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Remember the days where you would buy a game using your parents’ hard-earned money and got the full experience right from the get-go? Yeah, me neither. In the advent of the new millennium a revolutionary practice was introduced in the form of micro-transactions. This is a modest purchase for additional content to make your gaming experience more thorough. Sometimes the items are simply cosmetic, other times they impart a bonus in gameplay. Anything from loot boxes and crates to downloadable content is a form of micro-transaction, and it seems that this practice has taken the gaming world by storm.
It all started with “Free to Play” games. Many companies adopt this model, where you can download a game for free, but the developers build in micro-transactions to speed up progression or access new features. Many “Free to Play” games are designed to create never-ending needs, whether it is the game not giving you enough resources to get started or locking the better ones behind a pay-wall. Other times, the developers give enough free content to the player in a game to get them started, only to persuade them to buy the full version after a certain point. This practice has drastically changed the landscape of game development, many large companies adopting it in their big releases. The problem here is that you need to pay for the game first, usually between £50 and £60, before you even consider buying add-ons.
In the case of the recently released Shadow of War, the micro-transactions are in the form of Loot Chests or War Chests. They offer the main character new gear and better followers for his army, respectively. The lower tiers of those chests can be purchased with in-game currency, while the higher tiers can only be purchased with real money. The problem with this game is that the final chapter of the story can only be beaten by the acquisition of those top tier chests. Otherwise, the player would have to spend hundreds of hours of grinding through the other sections of the game to unlock the necessary followers in order to beat the last section. Although design director Bob Roberts explained that the game was designed and balanced in such a way that the chests would serve as an alternate method of progression, the fact that you have to choose between wasting hours in order to win one final battle or pay roughly £2 pounds per chest is does not sound balanced at all. The final section of the game sets the main character and its accumulated forces against other armies that constantly invade their fortress, meaning that if you did not spend most of your playthrough up until that point making sure that your followers were the best you could find, you would have to make this imbalanced choice. A top tier chest includes three powerful followers, which is not enough to fill up your 25-30-member army. Therefore, in addition to the £50 you pay for the game, assuming you opt out of the gold and silver special editions, which go up to £80, you have to spend at least £20 extra in order to beat the game without worrying about the army grind.
The latest controversy of the micro-transaction saga came in November 2017, when the latest game from EA, Star Wars: Battlefront II, was met with highly negative reviews and impressions because of its micro-transaction practices. Here, loot boxes give a random assortment of items to use in game, with a chance of obtaining a playable character. It encouraged people to spend money on loot boxes that would give them playable characters that are too hard to get in the game through normal play-through. The company made it deliberately hard to get a character, requiring up to ten hours of gameplay in order to get it for free, hoping to gain more money from the loot box model. The bad reaction from players made it worse for the company, losing money because their projected market refused to buy the game, and thus not support the practice. The game had so much potential, as the developer, DICE, promised to correct the mistakes of the first iteration, by adding a full single player campaign and constant free content updates throughout its lifespan. What they forgot to mention was that the game had insanely unreasonable in-game currency prices for unlockable characters, among which was fan-favourite character Darth Vader. After the outrage of the gaming community, the developer issued an update for the game, lowering the prices of unlockable characters, making it slightly less of a chore to obtain them, while keeping the paid-for-additional-content model. This has prompted the Belgian government to launch an investigation into whether or not loot boxes should be considered gambling, as they are encouraging children to spend money for a chance of getting the character they wished for. Star Wars: Battlefront II retailed for £55, with loot boxes costing roughly £2 each. However, the price dropped massively after the controversy, going as low as £20 on Black Friday deals. People were still not happy, as it has barely sold 7 million units worldwide by the end of January 2018, and had missed EA’s target sales by over 1 million units. By the end of November 2017, EA had lost $3 billion in stock value since the launch of the game.
Despite the unethical ideas behind the practice, microtransactions seem to be the thing to do in today’s gaming world. Most major releases already promise DLC packages upon release, some of which end up costing almost as much as the base game. Loot boxes have gained a subculture on the online scene as well. People spend immense amounts of money and film themselves opening Counter Strike: Global Offensive crates in hopes of getting rare weapons, with a spectacular number of viewers joining them. It seems like no game is fully complete anymore, but with a market as demanding as the gaming one, perhaps it is exactly how it needs to be. Gamers demand quick releases and the developers simply have to meet expectations and release a half-baked game, with more to come on the way. Let’s just hope that in the future, we won’t have to spend £60 on an empty game disk that promises to deliver the content for an extra £60 at a later date.