Since I began playing Counter Strike somewhat seriously in 1.3 and continue on-and-off to this day, I enjoy the game in a genuine sense. It is a constant challenge to yourself to work with your teammates, remember your crosshair placement, perfect your smokes and flashes and bomb plants and lots of stuff. While not infinite, there is a very high skill cap in the game.
In the latest version, Counter-Strike Global Offensive, Valve since the Arms Deal 1 sale event has introduced a very large amount of skins for weapons. Previously, you could get different skins, sounds and animations for weapons by modding other versions of Counter-Strike.
So why do I highlight skins in a game that hasn’t really changed much since beta? Because Valve is using the micro-transactions in expansions and style to fund many aspects of the game. The best part is that the skins are style only and are randomly found in chests that drop at a low rate per week after games or after matches finish. Neither skill nor performance have any bearing on these drops. Quite simply, you can play for free and get skins over time.
Mind you that this would take a while. But there is another way. You can buy keys to open the previously mention chests for $2.50 USD for a random chance at better looking and rarer skins. Better yet, you can sell the chests in the Steam marketplace for real money to your steam account to buy anything offered on Steam! And best of all, skins are only for looks, bragging and fragging in style–they have no bearing on the game!
Early in CS: GO, the community was fragmented between those who moved from 1.6 and source despite the game largely being considered a let-down or near failure on Valve’s part. Fast forward to Arms Deal 1, and Valve let people know that they intended to breathe life into their dying game. Ever since, there have been many updates, constant balance patches, and more skins. At the very least you have to admit they are doing something right to keep an average of 6 to 8 million accounts playing in a given month.
Why does this work for Valve and what are they doing with this money? Well, I suspect it works for Valve since they don’t force people to pay. The entry cost to the game of $15 USD is fairly low for most large releases. While the RNG for what comes out of the boxes sucks, generally speaking, no one forces you to buy keys, spend more money, or further build Valve an ever growing empire for their Steam services. You pay what you are willing to pay, no more and no less.
This does some interesting things to the marketplace economy in Steam. Everything you get has a speculated price based on how common or rare a skins happens to be across the game. Then there are multiple levels of quality of the skins. How beat up they look to how pristine they shine. Finally there is a random extra known as StatTrak that keeps count of kills you have with a given weapon. Again, nothing but something pretty to look at or brag about in game.
And beyond this, there is a whole market of people who want the best and rarest items. Take knives for example. They are some of the rarest items in the game. Most knife skins have a set larger pattern with any given knife being a small swatch of the pattern. So if you happen to be super-lucky, you could possibly end up with one of the more desired patterns. Perhaps this is a play on human psychology with betting and chance, but any purchase of $2.50 USD could in theory fetch you around $8,000 USD to the right buyers!
Well, fat chance of that happening. But, hey, it could happen. And there are even markets outside of Steam itself that caters to such high-rollers. While Valve doesn’t want cash to be traded for items directly, they allow sites to post values in terms of case keys, those things that cost $2.50 USD each to open a case, as a sort of alternate currency. Pretty smart business plan in my estimation. Valve can continue to get revenue while players do not have to be subject to Valve’s trade percentages on the Steam service.
So what does Valve do with this money? Keep the lights on, keep the programmers employed, and keep the community running for the most part. I do not believe they have disclosed their financials, but Valve has been able to keep up regular updates, content, and skins to the community. Some of the funds they have announced how they will be spending it. The eSports cases are a great example. A portion of every sale of those keys goes to funding eSports events. ESL, ESEA, CEVO, and several other groups have alternate match-making services, servers, and tournaments, but what brought streamers, professionals, and the average player to CS: GO from other CS versions was this support of the community and game.
I suspect that this model of micro-transactions was planned from the beginning. The game is one that you can pick-up and put-down without major repercussions, your skill and rank aside. CS has never been a subscription game, has always been fairly inexpensive, and has always had skins/modding as part of the evolving community involvement. My hat is off to Valve for doing micro-transactions right.