The Seven Stages Of Spending Too Much Money In Games

"I was like you once," says an old man with a beard down to his belt, sitting in the corner of a bar. You think he's talking to you, but maybe he's shouting in hopes that someone will listen. "I told myself I'd never buy loot boxes or heroes or none of that," he whimpers. "How wrong I was." Twist: the old man is me.

For the longest time, my policy with games like Overwatch and, more recently, Fire Emblem: Heroes was "earn or die... or go play a different video game." Slowly but surely, though, things changed. Here, today, I'm going to chronicle the agonizing process that transformed me into a penniless pauper who shouts in bars — an old twenty-something rich in skins, but poor in friends, love, and life.

Stage One: Resolve

I'm somebody who lives what you might call a spartan lifestyle. My walls are largely blank, I have two pairs of shoes (formerly one), and my wardrobe is more functional than flashy. Microtransactions that are largely cosmetic in nature (because fuck pay-to-win shit) shouldn't appeal to me. And for the longest time, they didn't.

I'd earn the odd skin here and there in games like Overwatch, and that was enough. Sure, my characters looked like scrubs in their plain-jane battle pajamas, but as long as I didn't play like one, what did it matter?

Stage Two: I Suppose One Can't Hurt

God damn it, Grayson. You said you weren't going to cry. But I started to care, and that's how they got me. See, it's one thing to play a game and enjoy its mechanics. It's another thing to identify with a character on a personal level — to start throwing around words like "main" and "we're married, so you'd better step the fuck off" — and that has a way of putting you in a different headspace. I am Pharah, and Pharah is me. When I play as Pharah, I feel something akin to euphoria. I come away with my hands shaking, not because of adrenaline, but because it's like I was just ripped out of my second skin. I wish I was exaggerating.

To be clear, I've cared about plenty of characters in games over the years, but mainly ones in single-player games that didn't feature heavy microtransaction components. This thing with Pharah in Overwatch, though, is different. I found myself wanting to give her things, and there was a way for me to get them immediately.

I didn't want a virtual person who was precious to me to be dressed in the in-game equivalent of sackcloth, for crying out loud. In that respect, giving a shit about video game characters is a lot like having a family, except they're incapable of reciprocating your feelings and you still die alone.

So I bought a couple skins, because really, what was the worst that could happen?

Stage Three: The Worst That Could Happen

They say that making a bad decision isn't the thing that kills you. It's rationalizing a bad decision that does you in, because then you can do it over and over forever. In Overwatch, buying a skin made me feel good, as did giving a shit about characters.

Soon, I found myself maining other folks in addition to Pharah. D.Va, Roadhog, and Lucio joined my little murder family. They needed skins too, of course. I didn't want to turn into Some Kind Of Addict, though, so buying a loot box here and there — to compliment the ones I unlocked through play, of course — seemed like a fair compromise.

This worked perfectly ... for about two weeks. See, every time I went to buy a couple loot boxes, I noticed that a few more dollars would get me so many more. Splurging isn't bad if you don't do it regularly, right? I mean, that's why it's called splurging! So I began to occasionally splurge, especially during seasonal events, because what's the point of living if you don't get all the limited-time-only skins, right? Haha, RIGHT?

Stage Four: A Trickle Turns Into A Flood

Soon, my habit (as well as the associated justification) spread into other games. Recently I picked up Fire Emblem: Heroes, a game where you don't need to spend a dime. You earn orbs to randomly unlock new characters from the Fire Emblem series' billowing roster, BUT you can also buy them.

On top of that, while five orbs will unlock one hero, each subsequent hero costs less than five orbs if you choose to unlock multiple heroes in one go. Obviously, the optimal thing to do is earn around 20 orbs, cash out, rinse, and repeat.

Sometimes, though, I don't have time to rack up that many orbs in a single play session, but I still want to experience the sublime rush of seeing a tiny anime man appear in my hand and show me his great abs. "OK," I tell myself, "I'll just unlock one with the orbs I've earned and be done with it." But then, inevitably, it's some snot-haired doofus I can't tell from (fellow popular anime character) Oscar The Grouch.

Once again, Fire Emblem contains characters that, over the years, I've allowed myself to care about. And so I decide to splurge just a teensy bit, because I want Chrom or Erika or somebody whose story I know. And it's just a few dollars!

Surprising fact for you, folks: SPLURGING ADDS UP.

Stage Five: Disappointment

The loot box gleams. The hero orb quivers, ready to crack like an egg laid by Jesus Fucking Christ Himself. I shudder in anticipation.

I get crap. Every single time.

Stage Six: Blame

When this happens — and it almost always goes this way — I feel a surge of emotions. The shame parade is led by those two dread horsemen, Anger and Sadness, with Disappointment, Regret, and Embarrassment bringing up the rear. Of course, I need to find somebody to blame.

But I mean, it is kind of these games' fault, right? They have married fun mechanics — Overwatch's shooting and Fire Emblem's strategy and progression — to the worst parts of gambling. It doesn't help that the game designers are clearly aware of this.

