Some fans fed up with microtransactions in video games, but it means big bucks for companies

Cost of Living8:33Play now, pay later

If Rafael Figueroa wants to play basketball this year, it will have to be on the actual hardwood. He says he’s not buying this year’s edition of his favourite basketball video game, NBA 2K24.  

“I’m not buying the game as long as that season pass is in there. Just because I find it so ridiculous,” he said.

The makers of NBA 2K24 added a subscription fee to this year’s game at release earlier this month, an extra microtransaction in the game that players can choose to pay for if they want to unlock additional rewards.

This has led to an online backlash from longtime players, who say the game continues to give benefits to those who are willing to pay for it. The game already costs about $90, and the base subscription is another $13 every six weeks.

“I could understand if NBA 2K was a free to play game,” Figueroa said. 

“But it is a yearly release where you get your content wiped every year for the next game and they’re putting season passes in that spans over one month. And it makes absolutely no sense to me.”

The add-ons have led to poor reviews from gaming websites such as IGN, as well as an onslaught of poor customer reviews on Steam, PlayStation Store and the Microsoft Store.

The company that makes NBA 2K declined to provide an interview about its microtransactions.

Experts say it’s another example of video game companies squeezing whatever they can out of gamers through in-game purchases. And because of the huge profits the strategy can generate for companies that can use the tactic, it isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon. 

The price breakdown, shown here in US dollars, shows the additional rewards players can get if they subscribe to the season pass. (NBA 2K)

Pay to win?

None of the additional purchases in NBA 2K24 are mandatory. Players can play the game as-is, without the subscription or other in-game purchases. But according to Christine Taylor, who has played the series since 2015, it becomes difficult to compete against other players if you don’t pay extra. 

And its two most popular game modes, MyCareer and MyTeam, are heavily geared toward online play.

One game mode lets you create your own custom player and live out the dream of being an NBA superstar, while the other lets you assemble a dream team of players, such as pairing Michael Jordan with LeBron James. 

But if you want your player to have the best skills, or your team to have the best players, you have a choice to make. You can either log hours and hours trying to earn those upgrades, or you can take a shortcut. The game lets you pay real dollars for in-game currency that you can use to either upgrade a skill, or acquire a star player. 

“It feels like, ‘Oh well, jeez, I better buy this because getting stomped isn’t fun.’ Nobody is having fun getting stomped or beaten every game because they suck,” said Taylor, a 29-year-old who works in tech support in Illinois.

In those moments, Taylor says, in-game purchases start to become pretty tempting. She spent about $150 US on in-game purchases one year. But some fans of the game end up spending thousands of dollars in a single year.

And according to Tom Viinikka, CEO of Edmonton Screen Industries Office, which advocates for companies and entrepreneurs in the city’s screen media sector, this is exactly how game companies get people to pay. Players frustrated after multiple losses are more likely to impulsively buy whatever might even the playing field, he said.

“You’re kind of at their mercy, so to speak, and you kind of are more willing then to pay than you otherwise would be.”

He says the push from companies to get its players to buy more in-game content happens little by little, so you don’t even realize how much money you’ve spent. 

“If you put a full-size chocolate bar in front of me, I would only eat one of them … I would decide one’s enough,” Viinikka explained. 

“But if you put the little Halloween chocolate bars in front of me, the little ones, I probably would eat 10 full-sized chocolate bars’ worth of those because I just slowly eat them and I’m not really conscious of where I’m at.”

A screenshot from NBA 2K shows attributes for a custom NBA player.
In NBA 2K24, players can choose to spend their time practicing to upgrade their player, or they can open their wallet and purchase the upgrades with real dollars. (NBA 2K)

Big bucks

Take-Two Interactive Software, the company that publishes NBA 2K and other games, including Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto, reported that it made $1.9 billion US  from microtransactions alone across all its games in 2022, which accounted for about 64 per cent of the company’s revenue for that year. 

For context, the major blockbuster film of that year, Top Gun Maverick, earned about $1.5 billion worldwide. 

Electronic Arts, which produces games such as FIFA and Madden, and Need for Speed, also sees huge dollars from its microtransactions. In 2020, the company made $1.5 billion US just from its Ultimate Team game mode in FIFA.

Brendan Sinclair, managing editor at the gaming news website, says the fact microtransactions are such big business means players who complain about them don’t really get heard.

“The companies are more inclined to listen to the skyrocketing revenues that they have been making over the past decade plus, and believe that that represents the voice of the consumer more than whatever backlash they get, which is easy to chalk up to a disgruntled minority,” said Sinclair. 

“They figure if they can just keep people playing there, eventually they will start paying money and they’ll get sucked into this sort of treadmill of game play loops that keep them spending money to keep playing, to keep spending more money.”

A screenshot from NBA 2K24 shows Kyrie Irving.
In NBA 2K24’s MyTeam game mode, players can line their team with stars like Kyrie Irving by converting their real dollars into in-game currency. (NBA 2K)

But Viinikka says not all companies make a ton of money from microtransactions and subscriptions. He says microtransactions actually make some games more affordable for players.

“There are people that get to play for very inexpensive as a result of models like these,” said Viinikka.

“Let’s say we magically made a law that the only way you can sell games is you sell it for its price and it’s done, then the price of these games would be more significant and it’d be a lot of people who just couldn’t afford to play.”

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