We worked with a large sample of players of digital games to generate a categorisation of monetisation techniques in games which are perceived as being unfair, aggressive, or misleading, and thus potentially not in accordance with consumer protection laws. To our knowledge, this is the only existing such categorisation of microtransactions across both PC and mobile games. The result is thirty-five types of techniques that are perceived by players as problematic across eight domains.
These techniques are split into 8 domains: game dynamics designed to drive spending, product not meeting expectations, monetisation of basic quality of life, predatory advertising, pay to win, in-game currency, microtransactions as a business model, and other (for techniques which did not cluster into any of the other groups). Understanding that these are the mechanisms which players, the primary users of games, may perceive as problematic and therefore having an effect on their game experience, is important for designing games both as products and as experiences. These points will now be addressed in more detail.
Application to Consumer Protection
One of the aims of this work was to evaluate the extent to which existing UK consumer protection frameworks are applicable to in-game purchases. Given the framing of our survey which elicited player perspectives was based on the wording of the Unfair Trading Regulations, our work has some potential implications when considering players of digital games as consumers of products: several of the in-game monetisation techniques described by players could be seen as being in tension with these Regulations. A full outline of this is provided in Table 1, according to what types of microtransactions might be considered as unfair, misleading, or aggressive.
Several monetisation practices were described by players in ways that may align with how the Unfair Trading Regulations define ‘misleading’ practices: misleading actions which include misleading advertising, artificial scarcity, and false information, and misleading omissions, in the case of which certain information about the product is withheld. This largely applies to predatory advertising. For example, players report the unrealistic presentation of products in dishonest ways, such as through tactical highlighting of features or provision of false information, and lack of information about conditions of product, in which case some critical information that may affect engagement with a transaction is withheld until after the transaction is complete.
Further examples of this are product does not incorporate everything a player believes it to, sale of useless products or duplicates, and early access content where players end up with something different to what they paid for. In all of these instances, players engage with a purchase with a created expectation that is different to the actual product they receive.
The Unfair Trading Regulations additionally define a generic set of prohibited practices as those which contravene “the requirements of professional diligence” and “materially distorting or likely to materially distort” consumer spending; or are aggressive, which the Regulations define as impairing “the average consumer's freedom of choice or conduct … through the use of harassment, coercion or undue influence” in such a way that said consumer takes a transactional decision that they would not otherwise take.
One good example of this is the domain of in-game currency. Players perceive in-game currency as being specifically implemented to contribute to their confusion when they are deciding whether to make a purchase, such as in the case of multiple currency types cause confusion and in-game currency disguising actual price, which could fall under ‘material distortion’. In some instances, players also believe currency bundle sizes to have been intentionally designed to be of inconvenient size, meaning they end up spending more than they would have liked to acquire the correct amount (fixed purchase rates are unfair).
In terms of aggressive practices, the most prominent example in our data were reports of aggressive advertising. This code referred to situations in which players clearly reported behaviour on the behalf of industry that may be classified as harassment. Another example is the practice of dark interface design patterns, relating to in-game interfaces might be seen as a form of aggressive commercial practice as they may impair freedom of choice amongst gamers.
As discussed above, the Regulations cover a large amount of issues raised by players in terms of aspects of games which they believe have been implemented to drive revenue generation in potentially problematic ways, spanning particularly across the domains of predatory advertising, in-game currency, and product not meeting expectations.
However, plenty of other domains discovered in our data have no evidenceable links with consumer protection, for example, those which could be interpreted subjectively, such as game dynamics designed to drive spending, or the more broad microtransactions as a business model which focuses on player distaste for the addition of payment mechanisms into a game. Nonetheless, these domains were still identified by players as potentially problematic, and as such we must address the extent to which they ought to be regulated, and whether government-based regulation is the appropriate measure to take in this context at all.
Given that in essence, all commercial games are products which are created to make revenue, what is the point at which these mechanisms become predatory rather than reasonable revenue generation? Developer Richard Garfield observes that ‘any hobby you have, you have to invest something’, and defends microtransactions as being ‘pay to participate’ rather than ‘pay to win’ (Motley, 2018). It is true that most domains confer an advantage by payment: for example, in sports, players would benefit from being able to buy better equipment. Furthermore, promotion tactics in other domains, such as advertising, are not dissimilar from those used in games.
