games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: Microtransactions

November 14, 2020 | Posted by Jed Shaffer

I worked at pre-Crisis GameStop – otherwise known as Babbages/Software Etc. – from 1997-1999. I got the job because the store didn’t have a Saturn player on staff and this appealed to them. Little did they know this asset would lose all value within a year, when Sega kicked the crutch out from under the Saturn and pushed it down a flight of stairs. Thankfully, that wasn’t a condition of employment, just a bonus to get hired. Anyway, back in those days, they sold both console and PC games, and add-on content was entirely within the domain of PC gaming. Games like Command & Conquer, Warcraft, and SimCity 2000 got what were then called expansion packs. Since the internet was still running on dial-up, internet distribution wasn’t possible without tying up phone lines for days at a time. You had to buy the expansion packs separately. PC games and the expansion packs came in these huge cardboard boxes, big enough to have a carbon footprint of an unregulated nuclear power plant. And for whatever reason, the boxes were designed in such a way that non-gamers couldn’t tell the difference between the original game and the expansion. I can’t tell you how many exchanges I processed because Mom bought the wrong cereal-sized game box.

The console ecosystem was different. Kids now take it for granted, but back then, when you bought a game, that was the end of it. There were no new levels or characters, no re-balancing of items or strategies. Hell, that’s the entire reason Capcom released a hundred and thirty-four versions of Street Fighter II. And patching out bugs? Please. If you came across a glitch, it was baked in there forever, ruining the game like a raisin in a cookie, and all you could was figure out the trigger in hopes of avoiding it. It’s like the old joke:

Patient: “Doc, it hurts when I do this!”
Doctor: “Well, don’t do that!”

Nowadays, the developer will almost certainly cough up a patch to fix the bugs that nearly doubles the size of the game’s file. But before the internet, if that game’s difficulty unintentionally changed based on what data was left over in the NES’ RAM like Cybernoid did, or if jumping backwards into a door would scramble levels and graphical assets as in Mega Man 2, you were stuck with it.

I glfrl the bluung.

As for expansion packs for console games, keep dreaming, sweet prince. Might as well ask for a way to play SNES games on Genesis. If a developer had extra content for a game, that became the basis for another game. And let me stop everyone racing to the comments to mention Sonic & Knuckles. That’s as much an expansion pack as burying the body of the hobo you ran over in your backyard is an expansion of the local graveyard. As far as I’m concerned, S&K‘s ability to function as a standalone game disqualifies it as a true expansion pack. To quote St. Carlin, “these are my rules, I make ’em up!”, and St. Carlin was never wrong.

That all changed when Rockstar dropped Grand Theft Auto: London 1969, an expansion to the original GTA. This was the first true example of a console game expansion pack, and it was not successful. Not, at least, to the degree they probably hoped. The whole “insert this CD, now that CD, now put the first CD back in” ran counter to the idea of consoles being gaming at its simplest. Plus, it was a lot to ask of us lazy slackers in the 90’s. Another thing that didn’t help sell the idea was that GTA: London wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t bad, but for an “expansion” pack, it didn’t, you know, expand on anything. It slapped a British skin on GTA and called it a day. I remember seeing it come in and thinking “this will never catch on”. This, it should be noted, was one of many occasions where my oracular skills exposed themselves as non-existent. I could’ve been right, if technology didn’t do that thing it did of evolving. One company saw the writing on the wall – which, considering their long history of ignoring wall-based information, is kind of a miracle – and took expansionary content in another direction.

From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee … with a knife that does 2x damage to non-humans that you can download for .99.

Yes, if you view DLC as a pox upon the world, send your hate mail to Sega. Don’t worry, after years of setting fire to the Sonic franchise and letting countless IP’s mold away in their archives, Sega has several hundred square miles of facilities designated for processing hate mail. Anyway, it was the Dreamcast of all consoles that broke the dam and took expansionary content online. It was simpler than it is now – the passengers in Crazy Taxi could be re-arranged, or Sonic Adventure had seasonal course. Hey, it was a start. Those VMU’s weren’t what you’d call robust in their capacity. That picture of the Dreamcast up there would take up more than half the available space in a VMU.

By the time the PS3/360/Wii generation rolled around, widespread availability of high-speed internet and built-in connectivity opened a new horizon for DLC. Entire new storylines could be added. In-game story content could be corrected after immense backlash from the fans (coughEAcough). Uncensored and pointless nudity could now be an option in games by locking it behind a paywall (coughEAagaincough). Characters, lore and missions critical to the plot of the game could be cut off and included in– OH COME ON, IT’S EA AGAIN?!? STOP IT ALREADY! You’re not leaving any room for Konami, Capcom, 2K Games or Ubisoft to be evil, and they are more than capable of existing under the same layer of prehistoric frog shit at the bottom of a New Jersey scum swamp that you do!

