[OPINION] Microtransactions are the dark side of modern video games

Video games provide a sense of escape and fun to help get us through the stresses of life. Recently, however, prevailing issues in the video game industry have opened up a sense of foreboding among gamers.

With the release of NBA2K18, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, and Star Wars: Battlefront 2, the issue of pay-to-win schemes – with the involvement of real world money – has had the gaming community abuzz with concern over the future of modern gaming.

What is “Pay to Win” and why is it bad?

A pay-to-win microtransaction is a scheme that involves the use of real money in order to purchase, either directly or indirectly through in-game currencies, better items or, in some cases, the chance of acquiring better items, gear, weapons, and crafting items to improve your gameplay experience compared to other players. Pay-to-win gives any individual the unfair advantage over others as long as they have purchasing power.

This system is prevalent in Mobile Games and Asian-made online games. The reason being particularly in Mobile Games is that players are mostly casual gamers or are on-the-go, limiting their capability to spend time in the game.

As with any video game, the ability to win – whether you're playing solo, or with or against other players – involves a degree of skill.

Getting good requires practice, spending time to learn or get used to your own kind of playstyle in order to win or beat the game.

Grinding your way to better items, gears and weapons is the way to go. Showing other players in the game your achievements, through these items that you wear or use earns you the respect you deserve, considering you've spent all those hours and a great deal of hard work to get them.

While there's no harm if the items in question affect only cosmetic changes, if the said items for purchase provide an gameplay advantage – such as stat boosts and increased battlefield firepower – that's where the issue of fairness is questioned.

A recent article from Kotaku presents Middle-Earth: Shadow of War as a pay-to-win game. Released on PS4, Xbox One and PC last October 10, Kotaku reported some questionable systems within Shadow of War that gave advantages to players willing to pay real money and purchase premium Loot Chests for better gear, weapons, war chests for Orc companions in the game, as well as experience boosters.

Virtual currencies and lootboxes: The new trend

Virtual currencies (VC) and lootboxes are the current trend in gaming, with VCs being contentious for their opaqueness, and lootboxes being contentious for their randomness.

A virtual currency, as opposed to an in-game currency, is a form of spendable points allotment that can be purchased with real money or in some cases be acquired within the game at a greatly reduced rate. Some multiplayer games have their own coined term for these virtual and in-game currencies.

Both in-game and virtual currencies can usually be earned through achievements and tasks that you fulfill as you play the game. However, in the spirit of business, the virtual currency is also available for purchase, often in bundled packages.

Lootboxes however, pose a bigger problem to the community, particularly if it can be purchased with real money and contain items that provide an unfair advantage. One reason why this is such an issue is that it introduces gamers especially the younger ages, to gambling.

Lootboxes, crates, or chests, are basically a random collection of items that you can use, whether cosmetically or functionally in the game.

Lootboxes in some games come in different categories which basically states the rarity or valuability of the items it contains in it. The chance to get the rarest and most valuable items is what makes this system addicting to some, with some forking over hundreds of dollars until they are satisfied with the results.

If one has the means to purchase these lootboxes, they should be warned that opening these introduces you the basic principle of the game of chance, and it’s not a game that you'd want to introduce children to.

IGN recently released an opinion article tackling how EA's Star Wars: Battlefront 2 in its beta hinted at a pay-to-win system with regards to how they included items and gear in their lootbox system called that seemingly pose an unfair advantage to players.

The lootboxes – called 'Crates' – were categorized as common, uncommon and rare. The main menu also advertises a 'Get More Crates' button, prompting the player to purchase Crates as early as the Open Beta Demo.

The microtransactions in Battlefront 2 have since been removed (at least for now), but only due to the persistent and significant concerns raised by concerned parties.

The real issue

Systems like these are mostly avoided by the gaming community. They stay far away from it as possible and just continue to enjoy the game.

In the case of NBA 2K18, however, the game’s microtransactions systems has made it difficult for any true NBA2K fan to enjoy the game they have always loved.

NBA 2K18's VC system has made it difficult for gamers to even customize their own MyPlayer creations without forking out some real money for the digital currency of the game. Even simple cosmetic changes like haircuts had their own price tags.

The troubling part of this is that it forces gamers into a corner where they have no choice but to purchase some VC in order to at either get a little advantage or enjoy the game like they used to.

Business wise, this is a clever move however in gaming it never is.

While NBA 2K18 is still a great game, the changes to systems brought one reviewer to rate the game 3/10.

Is money In gaming really all that bad?

No it isn't. As I've mentioned, microtransactions and the use of virtual currencies is normal and accepted.

Microtransactions have, in fact, been helpful with some Free to Play games and can be considered fair in certain implementations. For example, the microtransactions powering Warframe’s development over the years have allowed developer and publisher Digital Extremes to fund its content updates and its Plains of Eidolon open-world area.

Blizzard's Overwatch, a buy-to-play first-person shooter which gained praise from critics due to its great gameplay, characters, and aesthetic, offers its players microtransactions for lootboxes with cosmetic items. Anyone who has played the game though can admit, even without microtransactions, the game is great.

The low-down

It is sad to see that this year's recent game releases have adopted these systems that could well mean the end the word 'fun' in video games like it has always given us. The memories of today's gamers might be filled with this nightmarish trend of mixing too much business with game development.

There is no doubt that game developers and publishers need to gain some return on their investments and profit in the games they’ve made.

If it's at the expense of the fun and general escapism that video games have always provided us, however, then count me out.

Publishers and developers need to be reminded that after all their business meetings and hours of crunch time to meet deadlines to create the game, it is after all just a game and "Fun" is the only currency we ever need. – Rappler.com


Jaemi De Guzman is a BPO Supervisor and a full-time dad turned freelance video game journalist. A gamer dad to the core, he inspires his own kids to follow his gaming foot steps.