Nathaniel Lawson unpacks the dark underworld of monetisation schemes in Pokèmon Unite, and it’s SUPER effective!
Video games have taken colossal steps forward since the simple game of pong in the ‘70s, however recently there’s been a glaring issue within the industry making equally substantial developments. Anyone into gaming is more than familiar with the big bad boss battle of pay-to-win. Nintendo’s most recent title, Pokémon Unite, shamelessly displays all the sins of monetisation in free games, despite being marketed towards children. Ticking all the wrong boxes, Pokémon Unite is the epitome of what’s wrong with the video game industry.
The most concerning issue is the concept of pay-to-win. It’s how it sounds – essentially if you sink enough money into a pay-to-win game, you have the advantage over other players. This game model is present in Pokémon Unite in two ways – upgradeable items and a locked roster. Upgradeable items is the main issue that worries me for the future of games in this realm. Each Pokémon can equip 3 items to take into battle with them to give them bonus stats and small beneficial passive abilities (abilities that are always active). There is a form of currency in the game that allows you to upgrade those items called ‘item enhancers’ to improve both the base stats and passive ability. Currently, through my 15-20 hours of playing this game in my first week and a bit, I have acquired 807 of those tokens. To simply upgrade one item to the maximum level it takes 2587 item enhancers. That means a whole set is 7761 and to upgrade all the current 16 items in the game to max level would take 41,392. Of course you are able to purchase this currency with real money. At the cheapest conversion rate of real money to in-game item enhancers it would cost you a total of $932.77 to fully upgrade all items. While surprisingly, this isn’t the worst amount of money to max out a game, Pokémon Unite is in its infancy with a long time to get far worse. Of course they shower new players in these currencies, resulting in them spending them quickly as they do not know their vitality or scarcity yet, which makes the temptation to spend real dollars even worse.
In terms of actual statistical advantage at level 1 for a Pokémon, a max level item would give approximately a 5-10% increase in one or two different stats. While this doesn’t seem impactful, in a game like Pokémon Unite, any advantage over your opposition is invaluable. In games with ranked modes, pay-to-win systems sully the skill-based applications of that mode in a shameful and greedy way. If this becomes an industry standard, the growing market of esports could quickly stagnate. Not due to unbalanced stats, but a dwindling audience for new games.
The large and growing roster of playable Pokémon leads to a whole new issue regarding pay-to-win, power creep, and a locked roster. ‘Power creep’ is essentially the natural progression games take, where the longer a game lives, the more complicated characters have to get to bring something fresh to the game. While this is a large issue in most games, it’s only in conjunction with my second point when concern is warranted. Currently, as most new games are, Pokémon Unite is wildly unbalanced. On top of that, the Pokémon that are the most powerful are constantly changing. However, another very limited resource is used to unlock these Pokémon. So limited in fact, that the amount you can earn per week is capped. If you want to unlock all the current characters that aren’t given to you for free, it will take you playing every day for about 30 weeks. This number will only increase, with rumours of several characters in development. However, as you may be able to predict, you can purchase these characters, which would set you back another $136.69. But why would anyone be so fiscally irresponsible? For the significant advantage over other players, which companies know their customers are desperate for.
Loot boxes are probably one of the widest spread and most normalised profit schemes in modern games. From League of Legends to FIFA, a large portion of modern multiplayer games use these as a monetisation method. My gripe with Pokémon Unite is different though. While the loot boxes are earnable through game play, they are also limited in the amount you can receive per week – but of course you can spend real money to circumnavigate that issue! On the other hand, I quite enjoy the cosmetic system in the game. The ability to customise your Pokémon and your trainer is a nice addition I really enjoy. If only they spent all their energy on making cosmetics instead of destroying the game's integrity with pay-to-win. However, I think their pricing system for these skins are a little ridiculous with them ranging from $7.88 to $27.00, with the total price of all the currently available skins coming to $99.16 (with some of the skins also being obtainable with a special currency from the loot boxes). While these aren’t that absurd for games in the MOBA genre, at the $27 price point in games like League of Legends you would get completely new animations, sound effects, and so much more; while in Pokémon Unite, Mr. Mime just wears a magician outfit and that’s pretty much it. As well as that, there is no way to acquire these skins other than purchase, not even from the aforementioned loot boxes. There is however an exclusive loot box skin that you can’t buy normally, meaning your only option to get it is to keep purchasing that item that I mentioned earlier, in the vain hope that you might get it soon. While the cosmetic and loot box systems aren’t anywhere near as atrocious as some games have dared to leap, the sly restrictions in combination with the other issues make it just a small part of this game’s massive problem.
Finally, the ‘battle pass’ – the newest cancer gracing the video game industry. It seems every new multiplayer game that comes out nowadays shares the gluttonous desire to take money from the consumer with a battle pass. At face value it seems like a good deal, but the problems arise when the battle pass model is used along with other monetisation methods. I think the perfect example of battle passes done well is Fortnite, the originator of this trend. While I haven’t played the game in a while I remember that every battle pass had enough premium currency as a reward that you could purchase the next battle pass with some left to spare. That hasn’t seemed to reach the industry standard however, as it simply doesn’t result in a new stream of income every few months or so, when you release the next battle pass. The battle pass comes out to be $11.04, which in comparison to other games is certainly on the cheaper side. It does seem to be a very last minute slap on, as if they wanted to make the list of monetisation methods just that little bit longer. You get 54% of the currency in the battle pass for free, meaning it’s definitely not something that is necessary to purchase to garner its benefits. However, the simple presence of it only adds to the greedy, money-gobbling maw of this game.
Pokémon Unite, a game heavily marketed toward children, would cost a whopping total of $1179.66 to max out. While alone the above issues aren’t ground-breakingly horrific, the cooperation of the many monetisation methods in a single game seems to be a terrifying omen for the potential future of games as a whole. If business models like this are left unchecked it won’t be long until the entire industry is tarnished by a sense of greed, rather than creativity. All thanks to these abhorrent methods of conning players out of their money, with the faint promise of a chance at winning.