Microtransactions have changed the way we interact with video games, and now seem to be changing the very manner in which these games are constructed. There was an argument at one point for microtransactions, in that they allowed fledgling companies a way to get their games out to the public and make money if they were successful, but for many people – practically everyone except the gaming companies themselves – that ship sailed quite some time ago.
What Exactly Are Microtransactions?
Microtransactions are exactly what they sound like; tiny transfers of money that allow players to buy in-game add-ons. Although not first seen in mobile games, they were most definitely pioneered as in-app purchases for mobile devices. From there, they moved to PC and console games, and today it is almost impossible to find games that do not feature microtransactions for downloadable content, cosmetic purchases like different clothes and game-changers like special weapons. Some games even make it impossible to play at a decent pace, or get beyond a certain point, if microtransactions are not used for specific purchases.
The microtransaction model allows gamers to access titles for free, and then make purchases if they want to. This sounds fine in theory, and as mentioned above it’s been seen as a way for start-up game developers to get their work into the public arena. These days, however, microtransactions are used to force purchases if players want to have a hope of ever completing a game.
Everything in life costs time or money, but where gamers used to be able to choose which one they wanted to spend, it is increasingly true that time is no longer accepted. Grinding, or working through mundane tasks to gain important items or move up game levels, is now often designed to be so slow that advancing in this way is impossible. You might even say that in-game purchases via microtransactions are a way of actually buying time back so that players have the space to do other things in their life that are not related to the game.
Anger Over Microtransactions in Full-Price Games
Microtransactions have become problematic enough in games that are free to download and play, but as they spread to expensive games that carry high price tags, the ire of the gaming community has been raised even more. Now gamers are expected to spend a lot of money on their initial purchase, as well as while they continue playing. Battlefront II, a Star Wars title that sells for $60 but followed a strict loot box economy in its Beta testing, is the perfect example of this.
“Loot Box Economy” means that to get anywhere in the game, loot boxes that are filled with randomly awarded assets are essential. These loot boxes can be bought far quicker than they can be earned, of course, and the items inside can be trivial or cosmetic as well as vital to game success. The bright colours and unknown quality of what’s inside has led them to be likened to playing casino games, and raised concerns over what kind of future gambling behaviour is being fostered in children.
Is it Possible to Stay Away from Microtransactions?
If you’re not a serious gamer and you’re reading this article, you might easily be feeling dismayed at the dystopian-like future that microtransactions seem to be creating for video games. While they definitely do have this potential, there is also room for moderating them.
Many titles heed the protests and criticisms of angry players, and modify or drop their microtransaction systems. After fans gave Battlefront II a 0.9 out of 10 rating on Metacritic because of its loot box set-up, all in-game purchases were turned off. Oskar Gabrielson, a general manager on the project, tweeted that the Battlefront II team would “now spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing and tuning”. Given that this game is the flagship release for the holiday season from Electronic Arts, they had little choice!
Microtransactions are starting to control the playing field rather than enhancing it, and our official position is that the system has devolved from something with at least a few good effects into something that costs huge amounts of money and is ultimately unfair. Boycotting games that use microtransactions could be difficult and cost some enjoyable game time to begin with, but as the Battlefront II story shows it can be very effective.