That’s not to say all DLC is bad. DLC tends to get a bad rap, but it can and has done wonders. Diablo III‘s Reaper Of Souls added the Adventure Mode and bounties, as well as expanded the story, which gave the game new legs after a rocky start. Fallout 4‘s Far Harbor felt more like FO3 and New Vegas, with a stronger emphasis on RPG-style play. No Man’s Sky‘s DLC has fundamentally changed the game, bringing it up to, and in some ways surpassing, the pre-release promises (and for FREE!). Yes, there are negatives, like Capcom putting its DLC characters for Street Fighter X Tekken ON THE DISC ITSELF and charging players for an unlock key. Or hiding the true endings of Beautiful Katamari and Asura’s Wrath behind DLC. Or The Sims 4 being so stripped back and carved out, the base game is practically just a title screen.

Three guesses what publisher is behind this, but you’ll only need one. It’s pretty EAsy.

If that were the end of the discussion, it wouldn’t be the worst thing gamer parents have to face. You might – and I cannot emphasize the word “might” enough – be able to rationalize your point of view to your kid, depending on their age and willingness to accept the preposterous concept you’re not talking out of your ass. If your child is in the teen years, this is beyond hopeless, and you should spend your time in less pointless activities, like trying to dig to the center of the earth. I’m only half-kidding.

But there is a whole new class of DLC transactions that gamer parents have to reckon with. They offer nothing but the “satisfaction” of having spent money, as the ROI is, at best, subjective. Each version of this DLC is awful and deceptive and designed to trick your brain into making more purchases, like electronic meth, because the last purchase felt SO GOOD. I’m talking about digital currency. Battle passes. Loot boxes.

In a word: microtransactions.

In the past, I’ve tried to approach the issues I’ve written about, at least to start with, from a neutral point of view. My personal opinion may change as I research (yes, I do research) and write, but I want to at least start off as objectively as possible. I think it’s the more responsible approach, given parenting is so subjective. By presenting the case objectively, posit some theories from multiple sides, maybe some real-world evidence, and wrap it up with my personal POV, you, the reader, can come to your own conclusions without me being preachy.

If I tried that today, I’d be a bigger liar than the love child of Todd Howard and Peter Molyneux. I think I can speak for most everyone when I say that the inventors of microtransactions should be locked in a portable toilet from Mardi Gras and pushed down a flight of stairs. It’s virtually impossible – unless your library consists entirely of niche indie games, or you’re still gaming on a Dreamcast – to not have a game in your library with at least one of these. And as a gamer and a parent, the existence of these predatory tactics does not allow for us to hide our heads in the sand. Maybe you can stare down that loot box in NBA 2K21 and resist (hopefully, as I’ve known some gamer parents who cannot) … but your kid may not. You need to be prepared. You need to know the enemy.

I guess, if any of them can lay claim to being the least worst, maybe it’d be battle passes? It’s like trying to pick which finger would be the least painful to lose in a lawn mower accident. If you aren’t familiar, battle passes are mostly found in those games-as-a-service games, like Fortnite or Roblox or Dead by Daylight. Variations depend on the game and the greed of the publisher, but they all amount to the same thing: spend X amount of dollars, get some exclusive gewgaws (usually cosmetics) that can’t be gotten outside the battle pass, access to special events, quicker level progression and so on. Think of it like the entry fee to a country club; you pay to get in, you get goodies outsiders can’t have, and you can laugh at those who couldn’t pay to get in, all while dressed in your Sunday’s finest.

I’m sorry, sir, but your black suit violates our dress code. You must look like a complete jackass, like your astronaut friends over there.

The problem with battle passes is they expire every so often – eight weeks or so, usually. The expiration usually coincides with some type of new event in the game, like a map re-design or some licensing tie-in. When that new one comes around, there’s no loyalty discount or frequent buyer’s club. It’s another ten bucks all over again, all so they can be dressed like … I don’t know … Uncle Joey’s dead-eyed chipmunk puppet while they teabag the one friend they have who couldn’t get the battle pass. Because that really matters, DAD.

The second kind of wallet rape is the most hated of the three: loot boxes. I’ve damned near watched friendships die in online arguments over whether or not loot boxes qualify as gambling, and this column is hardly the forum in which to settle the argument. Besides, that argument clouds the real issue; these things are the perfect mechanism to make even the sanest of people people bleed dry their bank accounts like a pig in a slaughterhouse. The psychology behind it is insidious and brilliant, the kind of Machiavellian depravity and insanity you’d expect to see from the Church of Scientology or Gizmonics Institute.

