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Microtransactions in Video Games

“The obvious objective of video games is to entertain people by surprising them with new experiences.”

-Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario

I am almost certain that anybody who is reading this article has an idea about one of the most popular phenomenons in the world: Video games. The addicting nature, universal appeal and admirable technical work that lies behind the concept makes it one of the most intriguing pastime activities in the world, reaching more and more people over the years. In fact, with a growth rate of around 5% annually, the video game industry is one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the world right now.

There is no denying that the industry as a whole has achieved a rather mainstream appeal when compared to the interest in the early 90’ and 00’s. Mainly driven by the motivation to create versatile games that appeals to numerous people from different ages, game developers have found many ways to profit off of and expand their craft. With concepts like mobile gaming and consoles like the Wii (which aims for a family appeal), video games are taking their places in people’s lives in different magnitudes.

However, a few weeks ago, I came to a sudden realization about how popularity can turn something that is fun and creative into dull and repetitive very quickly and cruelly for a fan of the industry.

This past September, 2K Games released an addition to their NBA 2K line with NBA 2K18, the latest addition to their realistic basketball simulation game series that has been annually released for over a decade. With improved graphics and new features, fans of the game were excited for the upcoming release date, however, the game has not turned out the way the fans have imagined.

As of 18th of October 2017, on the online game retail store Steam, NBA 2K18 stands at a surprising 27% approval rate by the community reviewers of the game. For a better understanding as to how bad this situation is, the next worst rated sports simulation game is WWE 2K18 (coincidentally from the same publisher), by the same publisher, which stands at a 63% approval rate. The 27% approval rate also makes NBA 2K18 the lowest rated game on the platform for the year 2017 so far. Steams community reviews are crucial for video game developers, as any potential buyer can see the ratings every time they come across the game on Steam, and all reviews are open to access on the platform, and users can vote on how helpful these reviews were for them.

So, why would this happen to a franchise that has sold more than 68 million copies of their games in the last 18 years? Well, the thousands of reviews I’ve read before starting this article showed a very significant problem: Microtransactions, and their prices.

Microtransaction is a business model where consumers can purchase virtual goods for small amounts of money. The concept is usually online driven, and it has taken a significant part in the video game industry since the early 2010’s, as it can help developers to multiply their revenue by five with a smart addition of a microtransaction service in their games. A very common example of a game that basically runs on microtransactions is Candy Crush Saga, which took the world by storm around the year 2014.  For the developers of Candy Crush, it can be said that microtransactions hold an immense importance for the well being of their company, as their approach to microtransactions helps them generate close to $45.000.000 per month.

The microtransaction system of the game is very simple. The game gives the user five “hearts” (tries) to pass the level that they are on, and if the user loses all of his/her “hearts”, the game sets a timer to when the next heart will spawn for the user. The game offers a microtransaction service where the user can purchase these hearts, along with other extra bonus items that can help the user in-game, and bypass the timer to continue where they have left off.

However for a player that does not want to spend money on a casual game that they play to kill time, the microtransactions do not hinder the gaming experience much, as the game can easily played with the waiting time (which gives the user one heart per 30 minutes). Plus, it does help that the game is originally free, and microtransactions do not add to an amount that was already paid. So while the game was criticised for its addicting nature, it did not punish the user for not purchasing in game content, which usually negatively affects the gaming experience.

For the situation of NBA 2K18, the entire game is based on the concept of having a “MyPlayer”, a self created in game character that the user can use to embark on an NBA career story mode, where your MyPlayers signs for a basketball team, or MyPark, where your player can compete in street basketball tournaments for in game prestige. The players attributes like shooting or dribbling the ball can be upgraded through 2K’s own in game Virtual Currency (VC), which can be obtained either in large sums through microtransactions or smallers sums through playing matches in game.

The reason as to why this has been considered an immense problem by the community was caused by the unplayable nature of the game, without having to spend money on the already overpriced VC of 2K Games. Complaints among the reviews argued that the starting rating of the MyPlayer was significantly lower than the ratings of in game NBA players, who you have to come up against for the MyCareer mode, or argued that players who have the budget to “splash the cash” on VC had an upper advantage on people who were not willing or able to pay for better ratings. The reason why these problems are crucial for the gaming experience is caused by how expensive VC is to buy and how long it takes to accumulate enough VC for in game upgrades.

My own experience with the game can provide a solid understanding regarding how hard it is to obtain currency. As of today, I have accumulated 51 hours of play time, trying my best to upgrade my character as much as possible. I managed to upgrade my character from a 60 rated player to a 69 rated player (without spending money on VC). To show how terrible this is, the lowest rated player in the game on any NBA team is rated the same rating, which is 69.

Most users believed that the game has lost all of its fun, since it is nearly impossible to be successful with a “MyPlayer” without either playing the game for over 300+ hours or spending another 70 euros on a game that already retails at between 55 and 60 euros. Millions were reported to have refunded their games, and the company is currently facing serious accusations of power hungry and greedy motives.

I was disappointed as an avid fan of the franchise as well, and, as I was doing my research prior to writing this article, I came to the sudden realization about the legitimacy of something I’ve learned in my first ever Business Administration class two months ago:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

-Adam Smith


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