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Video games benefit from fewer microtransactions — here's why

Microtransactions aren't exactly a new concept in the gaming industry — they've been around for over 10 years. Despite that, though, loot box-oriented systems have become increasingly aggressive in recent years, with games like Halo 5: Guardians, For Honor, and the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront II being prime examples.

As microtransactions have become more impactful in games, more traditional progression systems that allow you to unlock items via challenges or achievements have become rare. What the companies behind the decisions to operate with these aggressive loot boxes need to realize is that unlike a microtransaction system, standard progression systems bring about four major benefits: better gameplay, more incentive to play, a strong tool for community building, and a better public image for the game.

Gameplay: Pay-to-win? Not anymore.

When microtransactions are implemented in gameplay, two major problems occur. One is a pay-to-win environment. Players who pour copious amounts of money into purchasing loot boxes will have a major advantage over players who choose to play through the game normally. One of the worst examples of this right now is Halo 5's Warzone mode, in which players can buy REQ packs and unlock all the high-level items much faster than normal players.

The commonly suggested solution to this is to modify the matchmaker so players are only matched with players with a similar inventory level. However, this is where the second issue lies. Matchmaking systems already have to ensure that players are placed with those who are in similar skill tiers. By adding another filter for item progression, it becomes nearly impossible for the system to fairly match players. This is why in games like this, you'll often be matched against a wide variety of players instead of ones at the same level as you.

Battlefield 1 is an example of a game that does gameplay progression correctly.

By making unlocks tied to reaching a milestone or completing a task, however, neither of these problems exists. Since there's no way to cheat your way to better items by feeding the game money, the progression system is solely influenced by a player's skill and level. For example, Battlefield 1's unlocks are earned only through performance in-game. In this type of system, it is impossible to pay to win.

This also makes matchmaking systems much more efficient. Since players only have more powerful items by being highly skilled or experienced, all the matchmaker has to do is group players of similar skill levels against each other and they'll all have similar arsenals.

Incentive: Cosmetics become trophies of achievement

Though loot boxes that don't affect gameplay are somewhat less damaging to a game, they still harm the cosmetic side of progression systems. The chances of unlocking new armor, a helmet, or color scheme, are completely random in these systems. Thanks to random number generators, there's no real way to actually work towards unlocking something you want. Yes, technically you are doing that by grinding the game for more boxes, but that's entirely based on getting lucky.

This issue creates a lack of incentive. Because you're forced to hope that you'll randomly find an item instead of being given the option or opportunity to aim to get something specific, the reward system can feel incredibly unsatisfying and pointless.

When games create an environment in which you can try and earn items specifically, though, it drives the incentive to play up. When unlocks are based on a system of challenges, achievements, and milestones, you feel good when you overcome the obstacle that keeps you from getting the cosmetics you want. Rewards aren't given for being lucky; rather, they're given in response to your accomplishments. You feel proud of it.

You could say a system like this alienates lower-skilled players, but I don't think it has to. Not every unlock has to be difficult. In fact, I think there should be a large number of basic rewards for playing averagely, and a small amount of high-quality rewards for playing well. This type of structure encourages players to play the game more and improve so that they can work towards more difficult rewards. And if lower skilled players can't reach higher levels of play, there's still a bunch of stuff for them at the bottom of the ladder. Everyone wins.

Community: Work together to reach your goals

Playing with other people to try and unlock things together is a strong way that communities can form.

There's only one thing better than playing a good game with good progression, and that's playing that game with other people. Forming a squad and going into a game with the intent to get an unlock from playing well together is even better than doing it solo because of the fact that it encourages you to meet new people and make new friends. Having a system that allows this type of communal achievement does wonders for a game.

This is where the luck-based structure of loot boxes fails again. With no way to specifically work towards anything, grouping up with other players is rather pointless. Having a full party of friends or strangers working together and playing better doesn't mean anything when the loot boxes earned very likely won't give anyone what they're hoping for.

Public image: A more appealing purchase

Finally, a traditional progression system is, in general, much more appealing to a mass audience than microtransactions. While some enjoy loot-box systems, the recent uproar on Reddit and other sites in response to Battlefront II's progression system makes it abundantly clear that microtransactions are usually frowned upon.

Read: Loot crates in Star Wars Battlefront II ruin what could be a great game

For all the reasons discussed above, a system without loot boxes is simply less risky and worrisome. Players don't have to worry about a pay-to-win metagame, poor reward structures, or a lack of in-game encouragement for forming communities. While a developer could argue that they'd lose money because there aren't loot boxes for players to buy, I believe that they'll more than make up that difference from the increased sales that come from the decision to not include microtransactions.

