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How to buy nothing for something

In the second of our regular blogs from teenagers talking about what the digital world means to them, 18-year-old Max celebrates the release of FIFA17 by explaining the appeal of in-app purchases and microtransactions

I'm sure by now most people have heard tales of a child spending hundreds of pounds on virtual coins for their video game and the parents only finding out when they see a rather large iTunes bill. Everyone has been warned of the risks that are presented to families by microtransactions and in-app purchases, but perhaps you're still not entirely sure why anyone would want to spend money on something so intangible as virtual money, or perhaps you're not sure where these 60p transactions from the bank of mum and dad are going. Well let me try to explain.

A microtransaction is a rather broad term for any small additional purchase one can make within a video game. This can be anything from extra characters to, more commonly, virtual coins. These coins have a number of uses depending on the game. One obvious example is FIFA points in all of the recent FIFA games. The coins are purchased from EA at around 79p per hundred points depending on how many points you buy at once. On the FIFA store the largest package gives you 12000 points for £79.99, which might make you wonder who thought "micro" was the right prefix for this type of purchase. Anyway, these points can then be spent buying Packs. In FIFA, a Pack is a set of random players, kits, stadia and other bonuses, all of which can either be used in your personal team, or can be sold for FIFA coins - which is a completely different kettle of fish. So the more money you spend buying packs, the more likely you are to chance upon a Ronaldo or Messi to add to your online squad .And therein lies the incentive to spend money on FIFA points: you need packs to create the best teams possible and to beat all your friends online.

FIFA is a good example of this type of purchase in which you spend money on points to buy a chance at obtaining a good item. But EA are by no means the only company that implement this approach in their game. Call of Duty last year introduced supply drops in which you could obtain things such as variants on weapons, and Counter Strike uses crates in much the same way. So in these games the additional purchases act in much the same way as chips at a casino, except of course you can't cash out when you get Ronaldo in a pack.

And it isn’t just the ‘big boy’ games that allow you to make micropurchases. You can't talk about in-app purchases without mentioning Pokémon Go... In fact you can't talk about much without being dragged into a conversations about Pokémon Go. In that game, you purchase coins in the same way as the games I’ve just described but their coins are used slightly differently. Instead of gambling with them, you use them to purchase things such as Pokeballs which can be used to catch a Pikachu or some other overly aggressive chipmunk.

All of which might seem slightly strange to a lot of parents. Perhaps it’s hard to understand the logic behind spending real money on virtual currency. As a member of the digital generation I’d ask if it’s really so different to buying a pack of trading cards to complete your collection, or another outfit for your Action Man or Barbie? The motivation for young people to buy this stuff isn’t so different to the motivation of my parents generation collecting matching sets of china or whatever it was that was ‘essential’ in the 80s.