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An illustration shows someone taking money out of a wallet covered in video game stickers Illustration: Christine Lee for Polygon

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Horse armor was mocked, but it launched a billion-dollar cosmetic industry

A lot can change in 15 years

The mall is dead, and we live in its ghost.

The behemoth of American commerce is a shadow of its former self, victim to its own rapid expansion and online competition. Many malls are reduced to half-occupied nostalgia vehicles or hollowed out for Amazon delivery hubs. Consumer disinterest and corporate mismanagement shutter the old and storied brands. New competitors arrive with speed and burn out almost as fast, and survival depends on matching or exceeding the ruthlessness of their practices.

Each digital marketplace is its own mall and its own carnival. Never before have there been more video games, and never before have there been more ways to spend money on them. As budgets increase alongside development costs, a title needs to do everything it can to hit corporate expectations. Nearly every game with an online component carries its own internal economy, and even single-player titles adopt opaque methods of cash extraction. When a developer announces that a game won’t have microtransactions, it’s greeted with an outpouring of tearful praise.

2006 brought a harbinger of this increasingly monetized future, a simple piece of downloadable content which symbolized all the good and the bad of the coming world: horse armor.

The early era of downloadable content on home consoles was marked by niche experiments like Satellaview, a Japan-only SNES add-on, and Sega Channel, a WebTV-like service that operated past the end of the Genesis lifespan. While satellite technology and memory restrictions kept the selection of available games limited, both were early variations on the all-you-can-play subscription model, which would take years to come back in vogue. Sega later made strides with the Dreamcast, yet it was Microsoft and Xbox Live which cemented the online console in the mainstream.

With the Xbox 360 and its online services, Microsoft solidified many of the economic models that still haunt gaming. While Sony’s storefront used local currency and Nintendo’s point system was tagged to the cent, Xbox Live points were meant to reduce credit card fees but mostly served to obscure prices. Speaking to 1UP, 360 group project manager Aaron Greenberg said, “If we do this in bulk, we don’t have to burden the consumer with the transaction fees, or ourselves or publishers. It’s about keeping infrastructure costs down and I know sometimes it’s frustrating because you end up with odd points, but we don’t have any plans to change that.” Despite that denial, Microsoft eventually ditched the point system in 2013. Five dollars bought 400 points, the digital equivalent of the carnival ticket, the amusement park currency. The initial waves of downloadable content were small affairs, some free and some paid. Though it wasn’t the first, one piece of DLC acted as a symbol for everything that seemed wrong with the system.

Bethesda Games had made post-release content an important part of its titles whether through expansion packs or necessary maintenance, stretching all the way back to patches for The Elder Scrolls: Arena. Its RPGs attract especially active modding communities, which provided a model for the company to follow when developing downloadable content for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. At a talk during the 2015 Game Developers Conference, Bethesda senior designer Joel Burgess said, “Back in 2005, developers were wondering, well, What does DLC even mean? How do we make it? How do we expect to know what people even want to play or what it’s going to cost? [...] We didn’t even know what we should charge.”

As a market test, the studio went simple. You can’t say the Horse Armor Pack wasn’t exactly what it said on the tin: a few sets of armor which increased your steed’s health alongside a simple quest. The reaction was immediate.

A screenshot shows shiny gold armor on a horse in Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion.
Horse armor in The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion
Image: Bethesda

Under a Major Nelson blog with the extremely 2006 title of “Pimp your (Oblivion) ride,” comments ran mostly negative. Though most weren’t against DLC, the small offering and relative expense were the largest complaints. Some lamented that they couldn’t even purchase the pack in their countries; others questioned the point of purchasing cosmetics in a single-player game. One jeered that horses were a “women’s hobby,” a quality that might have contributed to the excess level of outrage. There were defenders, those who compared it to selling ringtones or cellphone wallpaper, extraneous customizations that didn’t have any real effect on the core experience. The market bears what the market will, and if people didn’t buy it, corporations would stop selling it.

The most common fears bore out in time. It represented the piecemealing of games, the splitting up of the usual full package into discrete chunks. It would enable companies to push out half-baked titles and hope they could salvage them post-launch. It was an ill omen priced at $1.99 on PC or 200 Xbox Live points on console.

Horse armor opened the floodgates, and the industry followed. Simple attempts at online integration at the start of the generation became full-throated embraces by its end. Compare Grand Theft Auto 4 to 5, a free-roam map and a few modes versus the goliath of GTA Online. DLC became a mainstay. Roadmaps are an expected part of a title’s post-launch; development never ends. Some games that were originally released without in-game economies had them retrofitted in later. Team Fortress 2 became an elaborate hat simulator. The addition of a skin economy to Counter-Strike created a cottage industry of gambling sites and legal headaches for Valve.

The more shameless companies don’t hide the intent behind some of their cosmetics. Take Dead or Alive 6, the most recent of Koei Tecmo’s cleavage-based fighters. One among its many pieces of DLC, the School Uniform Set consists of 18 schoolgirl outfits for the cast, retailing at $24.99. A relative value compared to buying all of the individual schoolgirl costumes, yet a clear ploy to pry money from those addicted to dressing their waifus, an appeal to the obsessive mania of Phantom Thread via sexy ninja aficionado.

According to industry analysts The NPD Group, as of 2021 60% percent of non-mobile game spending came from downloadable content, microtransactions, and subscriptions. If those commenters on Major Nelson’s blog are still playing games, they’ve likely bought DLC, if not turned their opinion about it around. If paid cosmetics weren’t popular, they wouldn’t gross what they do. When someone wants to achieve an aesthetic ideal, a few dollars is little to spare. In games as in fashion, the eternal question persists: Is any price too high to look good?