Indeed, some authors have asserted that the majority of revenue from microtransaction-based models comes from a group of players who spend consciously and of their own free will (Paul, 2020). However, it is still unclear what proportion of in-game revenue is driven by spending which players would consider to be fully of their free will, as well as the consequences of spending large amounts in games for player quality of life external to these games. Indeed, convenience samples of loot box spenders have found both that relatively few individuals spend heavily on games; and that this spending appears uncorrelated with an individual’s reported household earnings (Close et al., 2021). Moreover, there is less knowledge on this regarding other types of microtransactions.
Games are arguably a special type of product, due to their immersive properties and potential for longer-term engagement with users making them a medium that may also have longer-term consequences. It is therefore important to give attention to aspects of games, in this case microtransactions, which are being reported by players as unfair, misleading, or aggressive.
We can provide some thoughts based on our work as to what characteristics of microtransactions could be perceived as problematic, and the reasons behind this. These guidelines will allow for a more structured assessment of how microtransactions might be regulated, and provide starting points for games companies in terms of ethical revenue generation.
Firstly, problematic microtransactions have a tangible aspect: they are specific design elements which can be objectively identified and measured within the game. For example, one can clearly see in the case of DLCs which content must be paid for, or with wait timers, how long one must wait if one does not pay. This makes it easier to implement concrete practices when incorporating in-game purchases. Some subjectivity of course remains here—with DLCs, some players may argue that is the core part of the game being locked behind a paywall, whereas others will see it as additional content. This is also where confidence in whether a microtransaction is problematic would grow with the sample size: even in the case of subjective player perspectives, the opinion of 50 players who see the same part of a game negatively carries more weight than that of one person.
Secondly, truly problematic microtransactions will have consequences, and by virtue of that statement, it will be possible to measure these consequences. This therefore directly ties into the previous point about tangibility. If a microtransaction is perceived by players as being problematic but then has no effect on their person, that is of an entirely different category to a microtransaction which is perceived as being problematic and then affects one’s wellbeing, financial circumstances, etc., outside of the game also. (There is also a third option, in which a microtransaction does have consequences but is not perceived by players as being problematic; this is addressed in more depth in the ‘Limitations’ section). Currently, we have very limited understanding regarding the consequences of microtransactions and whether any of them could actually be considered harmful, given a game containing player-perceived problematic mechanics does not necessarily link to reasons behind high player spending. Understanding these consequences could therefore help contextualise microtransactions further.
That is not to say that something which is perceived by players as being problematic and yet only affects the player within the game is not worthy of regulatory attention. Such microtransactions could be problematic along a different axis, that of player experience. As mentioned briefly above, players tend to engage with a game for the gameplay experience: often defined in terms of immersion, flow, and positive affect (Wiemeyer et al., 2016). It has been argued that a player's expectation that the game creates a ‘magic circle’ which is shielded from economic concerns; one’s experience in the game is not dependent on the spending of money (Deterding, 2016; Lin & Sun, 2011). Ball and Fordham (2018) discuss that the introduction of modern microtransactions has had a fundamental impact on player relationships with video games as a medium, claiming that “while the content of video games is important, it is also important to recognise that this content can be reduced to a mere delivery mechanism for microtransactions when such monetization methods are introduced.” Indeed, this was also a prominent theme in the findings of Lin and Sun (2011), whose subjects discuss issues of fun, quality, and the gameplay balance in the context of player self-perception. While one must also note that this perception of player experience has in part been shaped by established game design norms stemming from upfront payments, the shift from focus on enjoyment and expression values to revenue generation values could still be disruptive to the ‘magic circle’ if players enter a game with the expectation of being shielded from economic concerns.
This can be further exemplified by drawing a distinction between optional and forced microtransactions; games which allow for play without the need to spend anything and in which microtransactions simply enhance the experience are traditionally perceived better than those where progress is worse or unattainable without any payment. Besides the above point about the integrity of the gameplay experience, this brings to light ideas about the importance of player agency and choice in choosing whether to engage with an in-game payment. Indeed, an example of a game which was positively received was Kanno & Koichi (2013) Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball, which not only charged only for additional content after the player had already been playing for a while, but allowed players to interact with the in-game characters to haggle down the price of this content (Paul, 2020). Although the eventual price may have been the one intended all along, and Nintendo may have simply been employing a clever marketing technique, the presentation of the transaction in this way allowed the player to retain their perception of the economic upper hand.
