions much more often than not end up acting contrary to this.
Sadly, in my eyes, microtransactions are here to say. At the very least most forms of them. So, while I think lootboxes have a high chance of being outlawed for minors (through some kind of identification system to prevent minors from gambling in these games), virtually every other form is not illegal in any way and too profitable to not continue being used. Consumers are definitely going to have to show opposition in unison to get companies to change in any way (and that might only work in the short term anyway as seen with EA’s SWB2.) And although this essay has focused on all of negatives associated with microtransactions, it is not to say that they are bad in all circumstances. Free-to-play games either have to use ads or microtransactions (or a combination) in order to make profit so in their case it only makes sense to use them. They are not inherently predatory in this context. My discussion above has focused on the use of microtransactions in supposedly completed and full games that already have high price tags associated with the original purchase. In these cases, microtransactions are very obviously just cash grabs, especially when they serve to sell pay-to-win aspects.
Cosmetics upgrades are also up for debate, but I tend to lean towards being ok with their use. It is inevitable that game companies will want to maximize their margins and so if the worst they do in order to do so is by selling virtual skins with flashy colors and designs, I can live with that. I by no means endorse them, but selling purely cosmetic items serves as a solid middle ground for consumers and the companies themselves (not to mention lots of players don’t mind or like buying cosmetic items anyway.) At the same time though, while I think that almost everyone that has played videogames understands that these cosmetics are pointless and inherently worthless, what gamer does not want to upgrade their in-game appearance? Everyone understands fashion in real life serves a similar “worthless” purpose but it stays prevalent all the same. So, I do dislike that cosmetic microtransactions are often given a pass because of the perceived harmlessness of them as “just cosmetic.” While they don’t affect the game at its core, it still is content that used to be apart of the baseline content of games (and thus the baseline price of games.) But like I said above, the simple fact is that they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. And if selling only cosmetics manages to satisfy corporations from using more predatory microtransactions, then it is probably as good as we can hope for as consumers.
Fortnite Cosmetic Skins
Finally, I’d just like to acknowledge some game companies still do it right. Companies can still make money and not screw over their buyers in the process (what a crazy thought!) We, as consumers, are not totally stuck with a monopolized game market comprised of only money-obsessed entities. The best example of one of these companies is definitely CD Projekt Red. They release full and thorough DLC for their single player games (Witcher series). So its by no means a situation where only the scummiest and most predatory companies can survive because they force out all the others.
Looking towards the future, I think the middle ground option of microtransactions for cosmetics is the most likely end point, as it serves the needs of both consumers and corporations, and are not overtly wrong nor heavily affect the actual core game. However, consumers need to be vigilant to make sure this happens, companies will obviously trend toward profit maximization, not consumer wants and needs. And since there are people out there that don’t mind spending their money on microtransactions anyway, this is definitely the best combination of realistic and satisfactory (I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with spending your money this way.) If you feel videogames are an important aspect of your life, by all means spend your money, just know what you are actually spending it on (Hint: it’s definitely not objectively “worth” it but it can be worth it all the same to you.) Don’t be too quick to brush off 5 dollars as “its just five dollars”, that is exactly what videogame companies are hoping you are thinking. Get good bang for your buck!
All in all, microtransactions are just too profitable to be going anywhere anytime soon. However, there are many ways in which they can be improved to adequately satisfy both the consumer and the creators. I certainly hope they trend this way, but as always consumers need to be vigilant and informed in order for reform to actually happen in any meaningful way.
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9) Saavedra, John. “Star Wars Battlefront 2 Finally Unlocks All Heroes.” Den of Geek! 3/29/18. https://www.denofgeek.com/us/games/star-wars/271969/star-wars-battlefront-2-finally-unlocks-all-heroes
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