Microtransactions: EA didn’t start the fire



The term “microtransaction” ought to send an embittering shudder down the spine of any gamer worth their salt. It conjures in the mind a hellbroth of vile images: storied franchises brought to their knees through onslaughts of corporate bastardization, ornate digital storefronts adorned with virtual trinkets priced as obscenely as metrics would allow and gamers compelled to funnel thousands into products as soulless as the very suits whose pockets they line through their addiction. Pay-to-win? Sometimes. But in the end, it’s the consumer that loses.

Many gamers are quick to lay the blame for the spread of these despicable business practices at the feet of publisher Electronic Arts: the bogeyman to end all corporate bogeymen in the games industry. The EA hate train properly left the station some time in the early 2010s, and it’s been barrelling full steam ahead ever since. If you’re at all active in the gaming scene, it’s probably passed you by more than a few times. Maybe you’re already on that train yourself. In any case, it’s easy to see why EA has become so passionately despised in that time.

EA has an earned reputation of gobbling up beloved studios and reducing them to husks of their former selves or shutting them down entirely: Maxis, Visceral, Bullfrog — the list goes on. It’s also true that they are one of the most prominent purveyors of predatory microtransations and designs which encourage their purchasing, the most notable instance of this being the infamous “Star Wars Battlefront II” controversy from back in 2017. These practices continue to be characteristic of EA titles. It’s also true that they have a history of releasing games in various states of incompleteness. It’s also true that they continually release games which hardly iterate upon their predecessors (I’m looking at you, “Madden”). I could go on.

I’m not interested in defending EA. I don’t think anybody who isn’t in their pocket ever will be. But what I am interested in is dissecting how exactly we arrived at the point we’re at now, where invasive microtransactions in triple-A releases have become part and parcel of the modern games landscape. It didn’t used to be like this. So who’s responsible for instigating this mess? I point the finger at none other than the darling of PC gaming: Valve.

Once upon a time, DLC was a novelty. As the digital age of gaming snuffed out the final cartridges on consoles and multiple-disc installations on PC, the idea of the “expansion pack” began to fall out of favor within the industry. In place of a separate disc you’d purchase as a content-heavy expansion for your game arose the first microtransactions as we understand them today. The “Oblivion” horse armor DLC controversy of 2006 has since become the stuff of legend; an ancient meme from a simpler time when a $2.50 price point for virtual horse armor in a single-player game was on its own egregious enough to send ripples through the scene. But horse armor was just the beginning.

That magic number, $2.50, would return with a vengeance in 2010, when the “Mann-Conomy” update for Valve’s absurdly popular multiplayer shooter “Team Fortress 2” released. The update introduced a digital storefront where players could purchase weapons and cosmetics with real money. And Valve wasn’t done yet; the second blow of this double whammy hits like a bulldozer in 2021, knowing how far the scourge that they unleashed would spread in the decade that followed. “Crates” were introduced: special items containing randomized loot for which players could pay $2.50 to open with a “key” and yield the loot inside.

Being as young as I was back then, the atmosphere in the TF2 community felt electric. It was an exciting time. These “keys” quickly became a point of fixation across all trading servers; they were valuable commodities indeed. No one would’ve thought that “loot boxes,” as they’re now known, would one day make their way to the halls of the European Parliament.

From that day on, the malignant seed which Valve had planted in the games industry grew rapidly, and they did everything in their power to bolster its growth within their own platform and IPs. In 2012, the “Steam Community Market” was introduced, which allowed players to buy and sell their “keys” and other in-game items directly amongst themselves — with real money, of course. In 2013, Valve dropped the “Arms Deal” update for “Counter Strike: Global Offensive,” another one of their absurdly popular titles. This update introduced a series of purchasable cosmetic modifiers for each of the game’s weapons. These would eventually become known as “skins,” yet another staple of the modern microtransaction ecosystem.

By then, the fervor surrounding these in-game goodies was becoming something massive. EA and other companies were taking notice. Opposite the Pacific, the microtransaction-oriented “gacha game” was preparing to make its leap overseas. Soon, CS:GO skins were pouring out of the game and into gambling websites where players were encouraged to bet skins on professional CS:GO matches or roulette wheels. A number of YouTube channels and Twitch streamers were accruing sizable followings off the back of loot box openings and skin gambling.

It had become a monster.

And from there, I think most gamers know the story. EA, Ubisoft and many other big names in the business begin to incorporate flagrant microtransactions in their releases to increasing degrees of scandalousness, culminating in the aforementioned “Star Wars Battlefront II” fiasco.

Today, microtransactions plague all of the most popular games on the market. The issue of microtransactions is of course also very closely connected with the rise of the free-to-play model and the pernicious evolution of games as a service. Recently, the emergence of the seasonal “battle pass” microtransaction model courtesy of “Fortnite” has taken the industry by storm, and the overwhelming success of “Genshin Impact” has brought the gacha game, which features mechanics that emulate the experience of purchasing randomized collectables from Japan’s “gachapon” vending machines, closer than ever to the Western mainstream. While European parliaments have in recent years begun enacting relatively minor regulations with respect to loot boxes specifically, I figure that the ubiquitous problem of out-of-touch legislators will probably keep any serious regulation at bay for years if not decades to come.

Finally, I think it’s only fair to clarify that Valve’s microtransaction models are among the most — if not the most — reasonable on the market. Valve innovates, and the innovations they bring to the table often have far-reaching ramifications in the industry. Let’s not forget that the now standard practice of “always-online DRM” also began with Valve’s Steam platform in the mid-2000s. It will be fascinating to see how the market responds to Valve’s new “Steam Deck,” which has already made a huge splash. Will it successfully legitimize a new PC “product category,” as Valve President Gabe Newell has said is their aim? And if so, what else will this product category enable in the hands of the industry at large? Only time will tell.