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Have microtransactions become a game of chance?

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23 August 2017

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In-game microtransactions have been around for long enough to be a gaming staple. Any mobile gamer has considered spending a small amount of real money to ‘earn’ more lives or better items; or just to avoid watching an ad or waiting half an hour to play again.

More recently, microtransactions have inevitably made their way into PC and console gaming, even to AAA games which tend to cost £45-60 outright.

Now I don’t necessarily have a problem with microtransactions on console and PC, even where they create an element of ‘pay to win’ in a game. In my experience, the most skilled players tend to triumph regardless.

For me, a potential issue arises when people, often children and teenagers, are exchanging real currency for a chance at better in-game items.

Amongst others, this is the case for:

  • ‘Loot’ boxes in League of Legends, Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm;
  • ‘Crates’ in Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and Counter Strike: Global Offensive;
  • ‘Packs’ in Hearthstone and FIFA Ultimate Team.

What unites them is that you don’t know exactly what you’re getting from the transaction, or even what the chance of getting something good actually is. You’re purchasing something on the basis that it could be a pandora’s box, but is more likely to resemble a set of items you recently gave to a charity shop.

There’s a chance that it contains an awesome Knife Skin or a Cristiano Ronaldo player card. In that case, you’ll probably run around your house yelling until your mother or significant other tells you to shut up.

That’s why chance-related microtransactions can be so tantalising – they give players with limited resource the chance to get lucky and access content that is normally the preserve of the top players.

But this is a lucrative commercial enterprise and, for it to continue to be so, more often than not you’ll have to come away disappointed.

 

FIFA Ultimate Team – a case study

Let’s look at packs in FIFA; the ‘jumbo rare player pack’ to be precise. It’s one of the most popular and expensive and contains, according to EA Sports “the most unique top-rated players, all in a single pack. Includes 24 items, all players, all gold, all rare”.

Awesome! Right? I mean you might not get Messi in every pack, but surely you can expect to see Boateng or Fabregas pop out pretty regularly.

Well, not necessarily. Because, “rare” is a word assigned to players which can be as low rated as 75 out of 99. And the odds of finding one of these 75s are exponentially higher than one in the high 80s.

This is partly because low-rated players are far more numerous (according to the official database there are currently over 200 rare gold cards rated 75-76 and 12 rated 89-90) and partly because EA assigns a “pack weight” – effectively the odds of finding each player in any given pack. Pack contents are generated automatically at the time the pack is opened and the associated weights may not be consistent throughout the game’s lifecycle.

 

A trend that’s here to stay?

This type of microtransaction makes money for the biggest and best publishers. They’re not mandatory – players have a choice whether to engage with them or not. And clearly many, many of us are choosing to do so.

But there was an interesting development in 2016 when China legislated that, from 2017, all publishers would have to reveal the odds associated with in-game microtransactions.

Does this represent an unnecessary, draconian move or is it the start of something that could see Western nations introduce greater regulation of microtransactions? As ever, there are legitimate arguments on both sides.

Making the case for greater regulation, one could argue that whilst gaming has mutated from a children’s pastime to offer something for everyone, games like FIFA are designated for ages 3+ and the associated marketing is probably most impactful amongst teens. Combine this with pack reaction videos and gleeful Tweeting from YouTubers who spend many thousands of dollars each year and the temptation is all too much.

But, again, these transactions are not mandatory. Publishers would argue that their consumers do know exactly what they’re buying. “24 items, all players, all gold, all rare”, remember? They could also legitimately state that in-game items do not have monetary value (this is true in that its terms of service forbid selling of players or account, but there is a thriving black market).

The picture isn’t clear, the lines not clearly defined. Policymaking rarely keeps up with technology. But with products like League of Legends ($1.7bn) and FIFA Ultimate Team ($800m) grossing vast amounts each year from microtransactions and platforms like fixed odds betting terminals attracting public and political interest, I suspect in-game microtransactions will face greater scrutiny as our awareness and understanding of them increases.

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Thomas Huxter

Thomas is a Senior Account Manager at Dimoso, specialising in Esports, FinTech and PropTech.

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