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Microtransactions, loot boxes and gaming services: the future of gaming?

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More and more publishers of video games are turning to microtransactions and loot boxes in video games that you have already paid for. Gamers are fiercely opposed to it, but publishers continue to do so. Meanwhile, another trend is emerging: games as a service. Games that bind players for a long time. But will this be the future?

Microtransactions are small purchases that gamers can make within a video game. This offers more opportunities for players, while game publishers or developers can earn money. Initially we saw this form of earning money only in games on smartphones and tablets: games that are offered for free, to attract players, after which they can invest money to enrich their experience. That’s the idea.

The digital goods that players can buy can be weapons or clothing, but also coins or other digital currencies that developers come up with. These are microtransactions with which a player advances. Usually these are things that you can unlock yourself by (continuing to) play the game. But with such a small transaction, usually a few euros, you can speed up the process, so you have access to certain parts or possibilities earlier.

Cosmetic items

There are also cosmetic stuff that can be bought. These things do not help a player, but they do give them more adjustment possibilities for the character or object they play with (this can be a package for a person or a new color for a car). Games that are free to play and offer microtransactions fall under the freemium model. When the words ‘pay to win’ fall, you can invest money to get better quickly.

You then pay, as it were, to win. Because the more money you spend, the more digital goods you have and the greater the benefit for you. A part of microtransactions is now the loot box. This is a coffin with things that contain random things: they can be things that you want, in fact need or that you do not have anything at all. These things are sometimes offered for free in games or are for sale with digital currency.

In some games you can not buy that digital currency with real money, so you use ‘fake money’ to buy the boxes. . What you get out of it does not matter that much – because with a bit of playing, and raking coins together, you can undoubtedly buy such a lottery box. However, it becomes a problem when you can buy that digital currency with real money and thus have more frequent access to such a loot box.

Random content

The content will still be random, despite the fact that you have actually spent money on it. So you have to bet on it that you have a good loot left over, but you can imagine that this is often not the case. This system is not yet covered by a gambling law, even though it has been looked at. The reason that loot boxes fall outside that law is simple: you can spend money on those things, but you can not raise money.

Microtransactions have brought about a lot in games for mobile devices. Several app and game-makers have already earned millions in such games, because players do not mind spending small amounts on games that they initially did not have to pay for. Some games are designed around spending as much money as possible, while other games offer players something extra.

Pay small amounts in games that you can play for free at first – there is little harm in that (the most extreme cases aside, because you can also overdo it). It is simply a revenue model. But when you buy a game for seventy euros, for a PlayStation 4, Xbox One or Nintendo Switch, and you also encounter such practices, you can count on some resistance. Vocal gamers strongly oppose microtransactions in their paid video games.

Microtransactions officially broken

2017 enters the books as the year in which microtransactions have officially broken into video games where you already have the full blow to have paid. The same principle applies here as for games that you can play for free at first: through real money purchases you can gain access to parts that would otherwise have taken some time. But fortunately, there are also video games that offer cosmetic upgrades, and give players no advantage.

And gamers do not mind such games. There are currently a number of shooting games in which you can unlock so-called skins through loot boxes. A skin is a different look for a character. Usually the colors of an outfit are adjusted, but sometimes such a doll looks completely different. That’s all fine, because you can not pay extra money here to get faster access to certain weapons – which you would pay to win in the end.

When every player gets the same opportunities in a video game and can only invest money to unlock coveted skins or other cosmetic upgrades, no one complains and gamers are willing to spend money on it. But when you can pay to win or – even worse – pay to get any further, the balance is quickly lost. And unfortunately, we have seen practical examples of this happening this year.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor: an example

A game that has received a lot of criticism this year is Middle -earth: Shadow of War. In this Lord of the Rings title you get into the skin of Talon, who takes it with his army of orcs against the evil orcs of Middle-earth. Those orcs can be encountered in the wild and added to your army, or you pay with the digital currency gold (gold) for special loot boxes. There are random orcs in those boxes that might help you in your adventure.