Conclusion

Systems that opt to not include loot boxes in their progression systems are more consumer-friendly than those that have them. Whether it's better gameplay balancing or matchmaking, more incentive to play the game and improve your skills, a stronger foundation for community building, or simply making the game more appealing for the masses, a traditional, meritocratic system for unlocks does nothing but improve games that utilize it.

The industry needs to shake off this microtransaction trend. Otherwise, games like Star Wars Battlefront II will continue to suffer for it.

Your thoughts

What's your opinion on more traditional unlock systems? Do you think they're a good alternative to microtransactions, or are loot boxes are the way to go? Let us know what you think.

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.

22 Comments
  • Article is cool, and I personally don't like micro-transactions. But you mentioned 4 reasons why getting rid of them is bad: "better gameplay, more incentive to play, a strong tool for community building, and a better public image for the game." The thing is, the developers know that. But it doesn't address the fact that games are getting more and more expensive to make so there has to be a way for developers to get some money back. It's more about changing HOW micro transactions are structured than if they are there. FIFA does it great. I don't play it anymore, but I know so many friends who don't mind at all paying for things in the game. I haven't heard many people complain. It's done in a fun way. What makes it good is that you can play the game without paying anything. But if you want to, it makes it a little better too if you're in a hurry. But again, it doesn't give you that feeling that you have to, and that's what these companies have to learn how to do.
  • I was actually discussing this just the other day with some friends. Yes, the cost of development, especially for AAA games, just continues to increase, but then again so has everything else. Inflation continues to happen with everything else, and yet we expect the base price of our games to remain stagnant at $60? We've been paying that price for AAA titles for 10+ years now. I would happily pay $75-80 for a AAA game with a great system void of any sort of MTs, than pay $60 for one with MTs.
  • "Battlefield 1 is an example of a game that does gameplay progression correctly. [...] Since there's no way to cheat your way to better items by feeding the game money, the progression system is solely influenced by a player's skill and level. For example, Battlefield 1's unlocks are earned only through performance in-game. In this type of system, it is impossible to pay to win." Brendan, this is just not true. Players can buy shortcut packs to bypass leveling. For example, here is the PC Shortcut Kit: Ultimate Bundle for 39.99$ https://www.origin.com/usa/en-us/store/battlefield/battlefield-1/addon/b... "includes primary weapons, sidearms, and gadgets earned for all Infantry classes (Scout, Medic, Support, and Assault) in Battlefield™ 1 multiplayer, plus all multiplayer vehicle packages for Pilot and Tanker classes and additional weapons not tied to any specific class."  Also Battlepacks can be purchased in quantities of 1, 3, 5, and 10: https://www.origin.com/usa/en-us/store/battlefield/battlefield-1/addon/b...
  • Yes you are right you can purchase the weapons unlock option to have all the weapons at your disposal, but with this game, it doesn't make you any better really.  It's not like you can grab a new assault gun and causing mayhem out in the field, you still have to get used to it so in a sense it's a waste of money in my eyes.  The only real advantage to buying the weapons pack up front is to help you get the medals faster since you will have all the weapons at your disposal.  Also, you can purchase battlepacks, but that too does nothing.  It's mainly skins for your weapons and vehicles with the occasional 2X and puzzle piece for melee weapons.
  • The two best explanations of Microtransactions and the good and bad things about them as well as how to do it right that I've ever seen.  It was talking about free-to-play games but since these things are making there way into AAA games as well, it still applies. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXA559KNopI https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mhz9OXy86a0 Also, I know that games are getting more expensive to make and all that but microtransactions should either be for non gameplay-altering items or the game needs to be priced much much lower.  A full-priced game has no business attempting what Battlefront II was trying.
  • These fees cause a further issue. Take Steam as an example. If you cheat, you get banned from your whole account and your games are taken away, sometimes (often) worth significant amounts of money. It is justified by claiming this makes things fair for everyone. Except, it turns out if you slip them a bribe you can cheat as much as you like and the games companies will even assist you in doing so, which completely undermines the ban system and basically turns the whole thing corrupt. This is pathetic and is part of the reason I've moved into playing single player games most of the time. Either let everyone cheat (not my ideal option) or ban everyone who cheats. Taking bribes makes the whole thing a distasteful nonsense and is traditionally considered unethical. Companies who take bribes to turn a blind eye to cheating or even facilitate it should be publicly shamed and BANNED FROM STEAM etc.
  • Of course, the big to-do of late is Battlefront, a game not offered on Steam. It's through Origin, a service EA runs itself.
  • These arguments against loot boxes, while valid, fail to address the major point developers try to make when trying to explain thier reasons for implementing them. "How are we expected to pay for the ongoing development costs of providing the expected multiplayer experiences?" Maintaining servers, developing new material, maps, ect. All have significant costs and the initial $60 payed for a game won't cover.
