The term “microtransaction” has been negatively connotated to the status of an industry-specific swear word. The act of paying for more game or unlocking cosmetic items through purchases isn’t new at all. But the tone of the process and its integration into the mainstream market has drastically changed. What we’ve invited into the fold of our games industry could be a harmless addition for the completionist crowd, but if left unchecked it could turn the entire market into a casino.
So let’s be clear: a “microtransaction” is the act of spending any money on a game beyond the retail price, in the form of a “micropayment.” This generally does not refer to things that you simply buy at a fixed price and then own, such as the DLC content that permanently expands the map of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion or gives you more level packs in Doom. Instead, a microtransaction as it occurs today and attracts criticism is a purchase model that institutes transactions that are ongoing and sometimes compulsory, often packaged into a game that’s technically free to play. More on that in a minute.
DLC content as we’ve always known it is really just an artificial increase in the game’s market retail. To avoid padding that already hefty 60 USD with growing market costs, thus avoiding criticism, games offer optional expansions to fans. On the company ledger, this probably appears as another game sale with severely reduced costs, as the engine and assets were all reused and the development time was short and the sales were guaranteed. This is similar to the shareware model on MS-DOS, where you received the first few levels for free and had to fax your credit card information for the rest. You see this in Indie games too, such as Klei’s Don’t Starve, a game that goes for 15 USD on Steam but can be expanded into an even fuller game, which will cost twice that to own in its entirety.
Today, the microtransaction has been remodeled from a way to avoid increasing retail prices while still giving players tons of content to a self-sustaining revenue generator. Free games like Candy Crush Saga have the entire game unlocked for play, but restarting requires a tiny compulsory payment. Games like this often institute a wait time before you can play again for free.
But this isn’t so new either. Arcade games for instance were on a similar pay-to-play model that rewarded compulsion and planted gambling seeds in fertile young minds. So what’s changed to make the modern microtransaction so insidious?
The model hasn’t changed: the games have changed. While not true of every arcade game, those that were most played and still remembered were self-contained adventures through specific levels and towards a specific goal. The goal might have been a high score, so the microtransaction fueled friendly competition more than pure compulsion. There was a limit to its hold on a player proportional to that player’s skill (if you were bad at Joust, you stopped playing Joust).
And then of course as the arcade games evolved and they started goal-setting and making epic quests and designing levels, the act of purchasing credits was even less psychologically coercive. To beat Gradius or Ghost n’ Goblins or Super Mario Bros. may have been an obsession for some, but it was an obsession to beat a specific game, not necessarily to spend more money infinitely. Ghosts n’ Goblins particularly had the clever wherewithal to show players how many levels there were in no uncertain terms, teasing the stalwart to pay up for another chance to hone their skills.
This skirts an ethical edge over which the modern microtransaction pitches the entire industry into the sea, tied to rocks like Candy Crush and Loot Boxes.
Unlike those games in the arcades, the iOS titles that pioneered the modern microtransaction are designed specifically to encourage compulsory play. EA has branded itself with a critical mark before Battlefront II has even released with its use of paid unlocks and loot boxes, which you can use like a slot machine to pay real money for a chance at a random reward. Since the game thrives on online competition, this adds an extra compulsion to the completionist’s cocktail, to energize the habits of the competitive and the weak-willed to take short-cuts to progress and show up their virtual playmates.
How is this different than paying to get a high-score in Joust? In the arcade, you paid for a chance to play, not for a special cape that made you flap faster than all your friends. Publishers like EA have shown their grubby little intentions so clearly because of how obviously detrimental this model is to balanced competition. It will reach the point that a game like Battlefront will not cost 60 USD to the consumer because to survive two seconds online, you’ll have to shell out at least twice that to get the best gear and unlock all the heroes. Did you know you have to buy Luke Skywalker? Imagine if Super Mario Odyssey came with a boring default character, and you had to buy Mario separately.