Overwatch's loot box algorithm gives you cardboard boxes and Ronald McDonald jumpsuits for the heroes you actually play, and Fire Emblem: Heroes presents you with an optimal orb usage path, but tempts you into spending money at every possible turn. Modern games put you in good spirits by being, you know, fun, and then they prey on that optimism like hungry fun vultures.

This can't possibly be my fault! As with all that violence I do, video games are clearly to blame here. There's no way that my own poor decision-making played into the hands of systems that are kinda exploitative and unfortunate. Nope. Couldn't be.

But then... a light. A Fire Emblem hero orb gives me a five-star Corrin. An Overwatch loot box begrudgingly spits out a cool D.Va skin. Maybe there's hope after all.

Stage Seven: Disappointment

Never mind.


    I wonder if they employ the same people the casinos do to design this kind of stuff.

    I hope we get a law similar to the one in China that forces loot boxes to show their odds. Its a more realistic wish than hoping that games go back to being designed around what would be most enjoyable instead of what would be most profitable.

    Last edited 09/02/17 2:14 pm

      In Soviet country, you play games.
      In Capatilst West, games play you.

      Design models used poker machines for decades will mention desired colour designs, animations, lucky imagery and go far as to the specifcly copyright the sound of coins being accurate that the brain immediatly recognises wealth. (Like when in game currency is purchased or or you get duplicates)... even the act of clicking on something is designed to be rewarding to the brain by flashing lights and explosions of loot.

      I think there's also another requirement that duplicated items need to be able to be converted to an ingame currency that can be used to purchase things

      Last edited 09/02/17 3:19 pm

    Is it just me or are the ads on this website becoming really obnoxious? I have to scroll down basically 4 pages of adds to get to comments.

      I reactivated my adblock on kotaku AU because of this, 2 blocks of 4 rows of the same adds was a little much.

        Yep same here, they're taking the piss. On the plus side at least the advetorials are actually listed as advetorials now I guess.

    And I just commented in the Fire Emblem post. LOL Yep... I am total sucker for these stages. Like other people say, it definitely is no different to gambling.

    I agree thats odds should be shown but at the same time I really have a hard time accepting this crap.

    We get it japanese companies, you are very good at getting around legislation. Gambling for money is Illegal? Here sir are your pachinko winnings in the form of branded chocolate bars. There is a completely unaffiliated store that collects these across the street, might I suggest you sell them there.

    Censorship getting in the way of you porn. Ditch the slongs and replace them with tentacles.

    Now those first two examples are at least marketed towards older people.
    Gatcha systems are indiscriminately exploitative; in fact sometimes marketed far more towards those underage.

    We need some inquiries. These games should have age restrictions no different than that of other forms of gambling. If that hurts the company's bottom line, good. Find another way to monetise. Sell the digital products directly at a higher price. Keep your free to play game but have (clearly defined) tier upgrades and no other microtransactions so people can have a more traditional experience at a price they are prepared to pay.

      They kind of do have an age restriction, since you need a credit card to play.

      And if a parent has let their kids use their credit card, then it is their responsibility to monitor what they do with it.

    I bought a pack of unlock cards or whatever they’re called in UFC 2 because I had $2 or whatever left on by XBL account after buying another game.

    I still feel dirty for encouraging EA to be such gouging scum.

    You have TWO pairs of shoes!? Can I get a loan Mr Rich?

    I just hit stage 2 in mavel puzzle quest

      HHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHahahhahah haha ha *sob*

      That said, if you manage to control your spending at the beginning --limiting it to actually necessary stuff such as roster slots-- and to curb your desire for shiny 5* characters, you'll eventually reach a point where it is fairly self-sustainable for a F2P game. In the last year I only made two purchases, not out of necessity or obsession but to take advantage of deals and to give back some love to the devs.

        I've done really well so far at avoiding payments. As you say I'm at the self sustaining phase but I had 4 different new 4* covers at once and couldn't get the HP for all so I coughed up so I could open up a slot for Ironheart

          Yeah, I did that a couple times. I think it's fair.

    there's a reason why opening a loot box has a fanfare like getting a win on a poker machine, they specifically design these games to hook into the gambling pleasure centres.

    i will almost guarantee overwatch will become free to play (or possibly super cheap to slow cheaters) in under a year because a chance at hooking people with the gambling will be so much more profitable than worrying about getting the price of admission.

    Can't bring myself to pay for loot in a game I paid full price for, so overwatch I'm happy to grind. I don't mind spending a few dollars when it's free to play and I've already got my moneys worth. It's too soon for fire emblem, but I have thrown a hundred bucks or so at League of Legends. For three years worth of play I feel like I got a bargain. And the difference with league is that you get what you pay for, none of this random loot box bs. Want a skin for Zyra, buy a skin for Zyra. The one you want where she's all on fire and lookin hot. Loot boxes are essentially gambling so I refuse to throw money at them. When I buy something I buy what I want. Imagine going to a real store to buy a shirt, and instead you end up with a sarong because of luck. It is gambling and should be regulated as such. Serious BS.

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