Appleton: Understanding the cost of games

FresnoJanuary 17, 2014 

Disney Video Game

This Aug. 14, 2013, photo, shows objects used in the design process for video games at Disney's video game development house in Salt Lake City. Avalanche Software, owned by Disney Interactive, is releasing on "Disney Infinity," an open-world, 3-D game of unlimited possibilities in which the player can control one of a myriad of Disney characters.


Entertainment is starting to get a little taxing. If you want to see a movie for instance, you have about 184 options. Maybe it is on Netflix, Redbox, Redbox Instant or Amazon Prime. Or on DVD or Blu-ray, where you have to choose between the theatrical release or the unedited director's cut. In theaters, you can choose 3-D or IMAX 3-D. I feel like I spend more time sifting through all of these options than actually watching movies, but maybe that is just me.

What many people don't know is that your video gaming options are even more diverse.

If you wanted to start gaming today, you would need to pay a few hundred dollars for a console or computer and 50 or 60 bucks for a shiny new game, right?

Not necessarily.

In truth, it is impossible to know, without a little research, what you are buying, what you need in order to play it and how much it ultimately will cost you. The word "microtransaction" might not mean much to you now, but if you enter it into a search engine, your computer might explode with people like me screaming about them from the virtual rooftops.

Basically, a microtransaction is a small amount of money that you pay in order to get some form of virtual content for your game. Maybe you are struggling to keep up with other players due to a lack of skill or time, so you can buy a little boost.

These types of boosts are growing at an alarming rate. This is why the research is key.

To help you on your quest for knowledge, here are some brief explanations of a few terms you may come across:


This means exactly what it says: the game can be downloaded and played for free. This is a model used by popular mobile games like "Words With Friends," as well as many PC games. This model is rapidly growing in popularity. Why? Because you can make way more money giving your game away for free than you can if you charge $50 for it.

The trick is in those pesky microtransactions. The game can be played for free, but in almost all cases you will have to spend money regularly in order to access all of the game's features.

For example, a $60 shooter game may cover 4 playable classes or characters, 10 multiplayer maps, and 50 different unlockable guns.

The Free-to-Play model will give you access to 1 playable class, 4 multiplayer maps and 10 different guns. You then have the option to pay $5 for each additional class, $20 for other maps and $1 or $2 for each additional gun. If you were to buy all of these features individually, you have now spent $75-$115. That's a little steep, so the Free-to-Play game will allow you access to all of the features for a fee of $15 a month. In four months, you will have paid the $60 that a traditional game would have charged you. But if you stop paying, all those features go away.

This is not true of all Free-to-Play games. Some, like "Path of Exile," only offer cosmetic microtransactions. That is to say that any money you spend is only going to change the look of your character, not unlock any additional features.

"League of Legends" more or less follows this model, and, due to its massive fan base, it can host major events in which advertisers pay to be featured and fans pay to see. The Season 3 World Championships of "League of Legends" sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles and had more than 32 million viewers. I think the game has done pretty well.

Downloadable content

This is a pretty straightforward term for an optional add-on to a video game. Typically, downloadable content, or DLC, adds quests, character classes, or new levels to an existing game. More often than not, this can be pretty expensive.

For example, "Battlefield 4" is a very popular game right now. It is going to offer five DLC packs in the next year. You can choose to buy a season pass for $50 (this is in addition to the $60 cost of the game itself), or you can purchase each individual DLC pack for $15 apiece.

The major issue I have with this process is that it can encourage game developers and publishers to be unethical. A company could release an unfinished game ahead of schedule and simply finish it with a DLC pack later. Many experts believe this already is happening.

I do have some optimism that the competition among companies to produce quality games will stop this practice, but I also know that these companies are businesses so I wonder how long they can resist the temptation.

"Skylanders" problem

I hate to call the game out by name, but I can hear the wallets of parents everywhere crying out in agony. In "Skylanders," players control one of many playable characters in a magical world. The one catch is that the characters — and a whole host of physical and digital items — are purchased separately from the game.

Can you play the game with just a starter pack? Certainly. But as a 10-year-old, you are going to want all of the different monsters. You also are going to want a "Skylanders" backpack, shoes, shirts, etc.

Activision Blizzard, the gaming juggernaut that publishes the game, will pay millions to advertise this merchandise every 14 seconds on Cartoon Network.

This is nothing new of course. Parents always have done battle with their children over how much they truly "need" this new toy. This feels a little different though. A starter kit is around $60, and new characters and features are released almost weekly. These can range from $10-$25. If your son or daughter has been an avid Skylander for 2 years, you probably have spent well more than $200 on the games.

This model already is being copied elsewhere. Disney has released a very similar game, "Disney Infinity."

Don't let any of this discourage you from buying video games. Many of these problems are pretty avoidable, and, if you really enjoy a particular game, its DLC or microtransactions may be worth the extra cost to you. I just want to keep everyone informed on the growing trends of the industry.


Rory E.H. Appleton is the associate editor for and a journalism student at Fresno State. You can reach him at or @RoryDoesPhonics on Twitter.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service