Economics of Gaming – Microtransactions

Recently, a few of my friends confused micro-transactions with downloadable content. Generally, downloadable content is a game extension, including new maps, characters, story-missions, and can run anywhere from a dollar to as much at $30. Microtransactions involve paying small to moderate fees to enhance an existing experience, occasionally in the form of a new weapon or occasionally for a really nice looking hat. For a long time, microtransactions existed in the domain of free-to-play games, but they’ve recently popped up in full-price titles as well, a shift I agree was somewhat contemptible. It’s important to understand that there’s no clear distinction between DLC and microtrans; it’s just a big gray-scale in the middle. As in Mass Effect 3, the Citadel and Leviathan missions are counted as DLC while the multiplayer packs are considered microtransactions.

Microtransactions as a whole have been vilified despite their success in numerous markets. I admit getting swept into the craze while addicted to the desktop tower defense Facebook game. Outside of that brief outing, I’ve avoided the practice, staying away from ME3’s multiplayer completely. As for Dead Space 3, anyone purchasing upgrade packs in that game is a buffoon when you consider how easy it is to achieve the same result by just playing the game. I mean, you’re forking down $60 for a game and then spending another $10 to finish it faster. It just seems ludicrous to me. The mere option shouldn’t anger people, but it did. I’ll admit initially being a reactionary torch-waver but upon playing the game, I found the option completely unnecessary, so much so that even offering it was unsound, the actions of an economist with little foresight. It’s such an asinine inclusion since purchasing a pack only awards you a randomized collection of materials, some of which you may not need. It’s a practice another game was crucified recently for attempting.

It’s called Final Fantasy: All the Bravest, a forgettable and mindless combat game for mobile devices where famous characters from the franchise are pitted against each other. It has little gameplay, feels slow, and randomizes the results of your paid purchases. You only gain a few characters with the base fee and when you pay to unlock more, you’re awarded a random new character. On account of its miniscule gameplay and insulting business model, All the Bravest has been heavily criticized, labeled a cash-grab, a glorified piggy bank, and the worst example of free-to-play gaming. One report indicated that to unlock every character, you need to spend upwards of $50. Seems borderline criminal asking someone to pay for a piece of a game without any say on what that piece is.

So how does Magic: The Gathering get away with doing the exact same thing?

Ahhh, you knew I was going to pull this topic out of video games eventually. Think about it; you pay a modest fee to enter into a game, $15 say, and that gets you a relatively useless starter pack only effective against other players with starter packs. In order to compete outside of the kiddy pool, you’re required to purchase booster packs, which contain a random assortment of cards, most of which, and let’s be honest, are virtually useless to you, necessitating trade. But this trading is based on most people purchasing random booster packs. The obvious counterargument is that Magic is a CCG (or Collectible Card Game). The cards have value, and acquiring a rare one carries both a psychological and a financial impact. But these cards are only valuable as long as the game remains popular. Hell, I’m sitting on cards from the short-lived Aliens vs. Predator CCG, now barely worth the paper they’re printed on.

But that’s the collector market and it’s detached from microtransactions…right? Then how did Hasbro manage to translate Magic from a physical card game to an online video game. Sure the prices are lower, individual cards are 50% to 70% cheaper than their physical counterparts, but everything else is unchanged. It’s still a game with a degree of success greatly affected by the amount of money you invest in it. The game encourages the trade and collecting of these virtual cards, but they can’t hold the same longevity as their physical likeness. When you purchase a booster pack, you’re still given a set of randomly assorted cards. Why and how does Magic Online get away with it?

The answer is simple…


Magic Online is a straight translation of the physical game which had conditioned consumers to accept their business model, a model replicated by dozens of other games since. But how did the CCG model become tolerated in the first place? First, because they were billed as trading cards, something you can’t really do with most microtransactions in games. Second, and most of all, it was riding the same habituation people have already undergone decades prior with sports cards. They’re randomized and packaged in the same fashion. This model has been around for over a hundred years so the concept of buying into a random bag of perhaps useless cuts of paper has been accepted. It was then easy for Wizards of the Coast to evolve that to a trading card game and then again to the online version of that same game. But if you look at the digital game outside of this context, you’re still left with a game which breaks every ethical law gamers are accusing big video game companies of violating. Magic manages it without controversy or criticism.

Am I giving microtransactions a pass? Hell no, I don’t even like the fact that I sunk nearly 200 bucks in Magic Online, a game I haven’t touched in almost a year. What I’m saying is that most of these ethical transgressions being slung and stuck to game companies have already been broken, and for as long as most of us have been alive. Why and when did Magic gain a teflon coating? And if you think Magic is isolated in price gouging through randomizing content, don’t forget Hero Clix…or Dreamblade…or Monsterpocalpyse…or Mechwarrior. Even D&D sunk their teeth into the CMG (Collectible Miniature Game) market. Hell, I’m frankly surprised that Skylanders didn’t follow that same model. Couldn’t Activsion have rode the CMG train and made the transition between collectible miniature game and a collectible miniature video game? So before someone points a sniper rifle across the grassy knoll at the practices of video games, we should perhaps take things into perspective. Of course, if you are like me, and find the idea of CMG and CCG collecting akin to adult films having their sexual content edited out and marketed as normal films, then you’re more than welcome to attack games which commit this practice. And you may have valid arguments as to why it’s different, but to me, I don’t see it. Why do we give one company a pass and not another? It’s because video game companies are targets and games like Magic and HeroClix got their get out of jail free card years ago.


Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

3 thoughts on “Economics of Gaming – Microtransactions

  • March 3, 2014 at 8:14 pm

    On a side note, I’d completely buy your Alien Vs. Predator cards off you.

    • March 3, 2014 at 9:14 pm

      Seriously? What’s funny is that because of connections with a comic store, I am sitting on every rare card for aliens and CM, just nothing for Predators. 🙂

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