Amongst AAA titles, GTA Online has the most publisher-initiated and quantifiable microtransaction costs

Few terms have gained as derogatory a connotation as "pay to win" and "microtransaction". Let's see which AAA titles are the worst offenders.

Microtransactions, monetization, pay-to-win, recurring spending opportunities; these are just some of the terms relating to games that entice players to spend their money within the virtual bounds of the given title. Further monetizing content after you're already playing the game has been hot on publishers' minds for the past few years, and a highly controversial topic among gamers - for good reason. In many places, you'd hear about how AAA titles are rife with money sinks; but which money sink is the money sinkiest of them all?

We've set out to tally up some of the biggest AAA titles out there, including free to play and paid titles, to see which ones are the most aggressive with their monetization schemes. Who among the prevalent, season-based, games as a service morass are the most keen on grabbing your cash? Which ones offer ways to earn what they offer purely through play? Have any of them accrued a reputation worse than they deserve? Time to dive in.

Our Method

 Game Total Number of Items  Total Cost
 Fortnite Battle Royale  ~4000  ?
 Grand Theft Auto Online  ~6000  ~$9000
 Genshin Impact  3  ?
 Call of Duty: Warzone  ~3500  ~$8000
 Halo Infinite  ~88  ~$1000
 PUBG: Battlegrounds  ~200  ?
 Warframe  ~900  ~$4000
 Apex Legends  ~1400  ?

Approaching this question with a precise scientific method would probably be incredibly inefficient, primarily due to the number of factors in play - different heavily monetized titles approach the question of microtransaction implementation differently.

In some games, you can buy items directly - in others you have to purchase set quantities of virtual currency to then use in the in-game shop. Some offer both options. In some games, you can grind to earn anything through gameplay alone - in others some items are purchase-only. Bundles, sales, subscription plans, season passes, first-time bonuses and a million other promotional practices invented by the fiery depths of the marketing department muddy the water further.

Monetization has been one of the hottest and most controversial topics in gaming these past few years - for good reason.

Another aspect worth considering but hard to quantify is how necessary the things you can buy are for the actual enjoyment of the game. Are they merely cosmetics, or do they affect gameplay? How pay-to-win does the monetization make the title? Can you buy boosts, buffs, or skips? Loot boxes further mess things up, due to the aspect of chance - if a game offers boxes with no direct way to buy anything as an alternative, there really is no way to come up with a combined price.

Game companies have also started integrating - or, well, trying to integrate - controversial NFT based purchases, though loud public blowback has resulted in multiple such initiatives being mercifully cancelled. Considering how rare and preliminary these attempts are, we'll be ignoring them for this exercise.

To make things a bit clearer, we've come up with an approach for comparing titles. In terms of hard numbers, we'll be listing the individual number of things you can buy, including items, unlocks, buffs, boosts, skins, and everything else, as well as the combined USD price of everything available at time of writing sans promotions, sales or other modifiers - we want to see how much things cost without jumping through hoops.

More esoteric aspects of the premium offerings will be summarized textually. To keep things a bit more objective, we won't account for this in our scoring, but will refer to it. We're also skipping mobile games for this exercise - including them would result in mobile games dominating the list, and centuries of research work. Similarly, early access titles or games not fully launched but already sporting a real-money shop (stinky as that is from the get go) will be omitted - sorry, no tally of all those Star Citizen ships!

We obviously cannot tally every AAA title with microtransactions out there - in no small part due to this monetization rush infecting near enough all of them - but we'll be looking at some of the biggest, most popular, and most notoriously spenny AAA titles out there.

To see some of the exact numbers we used here, check out this spreadsheet.

The Contestants

Fortnite Battle Royale

Crossover bonanza.

Available in-game purchases: 88 Currently / 4,078 Total

Total cost of in-game purchases: 13,000 V-Bucks (~$79.99) Currently / Unknown Total

Analysis: Tallying up costs in Fortnite is a tough task due to the volatile nature of what is and isn't available, and for how long. The game uses a form of virtual currency called "V-Bucks" that can be earned in limited amounts as log-in rewards, or bought. Current pricing options offer four bundles, which are 1000 V-Bucks for $7.99, 2800 V-Bucks for $19.99, 5000 V-Bucks for $31.99 and 13500 V-Bucks for $79.99.

