In-game purchases, also known as microtransactions, have become a staple of the video game industry. You will be hard pressed to find a new release that does not contain some form of microtransaction in it, whether it be cosmetic options or experience boosts. This form of revenue gathering by developers and publishers has been under a great deal of scrutiny lately with stories of players who have spent thousands of dollars impulsely on microtransaction based content.
With many pointing to the random system of being rewarded from microtransactions, such as loot boxes, there have been comparisons to gambling. With a large population of video game players being children, this has caused concern among those in and outside of the community. While there are the horror stories of microtransactions, these in-game purchases can also be forces of positivity for the people who make our favorite games and the players who love to play them.
The genres often caught up in microtransaction issues are competitive multiplayer, sports, and mobile games. Games like Clash of Clans, FIFA, Madden, NBA 2K, Overwatch, League of Legends, Fortnite, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Star Wars Battlefront II and others are some of the biggest utilizers of creating new digital content to be sold in-game. Creating new character skins, packs of cards to be used in certain game modes, or even competitive advantages in the form of powerups are a couple of the kinds of content that can be found in a modern games' microtransaction library. This kind of content is very alluring to players who pour many hours into these kinds of games, and can lead to the spending of thousands of dollars in the worse cases from what began as a simple purchase to a full-blown addiction.
This was the case for one player back in 2016 who spent nearly $8,000 on his father's credit card on one of the FIFA titles. The player told his father that he didn't know he was being charged with every transaction. With no physical monetary bill being exchanged, it is often easy for players to not fully realize how they much they are actually spending. Another case of a young person spending thousands of dollars on in-game purchases was a player who wrote an open letter to EA sharing his story of addiction with microtransactions, amidst the controversy that Star Wars Battlefront II had created. In this letter, the 19-year-old player stated that he had spent $17,827 on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth.
The release of EA's Star Wars Battlefront II this past year had many fans excited, but with the revelation of a game possibly completely consumed in microtransactions, the community was outraged at what EA had done. The ability to buy packs that rewarded players with different kinds of gameplay boosts gave players the chance to recieve cards that would give them a significant competitive advantage over other players. With the pay-to-win model of games becoming more and more taboo among the vidoe gaming community, EA recieved a great amount of backlash. So much that the publisher decided to remove all of the microtransactions from the game to appease players and to entice to them back to playing Battlefront II.
While microtransactions get a great amount of grief, and often rightfully so, there are positives for having this kind of in-game content available. With many of the most popular games on the market currently being competitive online multiplayer games it becomes a challenge for developers if they want to create loot box content that doesn't shift the balance of competition. This leaves them creating mainly cosmetic items for players to have available to them, such as in Overwatch and Fortnite's Battle Royale mode. This kind of in-game purchases often can be earned from just playing the game itself, which in turn motivates current players to continue playing and old/new players to come back to a game. These microtransactions give players a chance to be rewarded with content that allows them to customize their playing experience.
Microtransactions are also a source of income for the developers who create our favorite games. With the majority of games being developed as services now that aim to have players playing them for years, they need an avenue to continue to fund their operations and pay their employees to keep the game running as smooth as possible. Especially with free to play games, such as Fortnite's Battle Royale mode, microtransactions allow players to support the developers who are hard at work making sure their game is running properly and at the same time working to provide new content for fans.
It is unlikely that the microtransaction practice will be going away anytime soon, as companies are making massive profits from the in-game purchases. Activision Blizzard announced in their 2018 earnings call that they had made over four billion dollars in microtransactions sales in 2017 alone. With numbers like that, it makes no sense from a business standpoint for these massive publishers and developers to stop incorporating microtransactions into their games.
There has been a recent movement in the legal world to get microtransactions, specifically loot boxes, banned or regulated as they are seen as a form of gambling even though "We've seen several regulatory agencies, including the UK, Denmark, New Zealand, etc., declare that loot boxes are not considered gambling," according to Director of Research at the UNLV International Gaming Institute Brett Abarbanel in a interview with Twin Galaxies. Even with these declarations, Politicians from around the world are calling for laws to be made to stop loot boxes from appearing in games or at least be regulated. Recently, the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) announced that they will begin to add "In-Game Purchases" to the rating labels for every game. The main motivation being to help warn concerned parents buying games for their children who might be wary of the horror stories of young players spending thousands of dollars on in-game content.
The battle over microtransactions is far from over, but with the practice being such a lucrative one for gaming companies it is hard to see them going away anytime soon.