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Microtransactions: Keeping Free Games Active

Last Updated on September 21, 2019 by Michael Brockbank

Microtransactions have made a great deal of news in the gaming community in late 2017. Many gamers are up-in-arms as many triple A titles include more ways to squeeze money from your wallets. However, are these elements a necessary evil to keep free games available? I suppose it depends on what you get for the money.

What Are Microtransactions?

A microtransaction is an element in a game that doesn’t seem to cost a lot of money to augment your gaming experience. For instance, adding more time to play a game on your smartphone by paying $0.99 is a microtransaction.
[template id=”145″] These small purchases are handled in a myriad of ways depending on the game. Some include cosmetic-only changes to game play, like in League of Legends. Others give you an unfair advantage when playing against other humans, like the fiasco surrounding loot boxes and Star Wars Battlefront II.

In principal, microtransactions are a brilliant business model. Instead of charging someone $60 for a game, you can make more by pinging a player many times at less than a dollar each.

Unfortunately, these paid-for-boosts are often abused by developers. On the other hand, they are also necessary to some free titles on the market.

Is a Free Game Really “Free?”

Many people like the idea of free gaming entertainment. But do you ever really think about the people who put in the time to create those programs? If you have a team of developers, how do you pay them when the project is free-to-play? Through microtransactions.

Let’s take Smite, for example. This is a popular MOBA, or multiplayer online battle arena, that is free to play. It has a large following and is well-known throughout the online gaming community. The only microtransaction it has available is through the purchase of character skins.

How does Hi-Rez, the developer of Smite, pay their employees? How are the servers built? Who pays the electricity? There is more cash involved to developing and hosting a game than just merely paying someone to program it.

In the case of Smite, microtransactions to purchase skins is necessary to keep the game “free.” I’m sure Hi-Rez has other avenues of income, but what about smaller developers? These kinds of transactions help keep the game alive and well over time.

Where Most Players Find Fault

A lot of players don’t mind microtransactions as long as they don’t create an unfair advantage. This was the primary reason why I stopped playing Wolf Team back in the day. Those who had the money would annihilate the competition. Not everyone has unlimited funds to throw at a “free” game.

In reality, the controversy behind loot boxes probably wouldn’t be as bad if EA only implemented skin packs. Consider the popularity and draw of Smite and League of Legends. No character ability bonuses, yet both games are exceptional.

I rarely have the money to put into games that I occasionally play. Other than that, I prefer to grind until I get what I want. Not only do I save money, but I also get a sense of accomplishment as I feel I earned the item.

I didn’t even accept magic items in EverQuest from higher level players. For me, it’s all about earning it.

Feeding the Addiction

In some instances, microtransactions are abused by the players themselves. An otherwise innocent game has potential to be as addictive as the most potent illicit drug. Ask anyone who played Candy Crush when it first came out.

In one such instance, a Reddit user by the name of Kensgold spent more than $10,000 over a six-year period thanks to microtransactions. Starting from the age of 13, this young man spent most of his income from jobs to fuel his addiction. His argument to himself was, “What else am I going to spend it on?

And that’s the crux of the situation…the mentality of how these small purchases affect people. It doesn’t seem like $0.99 for extra time is all that massive until you realize you clicked that button 500 times over the span of a year or two.

Although many experts would like to point the finger of blame at developers, the real issue is the addictive behavior. Some people are just not cut out to face a one-time deal and move on. In fact, most of us have addictions to varying degrees. Whether it’s smoking, chocolate, Adam Sandler movies or video games, we all have some kind of vice we spend money on.

My point is that anything can be abused by the wrong person, and blaming developers for these transactions is not a just cause. Otherwise, it could set a precedent for blaming Netflix on adult obesity in the United States. Coincidentally, McDonald’s was blamed for this a few years ago.

Age-Gating Microtransactions?

One suggestion floating around at the moment is age-gating certain content. This came to my attention a few weeks ago thanks to the Hawaiian representative marching to make loot boxes considered gambling.

The problem with age-gating digital entertainment is that it doesn’t work all that well. How many of you under the age of consent clicked on “Yes, I am 18” when you wanted to visit a website or game? It’s not all that difficult to roll the date to say you were born 25 years ago.

What about age-gating purchases? How many stories have you heard about kids getting a hold of credit cards to pay for things online? In fact, a lot of parents today would simply hand over the card to make those purchases without looking at the content.

My point is there are no good ways to implement age-gating online without some kind of digital DNA sequencing or direct monitoring.

Prospect of Free Games

Free games need to bring in their money from somewhere. It’s not like developers can make enough to keep the servers and upgrades coming by using Adsense on a blog. A free service can only go so far without microtransactions of some kind. Keep this in mind before you complain about these small purchases being available in your favorite “free game.”

Michael Brockbank
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Michael Brockbank

Michael developed ColoradoPlays to help various charities through his favorite pastime. Since then, the blog and Twitch channels have donated several hundred dollars to Extra Life, Geeks of Grandeur and Operation Supply Drop, to name a few.