In the age of microtransactions and lootboxes, well, it’s easy to have a pretty grim outlook on video games, especially if you’ve been gaming for a while. If you started gaming even a decade or two ago, you’ll know all about what can feel like a huge change to how video games are built, sold, and supported. And not a change for the better, considering how rife the industry is with predatory monetization practices and a tendency to ship first, patch later.
However, if you really look at it, you’ll see that the monetization of games hasn’t changed as much as you think. And what’s more is that games now are actually cheaper and more accessible than ever before. Not to worry, though, because in this article we’ll explain why monetization in games hasn’t changed that and how games are cheaper than ever.
Gaming Monetization Hasn’t Changed Much
If you look at a game like Skyrim and then look at a game like Overwatch 2, they look a lot different. Even with Bethesda’s famous penchant for allowing bugs into their games, Skyrim ran relatively well on release, and you got all the content for one upfront price. Overwatch is free, but it charges you over and over if you want access to all the game’s content, and it launched in a messy state where most players couldn’t even play the game.
So, what happened? Well, that’s the thing. Let’s turn the clock back for a second.
Twenty years ago, video games weren’t nearly as big as they are now. But games back then worked pretty similarly to how games work now — if you can believe it. But maybe not in the way you expect. Sit back, and let’s imagine a game together:
A game where you can spend real money for random collections of items you need to play the game that can either be incredibly worthwhile or totally worthless. A game where all the best ways to play the game and be the most successful at the game are gated behind how much money you could spend and how lucky you were. A game where the money you money spent on it rarely, if ever, could be got back out of the game.
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Is that an MMO in 2022 with lootboxes? No, it’s Magic, Pokemon, and Yu-Gi-Oh. And a bunch of other TCGs, or trading card games. No, these weren’t video games back then, but if you think about it, a card pack is quite literally a lootbox. And if you ever played a TCG at all seriously, you’ll know all too well how the best cards always cost the most money. But few folks, even now, really think of a kid playing Pokemon in the same way they think of a kid hitting the casino floor.
Let’s try another example. Imagine a game where you could spend real money for fake currency that you could use to play the game and get rewards. Imagine that the makers of the game set up the fake currency so that it never cleanly translated into real dollars, obscuring how much you would need to spend. And imagine that the rewards you got for playing the game were always worth significantly less than what you spent and were never enough to get the coolest rewards that you really wanted and got you to start playing the game in the first place.
Is that a mobile game you can download from an app store right now? Nope! That’s an arcade. You probably remember exchanging endless quarters for tickets, walking up to the counter, and being told that you could pick out a prize from the bottom row. The bottom row! What’s down there, a PlayStation? A remote-controlled helicopter? A lightsaber with cool sound effects and lights? Nope! It was candy that you could buy for less than $5. Once again, though, there weren’t legions of parents protesting the local arcade then, and there aren’t now.
Of course, something like Overwatch might work a lot different than an arcade or a TCG does. After all, they’re fundamentally different things. But the point is that games like Pokemon or something like an arcade actually are monetized very similarly to how some video games are monetized today. And it is true that people are much more upset by how video games are monetized today than they ever were upset by TCGs or arcades.
Naturally, there are tons of good reasons to be upset by how some video games are monetized today. But that very valid feeling ought to be tempered by some understanding. More goes into what a video game does and how it works than just thinking about what an individual or a team of individuals thinks makes for the ultimate video game. Different people like different things, and ultimately, video games have to make money.
But are video games, in general, making too much money today? Have they become so expensive because of greedy corporations and predatory practices?
The answer might surprise you.
Games Are Actually Much Cheaper Now
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Yes, Call of Duty isn’t any cheaper now. Nor is Diablo. Nor are MMOs. There are many cases like this out there today. But when we say ‘many’ we’re referring to either mobile games that most quote-unquote gamers don’t play or a collection of the biggest budget games out there.
But that’s not unusual. Just look at Hollywood. All the movies with the biggest budgets and most famous actors aren’t made with the tender love and care indie movies are made with that don’t have to hire the most famous people or try and make the most money. But the movie market is big enough to accommodate both Hollywood movies and indie movies. Games are the same.
While some of the biggest games, the ones aimed at becoming the most profitable, aren’t any cheaper today, games in general are much cheaper and more accessible than ever before. Let’s break that idea down, and let’s just look at the average prices of games. In the past, a game would come out at its full price, usually $60, and then it would slowly go down over time.
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But with the advent of online stores, Steam, and indie gaming, so many games out there come at $5, $10, or $20. And that’s, of course, to say nothing of free-to-play games. Sure, some free-to-play games don’t give you the full experience for free. Maybe even most, if not all. But twenty years ago, you couldn’t get hundreds of hours of gameplay out of a huge, Diablo-style game like Path of Exile for free. You couldn’t get thousands of hours of gameplay from the biggest games in the world all for nothing. And for those that might not live in a first-world country who can spend whatever money they need to on games but would rather not, that’s the difference between being a gamer and not playing at all.
Then, there are subscription services. Whether it’s PS Plus giving you free games, signing up for Game Pass to get instant access to a huge collection of games for a small fee, or using a streaming service where you can play tons of games even from your cell phone, if you want to play games but spend next to nothing on that, well, you absolutely can today. The closest you had in the past was renting games from Blockbuster.
The crux of the issue here is that you can’t play every game for cheap or even as much as you used to spend on the same series, but you can find an infinite amount of games to spend your time on that won’t cost you nearly as much as games used to cost. This won’t matter to the folks who just love a particular game or genre and find that now it’s not as good as it once was, but for the medium as a whole, even with the horrors of lootboxes and monetization, gaming is bigger and more inclusive and more accessible than ever before.