The changing face of desktop video game monetisation: An exploration of exposure to loot boxes, pay to win, and cosmetic microtransactions in the most-played Steam games of 2010-2019

PLoS One. 2020 May 7;15(5):e0232780. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0232780. eCollection 2020.


It is now common practice for video game companies to not just sell copies of games themselves, but to also sell in-game bonuses or items for a small real-world fee. These purchases may be purely aesthetic (cosmetic microtransactions) or confer in-game advantages (pay to win microtransactions), and may also contain these items as randomised contents of uncertain value (loot boxes). The growth of microtransactions has attracted substantial interest from both gamers, academics, and policymakers. However, it is not clear either how frequently exposed players are to these features in desktop games, or when any growth in exposure occurred. In order to address this, we analysed the play history of the 463 most-played Steam desktop games from 2010 to 2019. Results of exploratory joinpoint analyses suggested that cosmetic microtransactions and loot boxes experienced rapid growth during 2012-2014, leading to high levels of exposure by April 2019: 71.2% of the sample played games with loot boxes at this point, and 85.89% played games with cosmetic microtransactions. By contrast, pay to win microtransactions did not appear to experience similar growth in desktop games during the period, rising gradually to an exposure rate of 17.3% by November 2015, at which point growth decelerated significantly (p<0.001) to the point where it was not significantly different from zero (p = 0.32).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

Grant support

Nick Ballou is a PhD student whose doctoral training is funded by the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Intelligent Games & Game Intelligence (IGGI).