Now you can fortunately gather enough in-game currencies for some ‘free’ loot boxes, but then you are at the mercy of the gods. because of the random system. How annoying is it when you pay real money in the hope that you would get a good orc instead? In addition, those orcs also have all kinds of properties that you sometimes stayed in with the monkey. If one is afraid of fire, you can hardly use it in a fight.

Star Wars Battlefront II: the prime example

But this is not even the most extreme example of this year , even though it is very broadly measured in the specialized game media. The recently launched Star Wars Battlefront II contained a pay-win system with weapons in loot boxes. As a player you could pay money for it, in the hope that you would get good weapons out of it. By, and then we say it neatly, feedback from the community, publisher Electronic Arts (EA) has decided to reverse this. Now as a player you can unlock the bulk just by playing the game.

But in the meantime it is still possible to buy characters free. You can invest many hours and unlock characters with digital currency. But you can also bypass the game and immediately purchase credits and unlock a character like Darth Vader. Fortunately, there is a level system linked to characters, so you do not immediately get access to everything. Nevertheless, such an option pays off, especially when you buy the game to play with favorite characters.

In another popular shooting game, Call of Duty WWII, it is possible to see other players playing loot boxes open. You can even watch what is in such a box. In fact, game publisher Activision adds a little bit more by offering daily missions in which you look at a certain amount of people who have opened up loot boxes. With the aim that you yourself dare to gamble with such a loot box, which ultimately yields the publisher money.

Animation of a slot machine

But here is even more behind it. When you see another gamer opening a loot box, or when you do that yourself, you see an animation in the picture that corresponds to an old-fashioned slot machine. Three images appear in the picture that are quickly reversed. Then you get to see variable rewards – a powerful form of psychological motivation to make people do things. It is just like gambling, but without a big money reward.

It is also true that this system of loot boxes is designed so that you feel good while playing. You want to continue playing because you have certain rewards in mind. And by constantly being confronted with that idea and the fact that you can view other people opening a loot box, you are encouraged to play and perhaps spend money. If you see a rare object passing by someone else, you are more likely to continue playing until you have it too.

Unfortunately there are also examples of games that implement loot boxes in a different way. For example, you have Destiny 2, from game publisher Activision, and Forza Motorsport 7, from Microsoft, who put content in the prize boxes that were normally available in previous games. That content is, as it were, held hostage by this system, so you as a player have to keep playing and hope you get them once.

Another one: NBA 2K18

The game this year however, the crown spans NBA 2K18, a game from game publisher 2K Games. The basketball game puts the patience of the gamer to the test and continues until someone reaches for his wallet. Everything you do in the game is linked to VC: virtual currency. In the beginning you immediately get six thousand of these currencies, but you have to pay everything immediately: properties that you need to move forward, as well as cosmetic things.

Cosmetic things in the form of hairstyles or the like . All upgrades have been made quite expensive, so you can not make much of it with six thousand of the digital currency. You are also forced to play hundreds of matches before you have actually made a basketball player of which you can say a little: “yes, I had this in mind”. Now you can think that you buy such a game to play it, but the jars have to be nice – no compulsive hobby.

Through microtransactions (this time not even with loot boxes, but coin packages with virtual currency) you can to speed things up a bit. But with that you give the wrong signal: as a developer or publisher you state that the game is not worth a person’s time and that is just not the idea that you want to give someone who has already paid at least sixty euros for an interactive product . ‘Speeding things up’ is not a legitimate argument here.

Content behind payment wall

The ultimate problem that many gamers have is that certain content is sometimes pushed behind a pay wall, whereas the first sight is not clear at all. But when you are forced to play a game much longer than before (much longer than is often the case in many cases) for the same result, and so you spread everything, then the balance between good, complete content and money earning that content, search.

That said, it is also true that microtransactions and loot boxes come on top of extra content. Games are often released with so-called season passes (season tickets) that offer access to extra content, which is later released (of which you are not sure yet what it will be). And there are often three versions of the same game, where the cheapest version is sometimes nothing more than a basic edition that does not give access to the full experience.

