Microtransactions are to regular the Joe or Joelle Gamer what Lucius Malfoy is to the Gryffindor Quidditch Team. Sometimes it’s hard enough to just get by and enjoy cracking that Butterbeer at the end of the day, and put your feet up in front of a Quidditch match. But oh, no, Lucius Malfoy has to muscle his blonde locks into the conversation, and bring his Gringotts gold into a previously untouched arena. Microtransactions might be only small — just tiny prices you pay in-game in order to get your mitts on new, well, mitts or gloves — but they’re often they’re more insidious. They’re mushrooming quietly in the mobile game sector, under the cover of highly publicized hatred towards previously respectable series like Wolfenstein Youngblood and disappointingly, Crash Team Racing Nitro Fueled. Like a Malfoy confronted by justice, microtransactions are sly, slippery and confusingly attractive and it’s a comparison that shouldn’t be this easy to make.
Trying to win on the Gryffindor Quidditch team
Imagine that you’re Harry Potter in your second year at Hogwarts and you’re enjoying your place as Seeker on the Quidditch team. But as you know from your years in the game, it’s not easy to play Quidditch. Every time you get onto the pitch, you have to challenge yourself to focus in order to win. Sometimes you lose, but sometimes, when you’ve really got yourself into the zone, you win. When you win, you feel genuinely pleased. Your opponents, those pesky Ravenclaws and disappointed Hufflepuffs, though annoyed that you’ve won, can’t deny that you’ve won fair and square. Everyone’s just doing their best with what they have. All’s fair in love and war, after all.
Now, imagine that in advance of your match against Slytherin, Lucius Malfoy blitzes in and suddenly, the entire team of absolute snakes are astride Nimbus 2001s, bought with that tainted Death Eater gold. All the robes seem to be made of more aerodynamic, sweat-wicking fabric, and you wouldn’t be surprised if Malfoy had sprung for a personal nutritionist for Marcus Flint. He’s looking rather spry these days. Suddenly, it doesn’t entirely seem to matter what you do. It’s going to be hard to win on even the Nimbus 2000, compared to the new, shiny offerings bought with daddy Malfoy’s ill-gotten gains.
And the fact is that the majority of us aren’t even Harry Potter. He was the chosen one and still had to overcome his opponents’ fat wallets to come out on top. Some of us are just Hufflepuffs that don’t have either the admirable skill of fat stacks of cash. It’s already rather hard to rise up and overcome when our opponents are dripping in loot that they’ve managed to buy, and we’ve had to give ourselves a stern talking-to about rent, and savings, and Good Financial Decisions™. Suddenly, Quidditch (and dare we say it, gaming) seems like a less engaging prospect when you’re in that middle ground.
Mobile, microtransactions, and money, money, money
This isn’t uncharted territory for gaming. Much like the warning to Mudbloods upon the opening of the Chamber of Secrets, the writing has been on the wall for some time, now. Even relatively innocent releases like Wolfenstein Youngblood bearing the brunt of the internet ire. GTA5 has also come under fire with their recent casino inclusion that is just basically gambling.
In mobile games, the reminder to buy more, to scale up to premium, buy coins, power-ups, extra lives — whatever will make your gameplay experience more indulgent — is constant. Mobile games have a particularly strange time of it, as usually they are whipped out for commutes, in line at the supermarket, or between tasks. And yet, they are crammed full of microtransaction potential, but we accept the interruption as docile as lambs.
Maybe we consider mobile gaming as a little more of a chocolate frog trading card game, though. The entry-level price is very low (and in the case of many mobile games which run on the freemium model, free), so we accept the buzzing flies of microtransaction prompts far more willingly. If we truly want the Bowman Wright card, then maybe we’ll buy some extra packs, sacrifice a few lesser card to trade with someone else, or straight up drop the cash to make our experience more enjoyable and provide a new home to this fabled card. It’s relatively cheap anyway, so what are a few extra Knuts to make things more enjoyable?
While small free-to-play mobile games can have their trashy business models, the fully-fledged Quidditch matches or the latest and priciest AAA games is where this gets even worse. We’ve shelled out for the broomstick, the robes, the protein bars, and we’ve invested a lot of hours in honing our skills on the pitch only to see Malfoy’s loaded dad putting us a relative disadvantage. For gamers, it’s not too different. We’ve got console, the TV, and finally the game copy itself, and also put in the hours and now there are still microtransactions everywhere? No thanks. Go Felix Felicis yourself.
Buying your way to the top
Crash Nitro Fueled is getting a lot of flack for its introduction of microtransactions post-release and while racing is fun, having the option to buy the skins and Grand Prix event cosmetics is defeating knowing someone can just buy their way forward. But there’s a lot to be said for the mental health advantages of achieving things in-game. Just ask Draco Malfoy, the poster-child for the sniveling, privileged daddy’s boy who attempts throughout the series to pay his way to popularity and power. He’s consistently ousted by the less wealthy, brave, and respectable characters who might be still clinging to their Shooting Stars instead of shelling out for Firebolts, but we kind of know who’s team we’d rather be on. He doesn’t ever seem to be satisfied with his fate and his hatred of Harry also seems like he is jealous of someone who wasn’t handed everything.
There’s already a lot of talk around the question of mental health, depression, and violence surrounding video games. In a sense, there is true joy and achievement which can come from feeling that you have worked to overcome the challenges presented to you. However, if you can pay to win, then the achievement is nixed. And if you’re prone to jealousy or the influence of peers who are shelling out to deck their avatars in top-of-the-range skins and equipment, it might be a micro-miserable time for you.
Microtransactions are to gamers what Lucius Malfoy is to the Gryffindor Quidditch team, but don’t forget that Voldemort is puppeteering even the Malfoys. If you’re willing to really engage with them and cozy up to Lucius Malfoy and the false promises that he embodies, then it’s a slippery slope towards the arms of Voldy and whatever video game publishers will be content to charge us for next. It’s more satisfying to work to be a Harry Potter than to settle and be a Malfoy. But if you’re happy with cozying up to slimier practices, there’s only one thing left to say: “Well done, Draco. Well done.”
[Image Credit: Warner Bros.]