Any mention of paid DLC or microtransactions will bring up some negative reactions from the gaming community.
This is completely understandable. After all, countless developers have used these features to allow their players to gain unfair advantages over others or to serve as a paywall which blocks off access to certain content.
However, I would argue that there is an acceptable way to handle microtransactions and paid DLC so as to not screw over the players. After all, game developers need a paycheck and without additional revenue streams, support for any individual game would die off very quickly. No gamer wants to see their favorite game fade into oblivion.
So let’s examine some of the different forms that microtransactions and DLC can take and determine whether these are a net positive or a net negative for any given game.
Please note: All opinions in this article are my own. I have had no personal or professional relationship or interaction with the developers or publishers of the games mentioned in this article.
An expansion is one of the oldest means of monetizing a game beyond initial sales. As the name implies, an expansion pack basically makes your game bigger and have more content. Expansion packs will typically cost less than the original game and provide a decent amount of additional content to the game.
An example can be found in one of my childhood favorites, Age of Mythology. This was a real-time strategy game in which you built up armies of Greek, Egyptian, or Norse soldiers, buffing their ranks with creatures from their respective mythologies.
A year after release, the Titans Expansion was brought out. This expansion added a new group, the Atlanteans, with units and a campaign to accompany them. It also allowed for players to summon their own titans in skirmish matches, drastically altering the gameplay potential.
So is this fair? In my eyes, this is a very fair way of monetizing a game. The player gets a lot more content and the developers get more money. It did not drastically alter the balance of the game, and nobody was negatively impacted for not having it.
This is a system that lets you pay money in order to access something in-game that lets you change up your playstyle without really giving you any direct advantages. This can come in the form of maps, additional weapon classes, and much more.
A great example of a game that does this often is Payday 2 (which happens to be my most played Steam game at 1226 hours and counting). Over its three-year lifespan, they’ve released a ton of paid DLC. For now, I’m only going to discuss their weapon packs.
These weapon packs all contained a half-dozen or so weapons centered around a particular theme. For example, there was the Western Pack which featured a six-shooter and a Native-American style bow. There was also the Historical pack, which featured a number of weapons used in World War I.
These weapon packs expand your possibilities as a player. Some argue that these weapons give unfair advantages by offering unique utilities, such as a sniper rifle’s armor-piercing rounds and a grenade launcher’s splash damage.
However, this has become much less of an issue since the game developers (Overkill) have been making efforts to add free versions of weapon classes previously only available via paid DLC.
So is this fair? I’d say that on paper, it is. However, it requires careful balancing in order to both be attractive to players yet not give them an unfair advantage. Payday 2 has had to deal with this issue as over the years, certain DLCs have been overpowered with explosives offering insane crowd control and bows doing insanely high damage.
All that being said, nobody is hurt by not having these DLC and it has allowed the game to get ongoing support for three years now, so I can’t really complain.
Here’s where things can get a little bit dicey. Pay-to-win is exactly what it sounds like. You put in money and you get in-game advantages that will give you an unfair advantage.
The best example of this is a game that you’ve probably played, Candy Crush. Candy Crush is a match-3 game in which you can buy lives, boosts, and additional moves to help complete the various stages.
While this game is technically beatable without investing a single penny, you’re going to require massive amounts of luck and dedication in order to do so.
So is this fair? Absolutely not, especially in a game with hiscores or a PvP system as it disadvantages those who do not want to take part in these microtransactions.
Furthermore, any game that has these systems in place will inevitably be balanced around players who are using them, meaning the non-paying players will be facing a game with a very steep difficulty curve.
This system of microtransactions is similar to pay-to-win in that it directly gives players in-game items for real money but with one key difference. These items are readily obtainable in-game.
The free-to-play first-person shooter Paladins uses this system. In Paladins, you can play as a variety of heroes each with their own unique abilities and playstyles. By default, most of these are locked off. You can unlock them by two methods.
You can pay $20 to permanently unlock all present and future heroes, or you can use in-game currency to buy each of them individually.
I’ve been playing Paladins fairly often over the past few weeks and one thing I’ve noticed is that they are not stingy with the gold you can earn (the in-game currency used to purchase heroes).
A hero typically costs 5,000 gold to unlock. You can earn up to 900 a day from first-win bonuses, 2,250 per week from weekly quests, and this is all on top of the gold you earn from playing games (usually 100-250 per-game depending on how well you played) and daily login bonuses. After only 13 hours, I’ve already unlocked a sizeable chunk of heroes to play.
So is this fair? It can be. As long as the content isn’t blatantly overpowered and won’t take absolutely forever to obtain through natural means, I think this is a reasonable way for the developers to make a little bit of money for their efforts.
It’s also interesting to note that pay-to-skip often allows games to be free, and therefore more attractive to new players.
Cosmetics can come in the form of either microtransactions or DLC. As the name implies, cosmetics are in-game items or options that allow you to change the way things look or sound without actually affecting gameplay.
One of the most successful examples of this business strategy is Riot Games’ hit MOBA, League of Legends. The main source of income for this free game is skins which significantly alter the in-game appearance and splash art of different champions.
These skins are purchased with Riot Points, a currency only obtainable with real money.
It should be noted that these skins do not in any way alter the gameplay. In League of Legends, any game-altering item, such as champions or stat-boosting runes, is purchasable with Influence Points, which are gained through gameplay.
So is this fair? Absolutely. Without a doubt, this is the fairest way to monetize a game for long-term support. The players get to show off their swag, the developers get a paycheck, and players who don’t wish to participate in the system are not at a disadvantage. It’s a win-win scenario.
