Back in the day, we had arcades where we used to play games, where you needed to “insert coin” in order to play, whether it was a fighting game, pinball, racing, sports, beat-em-up, or anything else that was available, really. The coins for arcades had different costs in different parts of the world, and in most cases, that “coin” would last you a minute or two, or maybe up to five or ten, depending on the title you were playing. More skilled gamers could stretch the duration to longer periods of time, and the best ones could clear the entire game with the lives you are granted by entering a single coin. Of course, as you may imagine, some people shelled hundreds or even thousands of dollars into the arcades during their lifetime.
Then, as home entertainment systems became prevalent, the market shifted towards selling complete games that you could play to your heart’s content. Aaaaaand then the broadband Internet era came. This brought us releases of (sadly, too often incomplete) games that can later be upgraded or patched incrementally, live service games, and free-to-play games with various business models (and the dreaded loot boxes that have been banned in a handful of countries).
Suddenly, we went from paying a fixed price for a video game to paying hundreds, thousands (or even more) dollars on a single video game. Of course, a very vocal part of the gaming community is against this. Still, it seems that these business models are often a success because they do not just sustain the costs necessary for the game to run (employees, servers, etc.) but they keep growing and developing further.
For example, take mobile games that provide you with a limited amount of activities every hour unless you pay to unlock more lives, energy, hearts, you name it. More and more keep sprouting, with a lot of them looking too similar to each other. So, the conclusion is that more than enough people have accepted this as a “new normal” in modern gaming. When did this all happen?
How Much Money for a Video Game is Too Much?
The idea to write about this came after I saw a video by Regis Killbin, who made a commentary video about spending $2,700 in Marvel Snap to get the entire collection of (currently) available cards.
Marvel Snap is a very simple, straightforward, and fast-paced online CCG (Collectible Card Game), where you can progressively earn every card without putting in a single dime. But (and that’s a big but right there, mind you) one card each month is temporarily locked out for a few months unless you are paying for a premium season pass every month ($10) to get it, and, since the cards are divided in different tiers (Pool/Series, there’s 5 of them now), you need to clear the first two Pools before being able to reach the cards from Pools 3, 4 and 5. And sadly, there are little to no options to get the card you specifically want; you get them randomly from the chests that you get periodically when you level up your collection with the in-game currency, whether you paid for it or grinded for it.
You don’t just get new cards from those chests you periodically see. You can get variants of the cards you already own (different looks), titles, avatars, and currency. Though there is a “pity timer” that will assign you a new card if you do not open it for a long time.
At the time of writing, with three season passes purchased and about 300 hours in-game, I have only 158 cards to show and am missing around 38 (because they keep releasing more of them very frequently and more of them are already confirmed but not out yet). My Collection level is 2145. I expect to obtain one, maybe two cards each week with the hours I put in, and it is expected that Marvel Snap will get at least one new card every week.
Regis Killbin produces Marvel Snap content and probably plays a lot more than I do, and he still needed to shell out $2,700 to complete the collection (until next week, when they release more stuff lol). It probably pays off for him after running ads on his content, getting donations from viewers, paid subscriptions, and brand endorsements, and he’s clearly having fun, and that’s what’s the end goal when you are playing a video game, right?
Even though you do not need every card to be among the best-ranked players in Marvel Snap, putting this many paywalls behind the game content can make people stay away. The ones who keep playing either deal with it and take their time or succumb to the strategy of this business model and yield their funds so that they can obtain the virtual goods they desire. This is why there are many debates about whether Marvel Snap is pay-to-win or not.
I fondly remember Hearthstone, which was definitely fair compared to Marvel Snap. There were options for you to earn free packs and gold, and ultimately, to craft the card that you want to and later disenchant it to gather resources for a new one. A “pity timer” would assign you a Legendary card (highest value and rarity) from a pack if you opened enough without getting a Legendary card. It took some time, but I could afford a couple of tournament-tier decks.
It’s time to introduce the term “whale” to this article. “Whales,” in short, are the type of player that spends an enormous amount of money on in-game purchases and produces the biggest percentage of revenue for the game developers (and technically keep the engine running). It is OK to spend your hard-earned money exactly how you want, but a line should probably be drawn at some point.
Can Whaling Be an Issue For the Player?
Whaling can definitely be an issue if it starts impacting the player’s life. Many people sadly get caught up in those dopamine rushes of unboxing stuff in games. Then they want to unlock more and say, “let’s just buy this pack once,” and after they don’t get what they wanted, they say the previous line again, and again, and again.