Suggestions for Regulation
The Unfair Trading Regulations is appropriate in the context of game microtransactions for protecting players against elements of direct deceit, such as misrepresentation of a product in advertising, or a sale which does not meet the promised terms and conditions in the case of a product not meeting expectations. This is effective partly due to the fact that these manipulations are tangible: their implementation can be directly proven. The Regulations can also cover in-game harassment (which is recognised in terms of consumer protection in other domains) such as dark patterns or aggressive advertising, although even at this point it becomes more difficult in terms of defining what exactly constitutes harassment—the lines of which would be likely different across different players. The same is true in terms of in-game currency: although certain standards can be set regarding currency bundle purchase sizes and number of currency types per game to minimise player confusion, this confusion is likely still subjective and variable.
Situations where gameplay is inaccessible without spending may also need to be regulated on a nationwide level, given that this might be problematic for vulnerable individuals who struggle with impulse control and as such might be affected into spending more than they intend. Given that regulation already exists in many countries for loot boxes, precisely for the fears regarding vulnerable individuals and addiction, it would seem appropriate to set similar standards that prevent direct harm to players. However, at this current stage we unfortunately lack direct evidence to establish which, if any, specific consequences might be triggered by gatekeeping gameplay in this way.
Generally, given the discussed difficulties regarding objectivity over what constitutes problematic microtransactions, focus ought to be shifted onto self-regulation within the games industry, rather than government-based regulation. Mistry (2018) writes that “self-regulation has been a hallmark in other branches within the entertainment industry. To some degree, self-regulation has also kept the government from becoming unnecessarily involved in the business and affairs of the entertainment industry. More significantly, self-regulation has allowed creators-producers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and game developers, to name a few to continue making creative works and consumers to continue enjoying those works.” Directing the games industry towards an ethical design framework will therefore hopefully foster a mutually beneficial relationship between developers and players, and indeed, this has already been a proposed direction by other authors (e.g. King et al., 2019).
With that in mind, we can offer a core suggestion for how games companies can incorporate microtransactions in an ethical way. Fundamentally, gameplay should be the same with and without payment: microtransactions should be offered for additional rather than core content. Players should have the choice as to whether they want to spend money on the game, rather than making the payment integral to the gameplay experience: payment should be for “experience and extras which you value, depending on your profile, the type of achievements in the game genre, etc.” (Davidovici-Nora, 2013), rather than for access. Furthermore, developers should take care to not incorporate features into their game which are solely designed to drive spending without offering an output of quality in return for the player money. The output of any spending should match the invested money, and should not be gained through unfair means like psychological manipulation.
This can be discussed in the context of the current work in the category of pay to win. Pay to win elements are perceived negatively by players because they create an unnecessary social discrepancy between those who can afford to pay and those who cannot. Furthermore, the main issue players have with pay to win elements appears to stem from perceptions of in-game fairness. Fairness is a complex and context-sensitive construct, and as such may be better addressed from within the industry, where standards of fairness can be better delineated in context. As such, pay to win elements may well be addressed effectively through self-regulatory frameworks rather than governmental protection laws: such frameworks could promote a market in which pay to win mechanics are only incorporated into a game if the gameplay experience remains equally enjoyable, immersive, and possible to complete without payment (similar to the point suggested by Neely (2021)).
Relationship to Previous Work
A direct connection can be seen between our findings and those of King et al. (2019), who investigated the way major games companies have patented designs for systems that are based around encouraging repeat purchases. Interestingly, players within our sample perceive very similar mechanics to the ones identified by King et al. operating under the surface of the games that they play. For example, King et al. discovered that games may present players with time-limited offers with limited information about their contents, which is represented in our sample through limited time offers and lack of information about conditions of transaction. King et al.’s findings in particular draw attention to purposeful system manipulation, such as players being directed into unfair matchups. From our results it appears that the players themselves are clearly aware of said techniques, and do not feel positively about their implementation.
