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Is buying skins in video games worth it?

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Art by Brett Corpuz

Everyone likes money. You like to keep it, and companies like to take it away from you. Sometimes, you'll even be fine parting with it in exchange for something you think is worth it. But other times, you'll be deceived into buying something that isn't what it seems.

One of the most hated companies in terms of being greedy and immoral with money is Electronic Arts, more commonly referred to as EA. They have tons of games with $60 price tags that, once bought, still contain all sorts of microtransactions (another word for in-app purchases) which turn the game into a competition of who has the most luck and money to spend, instead of something about actual skill.

Something else EA is notorious for is buying smaller companies solely for their IP (intellectual property— another word for characters, places, and worlds), and then creating things with them that take advantage of the well-known universe to make games riddled with arguably immoral microtransactions that squeeze out the most cash they can.

One company they bought that I was particularly frustrated about was PopCap, the company that created Plants vs. Zombies (which I would argue is the best mobile game of all time). A sequel was made, Plants vs. Zombies 2 (They also made a few other spin-off shooter games, which I never played, and a card game which I actually really enjoyed, despite it being a near clone of Hearthstone. It’s too bad they decided to stop updating it and let it die because it didn't make them enough money.) I could spend an entire article discussing how Plants vs. Zombies 2 is inferior to the original. It's incredibly unbalanced, meaning some plants are way better than others. And what do these better plants tend to have in common? The fact that the only way to acquire them is by using real money. In addition, any level can be beaten without any skill if you have enough coins to buy these power-up things. And how can you get more coins quickly? BY SPENDING MONEY. In the original game, every plant was acquired for free in a set order, so the only way to beat a level was with real strategy, and when you finally did beat a hard level, it felt immensely gratifying, knowing that it was your big brain alone that helped you. The levels in EA's sequel are insanely hard, but not in a challenging way—rather, an unfair one which makes you feel a fraction of the accomplishment described above when you beat them.

Before I move on, I want to quickly mention the "Eclise mod", a PvZ2 mod for Android that fixes all of the game's problems. All of the plants have been balanced, the levels redesigned with interesting new challenges, and it even introduces a tier system, in which you can sacrifice certain attributes of plants in exchange for gaining others. It's brutally difficult, but in the fair way of the original game.

Mobile games in general have a reputation of being scammy, and for good reason. You've seen ads depicting gameplay completely different from the actual thing (what is the point of these, from an advertising perspective? It's not like food ads where it looks like the same thing but way better, it's usually a completely different game. I don't get it. Also, I couldn't care less about whether or not my mom is better than my dad at combining weird spaceship things). These types of games don't tend to have too many in-app purchases, opting for more of an "ads covering up the entire screen" approach to monetization. An older mobile game stereotype is the base-builder where everything takes a long time and you have to speed it up with a hard-to-get-for-free currency, usually gems or diamonds. The most famous examples are probably Clash of Clans, a Clash of Clans ripoff that I forgot the name of, and like a hundred more Clash of Clans ripoffs nobody knew the name of in the first place. Oh, and this game that was all the rage in 2nd grade called My Singing Monsters.

The initial idea of collecting and breeding monsters which add to a song is actually pretty creative and cool — so it’s too bad that the only way to do it is through waiting or paying money. Other examples are these games, Dragon City and Monster Legends, which are made by the same company, even though they're marketed as rivals. That can't be an efficient strategy, can it? Anyway, all of these games are basically the same, being free to download and involving purposefully addicting feedback loops which eventually convince little kids to get their parents to buy them enough gems for the Dream Dragon (Dream referring to the Youtuber. I kid you not, look it up. Actually, don't. Use your time for something valuable).

Out of all of them, I'd say that Clash of Clans is the best, as it doesn't have any ads and seems like the people making it actually want to provide a good experience for those who don't choose to give them all their money. That's the thing: all of these games can be fun for both people who are and aren't willing to pay, while still making the owners plenty of cash, and I think that the best proof of this is the mobile game Brawl Stars.

The original Brawl Stars loading screen. Screenshot via Polygon.

Brawl Stars, developed by Supercell (the same company as Clash of Clans and Clash Royale), is a top-down 3v3 shooter with a bunch of different game modes. The core gameplay is pretty fun, and the different modes add enough variety to prevent it from getting boring. Each playable character, or “brawler,” has different abilities that can be unlocked as you level them up. The resources to level up the brawlers, as well as the abilities and the brawlers themselves, can be randomly obtained through boxes. Boxes are acquired by collecting tokens from playing matches and completing quests which move you further up a track with various rewards at certain points. It's your basic Battle Pass/Free Pass system (although in this case it's called the Brawl Pass), and it's the best version of it I've found.