Modern psychology also has much research and time spent on the matter, with many expert articles (and even doctor dissertations) being written on the subject.
The business model, which involves unboxing content for the game you play, also significantly impacts children who play such games (especially on their phones) even though they rarely pay any money because most parents won’t let them. Why is this the case, you may ask? Well, because their brains are being trained to accept this as a norm, in the ages where they are most susceptible to various influences, as they are still developing as people. As mentioned above in the article, some countries banned all forms of loot boxes, and some (China, for example), demanded that all odds for everything you can pull out of the chest/loot box/loot crate must be shown publicly. They didn’t do it to show hate toward the gamer culture; they did it to protect their people from what they perceive as a form of gambling. I mean, technically, it is!
You invest something (money and/or time in this case) to get a random prize that might be something good or bad (take CS:GO crates for example, where it’s really difficult to turn a profit, and you might as well just buy the skin that you want directly and be done with it). I have heard some people say that gambling can be a worse addiction than some hard drugs.
I sadly know of a person (friend of a friend) who gradually managed to evaporate his life savings (inheritance money) on a variety of gacha games, including Genshin Impact, that he was supposed to use to buy himself an apartment or at least, to have enough for a down payment. No matter what his friends tried to do, he refused to accept that what he did was a problem and, of course, refused to seek help.
(If you or someone you know has a similar problem, get (them) professional help ASAP.)
Diablo: Immortal is also a brutal example. I will illustrate this by saying that everyone has shunned it, including everyone’s grandmother online and offline. However, everyone’s grand grandma still bought enough stuff in-game for the game to turn a ridiculous profit. Earlier statements still stand: Enough people accepted this business model and bought in.
There are many other pay-to-win games where you more or less need to cash in if you want to stand a fighting chance against other P2W players, but I feel there’s no need to create a list; the article is long enough as it gets.
In The End: Should We Be Judging People Who Spend Way Much of Their Disposable Income on Video Games?
You are well within your right to spend your hard-earned money however you wish. However, moderation is advised for everything in life (some video games like World of Warcraft even emphasize this on their loading screen sometimes).
It’s okay to have fun with your money, but you should always try to gauge how much actual entertainment and value you are getting out of the money you intend to spend and think if it’s worth it. Don’t get me wrong. It is great to support developers who deserve the support but don’t leave them your house.
It is important to avoid being a victim of (serial) impulse purchases. If you wish to make an impulse purchase, try to stop yourself from making such a purchase (because, as the saying goes, morning is wiser than the evening) and go for it the next day if you still feel like going through it with it then.
Suppose you are, for example, a professional player or a content creator. In that case, it’s expected that you’ll invest money in a freemium game because you will get a return on that investment in due time and net a profit. But not everyone can do that reliably, sadly.
We shouldn’t judge people for having fun with their cash as long as it’s not putting us in jeopardy. However, this behavior furthers the problem of modern “freemium” gaming for everyone, including them, putting them in a position to pay more and more.
Are Greedy Developers To Blame for This State of Freemium Gaming?
Yes and no.
“No” because they are technically pitching an idea or a business model to the general public, which then gauges if they want to participate by funding it. Voluntarily. No, no developer team is coming to your front door with a loaded shotgun, demanding that you top up your virtual account on their service with your precious dollars. In the end, developers need to take care of their bankroll, and the goal justifies the means. End consumers should be responsible, informed, and educated when making their purchases for everything, not just virtual goods.
“Yes” because there are definitely games out there with a predatory business model that incentivizes you to keep shelling money out if you want to progress in the game.
On the other hand, the community has somewhat accepted the business models where you can pay money to get something that’s, for example, cosmetic only and has zero impact on the gameplay (but that still can be an addiction problem if you decide to collect every cosmetic in the game for example, or even worse, when developers neglect to fix the actual gameplay, but keep printing out new cosmetics because faithful audience keeps buying them, which turns the game into a cash cow that inevitably dies when most of the player base ragequits).
We are in a strange form of capitalism, which is a rough and unforgiving jungle that’s very hard to navigate through safely and successfully, the situation is constantly changing, and every subject needs to adapt to new conditions to prosper constantly. In other words, if companies don’t make enough money with a business model, they’ll need to adapt it to appease their target audience better and get them to spend or perish from the market.
If they are doing well with their business model, they will reinforce their idea and develop it further.
As AlphaOmegaSin (and many other people) said numerous times: “Vote with your wallets!”
Stay safe out there.