As online multiplayer games have grown in popularity, so too have their unique monetisation schemes that push players to spend real money on in-game content such as items or cosmetics. They seem harmless, but as the FTC investigates loot boxes for potentially being unregulated gambling, microtransactions have proven to be dangerously anti-consumer — and they are making their way into single-player games.
Until fairly recently, companies have not been bold enough to implement microtransactions into anything but mobile and multiplayer games because they are specifically designed for these experiences: players can easily be incentivised to buy a small item to speed up gameplay in Candy Crush or free-to-play MOBAs like League of Legends, but single-player games and fully priced multiplayer titles have traditionally lacked such features. Instead, they received DLCs which were generally received well by players, providing them with hours of additional content.
However, as consumers have slowly come to push back against more recent DLC which often offers too little for too much and divides player bases, companies such as EA have been forced to phase out its infamous season passes and content packs in order to at least appear pro-consumer. In their place now are even worse business practices: loot boxes, pay-to-win gameplay systems, and content that is locked behind expensive paywalls, all easy to implement and extremely profitable long-term.
As with DLC, consumers eventually came to recognise that microtransactions were bad for them and the industry, but by then the time had already passed. They had become the norm for most big $60 releases, and even great scandals as with Battlefront II did little to prevent future use of the practice.
Now, as companies have realised the enormous potential of microtransactions to make additional profit, the real threat presented by them is the one they pose to single-player experiences. As mentioned before, microtransactions are specifically designed for multiplayer and free-to-play mobile games which feature gameplay that encourages small purchases — lacking such features, the only valid way to implement microtransactions into single-player games is to force them at the expense of their overall quality.
For example, while games once allowed players to unlock content by completing challenges and mastering their gameplay, the process is now simply a matter of players collecting enough virtual currency to buy a loot box and hope it has the item they want; in the case of games such as Middle Earth: Shadow of War, engaging gameplay and earned rewards are replaced by repetitive, random slot machines that sacrifice the consumer’s fun for the publisher’s profit.
Alternatively, even basic progression systems in RPGs such as the recent Assassin’s Creed games have clearly been intentionally throttled, allowing players only a few hours of natural, satisfying progress before they are forced to grind for experience just to complete the next level — making a few quick purchases all the more attractive.
This worrying, Irrational design philosophy, in which money takes precedence over gameplay, threatens the future of gaming as a whole, and despite enormous backlash and various boycotts of publishers, microtransactions are not going anywhere. One can only hope respected developers such as Naughty Dog and CD Projekt Red will continue with their explicitly pro-consumer practices and that proper legislation will reign in those that do not.