Crates are a rather interesting system. I almost lumped them in with cosmetics, but they are unique enough to warrant their own category. Crates function in such a way that a player will obtain a crate through gameplay. Note that while I call them crates, they often go by other names. For example, Payday 2 calls them “safes.”
Once a player has a crate, they can open it with a key that is usually only obtainable for real money. These crates will usually contain a skin, a booster, or in-game currency, though it varies depending on the game.
The crates themselves and oftentimes the skins inside will be tradeable between players.
The most famous example and the reason the crate system has its name is the popular first-person shooter Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO for short). CS:GO gives players crates which are then unlocked with keys to obtain weapon skins.
These crates are so popular because they have the chance to give incredibly rare skins. It’s not uncommon for certain skins, particularly knife skins, to be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. Yes, that’s hundreds or thousands of dollars in real-world money.
One skin, the #1 Karambit Blue Gem in Factory New condition, is reported to be worth over $100,000.
So is this fair? By and large, I’d say it is. Some games will include things like stat boosts onto crate skins which makes it somewhat less fair, but most games keep it cosmetic.
One thing I will say is that while this system is not inherently unfair, it is somewhat exploitative. Instead of having a set price on various cosmetics, crates incentivize gambling your money on a good skin, potentially spending far more money than if you had a direct purchase option.
That slight objection aside, I do support the crate system.
While technically not DLC or microtransactions, paid subscriptions deserve some attention. As you may have guessed, paid subscriptions are a recurring fee that players must pay in order to continue playing most or all of a game.
An example of this system is one of my favorite games and the subject of my very first article for GeeklyNG, Runescape. While it touts itself as “the largest free-to-play MMORPG,” it is more accurately a subscription-based game with a free demo.
Admittedly, this demo is absolutely massive for a demo and there is a vibrant free-to-play community, but as any free player will tell you, the limitations are numerous and obvious.
To access the full game, players must pay for one of several subscription packages starting at $9.50 for a one-month subscription down to $7.50 per month for a 1-year subscription. It is worth noting that Jagex, the developer, frequently offers promotional deals offering periods of membership cheaper than usual.
This subscription offers access to the full game which is many times larger and full of much more content than the free version. Furthermore, paid members do not have the banner ads that free players must deal with.
So is this fair? I believe it’s hit and miss. While it’s in no way dishonest, I feel that any game with an associated subscription fee has much more of an obligation to be a quality product.
As a gamer is potentially paying hundreds of dollars over the course of several years, if the game is not given proper quality assurance or ends up stagnating in terms of content, the player can feel betrayed. After all, they’ve put in a lot of money, oftentimes the value of multiple AAA titles into a game they will not be able to play if they cancel their subscription.
Subscription fees can be fair, but this business model comes with a hefty responsibility. Appropriately, those that rise up to this responsibility can do incredibly well, as is the case with Runescape and World of Warcraft, while those who do not either have to change their business model or fail, as happened with The Elder Scrolls Online.
Last but certainly not least, we have paywalls. This system stands out because technically most examples of a paywall will fall under pay-to-skip or pay-to-win. A paywall works in such a way that the player will either be forced or strongly incentivized to pay real money in order to progress in the game.
This can take the form of a literal charge in order to pass a certain point, but this is relatively rare and is not usually a particularly profitable business model. Far more common is a paywall disguised as pay-to-skip.
The most egregious example of this immediately comes to mind. It was done by an abomination of a title. This business model was the final insult that EA gave to the corrupted and desiccated corpse of what was once a stellar intellectual property. This abomination is known as Dungeon Keeper Mobile.
This sorry excuse for a game has a system in which you must order your imps to mine out sections of the dungeon in order to access new areas and clear space to build new rooms. There’s only one problem. Each block can take up to a full day to mine out. That’s kind of a problem when a new area is 15 blocks away or you want to clear out a 4×4 space for a new room. Of course, they generously offer the ability to instantly complete this process for approximately $2.50 worth of gems (only obtainable with real money). Naturally, you have to do this for every block you wish to skip.
While you could technically play the game in its entirety without paying a single penny, it’s very impractical to do so, and you’ll probably be spending months if not years waiting on timers. Therefore, while in the strictest sense this is not a paywall, it functions like one.
So is this fair? Do I even have to answer this after that tirade? Of course it isn’t! This is an incredibly manipulative tactic that relies on hooking a player on the relatively small amount of early content in order to goad them into investing buckets of cash into a typically mediocre game. I would personally be satisfied if all paywalls and their creators were sucked into the depths of the earth, never to be seen again.
So What’s the Verdict?
DLC and microtransactions have a bad reputation, and you can’t really blame gamers for that. A lot of greedy developers have overstepped the line of ethical business practice and it’s ruined it for the honest and passionate ones. However, I think it would be wise to consider every alternative monetization strategy on a case-by-case basis.
We shouldn’t hold the sins of EA against developers like Defiant (creators of one of my favorite indie titles, Hand of Fate). Innovation that allows developers to profit a bit more off their hard work should not be punished as long as it is not a slap in the face to their players.
We as gamers want the best experience in a game. I understand that desire and I fully agree with it. However, we must realize that sometimes what’s best for the player is the success of the developer. After all, even the best game in the world will die off if the developers can’t turn a profit.
All I’m asking is that you give these DLC and microtransactions fair consideration before making your judgement, be it positive or negative.
The gaming industry can truly shine when the developers and the gamers exist in harmony.
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