Fashion and gaming have the same parallels as any art that primarily exists for mass consumption. Trends drive the day, corporate profit is the main goal, and the customer sits at an uneasy crossroads between patron and rube. The ecosystem of gaming’s last decade is marked by the microtransaction, while fast fashion disrupts its industry for the worse, with its infringement on original designs and massive environmental footprint. Driving them both is the consumer, who adapts to new environments like a goldfish thrown into increasingly monetized waters.

Fast-fashion giant Shein began life as a Chinese womenswear retailer before exploding into the international market in the mid-2010s with its low prices and the cultural cachet of haul videos, TikToks in which a user proudly shows off the dozens of pieces they ordered. Companies like it and Fashion Nova are repeatedly accused of stealing from smaller designers, yet their customer base is willing to overlook infringement and questionable craftsmanship in the name of savings. When Fortnite first appeared, no one imagined it a cultural phenomenon, a third-person shooter themed into a de facto global children’s playground. After it copied the battle royale format from PUBG and went free to play, Epic Games earned the domestic gross of a small nation.

Fortnite’s success marked another turning point, a symbol of how a game could ride trends and fandoms to profit without an initial cost of entry. Skins let Epic assume any and all IP in the name of the ultimate crossover. Sniper rifle Goku hits a Griddy. Everyone laughs. Epic releases physical boxes retailing at $20 purely for cosmetic DLC vouchers, an easy stocking stuffer, a digital pair of socks for nana to grab at the store. The juvenile social pressure to join has always existed, the kid with knockoff sneakers comparable to the no-skin. Then come the competitors, more online action games with similar aesthetics and monetization schemes. These market-oriented free-to-play live service games at their worst are fast fashion, disposable corporate visions meant to sap income from a revolving door of users.

Free-to-play games have their own section on the PlayStation store, advertised as one of its four pillars. Sony’s multi-billion-dollar acquisition of Bungie was done in part for the studio’s expertise in live service titles. Like Destiny 2, many live service games that initially charged have gone free to play entirely, the allure of an increased player base participating in their economies enough to waive the entry fee. Some games use subscription services to function as de facto free to play, like Marvel’s Avengers, the poster child for unnecessary live service implementations that can be found on both PS Plus and Xbox Game Pass.

A live service game can burn out faster than ever. It can fail to find an audience despite a publisher’s pedigree, like Ubisoft’s Hyper Scape. It can fall victim to increasing consolidation in the industry, as with Spellbreak. The Avatar-styled battle royale was released to a positive reception, yet its shutdown was announced when the studio was acquired by Blizzard to support World of Warcraft. Marvel’s Avengers lives in an awkward state between life and death, seemingly profitable enough to continue development despite a disastrous launch, yet thrown into limbo by publisher Square Enix’s sale of developer Crystal Dynamics. Even Rockstar isn’t immune to its own expectations, content to let Red Dead Online languish in comparison to sibling GTA Online.

When these games shut down, their items go with them. A Shein piece might wear out after a few uses; a live service game takes your purchases to the grave. Some have proposed NFTs as a solution, completing the fast fashion metaphor by adding an environmental toll to digital purchases. They make specious claims about interoperability between games, being able to carry your items from one title to another. When Ubisoft added NFT functionality to Ghost Recon Breakpoint, it was one of the biggest mainstream game companies to push the blockchain on a reluctant audience. It fit perfectly with Ubi’s use of the Tom Clancy franchise, a posthumous fantasy of neoconservative spycraft as filtered through a European capitalist viewpoint resulting in philosophically hollow exercises in technical craft. The implementation landed with a thud, and Ubi ended active development for the game entirely soon after.

Soldier struggles up a snowy mountainside in Ghost Recon Breakpoint
Ghost Recon Breakpoint
Image: Ubisoft Paris/Ubisoft

The future of game capitalization exists at a compromise. Loot boxes are on their way out thanks to negative sentiment and legal regulation, and the battle pass/cash store combination rises to take its place, completely so in the transition from Overwatch to its sequel. Most online games offer a grindable in-game currency alongside a premium one, a series of endless coins and gems and crystals meant to play the old carnival game of disguising money’s worth. The grindwall lets players with more time than money earn content for which others might choose to pay.

Some consider paid cosmetics a necessary evil, a way to buoy games in a world where even a few months after release, titles can go on sale at massive discounts. Everybody knows that games are worth more than they sell for and the economics of the industry are lopsided at best. Maybe SNK was right in the halcyon days of the Neo Geo, and every game is worth $250. The “serious gamer,” ever the ascetic, can simply ignore that store tab and go about their day.

Others revel in the market. Cosmetics can act as payloads for lore, holiday celebrations, patriotic displays, nostalgic callbacks, even or most especially pornographic fodder. For the most popular games, skin reveals can reach millions of views. The right cosmetic becomes a treasured object, that one shirt you always wear, that hoodie you won’t let anyone borrow.

As for the horse armor, it’s no longer available for individual purchase on Steam, folded into the Game of the Year edition without even a mention in the promotional copy. Yet on the Microsoft Store, the Xbox 360 port of Oblivion stands as it ever did. The horse armor is still for sale at $2.49, converted from Xbox Live Points, a depreciation of only a cent. Like an old toy found at the back of a store in an ailing mall, the sticker price never lies.