Items have been cycled in and out of the in-game store ever since the game's launch, meaning a vast bulk of those over 4,000 items in the game are not available anymore, and haven't been for some while. Fortnite accounts with old, rare items unlocked can fetch a pretty price when sold online, but that's not exactly sanctioned by the TOS.

The in-game store's selection is updated every day, with daily total costs of then-available items fluctuating pretty wildly. This means that ultimately, the numbers above won't really be useful in a broader sense - especially considering the various special promotions in Fortnite that aren't tied to the virtual currency.

Just one example of this is the collaboration between Epic Games and the fashion company Balenciaga, which produced an infamously controversial line of virtual outfits for the game - with high-fashion prices. The total price tag for all of these items came out to $13,000, which is pretty exorbitant as far as "microtransactions" go.

This level of volatility makes it hard to draw an objective conclusion based on hard data - but it is clear that a huge emphasis is placed on the in-game item store. That said, there are some ways to earn limited amounts of V-Bucks in-game, though most of these options are only available to Founders, or require a Battle Pass, which needs to be bought with the currency in the first place.

In Fortnite's favor, the paid element is entirely cosmetic - this game is not pay to win. Purchasing large amounts of V-Bucks won't give you access to anything in the game's store that gives you an advantage. There have been arguments about certain skins making it easier to hide, or giving players smaller hitboxes, but such cases are rare and often patched.

To see some of the exact numbers we used here, check out this spreadsheet.

Grand Theft Auto Online

Who said crime doesn't pay?

Available in-game purchases: ~6,000

Total cost of in-game purchases: ~700,000,000 GTA$ (~$9,000)

Analysis: Grand Theft Auto Online has been steadily adding new content ever since it went live in 2013, with frequent DLCs that continue to this day. Each of these updates tend to add multiple new vehicles alongside other purchasable content.

GTA Online doesn't differentiate between multiple currencies - there's only GTA$. This means that you can earn GTA$ relatively easily by playing the game, as just about any activity will reward you with various amounts. There are plenty of end-game content options that pay pretty well, though these are a newer development - there was a period of time when grinding the most lucrative content still required a lot of time to earn anything close to a fortune, and prices were, according to the fans, disproportionately high.

While the current GTA Online economy is a bit more forgiving, and with the help of some guides you can earn millions relatively quickly, the game is still ultimately pay-to-win (the best vehicles, best weapons, best properties, etc can all be bought with the GTA$ you get from Shark Cards) even though there is nothing in it that can only be acquired with real money transactions.

Current microtransaction pricing - these are called Shark Cards, adding in-game currency to your account - is as follows:

  • Red - 100,000 GTA$ / $2,99
  • Tiger - 200,000 GTA$ / $4.99
  • Bull - 500,000 GTA$ / $9.99
  • Great White - 1,250,000 GTA$ / $19.99
  • Whale - 3,500,000 GTA$ / $49.99
  • Megalodon - 8,000,000 GTA$ / $99.99

Considering that 8,000,000 GTA$ actually gets you in-game these days, $100 is a pretty steep price for it. The virtual currency conversion rate is rather poor, all things considered.

To see some of the exact numbers we used here, check out this spreadsheet.

Genshin Impact

People play it for the plot. Honest.

Available in-game purchases: 3 (Sort of...)

Total cost of in-game purchases: N/A

Analysis: We wish we could just wrap this up with "it's a gacha game, what do you expect", but for better or worse we are journalists.

Genshin Impact is filled with all sorts of characters (the main draw), weapons and more for players to tirelessly grind for - or you can speed the process up with microtransactions. If we were to account all of these items you need to unlock, and the fact that full unlocks mean you need to pull them multiple times each, we'd have a number vastly higher than 3, but our metrics here specifically focus on purchases.

Now, what players can buy with real cash is a premium currency called primogems, limited quantities of which can be acquired through gameplay. Current primogem pricing - and other specific mechanics uses by Genshin's economy - can be seen on this page of the official website, which is a welcome bit of transparency.

