Microtransactions, Controlling Your Destiny

Update: Since the original posting of this article, EA has announced that currently all in-game purchases will be removed from Star Wars Battlefront II at launch.

Despite sixty dollar price tags, games are still asking for more from their players after purchase. These post-purchase purchases are known as “microtransactions” and have hit the gaming world like a plague. They are offered to players in-game but are purchased using real-world funds. Today, you’ll see microtransactions everywhere, from Call of Duty to PlayerUnknown’s BattlegroundsOverwatch to Destiny 2, even reaching as far as Candy Crush Saga and Pokémon Go. Some microtransactions help players progress in their games, while others are for cosmetic or novelty items, effecting gameplay none.

Some microtransactions are more complex, based off an “RNG” system, an acronym that stands for random number generation. However, RNG, in terms of microtransactions, functions like a grab bag. You pay ninety-nine cents for a loot box and are given a random prize for opening it. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get what you want or that you’ll avoid getting something you already have. RNG-based systems are a gamble. In some countries, it is mandatory for companies to publicly release information that pertains to their game’s microtransaction and RNG rates.

Gamers feel offended by microtransactions on the basis that games should come with the content pre-loaded, not at additional cost. An uproar stormed the community when information was leaked about the new Lord of The Rings Middle-Earth: Shadow of War by Monolith Productions, in which RNG-based microtransactions would be available in this purely single-player game. This means paying money for boosts, like a beefy orc army, so you can easily sail through the campaign on cruise control. That’s pay-to-win.

Despite this controversy, we’re still seeing it, and in some cases, it’s getting worse. EA’s newest title,  Star Wars: Battlefront II, is the highly anticipated reboot of a classic Star Wars game, and even before its release, it has been smashed by the community for its pay-to-win privileges. Players can buy “Star Cards,” which give boosts and buffs in multiplayer games (such as additional damage, health, speed, and respawn modifiers) to make them more powerful. This is outright pay-to-win. Players aren’t happy, especially those who have waited since 2005.

Battlefront II Star Cards. (Image courtesy vg247.com)

Despite this being the status quo of the gaming industry in 2017, with microtransactions running rampant everywhere from iPhone games to PC MOBAs, I can see one beam of light flickering in the darkness. Destiny 2‘s Bright Engram & Silver system is a player-friendly, non-voracious breed of microtransaction, of which other developers should look to for future inspiration if microtransactions must exist in their games at all.

First, a brief explanation of how Destiny 2 works. In game, you control a “Guardian” across the galaxy, shooting and looting; you defeat enemies and bosses, complete quests, and much more, all the while acquiring in-game tokens and experience points for your services. You take these tokens to vendors across the galaxy and cash them in, Chuck-E.-Cheese style, for a prize, which is usually a fancy weapon or armor piece. If you’re a seasoned Guardian, you know how this works.

The Eververse, the place for all of your Destiny microtransaction needs, is run by a well-known Awoken woman named Tess Everis, “an accomplished broker of stylish and highly coveted items procured from the City and beyond.” She does just that: provides players with the rarest of rare loot, randomly selecting from her inventory of well over 100 items. Items from Tess can only be acquired by two means: through earned Bright Engrams or purchased Silver.

Bright Engrams are received as a gift for leveling up after players have already reached the level cap of 20, and they are granted one per level-up. Silver can be purchased using real funds to directly acquire these Bright Engrams from her. You can grind them or buy them.

Sweet, sweet Silver… (Image courtesy us.shop.battle.net)

Duplicates from Tess are extremely rare. I have played on both PS4 and PC since their respective releases and have never gotten a duplicate item from a Bright Engram, earned or purchased.

The items you acquire from Tess are purely cosmetic items; they have no effect on gameplay and give no player an advantage over another. They are novelty items, only offering “flavor” and fashion for Guardians. Examples include rare weapon and Sparrow skins, emotes, armor sets, and shaders. 

There’s one caveat: Fireteam Medallions. These items have the following effect on gameplay: “Increased XP gains and loot for you and members of your fireteam or match from strikes, Public Events, and the Crucible.” Despite what it seems, these don’t make Destiny 2 pay-to-win. They are not available for purchase and can only be acquired through an in-game currency, known as “Bright Dust.”

You can get Dust from Bright Engrams or by dismantling cosmetic items, though. Bright Dust cannot be purchased through microtransactions directly. 

“Breakfast of Guardians”

In Destiny 2, you’re given a Bright Engram for each level-up you do past level 20. XP is offered by the boatload, and if you’re playing Destiny correctly, you’re squeezing every bit of XP, loot, and glimmer out of every encounter you face. Even for casual Guardians, XP isn’t hard to come by, you get it for everything. Simply put, the more you play, the more you earn. The more XP, the more level-ups, and the more Bright Engrams you’ll be gifted. It’s play-to-earn. You’ll be getting a lot of Bright Engrams, more than you’d expect. A fresh level 20 Guardian can expect up to 3-4 Bright Engrams per day, feeling almost like Bungie is just giving the things out like candy.

