The Predatory Ways In Which Video Game Companies Try To Get Your Money

The gaming industry, especially in the mobile space, is known for some unscrupulous tactics. What are these tactics, and what is being done to confront them?


Sergey Galyonkin from Raleigh, USA [ this pic was in my school book], CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Fortnite is the video game that was targeted by the FTC for violating COPPA.

Video games are everywhere — on mobile devices, laptops, desktop computers, and consoles. You might not consider yourself a gamer because you don’t play games on a Playstation 5 or an Xbox Series X, but if you play games like Candy Crush, Gardenscapes, or Roblox on your cell phone, you are a gamer. With the prevalence of the gaming industry, comes predatory practices designed to get as much money as possible. Some of these practices include loot boxes and gacha. Loot boxes and gacha both involve people spending money to get cosmetics, special abilities, or characters. These two systems both capitalize on FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and gambling addictions. There are also dark patterns —a practice meant to manipulate people into doing specific things — which big technology companies like Google and Meta have used.  Dark patterns, as defined by Vice News, are designs that manipulate or heavily influence users to make certain choices.  

On top of loot boxes, gacha, and dark patterns, there are extensive downloadable contents (DLCs) that are sometimes more expensive than the actual games. 

Genshin Impact, which surpassed the $4 billion mark in 2022, is one of the examples of this. Genshin Impact functions based on a ‘gacha’ model. The word gacha comes from gachapon, a system where people spend money to get items from a randomized vending machine. In Genshin Impact, people obtain a currency called “primogems” which is used to roll for characters and weapons. Some might hear of this system and be ecstatic, as it seems you can get any character in the game by working towards gaining enough in-game currency without needing to pay real-world money.

However, this system comes with heavy drawbacks. The rate (how likely you are to get a character) for pulling the highest-tier characters (also known as 5-star characters) is 0.6%. This rate is lower than most gacha games; in another game called Fire Emblem Heroes, the rate is 6%, and even in Fate Grand Order — a game known for its terrible gacha system — the rate is 1%.  

However, there is a caveat to this: Genshin utilizes a pity system. After 90 pulls, players are guaranteed a 5-star character. Though this may not be the character the player was originally rolling for, they still end up with a 5-star character nonetheless. After 180 pulls, players will finally get the 5-star character that is featured on the banner, but that translates to 28,800 primogems. If a player was to spend real-world money in order to guarantee the 5-star character of their choice, Forbes estimated that they would have to spend $365. That amount of money is to only obtain one copy of the character. In Genshin, there is a system that deals with character duplicates called constellations. The maximum amount of duplicates that someone needs to get all the constellations is 6, so to get all 6 constellations, a person would have to spend roughly $2,000.

During 2021, Lim Cheng Mong found that he was $20,000 in credit card debt, and that debt was accumulated in a six week period due to his daughter spending money on Genshin Impact. At first, Mr. Lim was only able to recover $10,000 of his money, but then was able to get all of it back. This exploitative system has hurt real people. Children are enticed by these games and spend exorbitant amounts of money, leading their parents to be in huge amounts of debt.

Genshin Impact is not the only exploitative game that exists and gacha is not the only predatory game monetization practice. In 2022, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined Epic Games more than $500 million.  Epic was fined on two counts, for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and for the use of dark patterns.

Fortnite is a game that focuses heavily on monetization and spending money since, initially, it is free to play. Players can spend their money to get V-Bucks, Fortnite’s in-game currency, which can be used to purchase emotes, cosmetic skins, and the Battle Pass. A Battle Pass is a type of monetization system where people can obtain additional content. The FTC asserts that Epic manipulated people — especially children — into dumping hundreds of dollars into the game through counterintuitive, inconsistent, and confusing button configuration, with Fortnite not requiring authorization.  Although there has been criticism that the FTC ignored the role that parents play in this, one cannot deny Epic’s use of dark patterns and specific targeting of children. 