Despite this, publishers continue to happily continue to implement microtransactions. Now you may think that this is a commercial world and that money has to be earned, but games farmers go very far. Compare it with the purchase of a bank. You buy a corner sofa, but the hocker you have to buy separately and is delivered later. Oh and the pillows too, but because they are constantly wearing out, you always have to buy new cushions instead.

In this example, the hocker is downloadable content that you get through a season pass and the cushions are constant microtransactions. You do buy a bank where you can sit (or: a game that you can play), but for the complete experience you always have to pay extra money. Because otherwise the bank is not comfortable (does not play the game) and you do not have everything that you had in mind beforehand (the season pass delivers promised content much later).

Money, money and another money

The reason that companies continue with this is simple: it generates huge amounts of money. In some cases, these microtransactions generate even as much or even more than the sale of the game in which they are processed. Game publisher Ubisoft, known from Assassin’s Creed, announced that microtransactions accounted for 51 percent of digital revenue from games. In the case of publisher Take-Two, responsible for Grand Theft Auto, this is 48 percent of the total turnover.

So you can count on more and more games going to get such transactions. Take-Two has announced that all its games will contain microtransactions in the near future. And this coincides with a recent trend of games as a service and not as a separate experience. Previously you released a game and that was the product and you concentrated on the next product while the money comes in with the sale of that earlier game.

But certain games, like Destiny and Grand Theft Auto 5 (GTA5), have show that good online components, where players can play with each other in groups, become more and more popular. As a result, publishers spend longer with their games than just a few months and are more likely to make money from things that you do or do not need to have fun in that experience. GTA5 dates from 2013 and is still being played, for example.

Games as a service

Games as a service is also described as a platform where gamers are served a fixed diet of microtransactions. EA has already announced that it wants to convert popular game series like FIFA and Madden into a subscription form, instead of the annual releases with updates. And somewhere this does not sound too bad either: sometimes at first glance not so much of such games change, so an update to players and teams would be enough.

Game development has become more expensive and complicated and the basis of FIFA – and Madden games often remain the same, which makes a subscription form for this type of games a logical step. How exactly this will look is not yet known, but we can imagine that you are offered a number of possibilities (new modes, fun animations for after scoring) that you can choose from, which will be sold separately. You only buy what you want for the game.

For now, EA already has a part within FIFA that can be considered as a service: FIFA Ultimate Team. With this mode it is possible to put together your own dream team. You do that by extracting card packages (you know, as you used to do and saved them all in a folder), which you can earn with in-game currency – but can also buy with real money. This mode alone brings EA about eight hundred million dollars. Per year. From one game.

Final Fantasy XV still gets content

Square Enix, a Japanese game publisher known from Final Fantasy, also believes in the model of games as a service and intends in the future to make games that use this. And why would a game company not want that too? This earnings model allows them to release a game (which is already paid for), which then earns money for as long as gamers are bored of the game. But as long as you release content, there will always be players.

However, all these trends, which the majority of gamers are not happy with, do not mean that all games in the future (or last year) microtransactions or services contain. This does not mean ‘the end of the single-player game’ or anything in that direction, but we are going to see more and more games that will in one way or another convert more money for developers and publishers. Nevertheless, there are fortunately still nice examples of ‘normal games’.

But it can also be different …

Take for example the Dutch Horizon Zero Dawn, a game from the Amsterdam studio Guerrilla Games. Yes, this game has loot boxes, but you can not buy in-game currency for an extra box or for additional skill points (as can be done in Assassin’s Creed Origins for example). We have also seen the release of Crash Bandicoot: N-Sane Trilogy this year, a game that even offers free levels after the release last summer.

But let’s not forget that blockbusters like Wolfenstein II: The New Order and Super Mario Odyssey forget. These games offer linear experiences at no additional cost and are able to attract players from all over the world with their content. Despite this, Xbox boss Phil Spencer notices that single-player games no longer have as much impact as they used to and that online games are taking more and more time. However, the end of single player games is not yet in sight, although they will appear to a lesser extent or be provided with microtransactions and seasonal passes.