Microtransactions are amongst some of gamers’ least favorite terms. Let’s explore how they’re ruining the video game industry.
There's no doubt that microtransactions are the future of gaming. With microtransactions, gaming companies can continually develop a franchise and have the funds necessary to grow the game years after its initial release.
When done correctly, microtransactions can open endless doors for gaming companies to introduce new features and expand the world they've established. However, microtransactions can also appear as predatory, especially if they are integrated in a way that inhibits a gamer's experience instead of enhancing it.
Although microtransactions are not unique to gaming, they play a critical role in the development of virtual economies found in online games. In many ways, microtransactions help establish a digital economy in a way that its in-game value intersects with currencies within the physical world.
For example, a rare item or skin inside a game will not just be assigned a value within that game's virtual economy, but also one in dollars, euros, and so on. While microtransactions have previously existed in the informal black market for gaming, it has slowly been legitimized by developers through the years.
These days, microtransactions usually come in the form of in-app purchases within games. In-app purchases can range from cosmetic details to small, recurring purchases which can help gamers progress faster than without them.
With microtransactions, developers can both reduce timelines for release in between games and generate higher engagement with their user base. However, these can also introduce additional issues within games as well.
While it's possible to introduce microtransactions to a game positively, here are some examples of how microtransactions, are ruining the gaming industry.
To some degree, microtransactions can be applied to things that don't necessarily affect gameplay. Similar to how a rich person in real life can afford a luxury bag, the utility of the bag is the same as one worth a quarter of its price. However, in some cases, microtransactions can seriously affect a gamer's overall experiences.
Unfortunately, many games are implementing systems wherein they give an edge to people who pay more. Often referred to as play-to-win, many mobile games often fall under this category, where players who are willing to shell out money can get a significant edge in terms of core performance.
Some examples of advantages could be access to shortcuts, special characters with unique skills, or even special items. While play-to-win models don't necessarily mean that non-paying players can't hold their own, games that rely on this for its profitability tend to skew their game mechanics toward paying players.
To be able to match up with paying players, non-paying players would need to be either highly skilled, lucky, or can dedicate an absurd amount of time to grind for the same access to characters or skills.
For example, paying players can even have access to certain capabilities for PvP fights, which make them impossible to beat by an ordinary, non-paying player. With this, games can have imbalances that prevent non-paying players from progressing or remaining competitive.
While unintentional, microtransactions can also inadvertently remove the benefits of a game's virtual economy vacuum. By assigning a fiat equivalent to a game's currency, it essentially intertwines a game's virtual economy with the real-world economy, which can cause a whole range of problems such as discouraging meritocracy.
Ideally, a game's virtual economy exists in a space wherein its value is generated from products or services with lifecycles done within a game, such as going on quests, selling loot to NPCs, crafting weapons for other players to purchase, winning matches, and so on.
With microtransactions, the stakes change when you can skip steps and use fiat money to purchase in-game currency. Aside from players coming from more affluent countries having more power in terms of paying potential, it also translates social status from outside the game to inside it.
When done in this manner, microtransactions can dampen the escapist quality of gaming and remind gamers that inequality exists in-game as well. With this, players with lots of disposable income can use their privilege to bypass the meritocracy of games as a whole.
For example, preferential treatment is given to rich players because they can afford more expensive potions that heal them faster, purchase more durable weapons, acquire rare wild cards for trading, or even have access to maps that paying players don't have.
As online downloads become more common, releasing additional content becomes more common for many digital games before and after their base game release. However, there's a strong argument for why season passes and DLCs are doing more harm than good as well as microtransactions.
Unlike patches or updates, which are essential to remove bugs and enhance in-game experiences and are dynamically introduced, microtransactions are planned for in advance by companies. Not to mention, developers can use microtransactions to lock potentially significant content behind paywalls.
Because developers can justify the possibility of addressing problems after release, companies can prioritize early sales instead of guaranteeing a good experience from the base game itself.
With this, several companies have been known to release substandard base games and expect users to pay for extended packs just to make the game playable. For example, gaming companies can release games with such poor gameplay and balance that microtransactions are often required just to keep progression feeling significant.
While not all microtransactions are harmful you could argue that the majority of them ruin the video games industry.
In theory, there are ways to make in-game microtransactions work without coercing players into paying, such as limiting them to cosmetic enhancements or adding spending caps. Unfortunately, however, we're seeing more and more games incorporating microtransactions in a more crucial—and damaging—way.
It's essential that gaming companies stay tuned to the experiences of their players so as not to isolate them or make them an unhealthy addiction. After all, games can be discouraging if they reflect too closely on the inequalities of life outside it.
Quina is a staff writer for MUO, resident adrenaline junkie, and lover of all things tech. She is primarily based in Southeast Asia and graduated with a degree in Information Design.
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