For example, in Coffee v. Google plaintiff Mei-Ling Montanez estimated that her minor son spent $100 on Dragon Ball Z Dokkan Battle. 

Electronic Arts (EA) is the poster child for microtransactions and other predatory practices. The Sims 4 is one of the prime examples; the base game is free, but when you add up all the expansion packs, game packs, stuff packs, and kits, the total price is $1064.45. There’s also the case of Battlefront 2, a game based on Star Wars that is full of loot boxes. The first Battlefront game used the Star Card system, which allowed players to increase their stats and receive new abilities. However, in Battlefront 2, there was a chance for Star Cards to come from loot boxes, not just from continuous playing. Players felt like Battlefront 2 was pay to win – skill was not needed to succeed in the game, money was. In an article by Sherif Saed, he said, One of Boba Fett’s cards reduces the damage he takes while using Death From Above. It starts at 50 percent and goes up to a 100 percent, and that’s by no means an outlier…I used two cards on my interceptor class fighter. One increased the rate-of-fire and another prevented the weapons from overheating as quickly. Needless to say, I immediately felt an advantage in every firefight.”

After negative reviews from gamers and official reviewers alike, accusations of gambling from mainstream media sites like CNN and the Huffington Post, and even inquiries from government bodies like Belgium, microtransactions were removed from Battlefront 2. 

Battlefront 2 represents a situation where public opinion caused loot boxes and microtransactions to be removed. However, games like FIFA Ultimate Team are still quite popular, although they revolve entirely around spending money. The FIFA game series is dominated by esports, and there are official tournaments such as the FIFA Sports Cup and the FIFAe Nations Cup. In 2019, though, it was found that players at the FUT (FIFA Ultimate Team) Champions Cup had teams that cost $27,000. FIFA Ultimate Team is the typical loot box game, where players get an advantage from spending money, which then fills the pockets of EA. While loot boxes and gacha are growing in popularity in the mobile space, they have decreased in prominence in the PC and console world. This change can be seen in Overwatch and Overwatch 2. Overwatch had a loot box system where players could gain cosmetic skins, but in the sequel, that loot box system was nowhere to be seen. Instead, it was replaced with a battle pass. According to Jason Schreier, a game journalist that has written articles for Bloomberg Meida, the reason could be “Threats of legislation have made game companies shy away from loot boxes. The U.S. Congress has led a bipartisan effort.” 

The effort to ban loot boxes has not only been in the U.S. but also in other countries, specifically in Europe. In 2018, the Belgian Gaming Commission ruled that all loot boxes that allowed players to spend real-world money constituted as gambling. In Belgium, companies have to obtain a license to offer gambling services. However, video game companies cannot obtain these licenses because loot boxes are not a product that can be duly licensed under the current Belgian framework.  

The 2018 law made it illegal for Belgian games to contain loot boxes, but in reality, they still exist. Among the top-grossing apps in the Belgian Apple Store, 80.2% of them have some sort of randomized monetization method. Unfortunately, it seems that Belgium’s “ban” on loot boxes has been ineffective. The Belgian Minister of Justice said that the gambling regulator did not have enough resources or time to enforce the law.

The U.K. government took a different approach; instead of declaring that loot boxes were considered gambling, they asked the industry to self-regulate. That self-regulation involves ensuring that minors would not be able to purchase loot boxes without parental consent and that all players would have access to spending controls and transparent information. 

The companies that own Genshin Impact, Fortnite, and many of EA’s games are just a few examples of companies that engage in predatory practices. The loot box scene is changing, slowly, but progress is still being made. From the transition from Overwatch to Overwatch 2, loot boxes were removed. New games that have come out do not feature loot boxes at all, such as God of War Ragnarok, The Last of Us, and Hi-Fi Rush.  With governments across the world taking notice, the industry is realizing that these tactics are not sustainable in the long run. 

With governments across the world taking notice, the industry is realizing that these tactics are not sustainable in the long run.