Microtransactions Are Sucking Console Gamers Dry Too

Last year console gamers dropped $352 million, one drip at a time.

Image: Rebecca Pollard/Flickr

Once a revenue stream reserved for “freemium” online games, microtransactions are now also finding themselves quite at home on consoles. According to industry research firm Superdata, console gamers spent $352 million dollars on in-game purchases last year.

Once upon a time, buying a game was the end of spending money on it. But now, with consoles hooked up to the internet, and gamers ever-more averse to spending big sums at once, microtransactions are keeping the money flowing. With small in-game purchases like in-game currency, vanity items, wacky skins, weapons, songs, vehicles, or class unlocks, the revenue keeps drip-drip-dripping toward the developers—and not just for freemium games either.

In another study, Superdata research estimated that the in-game purchase of virtual currency in Grand Theft Auto V would add up to $41 million over its first year—and that’s on-top of the billion dollars that Take-Two earned in sales of the game over the first three days it was available.

In a way, GTA V is a fairly typical microtransaction game. According to Superdata, almost half of the gamers who use microtransactions play either shooter or action-adventure games—although I guess GTA is sort of an open-world action-adventure game with a lot of shooting. You didn’t have to do any major spending in the game, but unlike consoles in the past, it was easy enough to do. So people did it, lots.

But not everyone is rejoicing at this proof that microtransactions are a cash cow just waiting to be milked.

It’s a bad sign for people like Pete Davidson who asked, “Does anybody really like microtransactions?” in an op-ed on US Gamer a few months ago. “While it's been abundantly clear for a while now that developers and publishers (emphasis on the latter) are more than delighted to start continually charging players for additional game content—even when the game costs $60 in the first place—it's also been abundantly clear for a while that a lot of people don't like this way of doing business,” he said.

The prevailing wisdom on microtransactions is that there is a good way and a bad way for a game to handle them. A game like League of Legends, where you can pay to play as different characters, but could just play without paying—people appreciate that. Games where you can just pay for an advantage? People hate that. Making people pay or forcing them to wait for something like “energy” or “petrol” to generate? They really hate that.

But for better or worse, it is with us now, and even Nintendo—trusty old Nintendo, which shunned in-game advertising—has opened the door to microtransactions. If they follow the advice of one of their investors and allow you to pay an extra 99 cents to give Mario’s jump a little higher boost, you can expect a revolt . But when Mario offers to sell you a Tanooki suit for real money, don’t say it was unexpected.