  • Yeah they can cut costs in other places though, and add prices in more. It's time the industry goes all digital like PC. Then there are less costs on the production, and no lost revenue on used copies at places like GameStop. It's also time for a price increase in games. It sucks, but we've been at $60 for a very long time. 
  • They've already been progressing to digital, and despite growing profits from the shift, they don't stop the push for more money. This could be a 100% digital experience, and it wouldn't matter. Why do I say that? THey don't stop the pay-to-win of heroes in MOBAs, though they are free-to-play. Even then, the PC versions of pay-to-win games dont' get a reprieve. The problem is not the stagnating price of games. It's a purely greed-related matter, when it comes to launch pricing and microtransactions. If the issue is that production costs are going up, then that woudl be balanced by the increased pool of buyers--go compare the number of home consoles 15 years ago to today. On top of that, if it's SUCH a bad time trying to make money in games at $60, why are so many just-launched, big-name titles deeply discounted for Black Friday? If WB Games needs to make more money off of games because production of SHadow of War was more than its predecessor, why is that $60 game down to $30 at most retailers, and even down to $25 at GameStop, for Black Friday? That's pretty common, too; NFS Payback was leaked at $35 for Black Friday before it even launched at $60. They've got more buyers to fund their games. They've got increased profits with increased digital purchasing. They're absolutely not hurting for money, let's not kid ourselves.
  • By selling microtransactions that DON'T give a gameplay advtanage, obviously. Or make a subscription.
  • The solution to long-term maintenance is a real point of interest, and it's a big deal that needs to be financially addressed. However, that doesn't mean you have to use RNG and gambling tactics to milk addicts of their money. You can have a straight-up pay-to-use system. Why do I need to have a slot machine that gives me a skin for a car I can't use in Rocket League? Why can't my $2 buy me the exact skin I want, rather than a dice roll between the one thing I want and a dozen I don't? Microtransactions are probably necessary and reasonable, but not in a gambling delivery method.
  • I see this argument a lot and I'm not sure this is necessarily correct. Even if the games still sell for about $60 the market has expanded too. There are more gamers than ever before, so it's possible revenue could still increase with constant prices. EA is a highly profitable company.
  • Brendan, thanks for a well-written article. Definitely good things to keep in mind. What are the benefits to microtransactions? You mentioned Halo 5: Guardians as a game with aggressive microtransactions, but they really do keep the "pay-to-win" crowd in the Warzone game mode. The classic Arena game mode only has cosmetic alterations. That really seems like a good way to do it, especially with the profits of those transactions going towards tournament pots in HCS. You can definitely enjoy Halo 5 without crossing over with those who pay to win.
    An article comparing the rising budgets of successful AAA games to those from 10 years ago (e.g., Halo 3 vs. Halo 5: Guardians) would be very interesting, especially since the price of a video game has stayed consistently at $60 for a few years now. If we do not want microtransactions, are we willing to pay $80 or $100 for a video game, so that developers can recover cost and be compensated for their work? Hearing your thoughts and analysis of this gaming trend would be great.
  • Well Said Brendan, well said. i recall during the initial xbox one launch I was playing Ryse with random people to obtain achievements and it felt really good earning them as it was all about skill level and team work. Especially the hardest one for a survival wave, I remember me and one guy got a ridiculously high multiplier without a single hit as we watched each others backs. That was a triumphant moment. With pay to win mechanics that wouldn't have happened as although I'd be better skilled and the other person with better equipment, he or she wouldn't know what to do... Plus the ego factor - when these players have better equipment and then get pwned by lower equipment but better skilled players they quit. That just ruins the game for everyone else.
  • This article is poorly argued. Matchmaking cannot solve pay for advantage even in principle with perfect matchmaking. MMR = skill + bought advantages > skill + no bought advantage. Thus, people who buy advantages will have a higher MMR relative to not buying advantages, and hence they've effectively bought a higher rank, which destroys fairness and the correctness of the ranking system. Moreover, people will defend to the death the right of game companies to sell microtransactions that have been long established, even if it is a bought advantage, like powerful MOBA heroes, card packs, and cosmetic loot crates. In MOBAs specifically, they will relentlessly attack anyone who challenges the right of their favorite corporations to milk them with pay-for-advantage microtransactions. Microtransactions are more popular among gamers who want to me milked hard than unpopular, and are extremely popular if they have been around for a long time.
  • You didn't read the article very well, I take it. He didn't advocate for matchmaking tweaks based on purchased. He actually explained that OTHERS suggested this, then explained why it is a bad system. The author explicitly advocated for skill-based progression, where you're balanced y unlocks because they are determined by skill, which is also the backbone of matchmaking.