I know you’re sitting there, insisting you’re smarter than the av-er-age bear, you won’t be suckered by such obvious tactics, you don’t have a trigger. And to that I say you haven’t found the game that pulls that trigger. Loot shooters, dungeon crawlers, MMORPG’s, hell, match-3 games on your phone. Whatever your fancy, there’s a game for it, and there’s a publisher behind it, looking to establish a direct pipeline from their bank account to yours. Loot boxes prey on the sense of accomplishment you get from video games, marries that feeling it to the basic human need to complete a set or have the best of something and the Sunk Cost Fallacy. And yet, despite looking as easy to avoid as a Scooby-Doo ghost-catching trap, people fall for them at an alarming rate. EA made a billion fucking dollars off loot boxes in 2018.

The sports games like NBA 2K, FIFA and Madden are the worst for this, because it brings in a whole new element other games can’t match: it puts gamers in the position of being a team manager. Publishers give you the current roster for free. But maybe you want to put Joe Montana on a football team with Julio Jones for that online dynasty mode. Enter loot boxes. You buy a pack, and another, and another. You didn’t get Montana this time, but sooner or later, the odds will be in your favor, right? Just gotta keep opening packs! If you say “it’s nine o’clock” all day, eventually, you’ll be right, and that’s a big part of how it works. On an infinite enough curve, the gamer will get what they want, and the failed attempts will be justified as stepping stones.

Yeah, it’s so sad you got Joe Cameron instead of Dan Solo for your space shooter game. Just like it’s sad I picked you instead of the star quarterback in high school.

The last corner of this three-pronged con-job is digital currency. With the backlash against loot boxes reaching a fever pitch with Star Wars: Battlefront II, digital currency moved to the forefront. You pay real money to buy the game’s fake money. This is huge with kids. I know. I have three case studies upstairs right now. One of them will do a chore for grandma, she pays him a tenner, he asks her to spend it on a PSN gift card so he can turn that into currency for his chosen game in a process that sounds like money laundering. Sports games have gotten especially clever and married this to loot boxes by allowing people to re-sell what they get in the loot boxes in an in-game auction house for in-game currency. Still looking for that Joe Montana card? He’s available in auction, for only sixty thousand foot-bucks! Oh, what’s that, you haven’t spent three hundred hours grinding to get that much? Well, you can always turn real cash into game currency! What’s another twenty bucks for pretend money to buy a player in a video game that you’ve already spent sixty on to begin with? Gotta spend money to … turn real money into fake money!

All of these are being waived in gamers’ faces like a bullfighter waiving his cape. Maybe you truly are made of steel and you have no temptation whatsoever. But your kids won’t be so lucky. They’re the target audience. You’re just an ATM card with legs.

And there’s no easy answers. Okay, there are some. I mean, you are the parent, so you do hold some sort of governing power. All three of the major console manufacturers have family accounts, where you can set limits such as daily play time, access to payment methods, and the ability to buy anything in the online store of choice. That’s a start.

Beyond that is where it gets tricky. Dealing with kids and microtransactions isn’t the Kobayashi Maru, but it isn’t exactly a situation with a lot of outs because you can’t stop the availability of these things. You don’t even have to go to the store to see them; they’re BUILT INTO THE GAME, a constant reminder of what you could have if you just spent a little more money. You may understand that skins are functionless trifles, affecting nothing but visual appeal, but to your kid, that skin is EVERYTHING. Their concept of value and yours don’t even exist in the same dimension. You are not going to get your seven year old – or even that sevenTEEN year old – to view value the same way. To them, value is measured in the having of it and the social appeal; for kids, cost does not factor into value in any way, shape or form.

Apparently, some developers feel the same way.

And while the industry is starting to see some pressure on some of these mechanics – loot boxes, especially, are facing legal problems in many countries, and are now listed in game ratings in every major market – the burden is going to be on you, parent, to protect your kids. I don’t have a lot of control when grandma buys the V-bucks for them. But when they get Christmas money? The wife and I hold onto it and dole it out as we see fit, to prevent a hundred dollar Shark Card purchase. The kids hate it. They hate us. We’re used to it, really.

Really, though, that’s what it comes down to: draw the line. They will live without whatever cosmetic it is they covet so badly, despite their top-of-their-lungs protests. There’s plenty of options available through playing the game the old-fashioned way. And stick to your guns when it comes to your gaming. Don’t make your kids live up to a standard you can’t.


I blame Sega.

And in closing …

Throwing out a couple ideas now so I can see if there’s traction to be had. First idea: what kind of interest is there in my readership in watching me stream on Twitch? Second idea: what about a podcast, where I either lead a panel of gamer parents discussing topics in greater depth and with varying viewpoints, and/or interviewing famous gamer parents (James Rolfe, Jason Schreier, Xavier Woods, etc). I’m not saying either of these will be happening in the next month, but to get the wheels in motion, I wanna make sure there’s people to come along on the journey with me.

Me on Twitter! Come follow and interact with me! I’m only occasionally funny there!

If you’d like to email me for whatever reason, here’s the address: [email protected].

See you in 2.