What you actually buy with the primogems are two types of "Fates" and "Original Resin", which can then be in turn spent on 'pulls', where you get randomized rewards from a pool. Due to the random nature of gacha, getting exact calculations on how many times you need to buy a pull to get *everything* is impossible without seeing some of the exact math the game works with, and even then it is difficult. Hence, no total cost can be given.

The current system's 'pity pull' means that every 90 pulls, you are guaranteed to get one five star reward. This can be something you already have unlocked, and will therefore be upgraded. Every 180 pulls, you are guaranteed a five star reward you don't yet own.

Genshin Impact's gacha system uses some additional calculations to ensure that every so often you'd definitely get a decent pull, so losing streaks can only ever drag on so long. By its nature, this makes the game pay-to-win, and while technically earning everything without paying a dime is possible, all the mechanics are designed to encourage and promote the purchase of primogems.

Despite not really conforming to our methodology here, we included Genshin Impact because it is arguably the most visible gacha style game on the global market right now, and a good case study for how these titles can be absolute money sinks - there's a reason you can occasionally read a news story about someone blowing entire life savings on it.

To see some of the exact numbers we used here, check out this spreadsheet.

Call of Duty: Warzone

Warzone is arguably the only reason Call of Duty is still relevant.

Available in-game purchases: ~3,500 (~700 bundles)

Total cost of in-game purchases: ~$800,000 COD Points (~$7,999)

Analysis: Call of Duty: Warzone, and by extension whichever current Call of Duty game's mainline multiplayer is actively supported, fall into the category of games where you can earn all gameplay-impacting content simply through play, while some exclusive cosmetic items are behind a paywall and getting other content faster is an option if you are willing to pay.

Warzone also utilizes a battle pass system, where instead of directly purchasing items, you purchase access to the paid track of the currently active pass, where you then need to unlock the tiers - usually 100. There is a free track, which contains the gameplay-affecting items like weapons, with the paid track being mostly just cosmetics. Players can purchase tier skips for both tracks with COD Points.

However, through the sale of bundles and blueprints, players can pay real money in exchange for items that do affect gameplay, with some blueprints being the best guns in the meta at any given time. While the contents of these are typically available to earn through gameplay, purchasing them is a quicker way to gain access.

Call of Duty: Warzone isn't strictly speaking pay-to-win, but the option to gain advantages over others by spending COD Points is present. Based on these calculations maxing out Warzone's buyable content is a grand cheaper than for GTA Online, but considering the disparity between the number of things that buys you, the content is on average a lot more expensive.

To see some of the exact numbers we used here, check out this spreadsheet.

Halo Infinite

Infinite microtransactions.

Available in-game purchases: ~88 Bundles

Total cost of in-game purchases: ~$1,000

Analysis: Halo Infinite has seen its fair share of controversy about its microtransactions and unlock progression since the multiplayer's standalone free-to-play launch. Unlike many other games out there, Infinite does not throw in a premium currency middleman, but rather sells items for real currency directly. These include bundles and sets, consisting of all sorts of cosmetics.

While not pay-to-win since only cosmetic items are for sale, many items cannot be earned via gameplay but are exclusively available only as microtransactions. For a game this new, the extensive monetization is fairly aggressive and surprising - not to mention expensive. GTA Online's high total cost is clearly no match for Infinite, but that has accumulated since 2013 and is spread out across significantly more items.

The current breakdown of store items in Halo Infinite are, courtesy of u/samurai1226, as follows:

  • 21 x $5 Items = $105
  • 43 x $10 Items = $430
  • 16 x $15 Bundles = $240
  • 13 x $20 Sets = $260

The total price is a lot lower than the competition, but compared to the number of items that gets you, the age of the game and the inability to earn many of these items through gameplay means that, overall, Halo Infinite is scoring pretty poorly.

To see some of the exact numbers we used here, check out this spreadsheet.

PUBG: Battlegrounds

PUBG spawned a genre that has, for better or worse, spawned many even more successful competitors.

