Microtransactions are sadly a necessary evil in gaming today

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, November 29th, 2017 at 5:49 PM

As games shift ever faster into a digital-only world, developers are working on several ways to ensure they can profit, even months after the release of popular titles. A new business practice, “games as a service,” is at the forefront of this movement; it’s a kind of a la carte gaming that started with in-app purchases in the mobile app market and in free-to-play games. These microtransactions, typically ranging anywhere from $1 to $60, allow developers and publishers to regularly update games for a charge, often with users being able to decide what they do and don’t want to pay for. 

Microtransactions are everywhere, at this point. Found in popular games ranging from the mobile-exclusive “Animal Crossing Pocket Camp,” to Blizzard’s “Overwatch,” this often allows users to spend money on loot-boxes full of randomized in-game items that change the appearance of characters, their sound-bytes and more. 

On Nov. 12, a representative from Electronic Arts (EA) commented on a Reddit post about microtransactions in the new game, “Star Wars Battlefront II.” The original post criticized the company for deciding to lock several characters behind what people in the industry call “paywalls,” or large amounts of in-game currency that need to be accumulated to unlock or purchase something desired by the player. 

In most cases, games are designed for it to be easier to just pay, with real money, to unlock the characters either directly or by purchasing in-game currency — “crystals” in the case of “Battlefront.” The poster was furious that after paying $80 for the deluxe edition of the game, they had to play for a large amount of time to get enough resources to afford the ever-popular Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker. 

EA had a response, all of which can be found here: “The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes. Our team will continue to make changes and monitor community feedback and update everyone as soon and as often as we can.” 

Now, almost two weeks later, the post sits at negative 674,000 points, Reddit’s way of allowing users to track and rate posts. It’s the single most downvoted piece of content on the website. 

Since then, Electronic Arts has come under fire from fans of the game, as well as professional video game critics on social media. It has even drawn the attention of the Gambling Commissions of the United Kingdom and France. 

The concept of microtransactions comes hand in hand with downloadable content (DLC) like new characters, expansion packs and levels for games that are generally released after a game comes out. Gamers can buy these piecemeal, or opt for “season passes” to their games with post-launch content like was seen in “Final Fantasy XV” or “Injustice 2,” for varying prices. 

People regularly argue on sites like Resetera or Reddit that publishers charging extra for new game content is problematic, arguing the starting price of $60 is a lot of money. When you pay that, you expect a complete package like in the early 2000s and prior. However, microtransactions, DLC and loot-boxes only exist for one reason — profit. 

Game development is getting more and more expensive. As reported by Kotaku in 2014, big titles in 1996 like “Crash Bandicoot” had budgets between $1 and $3 million dollars, for games on obviously less advanced systems like the Playstation and Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Eighteen years later, “Destiny” releases after an estimated $140 million development contract. 

If “Crash Bandicoot” had released in 1996 at $60, it would have only had to sell around 17,000 units to break even on development costs. “Destiny” had to sell 2.3 million units to break even, not including their costs for marketing or distribution. To supplement that, DLC is introduced. These small purchases for game content can increase revenue while staying low on development costs. 

Basically, to survive in this industry, developers and publishers have to produce and sell something to supplement their games post-launch to be profitable as development prices balloon, as the effects of inflation continue and as the price of full games remains locked at $60.

Some games, like “Overwatch” and “Fortnite,” do this by allowing for the purchase of in-game loot-boxes, full of new items and ways to customize your characters. It’s not required, and players are still rewarded with these boxes upon completing challenges or leveling up. 

Some games, like “Battlefront 2,” tie progression within the game’s multiplayer mode with these loot-boxes, essentially forcing players to spend several hours to unlock a single item they need to progress. 

Thus, microtransactions are a necessary evil in this industry. It just depends on how you go about it.

Britton Rozzelle is the Executive Editor for The Spectator. He can be reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

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