The future of microtransactions


Adam Frost on the issues with in-game currency what the future looks like for microtransactions

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Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

By Adam Frost

Whilst paid DLCs were once the number one controversy amongst the gaming community, microtransactions are the current hot topic. Titles such as Fifa Ultimate Team and Call of Duty allow players to pay for in-game currency that can be spent on in-game content. One type of in-game content that divides even the most experienced gamers is the loot box.

A loot box is a virtual item, usually a crate, pack or chest. When opened it will reward the player with more items that either help with game progression or are cosmetic. Whilst loot boxes can be earned through gameplay in some titles, this article will focus mainly on those which can be purchased using real-world currency.

One popular argument against the loot box system is that it creates a pay-to-win dimension in gaming. Effectively, it replaces the time and effort players would dedicate to their favourite titles, with a transaction. Owners of the popular football game Fifa Ultimate Team can choose to purchase Fifa points (in-game currency), to buy packs (loot boxes) with a chance of packing their favourite real-world player. However, the yearly titles packs aren’t cheap with the highest value points bundle costing around £79.99 more than the cost of the base game.

Furthering this, the randomness of Fifa Ultimate Team packs mean many players won’t see any improvements to their teams with just a few packs. In turn, this may lead to players buying more packs and spending hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. If this behaviour sounds familiar, you’re not alone in this train of thought; many have called the system a form of gambling. When coupled with Fifa Ultimate Team’s age rating of three, there should be a serious concern that a casino-style system is available to young and impressionable audiences.

As early as 2019 the discussion around loot boxes and the mass awareness of the similarity of the system to gambling caused gaming commissions worldwide to start taking notice. In January 2019, Belgian authorities forced Electronic Arts to stop the sale of ‘Fifa Points’ in the country. Interpretation of Belgian gambling laws meant the randomness of ‘Fifa Packs’ classified them as gambling. Fifa wasn’t the only title affected though, Overwatch and Counterstrike: Global Offensive were also found to contain illegal games of chance.

Following the decision in Belgium, Dutch courts enforced a ruling in October 2020 which would see EA fined $500,000 a week (capped at $10mn) until ‘Fifa Points’ were removed. Again, this saw the removal of loot box systems from games sold in the Netherlands.

In light of the changing attitude towards loot boxes, US Senator Josh Hawley introduced “A bill to regulate certain pay-to-win microtransactions and sales of loot boxes in interactive digital entertainment products, and for other purposes.” However, to date, the only action on this is the bill being “Read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation”, as displayed on the website.

Whilst microtransactions are currently very lucrative for game studios, the possibility of legal challenges in the future should usher in changes to the loot box system or cause them to be removed from games for good.

Since most challenges to microtransactions are based on loot box randomness and gambling, fixed outcome purchases might be a mainstay for future games. For those gamers who have commitments such as University or a full-time job, a fixed outcome purchase might provide game progression without the gambling element.

However, whilst a fixed outcome system could be a financially viable alternative for game developers, the obligation to not exploit minors innocently purchasing a flashy new item using their parent’s cards, is something that ought to be discussed. Not to complicate a multi-jurisdictional matter, but attaching extra protections to digital purchases might be a more practical solution compared to a legislation overhaul. This could involve refunds for accidental purchases by minors, or two-factor authentication for all microtransactions.

Gamers who believe their countless hours and mastery of a game should determine their success might not accept game progression-based purchases, though.

With this in mind, another option might be the limitation of microtransactions to exclusively cosmetic items for in-game character models, weapons, tools and just about anything game developers can change the colour of. Titles such as Call of Duty and Fortnite have successfully sold players cosmetic items to customise their style or show support for their favourite esports team without much opposition. The gaming community might be more welcoming to this approach across all games with players relying purely on their skill and experience to outwit their opponents.

Since this is a matter of games exploiting gamers with systems designed to be addictive and maximise profit for game studios it is entirely possible microtransactions will be completely removed. Whilst this may seem a step too far for some, being able to purchase intangible goods with no real-world resale value might be a case of companies getting greedy. A step back to the purchase of a base game and content expansions would, for some, be a return to gaming’s golden age.