The Microtransaction Plague

The Microtransaction Plague

Video game and app developers are adding microtransactions to their products - and it's starting to affect the market.

Electronic Arts

Microtransactions. The word itself causes gamers to shiver and point out their favorite (read: most despised) ones. A microtransaction is a small amount of money that a game either requires or highly recommends to keep playing or to enhance the game. For example, Candy Crush is free but you can buy tokens to get a hint. In general, microtransactions are found in freeware games, but some have notably made their way to actual video games made by well-known developers. Games already aren't cheap, but charging the customer even more after the fact is just going to cause issues, and it already has. From once anticipated triple-A video games to apps you can download on your iPhone, microtransactions and paid lootboxes have become a point of concern in the video game industry.

It was major news when EA/DICE's 2017 game Star Wars: Battlefront II was released. Not because of it being a major success or helping to expand the story after the Original Trilogy, but it was because of the microtransactions that effectively turned the game into a pay-to-win moneymaking scheme. Even though the consumer paid sixty dollars, maybe more if they bought the “deluxe edition” or even a full console that it came bundled with, they still could not access characters like Darth Vader, Rey, or Luke Skywalker out of the box. The intention was that players would have to earn these characters for online play, which is fair I guess. But the token system wasn't just increased by playing the game, rather you could buy “lootboxes” that would give you items such as tokens and “Star Cards,” which were power-ups you can use both online and in local gameplay. The cost of Darth Vader was so high, it would take a player 40+ hours to gain enough coins to purchase the Lord of the Sith – or, they could buy some lootboxes and get the coins that way, thus increasing the amount of abilities they have in-game. A complaint was made on Reddit, and EA's response (which was basically saying “well that's how we designed the game just deal with it and pay up”) became the most downvoted comment in the site's history. The game, which launched in November 2017, was still fully stocked around Christmas – which was also right around the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. EA took a massive hit, and Disney lawyers even got involved after rumors started up of a possible class-action lawsuit for purposely overcharging players in order to play the game to the fullest extent. At first, EA lowered the point cost to buy the playable movie characters and removed coins and cards from lootboxes, but by 2018, the entire cost/lootbox system was gone, and if you buy the game now, you'll be able to jump right online and play as Rey in a battle. This was such a major controversy that it even prompted some countries to investigate whether or not lootboxes were considered gambling, and Belgium recently declared them as such.

Free apps are notorious for these. There are countless stories of kids racking up a few thousand dollar bill on apps because the game pops up with saying “pay x dollars to get 20 more gems or wait two hours” and they just click to go ahead, there's no passcode to prevent this. The new Harry Potter game, Hogwarts Mystery, is pretty much just a series of microtransactions. While the game is technically free, you still need “energy” to do tasks like rest and talk to characters – but that's nothing, you also need energy to progress through the levels. Yes, you can wait three hours after playing fifteen minutes just to take a short rest before needing to wait another three hours, or you can pay a few dollars every few minutes to keep on going. It's like EA gave them pointers on how to get nerds to pay more than what they should for a game. Pokemon Go (yes I still play it) is the opposite however. You don't need to pay anything to enjoy the game. Yeah you're limited to 250 Pokemon, but by the time you get there, you might want to pay for an additional one hundred or so. Unlike Hogwarts Mystery, you can play it perfectly fine, it doesn't limit your catches or amount of items. Countless games are like this, supposedly being free but requiring payment to get items for use in-game, and developers know this. They want people to be paying extra so they make money, hence why “freemium” software exists. Say it's free, which isn't a lie – but to really get what it's designed to do, be prepared to buy a lot more items and spend money to play a game you thought wouldn't cost you a cent.

Back to major AAA games, you have ones like Fortnite. This is a game that has two different modes, one that costs and one that's free but does include optional microtransactions. The free version, Battle Royale, is an online third-person shooter wherein 100 players fight each other to be the last man standing. The paid version has local multiplayer and a story mode, but isn't required to play Battle Royale. While there are cosmetic items you can earn and buy for the free game, they don't increase your abilities in-game, and you can play as many rounds as you want without having to pay a single cent. Even the “Infinity Gauntlet” mode, a limited-time promotion for Avengers: Infinity War, every player has the chance to get the Gauntlet and play as Thanos – doesn't charge you at all, only thing it costs is your patience and skill at trying to get the item in the first place. Many online games are free but include a paid aspect – Blizzard's World of Warcraft is free until level 20, but it's not like it stops you from playing, you just can't level up after. Yeah it's not perfect, but still. League of Legends is the same way. Both games have microtransactions to get more in-game currency or items, but in theory one could play without paying anything.

Sometimes though, a lootbox isn't a bad thing. In Overwatch, the boxes contain primarily cosmetic items. You pay for the game, you get your game and don't have to pay any more unless you want to get extra things like new DLC, which again, isn't required for play. Or PokeStops in Pokemon Go, where you can stock up on Pokeballs and other gear. But you do not have to put any more money in, because in the end, it doesn't make you any better of a player. But at the same time, there's games like Battlefront II that would have kept at the lootbox pay-to-win concept, but somebody stepped in and made it very clear this is not how the industry should work. Instead of charging players for something they thought was free, just make it an option and allow them to earn the same thing by playing the game, as well as just keeping lootboxes containing skins and other minor items that don't effect gameplay. Microtransactions aren't going anywhere, but after everything that's gone on since EA had to completely revamp their system, the industry should look at whether or not they actually help the game or hinder the players. Because playing for fifteen minutes then having to wait three hours to get enough energy to open a book isn't a game, it's just making people pay more than the program is worth.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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