Everybody Wants Microtransactions, You and Me Included

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Gamers Created Microtransactions, Not Companies
Credit: Activision-Blizzard

Microtransactions, pay-to-win, and all that have become the boogeymen of gaming. It's impolite to bring them up, really, like politics at a family dinner, because they're controversial. People hate them, and others don't care. The problem, though, is that the secret of it all is that all gamers, or at least most gamers, don't mind microtransactions in their games. Let's take a look at how this has been true for decades and explain precisely why everybody wants microtransactions, you and me included.

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Gamers Created Microtransactions, Not Companies

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As soon as MMOs and digital payment services were a thing, people were buying and selling items and services in games. This has been true for decades, and it's still true now. The fact of the matter is that if someone's playing a game a lot, they really want something from the game they can't otherwise get reasonably, and they've got extra money, it'll make sense to most people to try and buy something.

Here's an example. Say you're playing your favorite game. You've been a player for years. A new update comes out, a new season. There's loads of new content, but the thing is that you've got to grind up a bunch of currency to do any of it, and the grind is worthless and slow and boring. The game gets updated infrequently, so you know you're stuck, but then you go online and realize a very specific build in the game can farm this currency very, very fast.

You don't have that build, of course, but because they can farm so much currency and people want it so badly, people with these builds start selling packages of all the currency you'll need to do the new content for $5, making tidy profits at it too. Chances are you'll see the chance to spend a couple bucks to save yourself hours of monotonous work and get immediately to the fun content you really want to experience as a small price to pay for a game you really like.

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Of course, it's unfair that the system is boring and grindy, and if the game were better designed you wouldn't even want to spend, but the fact is that no game is perfect, and these situations will arise where for small money you can make your gaming experience a lot better. Most gamers, if the situation arises, will jump on it, if they like a game enough.

This is what microtransactions offer and do, but when they're presented as time-savers or meaningful upgrades, which players will generally be happy to sell to each other, it's a big problem, so why is that?

Player Economies vs. Microtransactions: What's Different

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Few people, really, care about if one player makes a real money trade with another player. It just doesn't matter. Sure, maybe it's different when there are RMT syndicates exploiting an entire game's economy for profit, but the idea of players trading stuff with money isn't a big deal, in of itself.

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The problem with microtransactions offering the same purchases is that the developer (or publisher) of the game created the problem and sold the product with not only the problem but paid ways to solve the problem, so ultimately, the entire transaction feels kind of like a scam. Like when you see a huge 50% off pricetag but realize the actual price of the item is the same as it was last week, making the whole 'sale' a lie and disposing you to not want to buy the thing even if you would have paid the original price.

Ultimately, if a company is aware enough of a problem in a game to design a monetization system around solving it, they could have simply chosen to solve the problem instead of using that as an opportunity to make more money. When you're spending real money between human players, both of you are just trying to navigate the system as it exists in the way that works best for you.

However, the line between the two can be blurry. Some games support in-game economies and implicitly support real-money trading, like Old School Runescape, without actually directly supporting it, so there can be the sense that by buying gold in Runescape from a third-party gold seller that you're essentially doing the equivalent of buying gold directly from Jagex in an in-game shop.

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So, What's the Solution?

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Games need to stop selling solutions to problems the game created, but rather, games need to provide solutions to problems players might have while selling different ways to solve the problem. For example, say a game has very limited customization so you're feeling pressured to buy a skin to have something nice to look at when playing.

If a game gave you a great-looking skin to start with and offered to sell you new skins for a change of pace or to match your personal preference, that would be a lot better, and it would be a new way to play that's not necessarily any better than the old way.

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