Monetization in Games – When Full Retail Price Just Isn’t Enough

        The idea of getting more money from players after a video game has been acquired is a hot topic in the game industry. With the rise of mobile gaming, it is all too common to see these kinds of additional purchases even when the customer already paid full retail price to purchase the game. It is an area where the developer has to tread carefully, lest they anger a potentially loyal community. This itself is a delicate question. Where do we draw the line between acceptable and egregious? In my Dauntless review, I mentioned that the game had optional items that could be purchased using real-world money. I dropped a few terms that I felt might be confusing to the uninitiated. In this editorial, I hope to educate readers, as well as share my stance on the most commonly seen methods of monetization in games.

        DLC – An anagram of “Downloadable Content”, DLC is additional content that the customer can purchase for their game. This ranges from game expansions, additional game modes, extra character costumes, and even new playable characters. While monetization in video games has almost become synonymous with the term DLC, I feel it refers to supplementary content specifically, like Monster Hunter World’s Iceborne expansion, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s additional fighters, and Beat Saber’s additional song packs for example.

Super Smash Bros Fighter pass
An example of DLC featuring the Fighter’s Pass for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. This gives the customer additional playable characters.

        DLC that adds further content is fine. Where it becomes a problem is when the content in question is already in the base game and is locked behind an added cost (known as on-disc DLC). This very much feels like the customer is paying twice for the content they already purchased for the game’s retail price. It is equally aggravating when previous installments of a game offered content that is now locked behind DLC (Call of Duty 2019’s death counter for example)

        Microtransactions – Microtransactions are instances that have the player pay real-world money for special in-game currency, character costumes, weapons, point boosts, loot boxes, battle passes, etc. These are very commonly found in free-to-play games (like Dauntless, League of Legends, Call of Duty) and mobile games (such as Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans, Dr. Mario World, etc.).

Screenshot_20191217-104859_Dr Mario World
An example of items that can be purchased in Dr. Mario World. The game offers me the option to continue the level for Diamonds, which can be bought with real-world money.

        While I do understand that a game developer needs to make money off of their game, there is a point where microtransactions can go overboard, even in free-to-play games. I do tend to be slightly more lenient towards free-to-play games but even they need to be careful about how they monetize. I usually tolerate one form of monetization in free-to-play games but anything more than that begins to be too much. In games where you are asked to purchase the game, however, I am far more critical when it comes to asking the customer for these kinds of additional purchases. I am also contemptuous towards games that arbitrarily increase its difficulty to sell extra moves or more chances to complete the level.

        Loot boxes – Loot boxes (also known as “Gacha mechanics”) are a form of digital surprise box that gives the player random pieces of loot of varying rarity. These are including but not limited to: additional voice lines, characters, character costumes, and weapons. These are regularly found in mobile games (see Fire Emblem Heroes, Fallout Shelter, etc.) free-to-play games (Paladins, Hearthstone, Apex Legends to name a few examples) and full-priced games (most notably Overwatch, Counter-Strike Global Offensive, FIFA, NBA 2K20).

giphy-3
An example of a loot box (or “Gacha”) mechanic. In Fire Emblem Heroes, the loot box in question are the orbs that let the player summon heroes.

        Loot boxes have come under a lot of fire for how psychologically akin they are to gambling. So much that they have been subject to some form of regulation in countries like China, Australia, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Even in North America, they are under heavy scrutiny. I am cynical when it comes to loot boxes, as they are often made to be the sole method of progression for the game they are in. This, I feel hurts the game’s design since their random nature makes loot boxes a lackluster reward.

        Battle Pass – Games with Battle Passes award the player with in-game costumes, dances, sprays, in-game currency, and other cosmetic extras when a certain amount of points is earned for completing certain activities. The Battle Pass usually has a free tier in which the player receives in-game prizes much less frequently and a paid tier where rewards are given far more often. The paid tier usually has a monthly fee attached to it. A few games where the Battle Pass is featured are Fortnite, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019).

Fortinite Battle Pass example
The Battle Pass, as found in Fortnite. The word “Free” above the icon indicates items that can be acquired with the free version of the Battle Pass.

        I find the Battle Pass is a better alternative to the loot box as it removes the element of randomness. It also incentivizes the player into playing the game which I like. As long as it doesn’t offer any particular advantages to players and the game is free-to-play, I currently have no major issues with the Battle Pass.

        Subscription – A subscription service is when a game or platform asks the player to pay a monthly fee to play games online or give the player advantages non-subscribed players cannot get. These have been present since games like World of Warcraft. Notable games that ask the player for an upfront purchase price along with a monthly fee are the aforementioned World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV. Other games that offer a subscription service as an option are Fallout 76, Mario Kart Tour, and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. Nintendo Switch Online, Playstation Plus, and XBOX Live Gold are all examples of platforms that require a monthly subscription to play games online.

Screenshot_20191217-113504_Mario Kart
The optional subscription service offered by Mario Kart Tour.

        Subscription services are a sour spot for me. Since subscriptions often offer an automatic renewal feature, one can easily forget they even have it. They then become an inadvertent money sink. When it comes to platforms asking for a monthly fee to play games online, it is usually met with begrudging acceptance without the automatic renewal feature turned on. While I do understand that big games like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV take time and money to maintain, these particular examples also offer optional microtransactions that, from what I can tell, are fairly popular. Which begs the question: why have both?

        Monetization is a touchy subject. Everyone has a different limit to what is acceptable. This tolerance can change depending on the person’s perspective, financial situation and mental health. When expansions get added to an already great game, I’m for it. Free-to-play games that offer optional cosmetic options or a Battle Pass, I can tolerate it. When loot boxes or a subscription service are involved, this is where I start to have issues, especially when the game asks for an upfront purchase price. I’m hopeful that this article has informed people of what they can potentially expect from monetization in games and how to look out for them.

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