Mathew Hughes, an 18-year-old high school student in Marion, Ohio, has spent between $150 to $200 on the hugely popular video game Fortnite.
That’s not a lot, he said, for an activity he sometimes spends four to five hours per day doing. Hughes pays for his expenses through money he’s made through inheritance from his late father, cryptocurrency investments and jobs including working at Panera and Arby’s. One of his friends has spent between $400 and $500, he said, and other players spend even more.
And they’re not alone. “I love this game and have a gambling addiction so I’ve probably spent $500-plus supporting it,” one commenter wrote on Reddit. There is even a term for super-serious Fortnite players, who allegedly spend thousands on the games. They are called “whales.”
Fortnite, meanwhile, has been raking in cash. The game, which debuted in late 2017, made $233 million in March alone. It is a multiplayer third-person shooter game for mobile devices, personal computers and gaming consoles. (Epic Games, which makes Fortnite, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Fortnite is free to play, but serious players often end up spending money on cosmetic upgrades for their characters, including backpacks and different colored “skins,” Hughes said. You can also buy a “Battle Pass,” which gives players access to different challenges; when you win a challenge, you get access to new cosmetic items.
It’s easier than ever to spend money on games like Fortnite. And it doesn’t even feel like real money. Not at first, anyway. On Fortnite, players can buy 1,000 of the “V-bucks” virtual currency for $9.99. With that, they can buy items such as the “Battle Pass,” for 950 V-bucks. Outfits and skins cost between 500 and 2,000 V-bucks.
Among the most popular games come with extra charges, including the football game “Madden,” the lifestyle role-playing game “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” or the basketball game “NBA 2K.” And some players don’t stick to one game: Hughes said he’s spent at least $1,000 on NBA 2K.
These games are part of a larger industry trend: The games themselves are free to play, but the charges kick in later to make the games more exciting. Sometimes, players need to unlock the ability to purchase extra items by reaching a higher level, so they may even seem like rewards.
On NBA 2K, players can buy “virtual currency” for clothing and accessories, and additional skills. On Madden, players can earn perks by completing objectives, but they can also use real money to buy some special features. (EA Sports, which makes the Madden games, and 2K TTWO, which produces NBA 2K, did not respond to requests for comment.)
Games like Fortnite have a lot in common with casinos
That business strategy may sound familiar if you’ve ever gambled at a casino, said Tim Barrett, a consultant at the research firm Euromonitor International. “Casino chips aren’t real money and neither are gold coins on my video game,” he said. Payment apps for Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts tap into this painless spending, he said.
But before players know it, they may have spent more than they realized. “The reality hits when you get your credit-card statement,” said Brendan Miller, a principal analyst at Forrester who covers payments. When consumers spend too much money, they may stop playing. So manufacturers have to find that psychological sweet spot, he said.
Some games have protections in place to prevent children from racking up huge credit-card bills. Madden, FIFA and National Hockey League games from EA Sports, among others, have child accounts, that limit access to features, including any online access. Parents can also set spending limits for their children while using consoles like Sony’s PlayStation 4.
It’s going to get easier to spend
Unfortunately for some consumers, payments are becoming even less painless. Many new innovations, including voice-activated payments, “chatbot” payments that allow customers to make purchases in messaging apps and even payment systems in cars are designed to make consumers spend more.
Some gamers, who can afford the array of charges, say they’re worth ever V-buck or dollar. Hughes said he isn’t worried that he’ll spend too much money or time on Fortnite. He said he likes having an unusual “skin” for his character. “You want to put yourself out there, like, ‘Hey, I’m good,’ and make the opponent a little scared,” he said.
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