Pay to Win: Monetization in Gaming


illustration by Cynthia Muniz

<comment>Games are a lot more than a fun pastime. They have played a unique role in our collective culture not only as a mode of storytelling, but a competitive outlet and even just as an enjoyable escape. Vice President of RIT's Electronic Gaming Society and third year Mechanical Engineering major Evan Misiorski explained why he thinks so many people are drawn to games.

“Games provide a unique experience that’s accessible visually,” Misiorski said. No matter what one wishes to get out of gaming, there is likely a platform or experience aimed at your tastes. 

However, an increasing number of gamers are worrying about being able to access their passion. Overt shifts and trends in pay structures are clearly trying to engender fears of exclusion. For several players, it has created feelings that you often aren't getting the 'fullest' possible experience from a game. What's evident is that game publishers have become savvy at creating and profiting off of that sentiment.

Follow the Money

As games have become more sophisticated, so have their approaches to monetization. Gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry that’s resolved to capitalize on our love for such entertainment. Major publishers have even gotten pushback for going too far. Examples include  Warner Bros. for "Middle-earth Shadow of War" and — perhaps most notably — Electronic Arts with "Star Wars Battlefront II," which both cost more than $50 and include in-game purchases that give players advantages.

Assistant Professor of game design Ian Schreiber will tell you that gaming companies follow a “revenue-maximizing strategy,” meaning companies want to make as much money as possible with the least possible cost. Game companies, for example, try to suck in new players very early on with starter bundles.

"Get someone to spend once and they'll spend thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the game."

“[The] purpose of the starter bundles is to convince players to do one initial spend, because the data shows that any player that spends at all usually spends big," Schreiber said. "Get someone to spend once and they'll spend thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the game, so the games incentivize players to get over that first hump by offering a special deal.”

The average big console game at release is $60. However, to maximize revenue game companies offer more incentives so consumers shell out more cash. Incentives can be as simple as pre-order sales, or the release of expansion packs and deluxe editions with new downloadable content, add-ons that can range from $20–$50 extra. However, the biggest money makers — particularly with free-to-play games — are microtransactions.

According to the New York Times, 93 percent of revenue from mobile games comes from in-app purchases, as opposed to paying an up-front cost or ad revenue.

"Most people play [free-to-play games] for free and a small number of players spend big to make up the difference — [they're] unfortunately termed 'whales' by the industry," said Schreiber.

A microtransaction is an umbrella term that refers to online “micropayments,” or financial transactions of very small amounts of money. In the realm of gaming, microtransactions can be cosmetic, such as purchasing new skins or accessories for an avatar. Some even provide competitive advantages in the form of “loot crates” which can contain in-game currency or high-level items.

“Microtransactions are small in-game purchases that can total up to a lot more ... there’s a lot of small things and you want to collect them all,” Misiorski said.

Pay to Win

“People who are more sucked into a game shell out more and more money,” said Sean Mack, a third year student in Game Design and console officer for the Electronic Gaming Society. Mack explained that a growing problem within gaming is the overemphasis on currency to win games. 

“Instead of having a ‘play-to-win’ structure now we have things like ‘loot crates’ and microtransactions."

“Instead of having a ‘play-to-win’ structure now we have things like ‘loot crates’ and microtransactions," Mack said. "So instead of the common conception that ‘if I play more I’ll get more,’ people with more money shell out in the game and get lucky."

Mack used the "Call of Duty" series as an example, where players can buy “loot crates” that might give players better weapons and other advantages in-game. He claimed microtransactions have begun to affect people’s ability to fully play games if they lack enough of a disposable income.

A valid concern for any gamer is whether they can afford to enjoy all the amenities developers have to offer. Whether it’s paying to get a game sooner, unlocking a new level, committing to a monthly online game subscription (like World of Warcraft) or having enough currency to keep up with the whales on mobile, money has become a big influence on a gamer’s success.

“The danger is that if a low-income person also has a whale mentality and overspends, they can get themselves into major financial trouble and the games are designed to encourage this,” Schrieber said.

Gaming on a Budget 

In reality, there are still ways for gamers — both casual and more dedicated — to enjoy their favorite experiences while minimizing the cost to themselves. Players who are just looking to pass the time on the bus or in the five minutes between classes can probably still get a lot out of free-to-play games. Companies will still pull in money from casual gamers with ads, merchandise and the occasional microtransaction, but it’s likely only a few bucks here and there.

Dedicated gamers have their tricks to save money too. If you don’t play competitively, for instance, wait a year or two after a game’s release to get it at a ridiculously marked down price; sometimes as little as five dollars. Misiorski said that he makes a point to buy all of his games on sale.

Alternatively, prioritize only a few games a year to put money towards. There are even subscriptions (like Xbox LIVE or PlayStation Plus) that provide free games each month.

Don’t discount indie games either, as they are usually less expensive but still equally robust experiences. A lot of small-time developers or gaming students, like Mack, create fun and interesting games. Yes, they have less development resources and can’t compete scale-wise with big-time publishers. Yet, that often means their games are passion projects and not products of corporate revenue-maximizing strategies. Who knows, your new favorite game may be an indie.

Change in Culture

Publishers continually trying to milk additional profit from every game they release can be more than a little off-putting. Even when a gamer has paid full price for an experience, there so often exists an in-game hierarchy that is not fair to those with less spending ability. Microtransactions have certainly enabled gamers to customize and personalize their favorite games in new ways; so in some contexts they can serve a positive purpose. Yet, it is on consumers to challenge publishers (or not partake) when their approaches to monetization become exploitive. Severely limiting access to full game experiences or creating play-to-win structures are likely not emblematic of a future that gamers want.