I feel like I preface so many articles by saying "It's [insert year here], and [insidious practice] is part of the gaming industry now, for better or worse." But it's true: DLC, Day-One Editions, and pre-orders are all ideas that publishers have inflicted upon us precisely because we've proven ourselves willing to adopt them. Gaming is evolving in many positive ways - it's entirely possible to maintain an entirely digital library thanks to services like Steam and Xbox Live, for instance - but microtransactions are one "evolution" I could do without.
Unfortunately, they aren't likely to go anywhere, given how readily consumers are willing to conduct them. To clarify, a "microtransaction" is a purchase of premium digital assets for use within a game in exchange for real money. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion's horse armor DLC was met with jeers and laughter a decade ago, but today we're eagerly forking over a few dollars at a time for the mere opportunity to obtain rare loot in games like Overwatch and Final Fantasy Record Keeper.
Overwatch is in a class of its own when it comes to its money-making potential. The base game is a premium purchase; for $40, you gain access to all playable content and future updates, which seems like a pretty good deal. The the microtransactions - in the form of colorful, flashy loot boxes - come into play. You can obtain them through normal play, but it's a slow process, so why not throw a few bucks at Blizzard once or twice a month for more? That's exactly the line of thinking they want players to adopt; the addictive, "I've gotta get one more just in case it's my rare drop" mentality it fosters is the same one that gamblers have before their lives spiral out of control. I acknowledge the difference between the two as well as the hyperbolic nature of such a comparison, but it really isn't all that different.
For the record, there is no way to gain an advantage over other players by pumping additional money into Overwatch, otherwise I'd be far more righteously angry about it. Yet there's still a devious framework that encourages enthusiastic spending despite the random nature of its loot box rewards: seasonal events. In 2016, Overwatch played host to three limited-time campaigns to celebrate the Summer Olympics, Halloween, and the holiday season. Each offered unique rewards through loot boxes that could only be obtained for the duration of that event. Miss what you wanted? Too bad; you'll have to wait until next year.
The limited availability of these items - which are still completely cosmetic, by the way - drives players to increase their loot box spending throughout each event, lest their desires go unfulfilled until the event comes around again. The model is so successful that Overwatch pulled in over $500 million dollars last year, making it one of Blizzard's most successful ventures ever. I often hear the argument that it's possible to completely ignore loot boxes, but the numbers show that players obviously aren't doing that.
I worry about the state of the video game market when we've given publishers the green light to charge us to gamble on digital items. The cost of creating in-game assets is infinitesimal compared to the manufacturing cost of physical goods - not to mention that they never run out - and yet we're still paying $5, $10, or $20 for virtual ephemera that will be forgotten in a few years' time. The only way to combat this would be for us to put our collective foot down on microtransactions, but let's be real: That's not going to happen anytime soon.