The Changing Face of Desktop Video Game Monetisation: An Exploration of Trends in Loot Boxes, Pay to Win, and Cosmetic Microtransactions in the Most-Played Steam Games of 2010-2019


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); confer in-game advantages (pay to win microtransactions), or contain 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 prevalent these features are in desktop games, or when any growth in prevalence 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 prevalence by April 2019: 71.28% 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 a prevalence of 17.38% 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).