Released on Nintendo Switch on July 21st, Pokémon Unite is a Pokémon MOBA developed by The Pokémon Company and Tencent. MOBA stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, and is a term used to talk about games like League of Legends. Teams of players attack small weak enemies to level up in a large centre lane, or try to earn points by attacking locations on outer edge paths pushing towards a main goal.
Pokémon Unite’s core mechanics are pretty fun, controlling a Pokémon in real time and attacking enemy monsters as a team is pretty enjoyable, but the main issue the game has at launch is aggressive monetisation.The game is free to play, with the developers earning money from in game microtransactions, and the way they have been implemented is pretty troublesome.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about how Pokémon Unite’s in game monetisation works. We’re going to talk about the ways the game obfuscates its real money spending from disabled players, the prices involved in certain purchases, and how real money spending can give players a tactical edge in competition.
As a quick primer, if you’ve not watched my main video about how microtransactions harm disabled gamers, the short version is that conditions such as ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism can make players more susceptible to predatory microtransaction practices than other types of gamers, due to fear of missing out, desperation for quick dopamine hits, or by grabbing people in the midst of manic episodes where impulse control is low. Watch the full video for an in depth rundown, but put simply a lot of disabled players are more often the targets of the kinds of monetisation strategies we are going to discuss today.
So, how does monetisation work in Pokémon Unite? Well, the game uses a deliberately complex web of different virtual currencies to control different types of purchases, which I will do my best to try and summarise here.
So, first let’s start with the playable roster of characters. Like many MOBAs, Pokémnon Unite gives players a handful of starting characters for free, but for the rest of the roster uses an availability rotation system. Everyday a handful of Pokémon from the full roster will be free to use, but many will not be. If you want that specific Pokémon you like using to always be available to play as, you’ll need to purchase a license.
These licenses can be purchased with in game coins, but the supply of these slows down considerably after your first couple of creature unlocks. After that, your options are to spend a LOT of in game time grinding for coins, or to purchase them using Gems, the game’s real money currency.
Like many unethical mobile games, Pokémon Unite deliberately makes the quantities of gems needed to purchase in-game items not line up with the quantities of gems you can purchase. This serves a couple of purposes, both disguising the exact amount you are spending on a purchase, as well as leaving you with an unusably small number of real money gems left over after each purchase. This primes you as the player to feel like you have real money sitting there waiting to be used, and aims to encourage you into another purchase of real money gems to use up those gems sitting around gathering dust.
To purchase top end characters like Lucario costs around 600 gems. To purchase that character with real money you’d need to start doing some maths, as all available gem amounts are either too large, or too small. £7.99 for 490 gems is too little, but £19.99 for 1,220 gems is too many, but it would be enough to get two characters without too many left over, so maybe that’s the way to do it, so those top end creatures would cost roughly £10 each, or you could get 490 gems for £7.99 and two 99p 60 gem packs and get just one Pokémon for £10 that way.
Oh, but the game also offers you double gems on your first purchase of a box of a given size, so the first purchase is actually for twice as many gems, to make them feel better value and get your foot in the door to that first spend, so this math is for purchases after the first purchase.
Oh god, my head already hurts.
So yeah, this is pretty common MOBA design meets mobile game monetisation. Gameplay characters are earnable if you play enough of the game, but if you want to “Skip the grind” you can buy them, but the amounts of real world money and purchasable gem currency don’t line up nearly with purchase costs, or make it easy to know how much you are spending.
Moving on to character customisation and outfits, players can earn “Aeos tickets” in game, again at a glacially slow pace, to unlock in-game character outfits for their Pokémon trainer. Top end rare outfits will take tens of hours to unlock a single outfit, but again players can opt to receive the items straight away if they spend real money. A raincoat that looks like a Cramorant costs 1370 gems, which is more than the 1220 you get in the £20 gem box. The next size up is 2450 gems, way more than you need for nearly £40. You’d need a 1220 box, and three 60 boxes, bringing the purchase price for a single virtual raincoat up to an estimated £23.
Then, there’s custom outfits that each of your Pokémon can wear. These are only purchasable with real money gems, or some currency called Hollowear tickets I have yet to earn a single one of in game, but I believe are rare rewards in the loot boxes and battle pass we will talk about shortly.
