A person playing Candy Crush Saga on a Samsung Android smartphone.
1000 Words Images/Shutterstock.com

The topic of “microtransactions” is a contentious one among gamers. They’re anything that you have to pay money for inside a video game. Here’s why players have a problem with them.

What is a Microtransaction?

When video games first started being released, buying them was a fairly straightforward process. You walk into a tech or gaming store, purchase a game for your console or computer, and then slot it in when you get home.

With the rise of the internet, especially high-speed broadband and WiFi connections, came online game selling. Now, you don’t have to leave your house to buy games. You can purchase the titles on digital stores such as Steam, Playstation Network, Nintendo eShop, and even mobile platforms such as the App Store and the Google Play Store. The game files then download directly onto your device, and you can play the game right away.

However, the rise of digital game retailing also introduced in-game purchases or microtransactions. They’re anything you can buy inside of a game, such as items, costumes, upgrades, premium features, and more. Microtransactions have been included in many recently released games, from free mobile apps to blockbuster titles from significant development studios. Their use is contentious and is often a major point of discussion in the gaming community.

Microtransactions Can Stack Up

Microtransactions are often baked into games along with item drops that use a random number generator. This means getting a box or pack with an item or several items in it. While most games have ways you can get these for free, they also offer the option to buy a box with cash.

Gacha games in a mall in Sapporo, Japan.
Thannaree Deepul/Shutterstock.com

There’s an entire subgenre of video games centered around these random loot boxes called “gacha games,” which are typically free mobile games. They’re based on a Japanese vending machine format where you enter cash or tokens and get a random toy inside a capsule in return.

Since gacha games actively encourage you to purchase more, people can spend thousands of dollars on any particular title. People who spend enormous amounts of money on microtransactions are called “whales.” Many of these games have been compared to slot machines, except they don’t pay out money.

Also common among some gamers is the belief that if you pay $60 for a premium game, having to pay additional money to unlock in-game content that is already programmed into the game is greedy. Many sports games utilize this model. Both the NBA 2k and the FIFA series have modes that allow players to collect trading cards to unlock in-game content. These trading cards are in random packs that cost players a certain amount each.

Microtransactions Change Game Mechanics

Another issue is that microtransactions tend to change gaming mechanics fundamentally.  Many games are specifically built to encourage people to buy microtransactions. For free titles, they do this by limiting the number of times you can play in a specific period or always showing you ads.

Many mobile apps also utilize dark patterns, which are interfaces designed to manipulate users into performing unintended actions. This may be as simple as where a button is placed or the way that items on-screen are colored.

This change in mechanics also applies to large titles. Many games severely slow down progression, increase the rarity of certain items, or cutting off certain areas, unless you pay for special items or boosts. This is very common in massively multiplayer online games or MMOs.

Fallout 76 Massive Multiplayer Online Game
Bethesda Game Studios

A recent example is Bethesda Game Studio’s Fallout 76. This game suffered from a lot of technical issues at launch, but one of the most significant issues people had with the game was the prominence of microtransactions. Many in-game items were sold for ridiculously high prices at their Atom store, with Eurogamer noting that a purely cosmetic Santa Claus outfit sold for $20. They also sold items that provided in-game advantages for users that bought them.

Games employing microtransactions that offer a gameplay advantage are often called “pay to win” by gamers. Rather than every player being on an equal playing field, players who spend money get better equipment and abilities, making some games more about who paid the most money rather than who played the best.

There’s a gray area. A game might offer gameplay advantages to people who spend 10 hours leveling up their character, but let some players pay money to skip the 10-hour leveling process. That still sounds accessible—but what if the leveling process instead took 1000 hours unless you put down some cash to skip it?

Not All Microtransactions Are “Pay to Win”

However, not to say that all microtransactions are bad and disliked by gamers. Some microtransactions don’t affect gameplay and aren’t “pay to win.”

Epic Games Fortnite Characters
Epic Games

An example of a good microtransaction format is the incredibly popular battle royale title Fortnite. The game is completely free on all platforms, which is why it’s accessible to people of all ages. All of its money is made via purely cosmetic microtransactions. That means players cannot pay to have an advantage in the game; they can only pay for costumes, dances, and other things that modify the look of their avatar. Everyone is on an equal playing field, and people can’t get a gameplay advantage by spending money.

A few other online games, such as Dota 2, Counter-Strike: GO, and Overwatch, also have microtransaction models that aren’t as despised by many gamers. All these games only put up cosmetic items for sale, which means that there are no advantages for gamers who can afford to pay more.

Vann Vicente Vann Vicente
Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
Read Full Bio »

The above article may contain affiliate links, which help support How-To Geek.