Mrwhosetheboss, an extremely large YouTuber with almost 12 million subscribers, has released a video highlighting the predatory tactics of game developers, particularly on mobile. He used Pokémon UNITE, the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) for the Nintendo Switch and mobile devices running iOS and Android, as the primary example of how free-to-play games try to hook users into spending money, sometimes thousands of dollars.
Even if fans, such as myself, enjoy UNITE, it’s important to be informed on how it (and other mobile games) use different tactics to get you to spend real money for virtual goods and sometimes obfuscate the true cost you’ll need to pay. Mrwhosetheboss has several main points and I’ve summarized a few that I personally agree with below.
FOMO in Pokémon UNITE
FOMO, or the fear of missing out, is a heavily utilized tactic to get players to spend money in many games, and UNITE is no exception. The Battle Pass is one of the biggest offenders here, as it tempts players with premium rewards such as Holowear and other cosmetic accessories that are locked behind a purchase. Limited sales for new, expensive Holowear skins are another way that UNITE entices people to spend, pressuring them with a higher price if it isn’t bought at release.
But it isn’t just cosmetic rewards that may cause people to feel like they’re missing out. The arguably more sinister implementation in UNITE affects the competitive gameplay itself. A Pokémon’s battle prowess can be enhanced with things such as held items, but introduces a new way to get players to spend cash.
Held items are upgraded with item enhancers, which can be earned or bought, but to upgrade three items (the number able to be held by a Pokémon) to their maximum level, 30, it will take an enormous total of 7,761 enhancers. According to Mrwhosetheboss, there aren’t enough free item enhancers for a non-spending account to reach that amount through normal gameplay and buying the remainder through free currency is not feasible for the majority of players based on what you can earn.
The first spend
Game developers have realized that its easier to get players to spend money if they’ve already “broken the ice” by spending before. Many people who have played UNITE will be familiar with the 7-day paid login bonus pack which costs about a $1 of paid currency. It is an enticing deal, especially for new players who may want additional currency and what could be their first Holowear.
This kind of purchase, however, may just be buttering up players for future spending down the line versus being a cheap deal for players. As mentioned previously, once you’ve made that initial investment, people feel that they’ve become a “spender” and become more likely to make further purchases.
Another way that the game entices you to make that first purchase is doubled currency the first time you buy Aeos Gems at a given price point. For example, the first time you buy 60 Aeos Gems at 99 cents for a login bonus pack, you will get an additional 60 Aeos Gems free. That double amount may be the tipping point for some players, because they may be able to afford a Holowear skin they want by getting a double amount of the paid currency — but that bonus only comes once. The next time they want a Holowear skin, they may have to pay the full price.
Hiding the real cost through currency exchanges
Buying things in UNITE is not necessarily straightforward. As illustrated by the graphic from Mrwhosetheboss, there are many currencies in the game, each of which can buy different things. If you want to buy something with real money, you buy Aeos Gems, which are then used for other purchases. By not having a dollar amount on the products you’re buying in game, the developers have psychologically and mathematically distanced you from the actual cost of your spending.
Mrwhosetheboss brings up some valid points, but has also packaged the information to sound as scandalous as possible. A free-to-play player is ultimately going to benefit the most from learning the Pokémon they’re battling with and against in order to understand how to use attacks both offensively and defensively in certain situations (it is not just spamming buttons when moves are off cooldown, as stated in the video) and also teaming up with other players they know, preferably with audio communication so that they can talk during gameplay. Matches in MOBA games can occasionally be won by a single good player, but it more often comes down to teams that are able to cohesively work together and whose players are all skilled.
The matching system will try to put you with others around your skill level, so if you’re not advanced enough to sink a lot of real money into the game to upgrade items and care about that level of stat maxing, you’re unlikely to be up against other players who have gone to those lengths (hypothetically).
I will say, however, that I’m not a huge fan of how expensive in-game purchases are, whether that’s item enhancers or Holowear, especially when compared to other MOBA titles. It also doesn’t feel good to know that there are better stats you could get, if you were to spend money. So even though I don’t see the monetization as make-or-break in matches, I am still not happy with how the game has been designed to encourage spending at almost every turn.
Reaction from a pro Pokémon UNITE player
I recommend watching the video included in the article to get the full overview of his criticisms of UNITE and other mobile games. Even though UNITE is not unique in its practices, it is disappointing that The Pokémon Company allowed for such aggressive monetization of the title.
Do you feel UNITE crosses a line in its attempt to get players to spend money? Let us know in the comments! Don’t forget to also join our Discord server.