These outfits range in prices from 350 gems up to 1050, meaning that dressing your Greninja up a little like a Power Ranger is going to cost you just shy of £20.
The only positive I could find for this game’s monetisation, and honestly it’s more of a lack of a negative, is the game will not allow you to directly purchase an outfit with real money in this menu, if you don’t permanently own the character the outfit is for. That is literally the only place I can think of where this game held back on a scummy business practice.
Then, there’s the game’s Battle Pass. As you play Pokémon Unite, players level up through a battle pass unlocking in game rewards. Players who do not spend money will receive some low end rewards, mainly small cosmetics like shoes and socks, but many rewards visible to free players are only available by paying for the premium version of the Battle Pass. Free players are still shown the rewards they have reached on the battle pass, but are not being given, to instill a sense of false value, and a fear of missing out. Look how many rewards I have already unlocked, for just a little bit of money I could have all of those rewards that look cooler than the ones I actually have.
Additionally, for double price, you can get a version of the paid battle pass that skips you up a handful of levels higher on the battle pass. Why would you want that? Well, the battle pass is only available for a couple of months, so paying to jump a little up the path might increase your odds of getting all the rewards you paid for.
Also, keeping that battle pass time limit in mind, you can spend real money gems to skip further up the battle pass, potentially all the way to the top end rarest rewards. This exists so that people afraid of missing out on the rarest rewards near the end of two months will pay real money, to avoid having rewards they paid for access to taken away from them.
Oh, the game also gives you outfits for Pikachu right at the start of the paid battle pass, as soon as you buy it. I suspect this is because Pikachu is not a permanent free character. You’ve now got a skin for a character who isn’t always playable. Maybe go back to the character purchase menu and buy Pikachu with Gems, just so you can always use your new cool outfit. All these systems try to lead you back into spending more money.
Next, let’s get into energy tank rewards, this game’s convoluted equivalent of loot boxes. So, when playing matches of Pokémon Unite you can earn energy, which can be used to receive randomised rewards in game. You cannot directly spend real money on spins of the randomised reward table, but that’s only because the process has been hidden under steps of complexity. The energy to spin the wheel is earned in game, but it comes from a big storage tank. You start with some energy in the tank, so initially you can earn randomised pulls through gameplay, but there’s an active limit on how fast you can earn that energy, and how much there is to use up in a day.
If you want to spin the wheel more frequently, you’re going to need to either make the tank bigger, refill it faster, or earn energy from the tank faster. These are controlled by items, all purchasable with coins or real money. You can spend real money to get more spins of the wheel, and make them happen more frequently, so yes, you can spend real money to be more engaged with a randomised reward pool.
Lastly, and perhaps most egregiously, is the gameplay impacting held items. Held Items can be earned with in game currency, or real money, and each bestow gameplay changes to your team. From healing, to increasing max health, to altering max speed, to increasing attack damage, these items can be purchased with real money and bestow gameplay advantages over those taking the time to slowly unlock them through gameplay.
However, these items can also be leveled up, making them considerably more powerful, and this can also be done using real money.
Putting things bluntly, in the days since Pokémon Unite launched, the game’s ranked matchmaking has become dominated by players who paid to purchase, and fully upgrade, held items from the shop. You are not going to stand a chance against top end players with fully upgraded items if you do not have them yourself. To play at the competitive top end without countless days of grinding, you’re realistically going to need to spend real money.
Pokémon Unite is, at its core, a fun game, but that fun has been very much ruined for me by the game’s aggressive attempts at monetisation. From cosmetics being overly expensive, to the trickle of free currency becoming painfully slow once the welcome bonuses dry up, to the excessive weaponization of FOMO, to the deliberately obfuscated real money loot box loop, to the ability to pay real money to get a gameplay advantage, Pokémon Unite is a mess of predatory microtransactions purpose designed to prey on disabled gamers.
As an autistic gamer, I can already feel the game getting its hooks in me. My desire to have completed sets and maxed out stats means I am susceptible to these exact kinds of microtransactions, and I know I could very easily spend beyond my means if I let myself engage with this game’s paid systems.
Pokémon Unite is a fun game, but gosh I cannot recommend it to ANYONE who knows they are susceptible to microtransaction economies. This game is manipulative, and is going to really ruin the finances of some disabled gamers, I can see that much already.