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A Fine Line: Monetization in Games

December 6, 2017

So there's been a lot of talk about monetization issues lately and it got me thinking about microtransactions, loot boxes and why they're seen as foul tactics by players all around the world while so many people seem to be completely fine with those at the same time. 


As a player (and not a very rich person), I want to receive as much quality content as it's possible for a minimum price. Naturally, when I see a game that presents certain interest for me, I'd look into its monetization among other things - not only I want the game to be good, but also not too expensive long term, as I tend to stick to games I like for years. 


Oddly enough, the very existence of loot boxes and/or microtransactions never really bothered me. I understand that a game needs to sustain itself, and sometimes the initial price just isn't enough. With free-to-play (f2p) mmo games, it's even worse: players often don't need to pay any entry fee at all, but the company still needs to not only maintain the game but also produce new content (that is not to mention paying its employees and possibly expanding to new projects). Even when a game is buy-to-play (b2p), the initial entry fee might not be enough, especially if the game isn't new and the price hasn't been updated. So, I'm simply establishing why I don't have a problem with the concept of microtransactions (MT) and loot boxes, in general. 


Now there are several arguments presented by those who are opposed to this concept, and I would like to expand on them below. 


1. "Loot Boxes are promoting pay-to-win (p2w) behavior and should not be allowed in competitive games"


To a certain extent, this is true. If loot boxes contain items and/or in-game currencies that are normally unobtainable and/or gated behind an unreasonable grind, this does in fact look like a way to buy your way to the "top" (regardless if it's PVP or PVE in this case). Obviously, this isn't fair to the majority of players, especially if the game has other mandatory fees. One can argue that "best gear isn't necessary to play the game" but that's a very weak argument and I personally don't think it should be taken into account. 


However when a loot box only contains cosmetic items or items that have no impact on the gameplay whatsoever, I see no problem in its existence. Someone's new shiny costume (or a mount, or a pet - you get the idea) isn't hurting anyone, it's not game breaking and isn't disrupting anyone's gaming experience. So in my opinion, there's nothing wrong with a loot box if its contents are purely cosmetic and have nothing to do with the actual gameplay. In other words, shiny mounts = okay, gear, currency and enhancements = not okay. 


2. "Microtransactions are bad as they encourage paying for something that should be earned in game"


Now that, to me, also depends on what MTs we're talking about. It's definitely not okay to be selling power, especially if the game is advertised as "fair to all". But if it's cosmetics and things that don't impact other players' gameplay - it's fine with me. If there's an in-game currency price tag attached to everything that is also sold for actual money - even better. This way, everyone is on the same fair field and there's no exclusion in place (of course, the in-game prices have to be reasonable for this to be true, no ridiculous month long grind for an item that costs literal dimes or anything like that - I feel like this is obvious, but had to mention it). 


3. "MT and loot boxes are exploiting people with gambling/shopping addictions and should not be used in games"


This is a very subtle issue as gambling is, of course, a serious problem, as well as compulsive shopping (buying). It requires, however, an objective approach in every case. 


Personally I think that in order to not be controversial, loot boxes should not only guarantee a certain amount of loot based on their cost, but also have a full list of possible rewards in the description. Some suggest to go even further and list the percent chances for each items, but in my opinion it's optional (but encouraged). Knowing exactly what I can get from a loot box (and also knowing that it's still random) is enough to ensure that there's no false expectations. Furthermore if the rare (chase, most expensive) rewards are listed as having a "small chance of obtaining", it helps understand that I shouldn't expect every box to be the gold mine. 


On the contrary, if loot boxes drop rewards that are clearly not worth the price (i.e. in-game items that are otherwise cheap and easy to obtain, or convenience items that are normally not something you'd gamble for); if the contents are not clearly listed in the description (making it difficult to understand how high or low the chances are and if there's even a point in buying these boxes); if the contents encourage any type of p2w (gambling for best in slot gear, rare currency or pieces of content) or are in any other way sketchy - yes, this is something that in my opinion should not be allowed in games, let alone promoted as "normal means of monetizing a game". 


4. "Games shouldn't even need MT and loot boxes, they should be able to sustain themselves without those or leave the market" 


This one is actually my favorite. It's usually mentioned as part of two arguments: 


- MMO games should be subscription based; 

- Games should have a high initial price. 


Both these arguments seem very reasonable. Seriously though, why not just make players pay a monthly fee, and set the price for every new game high enough for it to sustain months if not years of maintenance, until there's a new expansion or DLC? 


As someone whose gaming experience is pushing two decades, I was able to watch the changes in the industry from a player's perspective, and all I can say is that both these arguments could be true maybe ten years ago, perhaps even five, but unfortunately they're a bit outdated for the current situation. 


First off, gaming is no longer a "kids pastime", it doesn't really have an age anymore. I am lucky to know and have friends in games of all ages, and while some games might have their audiences in a certain age group more than in others, it's really not the time to say "you're too old for video games" anymore. Gamers aren't kids, they have lives, jobs, families to pay attention to. Lots and lots of gamers grow up with their favorite games and that also has an impact. We simply can't afford as much time to spend playing games as we could before. 


More so, there are so many games out there that it's not easy to devote all of your time to just one. And I'm not just talking about single player games, I'm talking MMOs, MOBAs, FPS games as well! All of those don't just require time, as you might assume, they are products we need to pay for. 


So let me sum it up. We have an abundance of games, all types and genres. We have gamers that can't all spend days playing games as lots of them have other things to do (many people I know can only play on weekends or merely a few hours a week), yet they often want to divide the little time they have between all the games they want to play. Now, if all mmos suddenly go subscription based, how many of those people would keep playing them? When you only have a few hours a week to play, yet every game requires you to pay a monthly fee, how exactly is that fair? How many people would pay a monthly subscription for a game they can't even play every day? What about 2, 3, 5 games at the same time? I know I'd have some tough choices to make, and as much as I'd love to support all the developers of all the games I play, I simply can't afford to subscribe to all of them. It's no one's problem but my own, of course, but do you really think I'm the only one? 


As for single player games, one can argue that $60+ isn't that much to pay for a good quality game. And I agree. But when there are ten good quality games out there you'd like to play, and a bunch of cheaper indie games, and a few mmos... well, you get the idea. I am a "one game at a time" person. I don't like playing multiple games at once. The next person wants to play 5 single player games, an FPS on Friday nights, a competitive MMO on Saturdays and something casual when there's free time left. They'd probably also want to buy some games for their friends or significant others, or pay for a game to play with their family in addition to that. Of course, that seems fine to some, but others would rather pay smaller amounts (MT) from time to time when they can afford it than drop a significant amount of money in one go and feel obligated to play as much of it as they can because it wouldn't seem fair to pay for a month and then only play a couple days. 




To conclude this long rant, there are always ways to keep the payment methods as straightforward and fair as possible. Gaming audience has expanded, not only in regard to  age, but also lifestyles and priorities. Games are pressured to compete for attention of a much larger crowd than ten or twenty years ago, however large the crowd may be there is always the need to sustain the game, the studio, its developers and its new projects. It is up to the companies and studios to decide which payment method works best for them and it is up to players to vote with their wallets. Either way, I believe there is always two sides to every story and I felt like sharing my opinion on this trendy issue even though I know it's not a very popular one. As usual, feel free to post your questions or suggestions in the comments below! 

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