  • Payment schemes are implemented by the publisher, not the developer (unless they self-publish). Activision and EA are publishers, not developers, and they are the ones behind all this. Cost of development for DLC is covered by the cost of the DLC. If the DLC has value to the player, they purchase it. This incentivizes the developer to make interesting DLC. The same applies to the initial purchase of the game. To combat the rising cost of game development, budgeting and better planning will go a long way. Every game does not need to be bigger, but every game could be better. If that still doesn't work, than raise the price of the game. Pay to win incentivizes people with more money to play games and de-incentivizes people who don't want to pay more to not play at all. Fewer people buying the game means lower revenues while the cost of producing the game remains the same. Higher profits will come from higher volume.
  • What the companies behind the decisions to operate with these aggressive loot boxes need to realize is that unlike a microtransaction system, standard progression systems bring about four major benefits: better gameplay, more incentive to play, a strong tool for community building, and a better public image for the game......this a strong message for game developers and publishers.
  • The second point doesn't matter to a publisher. What do they care if oyu play for 2 days or 2 years after you buy that game? They get $60 either way, and there's no financial benefit if they are paying developers to keep you playing the game they already got paid for. They need an incentive to keep working on a game, and the only incentive to a publisher is money. As long as the base game is good and entertaining in a way that makes you want the next one, they've succeeded. Why make more content for free over a couple years when they can prep to charge you $60 again?
  • Just to start, I love the irony that on an article about the problems of microtransacations, specifically naming Battlefront 2, on a Microsoft-oriented website, I get an ad for Battlefront 2 on PS4. Just fantastic ad delivery, whoever delviers this site's ads! Hilarity aside, this is one of the better-written articles I've read on this site in quite a while. Especially impressed this site showed a willingness to not just call out the -ay-to-win of Warzone, but to justly describe it as one of the most egregious sinners in this cesspool of microtransactions. It's a awful system, only saved by how overwhelmingly Microsoft rewards you in REQ Packs and REQ Points, to where you never really feel like buying the points will make you better (plus, Warzeon gates REQ use so hard you're never lacking in high-level stuff to use when the time comes in-game). The cosmetic complaints are fair, though atypical. Even I usually say "keep it cosmetic," and I'm as anti-lootbox as I usually see in a discussion. It did make me think more on the matter, as it's a totally fair criticism that you risk alienation of players with lootboxes, same as you do when you split the community with DLC map packs and hurt lobby counts. We all agree that Battlefront's pay-to-win is a hellacious pile of junk, but what if that system were translated to costmetic-only content? Instead of the Rocket League-like system, where you get RNG on a limited set of items, you have a currency that lets you pick which cosmetics you get and when? That is, you can have the Crystal purchasing of Battlefront, but rather than unlocking Vader himself, you get a different skin for Vader--after you complete the challenge-based unlocks (because we don't want pay-to-unlock). Instead of unlocking Aim Assist for your ship, you can paint it green? We never complained when Halo 4 and Call of Duty paired leveled gating for progression with token unlock systems. for weapons. You got a token at every level, and different equipment cost different amounts. You picked what you unlocked when. In the same way, I think this would be a fair means of microtransactions, where you can either grind to skin your gun or pay up. You don't have the RNG garbage, you don't have the pay-to-win advantages, you just have to decide if you need your red blaster to shoot blue lasers badly enough to pay $2 over playing for 3 hours. This doesn't totally take the means of increasd income away. While I do not like microtransactions, I think they're goign to have to stay in some capacity, if you want to reject the $50 DLC and annual iteration on franchises. It helped 343 release free maps and content in Halo 5 (even though the content itself was flaming doo-doo fire), and it seems to have gotten that $50 Season Pass taken from Battlefront 2. I reject this notion of "games cost more to make" as a reason for throwing $60 games a batch of microtransactions at launch to supplement the price tag. However, if you enjoy "games as a service," where the developer doesn't let the map pool and overall content stagnate, and you want that non-stop work on new content and combat balancing (especially in a class-based game like Overwatch), then you absolutely SHOULD be supportive of a means to finance the work. While a game might cost more to make than it did before, the gamer pool increases revue to boost profts, and the push to digital hurts used sales and takes out retail middlemen, meaning per-unit profits go up (in addition to money saved on the physical delivery system of packaging, storing, and shipping). However, no one can argue that when you're expected to spend 1-3 years of development time doing EXTRA, post-launch work to keep a fanbase happy, that needs to be financed.
  • I've given up gaming a long time ago. Now all games are online multiplayer things and almost need a doctorate to know how to use a joystick with over 10 buttons and two or three sticks... Give me simple to learn single player game and once in a while I'd pay a microtransaction to skip a level a can't figure. But I play solo so I wouldn't disadvantage someone else by buying.