When you went to the arcade, you generally had a limited amount of physical money to spend on the machines. So while some of the games back then were definitely addicting, the child in the arcade had to be cognizant of their real world resources. Since the money wasn’t unlimited and the games were often fun and amazing quests in their own right, arcade games avoided being full-fledged gambling machines for children. Even games that have become famous for skimping on content without extra purchases have traditionally been clear on how much money you have to pay for what loot. You might have to pay 150 USD for all the characters in Evolve, for instance, but you purchase them individually and by choice and for a specific amount of cash and you own them forever.
This is not the case with the modern implementation of the loot boxes. These games offer rewards of randomly-generated quality from a pool, just like a slot machine. To avoid grinding up your all-star, in NBA 2K18 you can pull the lever with real-world currency and try to get upgrades; in Forza Motorsport 7 you can take a chance for some car mods, which have been a built-in game feature in the past, by paying for a spin on the loot box. With the rise of digital currency and the average age of the credit card owner dropping all the time, the effect has been immediate, with publishers like Apple refunding angry parents for compulsory micropayments in the thousands of dollars.
But as these purchases become more well-known and widely used, surely publishers will stop refunding them? Games like Candy Crush after all aren’t even designed as video games: they’re designed in board rooms to be compulsive and addicting, to generate all that accidental cash on late-night obsessive replays and absent-minded lunch break binges. This is like a company putting a Zuma machine in your kid’s bedroom.
This week, EA flipped a big fairness switch and turned loot boxes off of Battlefront II following a series of perfect PR rows that have even convinced some European nations to look into the legality of loot boxes. But when the media cools, won’t a mechanic that was central to the finished game be reintegrated? The idea that the game will be fair for a little while means nothing in the face of developing it in the first place as a compulsive nostalgia tax.
What disturbs me is the fact that this kind of thinking beyond the gamer, creating user-hostile experiences just to gouge a resource for extra dollars, has invaded the AAA industry in games that used to be purchasable, but which now come with heavy disclaimers. This isn’t like the Shivering Isles either, which is something that Bethesda probably couldn’t afford to develop for the main game and which we would have never seen if not for the extra development time for the paid DLC.
Microtransactions today purposely withhold desirable content to farm extra purchases and recoup the rising costs of all those fancy graphics. Activision has devised algorithms to pair players online according to different parameters of loot box purchase history, pairing someone struggling to earn their first box with someone who buys them all the time, placing someone who just bought something in an arena that would validate their purchase. There’s a reason why in addition to purchasing loot boxes you can earn them by grinding experience. The developers want you to know how long it takes to get one the hard way and wear you down with flashy reminders, often in the form of stronger players, until playing your video game amounts to a war of attrition between the publisher’s gambling scheme and your own restraint. If you think that loot box rewards are “only cosmetic” or “not relevant to gameplay,” then you’ve already been sucked into the psychology Activision and EA planned specifically for you.
In addition to the “pay to win” model of the psychology inherent in online experiences like Overwatch, even single player games like Dead Space 3 and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War are starting to offer players the ability to opt out of grinds or acquire perks with the purchase of a loot box. Developers are not only admitting that the reasonable progression of their game’s design has been eschewed for their idea of a more profitable business model, but also that they’re not afraid to go beyond competitive online markets to attack players individually in what should be their own personal adventure, to prey on them with gambling on the turf of their own imagination.
This doesn’t just ruin single gaming experiences: this is a refund on every beautiful engagement ever perpetrated by a video game for the sake of its players’ enjoyment. This is gaming brought to its knees.
If we let publishers put a slot machine in the living room of every person in America just to bleed a little off the top of the idle and weak-willed, we’re consigning the modern games industry to become what it was long ago: a scheme to gouge drinkers, to soak up loose paychecks, and to entrap children.
For a short time, gaming became something wild and fantastic, a quest after a new mode of expression, adventure, and art. Before you buy Battlefront II or roll the dice for the next upgrade on Overwatch, you should ask yourself if you’re okay with never adventuring again. If you are, then by all means: ante up.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org