Yesterday, I scrolled by the news that Halo Infinite has a new cosmetic skin that costs $20. I was busy and didn’t stop to read the post. But as I went about my day, I couldn’t get it out of my head. One thought came back to me again and again: How in the fuck did we get to this point?
And let’s be clear: I know that most of you reading this and nearly all of you commenting don’t like expensive skins in video games. You probably hate pricey cosmetic items and joke about how awful they are any time we or other sites write about them. I get that! But we—the writers, editors, and active games media consumers—are such a small part of the gaming audience. So when I say, “Hey, why does it seem like nobody really cares anymore that Fortnite or Diablo are selling cosmetics and skins for $10 or more a pop?” I don’t mean you, specifically. I mean *motions to the world around us.*
Looking around that very same world, it’s far too easy to find popular video games that are more than happy to sell you a digital costume for $15 or more. Halo Infinite, as mentioned already, is one such game, but there are others. Diablo IV, Fortnite, Call of Duty, and Overwatch, just to name a few. In fact, at this point, it’s harder to find free-to-play, online video games that don’t charge that much for some of their cosmetic skins. It’s just become the common practice over the last few years and everybody just seems to be rolling with it. Sure, players push back and sites write about these backlashes and high prices, but these outbursts never feel sustained and seem to be changing nothing.
Back in my day…
All of this is wild to watch as someone who had a front-row seat to the horse armor debacle over 15 years ago.
Let’s roll back the clock. Remember in 2006 when Bethesda dared to charge players $3 for some completely useless Elder Scrolls: Oblivion horse armor? The internet collectively went feral over it and roasted the company so badly that the then-pricey horse armor became a popular meme and long-running joke.
Can you imagine in 2006 or 2010 or even 2013 a company charging $20 for a single skin? Even if the costume was the coolest, most amazing thing ever made, people would have rioted in the streets. Companies would have been forced to not only lower prices but offer gifts in exchange for such an outrageous act lest they receive bricks through their windows.
But now, I find myself scrolling through Reddit and finding posts where people defend, with math, $10 or $20 skins. I open up in-game shops and don’t blink an eye at $5 skins. It’s not that I like it, I’ve just become so used to it as normal.
How the hell did we get to this point? I have a few theories but my main one is to blame the children. Okay, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Publishers pushed through the early backlash
Basically, I think the horse armor debacle proved that—in 2006 at least—most gamers weren’t conditioned to pay extra for tiny bits of content. Yes, expansions were a well-established concept at this point and even some big DLC packs were coming out by this point in time. But those tended to be far more substantial than just a cosmetic gun wrap, character skin, or silly emote. And when Bethesda and a few other publishers tried early on to charge a few bucks for that kind of stuff, the reaction was nuclear and endlessly negative.
But, the publishers didn’t stop trying. They were greedy as all corporations are and needed to make more money every year. They were still too afraid to raise game prices, leaving only tiny bits of DLC and cosmetic nonsense as the main option to suck more dollars out of more pockets. So they didn’t stop putting paid skins into their games and stores. Instead, they weathered the worst of the backlash, publicly addressed it when they needed to with corpo bullshit, and then quietly kept doing it.
Perhaps they were smart enough to see the future, though assuming CEOs and overpaid execs are intelligent human beings feels weird. Intentionally or not, they ended up the big players in a long game.
Post-2006, as the audience for video games quickly grew bigger than ever, these gamers entered a world where cosmetics and tiny over-priced DLC was…just a thing. It was as common as exclusives or yearly sports titles. So when publishers began pushing more of this paid junk in more games and the prices started going up, these same folks didn’t think much of it. And why would they? These younger gamers and newer players had always known video games to include these kinds of in-app purchases—they knew no different. And this pattern has continued and led us to 2023.
Publishers feel comfortable including $20 skins in popular video games because that’s just how the world works now and a lot of people playing don’t know any different. They aren’t stupid, to be clear; they just grew up in a different era and publishers have been able to take advantage of that to make billions.
There isn’t a happy ending…sorry
If you are waiting for a silver bullet solution to this problem, I don’t have it. (Spoiler alert: This post doesn’t end on a positive note. Unless you are a game exec counting your stacks of money.)
Time and time again, we’ve seen corporate greed destroy things we love and suck the life out of people for just one more dollar. I’m not convinced greedy game execs across the industry will change anytime soon, especially as people keep buying this stuff. Sure, most of you reading this don’t buy these skins and probably object to them. I know. But as previously mentioned, you are part of the minority. The vast majority of players out there don’t care much about paid cosmetics. They are willing to fork over the dough for $20 skins and the publishers have the data to back this up.
In fact, all the way back in 2011, a few years after the horse armor debacle, Bethesda explained that people were still buying the horse armor every day. That’s the real disappointing fact: There are plenty of folks who are willing to pay for silly armor and expensive skins. Publishers know this, and until these pricey costumes stop selling, they’ll keep adding and charging more.
So, yeah, I don’t have some silver lining or good news to end on. Instead, I think we all need to prepare for $40 or $60 skins in the future. Because corporations are endlessly greedy and willing to do anything to grow a bit more and make a few dollars.