The reported monetisation techniques also encompassed monetary design patterns as outlined by Zagal et al. (2013), who discuss paying to skip and gating access to content. However, Zagal et al. also describe the monetisation of rivalries as an important dark design pattern, which was not at all present in our sample. Indeed, a surprisingly low number of people commented on social dynamics in relation to monetisation in our work: while things like unfair matchups were discussed, they were referred to from a game balancing rather than social perspective.
Overlap can also be seen between our categories and the transaction types taxonomy of Windleharth and Lee (2020). In particular, their work recognises premium currency and its potential for misuse, limited time offers, and a variety of techniques which they categorise as ‘resources’, namely: direct gameplay advantage (in our work, pay to win), powerups (XP boosts), limited content (parts of game locked behind paywalls), and inventory capacity (limited inventory space without paying). However, there are many techniques present in our categorisation which are not found in the one of Windleharth and Lee (2020), and vice versa. As such, the two might be used complementarily.
Although several monetisation techniques were prominent across our sample, a considerable number of players commented that they did not believe they had been misled because of their own alertness, or indeed, they had gone one step further and were avoiding the types of games which used such techniques. This may be seen as reassuring, as it suggests that players may be able to identify and reject or resist spending money in problematic ways in games. However, it is difficult to ascertain what proportion of the player population this represents in practice, given that our survey is likely to have attracted players who had negative experiences with in-game monetisation and opinions to voice on the topic.
The self-report methodology provides the most appropriate starting point for understanding the player perspective. However, it has one obvious limitation: subjectivity. A player may perceive a mechanism at work, whereas in reality the algorithmic underpinnings of a game implement no such mechanism. This may be exacerbated by existing player preconceptions of free-to-play games and in-game transactions as ‘bad’, inferior to alternative payment models (Paul, 2020), leading players to be harsher in their assessment of microtransactions. Nonetheless, this should not strongly influence our results. Even if the monetisation techniques players discussed are influenced by their preconceptions, they are still presented by a large number of players, and as such, deserve attention. Furthermore, they shed light on why players may be biased against in-game payment mechanisms, which ultimately serve the games industry in understanding how to alter these perceptions for the better.
Conversely, using purely the player perspective may also have the opposite effect: players may not be aware of a potentially problematic mechanism that may have adverse consequences. This is another indication of the importance between academic and industry collaboration if we are to reach a maximally ethical, favourable, and profitable solution.
Furthermore, we only investigated the nature of problematic monetisation. A critic may note that the majority of video game monetisation may be entirely unproblematic: fair, unaggressive, and honest—a valid concern. Our interest here was specifically in transactions which had the potential to be negative to the player in some way. However, it may be the case that if we had gathered data investigating a more neutral question, asking about microtransactions in general, we may have uncovered a more holistic picture of how video games make money.
We also did not collect any participant demographics, which means we were not able to control whether the views expressed in the survey were over-representative of any particular group, such as male gamers. Notwithstanding, we believe that the large sample size allows for confidence in taxonomizing specific types of microtransactions that could be problematic across different games, even though this taxonomy should not be seen as exhaustive.
This work highlights the need for significantly broader research in the area of video game monetisation. Pressing questions of investigation should include demographic analyses which explore who is most engaged with these transactions, and to what extent are these heavily engaged individuals driving the revenues generated by the video game industry; it should include longitudinal designs that test whether engaging with the forms of monetisation outlined above lead to financial harm to players; and it should include representative sampling strategies to estimate the prevalence of exposure to these techniques. As technology and economics continue to shift and emerge, research should also be aware of upcoming trends, both in games business models—for example, cryptogames (Scholten et al., 2019), which would shift the player–game relationships discussed in this paper. Additionally, it would be of interest to consider specific types of players who have a fundamentally different perspective on game monetisation, such as professional gamers.
It is also vital to note the intersection between this research and contemporary policymaking. Policy debates surrounding loot boxes have currently led governments from around the world to consider how one specific form of monetisation within the video game industry should best be regulated in order to preserve the interests of players. The evidence uncovered here may instead suggest that broader issues should be additionally dealt with: to the best of our knowledge, this study represents the first attempt to map monetisation from the perspective of a large group of players.
Finally, the positive response and level of engagement of participants with this work is a positive indicator that this is important research to the player community. More generally, it points to the fact that involving the stakeholder in problem identification in research can have very positive results, and as such might be useful for future research design in the domain.