Microtransactions: A Growing Pain

Either surgically or by brute force, please take them out of my games


Graphic: Alinna Boonklun/ SAC.Media

In recent years, there has been a very irritating increase in the inclusion of microtransactions in video games. Microtransactions are small purchases for various things such as cosmetic items, emotes, boosters, etc. These aren’t the same as map packs or expansions; those are known as DLC, or downloadable content. I don’t care for the practice of DLC either, but it’s not quite as bad as the virus that is microtransactions.

Now, some people defend microtransactions by pointing out that they’re optional, or that purely cosmetic microtransactions are harmless. They are not harmless, regardless of being optional or cosmetic. They are predatory and a detriment to any game they’re in. They take things that should just be in the game and instead make you pay for them.

Some studios implement ways to earn those same items instead of buying them, but the effort required to do so is often egregious, which encourages players to reach for their wallets.

Consumers love to lambast developers and publishers for monetizing their games, but they shoulder much of the blame too. After all, if microtransactions didn’t make money, we wouldn’t keep seeing them. Partaking in microtransactions isn’t going to make them go away, and it just encourages increasingly predatory monetization.

“Star Wars Battlefront II” sent gamers into a rage with its microtransactions. Player progression in the multiplayer mode was seen to be almost entirely reliant on microtransactions as opposed to simply playing the game. The grind to earn the items and characters in the game was so ridiculous that many people saw microtransactions as the only feasible way to get them. The ensuing backlash was unprecedented, causing publisher EA, or Electronic Arts, to temporarily shut down the in-game store while EA and developer Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment AB, or DICE, worked on a solution.

I would love to see more of this kind of backlash, but I must admit, I don’t understand why people were so surprised. Unless consumers push back, developers and publishers will continue to push microtransactions as much as they can. When gamers shell out their money for microtransactions, something like “Star Wars Battlefront II” is simply an inevitability.

There are some rare occasions when I turn a blind eye to microtransactions. This only ever happens with free-to-play games. These games have microtransactions because the developers do need to make money but are otherwise completely free. Some free-to-play games go overboard with microtransactions that are clearly designed to give buyers an advantage. However, there are a few games that aren’t as despicable.

“Warframe” is pretty much the only game that gets a full pass from me. This is because the game allows players to earn platinum, the premium in-game currency, just by trading with other players. I’ve made numerous purchases in “Warframe” without spending a cent.

That’s the only time I’ll truly defend a game’s microtransactions. I find “Warframe” acceptable because of how much content is in the game and, like I said, you can earn platinum in-game. Otherwise, all microtransactions anger me, including cosmetics.

In many microtransaction-riddled games, your character is a walking trophy, a testament to your accomplishments in the game. The gratification that comes with that is greatly diminished when someone can just whip out their wallet, buy some stuff, and look just as impressive as you, if not more so.

“Path of Exile” is a perfect example of what I just described. I tolerate and enjoy the game because it’s well-made and has a wealth of content, but the microtransactions are very much a point of irritation. It is entirely possible to experience the full game without spending any money, but when I invest time into a loot-centric game where the goal is to become powerful, I want my character to look the part.

My marauder in “Path of Exile” most certainly does not. This doesn’t mean you can’t look all cool and impressive; you just have to pay for it. It’s pretty irritating being a bland-looking, high level character and seeing some level five guy who looks like a fiery demon from the bowels of hell that could curb stomp me with his pinky. That takes a lot of the fun and satisfaction out of the game.

The other problem with cosmetic microtransactions is that all of those items could have been actual content. Back in the day, many games had a plethora of hidden goodies. Alternate costumes, secret weapons, unlockable characters and levels, there were all sorts of things you could find. Earning these things usually entailed completing some hidden challenge like travelling off the beaten path to find some optional dungeon with a crazy boss fight at the end. Little side things like that were really cool and added a lot of fun and longevity to the game.

These days, you just buy all that unlockable stuff. That’s god-awful. It’s maddening to think about just how much more content modern games could provide if items like those described weren’t tossed behind a paywall.

“Destiny 2,” for example, was, and still is, loaded with neat cosmetic items in the Eververse, the game’s microtransaction store. That was about all the game was loaded with, though. “Destiny 2” at launch had very little content, and I couldn’t help but fantasize about all those cosmetics being hidden in the dark corners of the map or behind secret bosses as opposed to being behind the Eververse kiosk. They would have given me something to do. It was possible to earn those items by gaining sufficient experience points, and I will admit that was nice, but that didn’t solve the content shortage problem. It just meant you had to play the same exact content over and over again.

There is another, more serious concern regarding a certain type of microtransaction called loot boxes. Recently, the governments of various countries have looked into the question of whether or not loot boxes constitute a form of gambling. Fun fact: the “Star Wars Battlefront II” fiasco caused the Belgian Gaming Commission to launch an investigation of this very subject.

The Entertainment Software Association, or ESA, and some publishers like EA vehemently reject the notion, but the answer couldn’t be more obvious. Loot boxes are absolutely a form of gambling. Gambling, simply put, is when you play a game of chance for a desired outcome. The promise of a reward, no matter how small the chance is of actually receiving it, keeps people coming back. That’s why so many people feed their money to slot machines at casinos.

Loot boxes are a game of chance that require a monetary purchase in return for some reward. They’re always randomized, and there’s a possibility of getting something really nice and fancy. Does that sound like a slot machine? It should.

There hasn’t been quite as much government action against loot boxes as I would have liked to see, but the issue is being discussed, and that’s better than nothing. Unfortunately, only Belgium and the Netherlands have really cracked down on loot boxes thus far. Both countries found them to be in violation of their existing gambling laws. Australia found in 2018 that loot boxes are psychologically similar to gambling and recommended that the sale of games containing loot boxes be restricted to people of at least 18 years of age, the legal gambling age in the country. That hasn’t been made law just yet, but hopefully it’s in the works.

I don’t care what type of microtransaction is in a game—I want to see them all go away. I would much rather pay full price for a full game than pay full price for the game version of the fun-size candy bar and have to pay for the rest of the chocolate pieces. By a wide margin, microtransactions are predatory and will only lead to increasingly disgusting business practices so long as gamers continue to willingly dish out their money. If consumers don’t stop supporting this type of monetization, situations like “Star Wars Battlefront II” and “Destiny 2” will become the norm.