Microtransactions Are Corrupting Video Games

- Game Design, Video Games, Business

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In 2017, Electronic Arts released Star Wars Battlefront II. Very quickly, many were angered at the predatory way microtransactions were implemented in the game, so much so that governments around the world noticed and have been considering whether regulations around them are necessary to protect people.

But Star Wars Battlefront II is far from the first offender in predatory microtransactions design, nor the worst. It did, however, gained notoriety because of its blockbuster status, the Star Wars franchise attached to it, and abysmal customer response to the controversy.

While much of the debate around regulation has centered around loot boxes and protecting vulnerable children from developing gambling addictions, I would like to bring into light a broader issue: why the microtransactions innovation has made video games worse to play in general.

In this article, I will be defining microtransactions as a transaction that grants the buyer with the ability to use a feature that exists in a specific game, but that is not available by default in said game. Note that such an ability could be of limited or unlimited use, and could potentially also be acquired through gameplay.

One relatively obvious issue is the fact that the seller of a microtransaction is basically charging for content that the buyer already has. The only barrier preventing the game's owner from accessing this content is its programming, which can be circumvented though hacking. It's questionable whether digital rights management solutions or licenses protecting such content from the consumer are ethical in such a case. Things get even worse when a microtransaction only grants a limited amount of uses of an ability, as the seller can suddenly charge for the same feature an unlimited amount of times.

One might argue that for video games offered as an online service rather than a standalone product, consumers might not have direct access to the content, and as such they do not already have it. While technically true in some cases, there is the other issue that restricting content from an online service, and offering access through microtransactions, is basically allowing companies to artifically create and own monopolies, and all of the economic issues those create due to the lack of competition. And lack of competition there is, due to the base game being protected by copyright.

I should point out at this point that microtransactions could be used as a form of rental, like purchasing credits in arcade games. I believe there are better business models for video game rentals however, such as subscriptions or limited-time game execution. Similarly, I believe using the freemium model is not a proper substitute for a traditional playable game demo, even when considering that the latter may have the opposite effect than the one intended.

Regardless, we could wonder why limiting the ability to use game features is a problem from a game design perspective. The answer is simple: monetizing player abilities encourages the production of addictive games instead of fun games. And unfortunately, a lot of people are vulnerable to addictive game mechanics.

This is where things get more insidious. Suddenly, unfair difficulty is acceptable because you can purchase ways to reduce it. Suddenly, slow and boring progression through grinding is acceptable because you can purchase ways to speed up or skip the process. Suddenly, in-game items that are practically impossible to obtain through gameplay are acceptable because you can purchase them. Suddenly, purchases with a direct or indirect random non-reversible element are acceptable because you can purchase more of them until you get the outcome that you want. Meanwhile, standard features of retro games such as difficulty settings, cheat codes and customizable characters are becoming rarer and rarer.

Take for example Magic: The Gathering Arena. This is a genuinely well designed and fun game to play, but if you want to be competitive, you need to purchase a lot of booster packs to get a sufficient amount of good cards that synergizes well together, and if you want to switch to a different gameplay style or strategy, you need to purchase even more of them. It was the same issue way back in 1993 when the paper version of Magic: The Gathering was released, and it's still the same issue today. Even back in elementary school, I realized this business model was a complete rip-off when I noticed that the expected cost of having a deck that had any chance to win was significantly more expensive than new state-of-the-art video games available at the time. Meanwhile, the 1997 PC version of Magic: The Gathering by MicroProse was one of my favorite games, and featured the same base gameplay, hundreds of unique cards, an excellent and optional RPG single-player adventure added on top of it designed by the legendary Sid Meier called Shandalar, and all of that at a competitive price.

We then get into a weird situation where such mechanics corrupts the entire industry. After all, why would a for-profit company make a fun game if it can instead make an un-fun game that generates more revenue? Most people aren't that stupid to fall for such a scheme, but the problem is that a small minority of people are investing huge amounts of money in microtransactions, regardless of whether their budget can afford it or not, so much so that the industry are referring to such customers as whales. These whales generate so much revenue that it's in the best interest of a company to design all of their games to this niche, instead of a wide range of potential customers.

For instance, an advertisement was released a few days ago for a game featuring three different types of virtual currency, booster packs of virtual cards, limited time goals to acquire in-game currency, grinding mechanics to evolve cards, a limited-time jackpot, rewards for winning 1000 games of luck, a pachinko minigame, a slot machine minigame featuring gems, daily goals and rewards when playing during specific times of the day, a weekly reward for logging in 7 days in a row, and a price wheel minigame. You'd think this would be an advertisement for a casino game, but no. This advertisement is actually for NBA 2K20, a mainstream basketball game officially licensed by the NBA. I'm pretty sure those aren't features that make a basketball game more fun, only more addictive. Oh, and of course, this game is rated Everyone by the ESRB, and also rated PEGI 3, both ratings without any addiction-related warnings associated with them. (And for those wondering about the showcased "players" seemingly having a good time, the controller they're holding isn't even turned on.)

We even see cases of bait and switch where the nature of microtransactions are deceptive, such as with Mortal Kombat 11 where the game's creative director declared that the game would not feature loot boxes, but it turned out to contain predatory mechanics extremely similar to loot boxes. Worse, sometimes microtransactions are patched in after the game's initial release, potentially fooling customers and critics, such as what happened with Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled last month. Ironically, that last game is a remaster of Crash Team Racing, a 20 years old game released before microtransactions even existed.

The corruption is so prevalent that it even invaded marketplaces. Valve Corporation was once the industry leader in the creation of masterful video games franchises such as Half-Life, Counter-Strike and Portal, and the most popular digital store for PC games. Nowadays, Valve Corporation has significantly slowed down new game productions to the point where the non-existence of Half-Life 3 despite the huge demand for it has become a meme, and Steam is now riddled with monetization features that encourages their consumers to become microtransaction sellers themselves through a secondary market monopoly, such as their Team Fortress 2 hats and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive skins.

So this is why I hate microtransactions - not because I do not want to purchase them, but because they corrupt the design of games I would have no problem purchasing otherwise, and strip them of their fun or cause them to become ridiculously expensive. This is especially sad when this occurs for loved long-running franchises. There's a few passionnate video game developers that are still trying to create great game experiences, but those are the exception. Not that banning microtransactions would stop companies from making cash grabs, but at least it'll give the opportunity for consumers to recognize them from reviews, and avoid purchasing them.

I would like to conclude that in my opinion, the issue isn't with the random element of certain microtransactions. Randomness can be a good thing in video games when it's used smartly. While randomness dramatically exacerbates the problem of predatory microtransactions, it is not their cause. That said, it might be a good idea to study if some forms of randomness in video games that previously went under the radar may justify warnings of increased gambling addiction risks or not, although it may be very hard to properly determine where to draw the line.