In the mid-2010s, video game companies discovered that they could often make more money by giving away games for free (!) and selling cosmetic “extras” than they would have made by just selling the games.
These cosmetic extras are generally fairly basic (e.g. “your character is now dressed as a vampire” or “your sword is now a candy cane”), but they can sell for upwards of $20. The game Fortnite managed to bring in ~4–5 billion dollars annually using this sales model.
The crucial element of a cosmetic microtransaction is that it confers no functional benefit beyond the visual change. (And, as an added bonus, it usually costs almost nothing for the seller.)
The idea of “cosmetic microtransactions” occasionally extends beyond the realm of video gaming. Here are some real-world examples that can inspire us:
- Custom automobile license plates: In most U.S. states, a user can pay extra to 1) specify the numbers/letters in the plate (e.g. “COOLCAR”) and 2) pick from a set of pre-determined “premium” plate backgrounds (e.g. a picture of the state bird).
- Car paint colors: Certain models of car may have “premium” paint jobs: for example, in 2019, the Tesla Model 3 could be purchased in “Pearl White” for an additional $1,500.
Let’s bring these cosmetic microtransactions to other realms of commerce!
- Driver’s license: A driver could pay a small fee to get a license with a fancier look to it (Figure 1).
- Computer user interface themes: A user could have the “base” operating system with a boring “plain” look to it (Figure 2A), or a “premium” OS with a fancier appearance (Figure 2B). For more inspiration about user interface changes, check out the incredible variety of WinAmp (audio player) themes from the late 1990s.
For people who spend hours each day at a computer, it’s definitely worth it to upgrade the operating system appearance to provide a psychologically-comforting “premium” experience.
By bringing these ”nickel-and-dime-ing” microtransactions to all aspects of daily life, we’ll improve the experience of the citizenry. Is this the apex of technological civilization?
PROS: Might allow things besides video games to be provided for free. For example, perhaps income taxes will eventually become optional, if there are enough “whales” paying $1,000,000 for the privilege of filing their tax return on a piece of gold foil!
CONS: None! It’s the perfect plan.