One of the biggest releases of the summer has to be Pokémon Unite. The free-to-play MOBA hit the Nintendo Switch to much fanfare, impressing Pokémon fans and MOBA veterans alike with its accessible gameplay and its surprising depth. I, for one, have been playing it since launch, and in my review, I wrote that "Pokémon Unite is a surprisingly fun introduction to the MOBA genre." However, I later noted that "it has microtransactions that verge on unacceptable."
Now at the time of that review, I thought that the checks and balances put into place for Pokémon Unite still kept it from the verge of being pay-to-win. The line was blurred, sure, and while spending some money might put you on the track to earn more gear for upgrades, you still had to put the time and effort into playing the game. In particular, I pointed out the use of Item Enhancers was problematic, but thankfully you could not buy them with real money.
But I was wrong. Pokémon Unite doesn't tell you that you can, but you use real money to buy Item Enhancers and boost your Pokémon's stats well beyond their limits. So let's re-examine Pokémon Unite's microtransactions with this new knowledge in mind.
Living in the gray
Let's start from the top: A free-to-play game is a game that does not cost money upfront but is typically full of microtransactions that can be purchased with real money. For example, the game might be totally playable without spending a cent, but often characters and cosmetics are locked behind a paywall. While the game does give you ways to earn your character, it's almost always easier to just break out your credit card and spend the cash needed to clear the hurdle. These are the best-case scenarios and can be seen in games like Fortnite and Apex Legends.
The worst example of a free-to-play game is one that gives you a competitive advantage for paying money. Recent NBA 2K games, despite not being free-to-play, are most guilty of these practices, essentially letting players pay for stats unless you'd prefer to grind for 100+ hours.
While some Pokémon are better than others, the meta involved with Pokémon Unite is bound to evolve as people play.
So where does that leave Pokémon Unite? It's living in the gray. Pokémon Unite has many microtransactions, and five currencies to consider when shopping in the in-game store. Cosmetics for your trainer and Pokémon can be bought with Aeos Coins or Aeos Gems, the game's premium currency. While some Pokémon are better than others, the meta involved with Pokémon Unite is bound to evolve as people play. And while the Pokémon might be pricey (and made pricier thanks to weekly caps on Aeos Coins earned), it's more of a grind than anything. So far, I've been given four free Pokémon Unite Cards, and there's always a selection of four Pokémon available at the start of each match, so players can still try out other Pokémon without paying.
Things start to get even grayer when held items are introduced. Held items can be equipped to Pokémon to give them buffs in battle, similar to how they worked in the mainline games. A Pokémon can hold up to three items at once, and each of these items can be upgraded to amplify their effect. But to do that, you'll need an Item Enhancer, an item that can be earned in various ways in Pokémon Unite, including being purchased in the shop using Aeos Tickets. While you normally earn Item Enhancers by just playing the game, purchasing the battle pass does give you 60 more Item Enhancers than those who don't pay at all. But even at that, it still wasn't game-breaking, so long as you couldn't outright buy it with real money. That's what we thought originally.
What the game doesn't tell you
A popular Twitch streamer who goes by the name Moistcr1tikal (or Penguinz0 on YouTube) uploaded a clip of himself experimenting with the Item Enhancers, and while the game menu does not show Aeos Gems as an available currency to buy Item Enhancers with, when the player does not have any Aeos Tickets, they suddenly get the option to purchase with Aeos Gems, at a rate of one Aeos Gem per 10 Aeos Tickets, or effectively one Aeos Gem per Item Enhancer. For one dollar, you can purchase 60 gems (or 120 if it's your first purchase), so that's 120 Item Enhancers —and that's just the minimum spent.
Now whether this is an oversight, intentional, or an exploit remains to be seen, but Moistcr1tikal only spent about $100 to max out most of his items and was able to basically take the whole team on by himself. At one point, Moistcr1tikal was able to spawn camp the entire opposing team and got a five KO streak before dying. When he used Gengar, a character already considered a top tier character, he began demolishing players left and right, and in one match he was able to defeat 49 players, a number that's almost impossible to achieve under normal circumstances.
The problem here is that Moistcr1tikal is not doing anything wrong. In fact, he's playing the game as its meant to be played. In total, Moistcr1tikal says he paid $220 but he only had to pay half of that to secure victory almost instantly, and he did all while bemoaning his actions. His chat was angry, threatening to report him, claiming that he wasn't playing the game the way it was meant to be played, but he was.
So without a shred of doubt, he proved that Pokémon Unite is a pay-to-win game. But does that matter?
Will Pokémon fans care?
Launching to an impressive 200,000 viewers on Twitch, Pokémon Unite is a bonafide hit, and despite the pay-to-win proof, it seems like fans on Twitter are still enjoying themselves. Browsing the Pokémon Unite hashtag is mostly positive, and you'll find tons of fans posting screenshots, fan art, and discussing which Pokémon they want to see in the game next. Looking at the Pokémon Unite Twitter page, however, tells a different story. Comments from fans include complaints about balance issues, the grind, and how difficult it is to handle players who have brought their way to the top.
At this time, you can find a survey on Pokémon Unite's Twitter page that even highlights these frustrations, as if the developers know what they've done. Question 14 of the survey asks, "When playing Pokémon Unite, what frustrated you the most?" and included among the options were choices like "the game overemphasizes spending money to be successful" and "switching and upgrading hold items is difficult."
The developers seem to be aware of the issue, but what are they going to do about it? In my opinion, removing the option to buy Item Enhancers with real money seems like the most straightforward way to fix a potentially game-breaking issue. If Item Enhancers could only be bought exclusively with in-game currency than I wouldn't really consider Pokémon Unite pay-to-win.
Pokémon Unite could be enjoyed without spending a cent.
But will fans drop the game for its crimes? It's still too early to say. Pokémon Unite has only been out for a week, and it is still being enjoyed by many people who haven't spent any money at all, but it's only a matter of time before other gamers start to drop serious cash and break the game. If TiMi Studios and the Pokémon Company aren't careful, they could very well fumble the goodwill of their players, and we all know that nobody hates Pokémon games more than Pokémon fans.
In my review, I wrote that I was excited to see how Pokémon Unite improves. It's a great way to experience the MOBA genre without dealing with the ridiculous skill ceiling and toxic community associated with its contemporaries. At its core, Pokémon Unite could be enjoyed without spending a dime. But the pay-to-win aspects of the game can ruin the fun and can potentially be dangerous for younger gamers (though you can limit spending with parental controls). However, it seems like most are enjoying the game as is, and not worrying too much about paying to win.
What do you think?
And with that, I turn the question to you: What do you think the developers can do to right some of these wrongs? Do you think that the exploit Moistcr1tikal used was legit or an oversight that should be patched? And with Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl and Pokémon Legends: Arceus on the horizon, does Pokémon Unite's monetization leave a bad taste in your mouth, or are you excited for more Pokémon? Let us know what you think in the comments.