Anyone who has ever downloaded a mobile app game has inevitably come across that one level that seems simply impossible.

The screen lights up with the taunting message mocking your failure, followed by a glowing icon screaming out that it costs only 50p for an extra life or to skip the level completely. These extra costs are known as micro-transactions and they are taking over gaming.

Most of these games will be free to download. However, once in game you will constantly be given the option of buying more coins or lives to help you advance further.

In most games, you could win without spending a penny, but only after putting weeks, if not months of effort into it. Candy Crush is the king of this. A game that is entirely “free to play” yet generates £576,458 in revenue per day.

A single purchase of 99p doesn’t seem like a massive hit to your bank account. It’s only when you do this five times a day for a week that you realise that too much of your money is slipping away.

In comparison with traditional DLC (downloadable content), items sold via micro-transaction gain value from their in game value such as stat boosts or rarity. The ability to grant extra lives or a simple gun texture costs a developer very little.

In certain games, including Counter Strike:GO, players are rewarded with mystery crates which they can chose to open. These crates are completely randomised and you might be spending your money on something entirely worthless or an item worth hundreds of pounds. This leads to a culture of gambling, where people can throw large sums of money at the game until they get one weapon that they actually want.

Big spenders are known as “whales.” One report suggested that over 50% of mobile game revenue comes from 0.15% of players who spend large quantities.

Games may influence “feelings of pleasure and reward,” but this is an addiction to the games themselves; micro-transactions play to a different kind of addiction that has existed long before video games existed, more specifically, an addiction similar to that which you could develop in casinos and betting shops.

Parents have often been hit badly by surprise bills that have been accumulated by their children. Recently a 15 year old boy in Belgium racked up an outstanding €37,000 bill in a “free to play” game apparently “without knowing”.

As of the start of this year, Apple agreed to refund $32.5 million to parents whose children have made these purchases without their knowledge.

One of the biggest dangers presented by micro-transactions is the change it’s having on the foundations of game design. The idea of pay to win is potentially the biggest threat. In these games it is not about your ability to play the game, but how much you are willing to pay to advance.

Micro-transactions are no longer restricted to mobile and PC gaming. Forza Motorsport 5 was a full priced game that required you to pay real money for additional cars. The most expensive car in the game, the Lotus E21, costs an outrageous £32.50. That’s one virtual car on top the £40 – £50 you already spent on actually buying the game.

Though examples like this are still relatively rare to come by, it still highlights what micro-transactions can lead to: where it’s no longer about making an enjoyable game but about generating as much money as possible from a small, vulnerable fraction of the audience.

Micro-transactions are not totally a bad thing. They allow developers to include a wealth of customisation, not possible without the funds micro-transactions can raise, which in turn allows players to express their individuality in-game.

In some games, the ability to buy items means those who aren’t as skilled or have joined late have the option, if they choose, to pay a price to catch up.

Most of these games, especially mobile, are free in the first place. So if you start getting nagged about paying to play and have self-control, you can simply delete them.

The danger is more around those who aren’t aware of the cost and those who are prone to addiction. For parents or younger gamers, most devices have the ability to prevent certain transactions being made or allow parents to require secondary approval for transactions.

Micro-transactions aren’t a danger for most, but it’s worth keeping in mind your bank balance before you pick up and play.

James Saller

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Are micro-transactions ruining video games?

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