Available in-game purchases: ~200 (individual items, currently available)

Total cost of in-game purchases: Unquantifiable

Analysis: Another game breaking our mold, and another instance of us including it on purpose as a case study. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, now rebranded, ported to mobile, released on console, updated a billion times on PC and most recently given a free-to-play overhaul has altered its monetization scheme entirely too many times. Between the obtuse system it uses, shared terms among different versions on different platforms used to denote different things, numerous significant changes to the entire business model and the relatively fresh switch to free-to-play, coupled with the player-driven marketplace made this the hardest game to research for the purposes of this article.

Currently the way microtransactions exist in PUBG come down to purchasing G-Coin, a recently introduced premium currency which can be earned in very limited amounts, or bought for real money, or buying things from the marketplace. When you buy G-Coin, you are directly purchasing premium currency from the publisher. When you buy items from the marketplace that other players are selling, they get the bulk of the money while the publisher takes a cut.

G-Coin packages are as follows:

  • 100 GC / $0.99
  • 500 GC / $4.99
  • 1,000 GC / $9.99
  • 2,500 GC / $24.99
  • 5,000 GC / $49.99
  • 10,000 GC / $99.99

Like many other live service, season-based games, there are many items that exist in PUBG that are not currently available. There are also a number of items that are currently available via direct purchase with G-Coin, or from crates that you purchase with G-Coin.

The problematic aspect is the player driven market. Here, items and crates can be sold and bought, primarily via the Steam marketplace. Since players can sell items they have independently of the game's current live inventory, rare, no longer available items are also in circulation, usually fetching ridiculous amounts of money - some of the most valuable currently on the Steam market are courting the vicinity of $2,000.

This player driven market, and its volatility, make nailing down exact prices for buying 'everything' in PUBG impossible - but whatever the number is, it would be colossal. There is, however, silver lining to all this.

Crates themselves are cheap, and no longer require additional paid keys to open. Sure, the chances of getting a particularly rare and valuable item are absolutely astronomical, but the possibility being there is what gives this sort of monetization system its allure.

While earning G-Coin through play is technically possible, the quantities and rate at which you earn is so miniscule that it isn't really viable to rely on play as a source. Even so, the only things you can buy with G-Coin or on the marketplace are cosmetic in nature, meaning that PUBG is in no way pay-to-win.

To see some of the exact numbers we used here, check out this spreadsheet.


Who remembers Dark Sector?

Available in-game purchases: ~900

Total cost of in-game purchases: ~85,000 Platinum (~$4,000)

Analysis: Warframe has been broadly praised as the best example of a game with monetization done right. While recent moves from Digital Extremes have muddied that reputation a bit due to the weird ways they tried to absolve the clashing of monetization systems on different platforms ahead of a cross play and cross save update, they're still regarded much higher than most game companies applying microtransactions to their games.

This, despite the overall high cost of 'everything' in the game, comes down to a number of factors. The price-per-piece average (though obviously varying item to item) is pretty low, and acquiring these items through play without spending a dime is very viable, and in many cases outright easy. It's become a common saying among the community that the only reason to buy something is if you don't want to play the game at all.

So what do you have to spend real money on? Cosmetic items from the Prime Vault or the Prime Resurgence event, Tennogen cosmetics (which are created by fans, who get large cuts of the revenue their skins generate), Supporter Pack cosmetics and Founder Packs. Some of these, like Founder Packs, are no longer available at all.

While purchasing buffs with platinum is possible, Warframe isn't generally considered pay to win because these buffs do not affect PvP, and PvP isn't a major element of the game at all anyway. Warframe also doesn't have a typical 'win' state that you could possibly pay for, as acquiring equipment, frames and other items is your active goal after you've worked through story content. Since getting stuff is the goal, arguably buying stuff makes it sort of pay-to-win, we guess? Only esoterically, however.

Platinum can be traded, and does affect the player driven in-game economy, but the volatility of said economy is hard to track, but also is relevant because it feeds back into being able to get just about anything through play - even if it cannot be looted or farmed, you can sell stuff that can be.

To see some of the exact numbers we used here, check out this spreadsheet.

Apex Legends

Titanfall died for this. Hope you're happy.

