The Ethics of “Buy or Earn” Microtransactions

Man, lootboxes, right? They’re everywhere these days. Lootboxes, paid DLC, subscription fees, boosts, it just seems like there’s hundreds of extra ways for a publisher to ding you again and again after you’ve bought their game. Recently, Star Wars: Battlefront II has gotten no end of bad press for having a particularly egregious microtransaction scheme. In fact, it was recently discovered that unlocking everything in that game would cost $2,100 USD to buy or 4,528 hours of gameplay to earn.

And there, right there is where I want to draw particular attention. Let’s ignore the numbers for a moment and examine the proposition: you can either pay money to buy these unlockables, or earn them with in-game play. “Buy or Earn” unlockables have a particular problem that I want to examine.

When you tell a player that they can buy an unlockable with money or earn them with gameplay, you’re telling them one of two things:

1) You should be earning this unlockable, but you can buy it for convenience’s sake.
2) You should be buying this unlockable, but you can earn it if you’re time-rich and cash-poor.

The first proposition is untenable, because if you examine even a little bit, it means you’ve made a bad game. The only way that it’s “convenient” to purchase an unlockable with money is if it’s inconvenient to earn it in-game. If it’s inconvenient to play your game, your game is terrible. Go back to the drawing board.

The second proposition is a little more understandable, but it depends on the circumstances of the game. In the case of Star War: Battlefront II, you’ve already dropped $60 USD to buy the game. Obscuring the fact that you’re expected to spend a further $2,100 to unlock the full game until after you’ve made the original purchase is essentially evil. Which, I mean, EA, so what were we expecting anyway, but still.

So where does this leave us? Can you ever have “Buy or Earn” microtransactions without it being just the worst? I like to think that you can.

I kind of have to think that you can, since that’s how I’m monetizing Chat & Slash. I’m drawing a very firm line in the sand, though, that I hope keeps me on the ethical side of “Buy or Earn” microtransactions.

First, you’re expected to buy these. The game is free, so these microtransactions are how I’m hoping to pay server bills. You unlock all kinds of other things in the game as part of the game, and you can’t buy those – you can only earn them. The core gameplay and advancement loop isn’t being sold.

Second, it’s hard to earn these. You get Dragon Scales from killing dragons – the big bosses of which there are a limited number – and only a small number of other situations. With some careful strategizing and hoarding, you can earn some of these unlockables, but earning all of them is nearly impossible.

Which might be unfair, but these are all optional. A free player can be just as powerful a a paying player, just with fewer options, is all. Plus, there’s some hard limits on how useful these items can be. The HP/MP refilling potion? Only usable once per fight. The key that unlocks cursed chests? You can open them without one, you just get a time-limited curse placed on you.

I firmly believe there’s a place for microtransactions in games, but you have to take a hard look at their place in your game and how they’re going to affect your playerbase. Designed correctly, you can fund your game and have your most enthusiastic players clamouring for more things to spend money on to support you. Done poorly, you get, well, the most downvoted comment on Reddit ever, by a massive margin.

Chat & Slash is in beta now, with a full release hopefully not too far off in the future. If you want to help test, or just explore the game in it’s current state, just sign up here, and I’ll email you an invitation ASAP!

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