Microtransactions [purchasable items within a game] have been subject to controversy since their inception. Is it ethical, financially logical, or even legal for microtransactions to be allowed, or should they be outright banned?
by Maanas Shah
Microtransactions [purchasable items within a game] have been subject to controversy since their inception, and with their appearance in major games increasing every year, gamers are starting to get tired of them. Many developers argue they are an essential tool to finance their games, especially if they are free to play, but recently even courtrooms seem to be siding against the concept.
Microtransactions are purchases one can make from within a game itself after owning it. They can be found in both free to play games and paid games, though they are much more common in the former as a source of revenue to make up for the free to play gameplay. Often, and especially in already paid games, microtransactions are used simply for cosmetic or extra features that are not essential to gameplay, though they can be used to unlock entire sections of content for and act as a way to obtain a premium currency in certain games.
Though extremely rare in the early days of gaming and subsequently looked upon with distaste during their first implementations, microtransactions have become commonplace in the industry and can be seen in almost any mainstream game, regardless of type, genre, or price. However, should this really be the case?
Well, to fully answer this question, there’s actually more than meets the eye, and we need to take a look at this situation not just as a matter of greed, but as a question of ethics, finances, and legality. That’s the Trilemma we will be taking a look at today: is it ethical, financially logical, or even legal for microtransactions to be allowed, or should they be outright banned? And, of course, is there some sort of middle ground?
The argument for microtransactions is quite a logical and simple one, and it revolves around the financial aspects of this issue. Microtransactions allow a game to actively create a new stream of revenue from an already released product with relatively little work and high possible gains. Perhaps this may be seen as greed coming from a large studio such as EA or Bethesda, but for small studios or games that are free to play, they may act as one of the biggest, if not the only, stream of revenue for the company.
For example, take popular games like Fortnite or League of Legends. They are free to play, and yet the companies behind them (Epic Games and Riot respectively) have become gaming giants able to easily sustain themselves and their staff, allowing for the constant updating and creation of games. The reason they can afford such a business model of practically giving their games away is because they have microtransactions.
These transactions, however, are not necessary to the core gameplay of either of these titles. For example, the items being sold are skins or sprays, which are cosmetics that essentially do not affect gameplay. That is to say, you could fully enjoy either of these titles without ever paying a single penny, a feat that is only possible because of microtransactions. There are always people willing to pay for things that aren't essential to gameplay, and they’re the audience that makes the game run for everyone--including you--who may not want to be able to spend money on these games.
In essence, the inclusion of microtransactions is what allows games to be released to the public free of charge. Huge and polished games would undoubtedly cost the standard 60 dollars if microtransactions were not present.
However, not all microtransactions are beneficial to consumers. Many, actually, directly hurt the consumer and call into question the ethics and legality of such a practice. For example, in some games, microtransactions can be used to unlock different characters faster, or even entire segments of gameplay or content.
While this might be tolerable in a free to play game under the argument that it supports the developers, can this same argument really be used when the game costs money, especially if its a full priced 60 dollar release title? Aren’t customers who have paid full price for a product entitled to owning the full product? You don’t buy a sandwich from the grocery store and expect to buy its ingredients separately, so why would you expect to buy parts of a game when you have already paid in full for said game? This is where the ethical question to microtransactions come into play, and it can be seen in many recent mainstream titles. For example, in Star Wars Battlefront 2, there were many characters that needed to be purchased if you didn’t want to spend hundreds of hours unlocking them, which begs the same question. If you bought the game, aren’t you entitled to all of its content (in this case the characters) without having to be goaded into paying for it?
On top of that, there is an entirely separate issue that must be considered which is the legality of microtransactions. In many games, microtransactions come in the form of a “loot box,” which are basically items which one can purchase to randomly receive some item, such as skin or in-game. There are often different tiers of rarity for these items, with the more rare items being of superior quality and requiring more loot boxes for an average player to obtain.
An argument can be made that these loot boxes are essentially a form of gambling as you pay money in the hopes of gaining a rare jackpot, being forced to try again if you fail. While this already sounds legally unsound, when you consider the fact that this “pseudo-gambling” is being targeted at kids who play these games, you have another even larger issue to deal with. Not only is there the ethical question of letting kids virtually gamble, there is the law’s view on it to take into account. And, if you live in certain European countries, the law has made itself very clear already. Certain EU countries, namely Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, and Slovakia have deemed this “loot box” practice as akin to gambling and have forbidden it in any games that would be marketed and sold to their citizens. While this may be a small list of countries for now, it still raises a grand question about the legality of this practice as a whole.
Microtransactions have an ability to do good without a doubt as we’ve seen in the earlier arguments, but they also cross some ethical and legal concerns, so what can we do about them?
Well, in short, it’s important to classify the differences in microtransactions. The fairly harmless cosmetic options are often the ones used to fund free-to-play games.Due to them having no impact on gameplay, there would be less of an argument against them by people who have paid for a game. Additionally, if a simple cosmetics store system was used in favor of a loot box system, that would solve many of the legal concerns, especially for games marketed towards younger audiences.
In short, this proposition would allow for the funding of games, though perhaps in a lesser capacity, but would greatly increase user satisfaction and alleviate many of the demands of the players, even if some may argue that cosmetics should be earnable in game without paying.