“Purely Cosmetic” Microtransactions Are Sucking The Fun Out Of Games

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As time goes on, and as development costs continue to rise, microtransactions are becoming more and more widespread in video games. A practice that was once reserved for free/inexpensive games is becoming increasingly prevalent in even big-budget, AAA titles. In many games, these items are entirely cosmetic, meaning that someone will not be at a competitive disadvantage simply because they chose not to spend money on something. Gambling addictions, stagnant game prices amidst inflation, and potential governmental regulations aside, there are many who view this practice as a necessary evil because, at the end of the day, you do not have to purchase them. While locking cosmetic items behind random loot drops and paid microtransactions might not upset the competitive balance of a game, however, it sure can suck some of the fun out of it.

When Destiny 2 originally launched on September 6th, 2017, many were upset about the decision to make shaders consumable items, myself included. For those not in the know, shaders are used to change the color scheme of your in-game armor, weapons, and ships. In the original game, shaders were limited to armor, and one shader covered your entire armor set, meaning customization was a bit lacking. In Destiny 2, however, the developers expanded upon this system, allowing players the opportunity to adorn individual pieces of gear, weapons, and ships with different shader types. Feel like running around in a set of mismatched armor? You can do that now. Wanna paint your entire gearset with that sweet, sweet raid shader you just unlocked? You can do that too. Unfortunately, there is a catch to all of this.

Because shaders are now consumable items, applying a new one means completely destroying the old one. Something like this is not a huge deal early on when you are constantly acquiring new common shaders as you progress through the game, but by the time you start amassing a small collection of legendary shaders that are harder to come by, it starts to feel less like a fun way to customize your look and more like picking a favorite child. Furthermore, the fact that players can now individually assign shaders to independent pieces of gear means that five shaders are required should they desire a matching set, and even more are required should they wish to apply that same shader to additional pieces of gear, weapons, or ships. The entire system feels as though it is actively attempting to force players to spend actual money on the game’s virtual marketplace, Eververse, a handy one-stop-shop with a rotating selection of legendary shaders, other cosmetics, and Bright Engrams that are borderline impossible to earn without enduring a repetitive grind. To the game’s credit, the rate at which you earn your first three Bright Engrams for the week is tripled, but the random nature in which these items unlock means it is easy to miss that one item you were most hoping for. Sure, you could grind out more Bright Engrams throughout the week… or you could simply purchase three more for a modest price.

I myself still haven’t changed my armor since applying the “Midnight Talons” shader, a sleek-looking gold and black color scheme, to the entire set because I have no idea when I’ll get enough again should I wish to re-apply it somewhere down the road. Sure, even the game’s Iron Banner competitive multiplayer mode – a mode that enables player level advantages – will not be affected by these cosmetic items, but something was lost for me when I came to realize just what a hassle the new shader system is. In the original Destiny, my friends and I would constantly change our shaders. Sometimes we would run a raid in matching color schemes. Other times, we would all apply the ugliest shaders imaginable. We cannot do that in Destiny 2 though, lest we lose that one cool look we feel like rocking 90% of the time.

Conversely, Super Mario Odyssey, a game devoid of microtransactions, is not without fun cosmetic items to unlock. As players travel from kingdom to kingdom as they progress through the game, they do gain access to kingdom-specific outfits, stickers, and other unlockables, but these items can only be purchased with in-game coins scattered throughout the environments, with no option to spend actual money. Like Destiny 2, these items are entirely cosmetic and offer no gameplay benefits whatsoever. Despite this, I still caught myself sprinting about in search of the in-game vendors every time I landed in a new kingdom.

On one particular occasion, I landed in Super Mario Odyssey’s Snow Kingdom, an environment covered in ice and, well, snow. However, as Mario exited The Odyssey – the giant hat-shaped airship he uses to travel from kingdom to kingdom – he began shivering. Having just come from collecting moons in the game’s Metro Kingdom, he was still wearing the construction outfit I had purchased for him earlier, a fun callback to 2015’s Super Mario Maker. Nevertheless, such an outfit simply would not do for such harsh conditions, so I immediately sought out the Snow Kingdom vendors and outfitted him with the proper attire. Knowing that Mario was comfortable, content, and, most importantly, warm in his new puffy jacket and hood, I was ready to continue on in pursuit of the nefarious Bowser.

Again, none of Super Mario Odyssey’s numerous outfits or other purchasable cosmetics affect how one actually plays the game at all. Despite that fact, though, I routinely swapped out what I was wearing as I progressed through the game, mixing and matching outfits that would make sense for whatever kingdom I was exploring. Spoilers: you go to the moon and the game gives you a damn space suit. I chose to dress Mario up in that hooded jacket not to avoid freezing to death in the snow, but because it was fun. Mario was cold, so I gave him a jacket.

Little things like this – sprinting around in underwear and Groucho Marx glasses in the original Dead Rising, completing a round of Resident Evil 6’s Mercenaries Mode as Leon dressed up as a pirate, sporting a poncho as John Marston as I make my way through Mexico in Red Dead Redemption, sporting a poncho and sombrero as Raiden as I make my way through Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, stealthily making my way through a fashion show as Agent 47 dressed up as Santa Clause – might seem insignificant, but, for me, they make a game that much more enjoyable; that much more fun. Publishers and developers clearly need to find ways to make their money back as the cost to make games continues to increase, but seeing them attempt to monetize something like silly outfits and character skins sometimes feels less like a good solution to an ongoing problem and more like an unfortunate compromise. Locking cosmetic items behind random loot boxes and paid microtransactions might keep things exciting and fair on the battlefield, but the catwalk has never looked worse.

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