Though, with all things, there does come a price. The number of XP points required for each level-up increases exponentially over time. At first, things won’t seem so bad; you’ll be popping Bright Engrams left and right. But after playing that character for a few days, you’ll start to notice less Brights appearing. It takes longer to level up, and you grow hungry waiting for that next Bright-Bright. Well, Guardian, there is a solution. An easy one.

Making multiple characters.

When I told my friends who were new to Destiny that they would have to make a second character (doing everything they had just done over again, upwards of 100 hours of playing), they were hesitant, to say the least. They thought I was joking. Having multiple characters is “The Destiny Way,” as I told them, and this concept isn’t an unfamiliar one in MMORPGs. Luckily, Destiny makes things easy for players, allowing the transfer of items from character to character to make the number-crunching grind a touch easier.

Tess Everis’ Rare Armor Set – each piece of “Optimacy” – for Titan, Hunter, & Warlock.

Making a fresh character resets your level and your chances to acquire Bright Engrams. If you’re on your Warlock and it’s taking days to level-up, switch over to your Titan and play for 15 minutes. You’ll get an easy level-up, earn another Bright Engram, and don’t even have to pay for it. Look at that.

When everything is said and done, Bright Engrams and everything purchasable from the Eververse are cosmetic items, having no effect on gameplay other than aesthetics. I believe Bungie devised a decent system, and I’m thankful the game isn’t reliant on microtransactions. But the grass isn’t always so green, and not all games deserve this kind of appreciation.

Overwatch features a microtransaction system that is more than unforgiving. It’s brutal.

I mean… at least they cut you a deal on fifty boxes. (Image courtesy us.shop.battle.net)

Overwatch has loot boxes, and just like Bright Engrams, they can be earned through play, which is OK in my book. After roughly 20,000 earned XP, you level up and will be given a free loot box. On the other hand, you can purchases these loot boxes. These items don’t affect gameplay. They are all cosmetic items, such as skins, emotes, or sprays. (Still OK.) The RNG system is where my issue lies. Duplicate items are almost a guarantee in each loot box you drop. Despite alleged changes made to the loot-box system, I don’t notice a difference. I still get dupes all the time, but maybe I’m just unlucky. The point is, I take issue with my ability to be unlucky here. If I paid for these loot boxes and got duplicates, I’d be furious. It’s like burning the money, then flushing it down the toilet. What do you mean I paid $5 and only got one new skin?

But things get worse. Playerunknown’s: Battlegrounds has cosmetic items, too, despite its drastically bare and desolate appearance. However, the drop rates are miles worse than any game I’ve ever encountered. When I tell you I’ve gotten the “Dirty Tank-top (Grey)” twelve times, I’m not lying. Working to earn a loot crate in PUBG takes quite a while, and the XP required increases with each crate you get. Players also have the option to purchase loot crates from other players thanks to Steam’s Community Marketplace. The RNG is bad and it takes too long to earn the crates, anyway.

Think for a moment: What if you could choose the items you were going to buy through microtransactions, instead of having to deal with the unpredictability (and unfairness) of RNG?

Well, Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six: Siege is the game for you. For varying amounts of money, you can purchase exactly what you want from the in-game store, customizing your experience to your liking. This can be as dramatic as only purchasing one operator and one skin, or every operator and every skin.

I paid fifteen dollars for Siege and had access to the full game. I was limited in character selection, only offered a small number of operators to start with, and had no cosmetic items, but was able to play the whole game as it was. This incentivized me to spend a few extra dollars to customize my Siege experience. I bought a few characters, a couple weapon skins, and altogether spent less than thirty dollars on this top-shelf game. I didn’t have to spend additional cash, but I did, and I appreciated the freedom and honesty that came with purchasing in-game items through Siege’s marketplace. It didn’t feel like a gamble, it felt like I was purchasing the content I wanted for a fair price.

What’s spookier than a zombie-skinned Pulse? Overwatch’s RNG rates, of course! (Image courtesy rainbow6.ubisoft.com)

To close, I don’t blame anyone for disliking microtransactions. I’m clearly not a fan myself. If it costs me sixty dollars, and the game wants me to pay more on Day 1 for additional content, I feel cheated. Some gamers don’t want to shell out their hard-earned cash for a random loot box, with no guarantee of unique items dropping. Some gamers have ethical issues with microtransactions, avoiding them entirely, and I applaud you. And, of course, there are some gamers who are far too enticed by the sheen and shine, and every so often, they bust out their credit cards to grab a few extra Bright Engrams, Loot Boxes, or cool shoes for a PUBG soldier.

I appreciate Destiny 2 (and Destiny) for the lack of reliance these games have on microtransactions.

What do you think? How do you feel about the ability to control your destiny for a few extra dollars – are microtranscations good or bad for gamers?

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