Level Up! | New year, same scummy monetization practices

Level Up! Is a biweekly blog about all types of games, from Dungeons and Dragons to Mario Party

By Sinéad McDevitt, Digital Manager

Video games are expensive. That’s a given. They take a lot of time and people, and they give you hours upon hours of enjoyment.

However, to offset the cost of production, rather than dipping into executive bonuses, game companies tend to lay off developers, shunt the price onto the consumer, or both, even when the industry is making record profits.

In particular, the ways in which game companies try to get consumers to spend more and more money have gotten rather insidious. As a case study, let’s look at the upcoming Harry Potter game, “Hogwarts Legacy.”

I’d like to take a second to acknowledge that there’s a lot one can talk about when talking about this game. There’s the ongoing discussion of whether buying this game is supporting J.K. Rowling and her transphobic views. Some have raised the concern that a game where you stop a race whose main trait is their obsession with money from enacting a plot to overthrow their oppressors and kidnapping children contributes to the normalization of antisemitism in the gaming community.

I’m not going to touch much on those issues here — not because I don’t think the above topics are important — but because I’m neither trans nor Jewish, I don’t want to accidentally miss the nuance or talk over someone. Furthermore, if you’re not super familiar with video games, it’s easy to overlook how much of an ongoing issue these predatory monetization practices have become.

“Hogwarts Legacy” is set to release for most platforms on Feb. 10, and comes with three different versions you can pre-order. The standard edition is the base game and has a couple of cosmetic bonuses. The base prices vary based on the system, but the standard edition generally costs between $60 and $70. The deluxe edition will put you out an extra $10 and gives you 72-hour early access, the Dark Arts Pack — a set of cosmetic and extra gameplay options — along with everything in the standard edition. Finally, the Collector’s Edition comes with the game in a steelbook case, all the previous in-game bonuses and a wand. It costs $290-$300, depending on the platform.

What sticks out to me is the Dark Arts Pack. It gives you access to an in-game area called the Dark Arts Battle Arena, where you can test out spells such as the Unforgivable Curses. For the people who blessedly didn’t have deep Harry Potter brain rot as a child, that means the ability to murder and torture people with magic.

By paying real-world money, you unlock the ability to test out these skills instantly rather than work to unlock them. Per the FAQ, you can also pay extra for it after you’ve purchased the standard edition if you decide you want it later.

Lots of games have downloadable content, which in and of itself isn’t the problem. But what’s been happening for years is games will chip away at acceptable ways to monetize their games, starting with DLC. Before, DLC was extra content added on, which you didn’t need to enjoy the full game. Then it became cosmetics, weapons, things that let you “skip the grind,” until you had instances like “Fire Emblem Fates” putting the resolution of its plot behind a paywall. And that was almost 10 years ago!

Then came microtransactions, which you’ve likely seen if you’ve ever played a mobile game. They’re small purchases for in-game currency, gear or more. Many games are designed to encourage players to purchase microtransactions by making the gameplay slow or monotonous. Previously these were only in free-to-play games, but they’ve become increasingly common in full-priced games as well.

Another form of monetization is expansion passes. “Fire Emblem: Engage” announced one featuring popular characters from previous games, though we don’t know which characters specifically will be available beyond the first wave. Expansion passes ask you to pay upfront for DLC that’s coming later.

Some countries literally banned loot boxes — a form of monetization where you pay to get random items — because they’re considered gambling and there are so many horror stories of people spending all their money on them and other games. After all, they are designed to make you spend money without thinking. This isn’t going to affect everyone, but it does hurt vulnerable people, especially those who are young or neurodivergent.

The Dark Arts Arena represents somewhat of a step back compared to those, right? I mean, at least it’s a one-time payment and you get exactly what you pay for! Except that’s the problem. Predatory monetization goes at a pace of two steps forward, one step back. A developer introduces something egregious, and suddenly the last egregious thing doesn’t seem so bad.

This is day-one DLC. It’s already in the game, you just have to pay extra to unlock it. Even if all you get from this arena is a chance to murder extra enemies and unlock cosmetics, that’s still a part of the game that has been carved out. And that’s me being generous and assuming this is a completely isolated section of the game, and I’m not sure that’s the case. But that question might make people nervous. “What if it’s something really useful?” “What if there are quests or rewards I really want?” “You know, pre-ordering gets me an exclusive Hogsmeade quest, I should pre-order so I don’t miss out, never mind that I can’t read any reviews.”

Like the above examples, this is another way to get you to spend money without thinking, to capitalize on your fear of missing out to get you to jump in. It’s not really about the game, it’s weaponizing psychology to manipulate people. Furthermore, it makes just buying a random game off the shelf harder because you can’t know for sure you’ll get the full experience.

These methods don’t affect everyone, and I’m sure some people are tempted to roll their eyes and say “just don’t pre-order games” — and to be clear, you really shouldn’t pre-order games. It’s a bad habit I’ve been trying to break myself — but that’s not fair and arguably unethical. People deserve to be able to make informed choices about what they buy, and video games should rely on the games’ own merits to make money, not taking parts of the game and putting them behind an extra paywall.