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Microtransactions in Modern Gaming: Corporate Greed or Developer Survival?

One of the loudest, and most recent stories in Gaming news was EA’s controversial Star Wars Battlefront 2, a multiplayer online shooter set in the Star Wars universe that gave players the chance to take part in multiple iconic battles spanning all three eras. The game received near-universal critical praise for its polished gameplay, fantastic graphics and painstakingly authentic re-creation of the iconic Star Wars universe.

The controversy, however, centered around the game’s means of monetization: Competitive multiplayer strongly encouraged players to buy “loot boxes” filled with randomized rewards to power up their characters. These loot boxes could be bought with real money, and translated directly to in-game power, meaning that a player who’d been playing the game for a week could find themselves at a disadvantage against a player who’d started playing the game yesterday but spent $100 on the game’s loot boxes. One particular Redditor went even further, posting his calculations on the average amount of playtime required to unlock one of the game’s additional playable heroes: 40 Hours. According to Redditor TheHotterPotato’s calculations on playtime versus U.S. minimum wage, “It is currently 11.4x more efficient to Spend Money in EA Battlefront 2, Rather Than Play It.”

This, on top of the $60 cost of the base game, was too much for many consumers, who shamed EA’s use of the loot box model, a model that uses several psychological tricks to emulate the experience of using a slot machine, and a model that feeds off of and encourages gambling addictions. The story gained so much steam that it broke into mainstream media, and several countries have moved to formally classify (and ban) gaming loot boxes.

Coming off of a scandal like this one, it’s easy to mistake all of gaming’s microtransactions as a greedy corporate cash grab, but this snap-reaction is quite far from the truth. Consider, for example, production costs: Over the last 20 or so years, graphical capabilities have advanced by leaps and bounds, making it possible to play in a Star Wars game that looks better than the films it was based on. But with these advancements come some growing pains: In the 1990’s, Triple-A games such as Crash Bandicoot 2 or Unreal Tournament 2 cost no more than $2-3 million to produce. Jump forward 10 to 15 years to the Xbox 360 era, and we start to see games like Gears of War and Driver 3 racking up production costs like $10 Million or $34 Million, respectively. Grand Theft Auto 5 came in with a crushing $137 million production cost. Couple that with the fact that that good ‘ol $60 pricetag is actually getting cheaper and cheaper due to global inflation rates, and we have some seriously skewed cost-to-product ratios.

That’s not to say that these numbers excuse the predatory nature of certainly practices such as the aforementioned “loot box” system, but it does provide an explanation for the increasing prevalence of these tactics in modern gaming, even in $60 titles. Pricey downloadable content and multiple “season passes” may become par for course moving forward as a way for developers to justify the cost of producing new Triple-A titles. Don’t mistake this for a ‘bleak’ view on the future of gaming, however. There may be many future experiences that keep to the one-time-purchase model, but the $60 price tag might have to get bumped up a little, or the graphics bumped down. A healthy gaming economy is one that takes both parties, developers and players, into equal consideration, and players may need to start cutting publishers and developers some slack when it comes to paid additional content in Triple-A games; Unless things take a drastic shift, its a practice that’s here to stay.

Featured Image Via Flickr/Anil Mohabir

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Maya Asregadoo

    August 22, 2018 at 12:16 am

    I’ve personally always been annoyed by microtransactions, but this is a very interesting perspecitve!

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