How Quickly Can it Add Up?

The rise in popularity of these types of free-to-play games raises significant ethical questions, including about whether or not these practices are predatory. For example, many have argued that these games rely on the sunken cost fallacy. This fallacy describes a situation where players that have spent hours and hours in a game and then no longer want to play or no longer have fun playing feel as if they are unable to simply quit playing and just walk away from the game. However, the time and money that was spent on the game can’t be recovered, making it appear worthwhile to continue playing a game into which one has “invested” these resources . When you have spent hundreds to thousands of dollars in a game through buying in-game currency or items, it makes it a lot harder to walk away. Players can feel that they’ve made too much of an investment in the game to simply drop it.

Another point of debate is how these games collect far more money over time from the average user than a company would for just a simple 60-70 dollar one-time purchase of a triple-A title. For example, if you were to buy a typical third-person shooter at full price for 60 dollars, you would have access to all the content and online features. However, in games like Fortnite, the price to download and start playing is zero, however, if you buy the season’s current battle pass for $9.99, play through it, but then buy some V-Bucks, which is the in-game currency, you could end up spending an additional 10-20 dollars. With new skins and other items rotating in the shop every day, you could say, “Well it’s just one more skin, I like this one,” and buy that. Then a collaboration, or collab, comes along that interests you and you buy something from that, spending another 20 dollars to get the collab set. The longer you play, the more you’re likely to buy smaller things like emotes based on popular dances and wraps that change the outer look of a player’s weapon like in Fortnite or Overwatch 2, for example.

Players, especially younger ones, can feel compelled to buy cosmetics like costumes for their character to wear for several reasons ranging from social pressure to not wanting to appear ‘poor’ or lower skilled. According to a study done in the UK, children often see the type of skin you have as a status symbol within the community meaning they were more likely to ask their parents to buy them in-game currency so they could obtain better cosmetic items (Wood, 2019). These can quickly add up, and in a live service game like Fortnite that constantly gets updates, the average player soon finds themselves spending way more than 60 dollars on Fortnite, which is far more than they would have just by buying the one triple-A title at a flat price.

In the year 2018, players spent an average of $84.67 on in-game purchases (DemandSage, 2023). Comparatively, in the year 2020, an average of $102.42 was spent by Fortnite players (Statista, 2022). Companies and developers are aware of this, as these games were made with these models in mind from day one. Games like Candy Crush have an older demographic where 50% of the Candy Crush players are aged between 20 and 40 years old (EpicWinApp, 2023). These games make a ton of money and microtransactions were implemented within the game from the start. Candy Crush alone earned $77 million the year after its release in 2012. They earned $1.13 billion two years later (EpicWinApp, 2023).