Available in-game purchases: ~1,400

Total cost of in-game purchases: Unquantifiable (but too much)

Analysis: Apex Legends kicked up a lot of monetization controversy last year due to its roughly $20 skins. Usually the insanely expensive and rare skins players can read about in news are ones sold by players to other players, or exist in prohibitively low quantities. Here, Respawn Entertainment themselves were selling basic skins for 1,800 Apex Coins which translated to about $18-ish, give or take, but when plugged into the math of Apex Coin bundles, the cost came out closer to $20 per skin.

While that piece of news was a whole Thing™, Apex Legends does not have a wholly meritless economy. The game is in no way pay-to-win since only cosmetic items are available with premium currency, and most things can be acquired via lootboxes you earn by playing.

The reason the total cost of all items is unquantifiable is because "all items" include seasonal, promotional and event-related skins that are no longer available in any form, making them impossible to buy, loot or acquire, thus fudging the entire cost calculation. Taking a gamble with loot boxes for the items that are available is a possibility, and many items are available directly from the in-game store. While on average Apex cosmetics are definitely on the more expensive side, being among the priciest cosmetics with publisher-controlled pricing, the lack of a pay-to-win aspect compels leniency.

Lootboxes are, however, still a fairly predatory business model, so we can't cut the game too much slack.

To see some of the exact numbers we used here, check out this spreadsheet.

The Winner (Loser?)

Result: It's complicated! (Also, GTA Online, sort of)

Which, to be honest, was sort of the point from the get go. This is a big yet simple question that the gaming community at large has been asking ever since monetization became a hot button topic in the hobby - we should start a "BHA/AHA" calendar for game history, denoting the era before the infamous Horse Armor DLC for Oblivion, and the era after it.

That big, simple question does not have a big simple answer - every company approaches monetization in a different way when you dig down into it. "They sell skins" is the sort of oversimplification that makes two things difficult:

  1. Accurately comparing the stats
  2. Fighting/protesting effectively against predatory business practices

Player driven economies are also a very... weird aspect of this whole can of worms, since in those cases the supply and demand mechanics of an open economy kick in, and we have only ourselves to thank for $2,000 virtual frying pans being sold on the Steam Marketplace - but the companies in charge do take cuts and benefit, so naturally it is not in their interest to push down the ludicrous prices of these cosmetics.

If we stick to publisher-initiated and quantifiable microtransaction costs, then GTA Online takes the cake from those games that we examined for this article. However, for the average player, gacha and lootbox based games with fewer options to earn items through play might end up burning more cash.

Industry trends in 2021 do not paint a pretty picture for the future, provided you don't derive joy from having to throw cash into a virtual sinkhole to get pretty colorful content in your games. Titles with player-to-player transactions have given rise to a play-to-earn demographic which, inadvertently, fueled corporate interest in cryptocurrency and NFT integration into games. Luckily many companies have walked back NFT-related plans after widespread public outcry, and those who went ahead like Ubisoft failed miserably, but the corporates smell money in the water and are not likely to let up.

A curious side effect of working on this article is another conclusion - monetization and microtransaction documentation for even the biggest games out there is absolute trash right now. We needed to draw up our own speadsheets, and in some cases manually count one-by-one the individual number of items and their costs, because no resource - maintained by the publishers, who as of recently are legally bound in the EU and elsewhere to disclose such information, or third parties - exists for them that has this data in an easily accessible manner.

We're not complaining; this is our job - pointing this out is important because the obscurity of this information is ultimately in the interest of these companies.

And remember, whenever it is in their best interests to keep something hidden, it is in our best interest to drag it out into the light.

Thanks to my colleague Hassan for contributing to this article.

Aron Gerencser
Gaming at least as long as he's been walking, Aron is a fan of all things sci-fi and lover of RPGs. Having written about games for years, he's right at home reporting most of the breaking news in the industry and covering the happenings of the e-sports world. Graduating summa cum laude from Università degli Studi Guglielmo Marconi with a BA in Media Production, Aron has been a game journalist since 2014. When not writing, editing or playing, Aron is building models which you can find on Instagram.
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