Microtransactions: A plague on video games


   In another article, I talked about how the quest for money was making video games, among other things, less original. However, lack of originality is not the video game industry’s biggest problem right now. Microtransactions are gradually becoming more and more prevalent and video games as well as those who play them are hurt because of it.

   Microtransactions are items that players can pay money in order to get. There are two types: those that are purely cosmetic and those that affect gameplay. Microtransactions are most often put in competitive multiplayer games.

   A purely cosmetic item could be a new design for a character, and a gameplay affecting item could be a new character. Cosmetic items aren’t very controversial because they don’t affect other players; people can pay for them if they want and it won’t change anything.

   However, microtransactions that affect gameplay because those who buy them usually have  an edge against their opponents. In other words, players whom are able to pay more money get an unfair advantage which allows to them to win more than they normally would without the transactions.

   This leads to a pay-to-win system which takes away from the gaming experience. Either players don’t pay and lose, or they do pay and the game has a higher, hidden price tag.

   This shows that microtransactions take away from gameplay, but it is still just a choice people make about what to buy. There is another problem with microtransactions.

   Seperate from cosmetic vs. gameplay-altering, microtransactions can also be broken down into two other categories: definite and random.

   A definite microtransaction is when people know exactly what they are buying. For example, a person could be buying a specific design for a character. A random microtransaction then is when people don’t know exactly what they are buying; they are buying a random item from a collection of items. This is generally what people call loot boxes.

   There are two main reasons why people hate loot boxes. The first reason is that they can ruin games, as was seen with Star Wars Battlefront 2.

   This much anticipated game disappointed countless people when it came out because it was missing something vital: the main characters. Playing as main characters such as the villain Darth Vader or the hero Leia Organa is an integral part of the Star Wars Battlefront experience.

   However, in Battlefront 2, players had to pay a ridiculous sum of in-game currency to unlock those characters. This in-game currency can either be acquired by playing the game or by purchasing some with real money. It has been calculated that to unlock a single character, players have to play about 40 hours.

   At this point, it seems as though instead of creating a game and adding microtransactions in, the game developers created a system of microtransactions that looked like a game.

   The second reason why loot boxes are so disliked is that many argue they are a form of gambling. Loot boxes often incorporate a system of rarity where some rewards are more rare than others. This means that players have a chance to either get a less valuable reward or a more valuable reward, in the same sense that slot machines can give a big payout or a small payout.

   However, large video game producers deny that loot boxes are gambling and the Entertainment Software Rating Board does not consider it gambling. These companies say that in contrast to gambling, loot boxes always give some sort of reward.

   Sometimes however, these loot boxes go from pretty much gambling to actually gambling. The game Counter Strike: Global Offensive also has a loot box system where the rewards are new cosmetic designs for guns, called skins. These skins can then be traded with other players, which means that they have value. While most skins are common, which means they are only worth a few cents, some skins are very rare and can be worth up to several thousand dollars.

   Counter Strike also has a professional e-game scene, which means people compete in that game just like they would in regular sports games. This means that people are able to bet on the outcomes of games, and they did. People created websites where people were able to bet their skins, and anyone was able to bet. This created a $2.3 billion industry where children as young as 11 years old were able to gamble their rewards from loot boxes.

  These gambling rings have, for the most part, been shut down. However, this can still happen to any game where players are able to trade rewards.

   Even if loot boxes are not gambling, they are still very predatory. There are numerous psychological tricks that companies use to sell their loot boxes. These mainly entail tracking player data in order to figure out how to get them to keep buying.

   For example, the company Scientific Revenue tracks hundreds of different data points such as a player’s location and how much they play a game in order to figure at what price they are most likely going to buy a microtransaction. They set different prices for different players in order to get the most revenue. Their promise is to “turn players into payers,” which tells us that players are treated more as wallets than humans.

   So how can this loot box problem be solved? More and more people are pressing for loot boxes to be regulated, and it’s working. The Belgian Gaming Commision has officially declared loot boxes to be gambling and it’s pushing all of Europe to regulate it. In the US, Hawaii senator Chris Lee has spoken out against loot boxes and Washington senator Kevin Ranker has introduced legislation to regulate them.

   Loot boxes are hurting games because they are becoming integral to the gaming experience. More importantly however, they are hurting gamers due to their predatory nature. Loot boxes must be regulated in order to protect gamers and the video game industry.

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