What makes it work so well is that you don't need the better rewards from a paid Brawl Pass in order to upgrade your brawlers. You can get plenty of stuff from the free pass alone, it's just that money will help get you there faster. In addition, the Brawl Pass is relatively cheap, and the in-game currency required to buy it can be saved up for free with just a few months of somewhat consistent playing.

The other thing that makes it good is that you don't need a leveled-up character in order to beat other people. It certainly helps, especially if you want to play competitively (which is another great thing— in competitive qualifiers and events, these abilities are always available for free), but with enough skill, you can beat anyone, even someone who has a much higher-leveled brawler than you.

That's the bottom line: skill should always be able to beat money. As long as a game is like this, I have absolutely no problem with in-app purchases. In fact, I think that a game being free-to-play but with fair and balanced microtransactions is sometimes better than a game that has none but costs money to play. Most games are like this, as the only multiplayer example of the latter that I can think of is Fall Guys. Keep in mind, all of the games mentioned in this article are multiplayer competitive games. Single-player games are a whole separate deal, and talking about them would be like comparing apples to oranges.

One way that a lot of games make sure skill instead of money is always the determining factor is by making it so that the only things that can be acquired for money are cosmetics, or things that only affect the look of the game. The most famous example is *sigh* Fortnite, which shows that you can still make massive sums of money while only charging for cosmetics, and a recent example that I think is half good and half bad is Valorant.

Because Valorant is in first person, instead of buying skins for your player, you can buy skins for the weapons that you use in the game. Although these skins are admittedly pretty pricey (costing up to approximately $24.75 for the generally agreed to be best-looking skins), I don't have too much of a problem with it because the game tells you exactly what you're going to get, and for how much. If you want a Prime Vandal, you just buy a Prime Vandal for twenty-five dollars, you don't have to open loot boxes until you randomly get one.

The Ion Phantom, in all of its glory. Screenshot via Silas Taylor

Now, Valorant isn't perfect in its execution. Like most games, instead of buying the skins directly with real money, you first have to buy "Valorant Points'' (VP) and then spend them on the skins. Each VP is worth approximately a cent in USD when you buy them, but you can only buy them in certain quantities, as listed below:

475 VP for $4.99

1000 VP for $9.99

2050 VP for $19.99

3650 VP for $34.99

5350 VP for $49.99

11000 VP for $99.99

The skins are priced to cost slightly more in VP than the quantities that you can buy them in. For example, a Glitch Pop Operator costs 2,175 VP, which is about $21.75 worth of VP, but if you look at the prices above, you'll notice that you'd have to buy $35 worth of VP in order to have enough. This does seem a little slimy, but you'll have 1475 VP left over, so if you want to buy something else of the same price you'll only need to buy another $20 dollars worth of VP. In the end, if you're someone like a streamer who buys a lot of skins, then it's not too big of a problem, but if you only want to buy one then it is frustrating.

So to finally answer the titular question: Are buying skins in video games worth it? I asked my friend and my brother, who have both bought skins in Valorant, whether or not they thought they were worth the money.

Izak Menta, fellow Eagle's Scream writer, said that he personally thought the 20 dollars he spent on the game were worth it, because, put very simply, "I think it makes playing the game more fun."

Silas Taylor, who isn't in journalism for some reason, said the same thing. In the end, the primary reason that many people play games is fun, and if looking at differently colored pixels allows you to have a better time, then go ahead.

Overall, in my opinion, multiplayer games are best when they allow players with skill to beat those with money, but give those willing to spend a few bucks something nice to look at. To be honest, though, I personally find more value out of single-player games. Especially indie games, like Hollow Knight and Celeste, which are only $15 and $20 respectively, are designed not by companies for profit but by small teams of individuals with a passion to create. Both games are beautiful in terms of art, story, and gameplay, and offer a hearty amount of content for the price (and both got extra updates released for free after they came out). Even more expensive, bigger titles like Super Mario Odyssey are absolutely worth the $60 price tag to me. But that's what's great about video games: no matter who you are and what you like, there's something out there that you can enjoy, and, if it's designed well, it won't scam you out of your money.

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