The freemium, free-to-play but pay-to-win (P2W) model has been around a long time, and it’s been hugely successful in mobile games. These free-to-play games are among the most lucrative and profitable games on the market.
It makes sense - you get to play the game for free, and the developer gets money if you choose to invest through microtransactions. It’s a win-win.
Big companies and AAA game developers don’t want to be left behind and are starting to take advantage of this model more and more. It’s both a tempting stream of revenue and a way to keep multiplayer games relevant for years. More money coming in means developers can continue to deliver new content.
We’re already seeing games like Star Wars Battlefront 2, Evolve, and NBA 2K18 using this model, but in their own AAA way.
The trouble with AAA games that include microtransactions is obvious: you purchase the game at a premium price, but then have to pay if you want to get ahead and keep up with the “big dogs”. Naturally, this is more of a problem in competitive multiplayer games, though we already starting to see single-player games with loot boxes and other in-game purchases.
Are AAA developers getting too greedy by developing these premium P2W models? Will they have a negative and long-lasting impact on the gaming scene? Will the mobile industry adopt this new take in the freemium model?
Maybe. Maybe not. As you know, each coin has two sides.
Much of the controversy around loot boxes and microtransactions in premium games comes from the new system EA presented in Battlefront 2.
Basically, the game required you to purchase loot boxes to get things that many felt should be included in the game’s $60 price tag - like the ability to level up your character.
(Funny enough, players started resorting to using rubber bands on their controllers to bypass the ridiculously complex system.)
You buy these loot boxes and get random Star Cards. These cards are used to level up your character’s stats and abilities. Because they’re random, you can buy a ton and get almost no upgrades.
Within hours after the Battlefront 2 beta started, players were voicing their anger about how they are required to spend more and more money in order to achieve any meaningful progression. And they were voicing it very loudly.
On the Star Wars Battlefront 2 Reddit page, a user expressed frustration after taking advantage of one of the microtransaction options, purchasing 12000 Crystals for $80 (with a 10% EA Access discount). Unbeknownst to the player, the Crystals couldn’t be used to buy the various hero characters, which are only available in exchange for Credits. This user wanted to unlock Darth Vader, who at the time cost 60,000 credits.
Within this same thread, an EA spokesperson responded to the post, stating the following:
“The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.
"As for cost, we selected initial values based upon data from the Open Beta and other adjustments made to milestone rewards before launch. Among other things, we’re looking at average per-player credit earn rates on a daily basis, and we’ll be making constant adjustments to ensure that players have challenges that are compelling, rewarding, and of course attainable via gameplay.”
This response soon became the most disliked comment in Reddit's history, with over 675,000 downvotes.
Players are concerned that if they can’t afford lots of loot boxes, they’ll need to spend a lot of time (hundreds of hours) grinding away at the game just to keep up with the whales who can afford the microtransactions. Even if you do buy these boxes, but get unlucky with your Star Cards, you might get left behind to face other players with much better stats than you. In competitive games, that is a huge and unfair disadvantage.
In a nutshell, players are arguing that they shouldn’t have to pay money to level up. Many feel that the $60 price tag should unlock the full game, as it has in the past.
Let’s look at both sides.
Despite the anger around the P2W model, there are actually some good things that can come of it.
For example, microtransactions lower the barrier to entry for new publishers and indie developers to create games and get into an otherwise saturated market.
The costs of developing and marketing a game have risen dramatically in the last 20 years. Salaries for developers are increasing, the cost of rent is getting higher, and it requires more people than ever to develop these games. Yet, games' prices have remained $60 for an average title since 2005! So developers need other ways to make money.
Which means games as a service allow the publisher to continue to generate revenue for a game. And if they can continue to do that, they can keep paying their developers to continuously update the game and add new content.
Finally, having microtransactions in AAA games allows players with less time for gaming to stay competitive. Even if you don’t have 20 hours a week to play a game, you can spend a little money to catch up with those who do, and level playing field with the more hardcore players.
However, the gaming population also has some strong counterarguments to the pay to win model.
Gamers are passionate people, and that passion comes out whenever game developers do something they don’t like.
Naturally, the BF2 controversy started, well, lots of other controversies. People spoke out about how they felt. Here’s what they said.
Microtransactions can prevent some people from playing the game. If you don’t have dozens of hours to dedicate to a game, and can’t afford to pay to win and remain competitive, you’re stuck. You either don’t play it at all, or you play it and don’t ever get the full experience.
Sure, plenty of games require you to “grind” to get better gear and higher levels. Just look at the original version of World of Warcraft, which took the average player over 10 days (a full 240 hours) of actual play time to reach the max level, usually over the span of several months.
The problem comes in when you’re playing with people who decided to spend the money for the in-game purchases, who are now at higher levels than you. Your gameplay experience immediately gets far worse than anyone who shelled out the cash.
Again, this wasn't a problem if you didn't already spend $60 to get the game, and now you have to pay even more just to have a fair gaming experience.
Secondly, not all paid in-game items are cosmetic. Cosmetic DLC doesn’t give a player any inherent advantage over another player. It’s purely for show. But when microtransactions are required to unlock the best gear, stats, and abilities? Well, that’s when players get unhappy.
Finally, the most obvious argument is that you already paid full price for the game. Many players feel that paying the $60 price tag on a game should unlock the whole thing, and they shouldn’t have to spend any more on it.
But ultimately, companies are created to make money. Even if a company starts as a small one-person studio built with love, passion, and a desire to change the world, it still has to make money. And that person’s business may one day grow big enough to be acquired - and investors are really all about the money.
So now that you understand both sides of the coin, we are left a few questions.
Microtransactions first gained large-scale visibility in 2006, when Bethesda released the highly anticipated and popular game: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Soon after the release, they added the ability to buy a Horse Armor Pack for $2.50. Then came new dungeons, a player home, new spells, and more.
When other companies saw the massive success of these mini DLCs, they jumped on the bandwagon, and it quickly became a universal phenomenon.
Despite the controversy around recent titles and their microtransactions, publishers will inevitably continue to experiment with new business models.
A recent report proves that games-as-a-service systems have tripled the industry's value. In fact, EA made a whopping $1.3 billion from add-on content in the last year alone.
Activision has recently filed a patent for a matchmaking system designed to encourage more consumer spending. The publisher stressed the system had not been implemented yet, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see it in future games.
Microtransactions are here to stay, in mobile games, casual games, and now in AAA games as well. If anything, we’re going to see more of them.