Heroes in the Academy 2: The High Price of Free to Play — A Case Study of Injustice: Gods Amongst Us (iOS)

Second in a series of editorials using the academic view to dissect games & the games industry

Free to play games are often the source of grumbling about how they attempt to bleed you dry, sliver by sliver.  While some games microtransactions are innocuous, others are heinous.  In order to get an idea on what someone COULD spend on a free to play game, I offer here a case study of NetherRealm Studio’s iOS mobile game Injustice: Gods Amongst Us, which acts as a form of accompaniment to the Injustice console game.  Now, we don’t know whether to assign responsibility for the pricing schemes noted herein at the feet of the developer or the publisher (Warner Brothers Games), but for the purposes of this analysis I will be using NetherRealm, the developer, as the notation of choice.

In order to understand the costs, first a quick note on the mechanics: Like the console, you take control of DC heroes battling each other.  Unlike the console version, you control a team of 3 heroes who may be tagged in and out of a fight, a la Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.  Like in many games, upgrades must be won in order to improve your characters and there are many, many upgrades to be had.


Silver and Gold Heroes -- Gotta catch them all!

Silver and Gold Heroes — Gotta catch them all!


First, you do not begin with a large number of heroes.  In order to gain heroes, you must purchase them.  Each hero is represented by a trading card and one of three levels: Bronze, Silver, and Gold.  As of this writing there were 12 Bronze heroes, 16 silver heroes, and 21 gold heroes, though 6 of the gold heroes are somewhat “special.”  Each Hero may be leveled up to five times worth of “elite” status which increases their damage and health.  So, in order to maximize out all of your hero cards, you actually need to acquire (through payment of in-game coins) each hero 6 times – the first time to unlock the hero so you can fight with them and then five more times to “elite level” up your hero card to maximum.

That’s only ONE set of upgrades though!

Each Hero has three distinct “special attacks” – a first, second, and third attack – and each one commensurately does more crazy damage.  When you first acquire a card it has one level of its first level special attack unlocked.  You have to pay coins to unlock the rest of the attacks.  There are 10 levels of the first, second, and third attacks – so a total of 30 levels you need to buy to maximize all the attacks.  Well, technically ONLY 29 levels, since you begin with one.


I am slowly maxxing out my batman's special attacks.  He's pretty seasoned though -- probably sometime after "The Killing Joke"

I am slowly maxxing out my Batman’s special attacks. Note there are ten slots for each of the three levels of special attacks at the bottom (Red Means I have purchased it, grey needs to be purchased). This level of power is Bats probably sometime after “The Killing Joke”


Still with me?


There are three “Support cards” for each Hero that boost respectively their damage, health, or energy.  Thankfully, if you have a support card that boosts, say, Batman, it affects every Batman card (of which there are three: Batman, Batman “Insurgency”, and Batman Beyond).  At the time of this writing, there are a total of 73 support cards.


Did I mention support cards?  Of course I did.

Did I mention support cards? Of course I did.

That’s a lot of upgrades.


Acquiring Upgrades

Here’s the rub: You main gain in-game coins either by winning fights or by purchasing coins with real cash — the microtransaction mambo.  The game also links with Warner Brothers online, so every day it doles out some goodies if you log in.  Finally, you can through your WB account link the mobile game to your console Injustice Game, so some achievements and rewards transfer.

What is fascinating is the costs that NetherRealm Studios believes these upgrades are worth, and how it incentivizes you to want to buy coins.

Incentives: Your heroes have “energy” which they deplete every time they fight.  At the top level fights, this means your heroes can only fight THREE TIMES before they have to “rest” for up to 10 minutes just to be able to fight ONCE more.  So not only would you have to have 3 relatively good heroes for each fight, you have to have lots of SETS of good heroes to keep on playing. (Of course, you can BUY the ability to recharge their energy.)  Also, there are steep difficulty curves that happen after a certain number of challenges, to the point where your bronze cards (and eventually your silver ones as well) simply cannot win any fights.  It doesn’t matter if they are fully upgraded or not, the power difference between bronze to silver and silver to gold is far too great.


Batman’s Greatest Power: His Wallet

All right, so that’s the basics: How much does it cost?

Support cards go for 3,000 to 100,000 in game coins each.  Hero cards are cheapest at 8,000 coins for the lowliest bronze cards up to 220,000 coins for your primo Supermen.  Each upgrade of a special power costs between 1,000 to 5,000 coins.

If you wanted to earn these coins by in game fighting, you can.  Of course, the maximum number of coins an average fight will give you at the topmost tier – when you have to be fighting with gold cards to win – will get you about 1,200 – 1,400 coins per battle.  When you have very highly trained heroes battles can be short (under a minute by their clock) but that doesn’t count animations for special moves and having to constantly swap out heroes since your previous ones are now “exhausted.”  A fairer assumption is that each battle, even at its most efficient, will take you approximately 2 and a half minutes.

A gold booster pack – which allows you to randomly get one hero and two cards that could be support cards or upgrades to your power – costs 100,000 coins.  So at an average of 1250 coins earned (if you are at the Top level of grinding for cash) you have to have 80 fights (and remember, each fight must have three heroes in them each).  At 2.5 minutes apiece, that’s three hours and 20 minutes (200 minutes ) of straight grinding to get one shot at a random booster pack.  Of course, all of your heroes would be exhausted many times over by then, so you simply can’t grind that fast.  The game won’t let you.

Of course, getting a random card may not get you one you can utilize: If you were to outright just buy the card you need to boost up your hero, the cheapest gold card is Black Adam, who costs “merely” 133,000 coins.  The average between the most expensive cards and cheapest cards in gold (again the ones you will need to ultimately fight and grind with)   is 176,142 coins.  For that many coins, you would have to have 141 battles – which at 352 minutes clocks in at almost 6 hours of nonstop playing. Which, again, due to “energy” restrictions, you cannot.

A single iteration of Superman, at 220,000 coins, would set you back 2.2 times as much, so $14.68 to $36.67.  Don’t forget: To get him to “Elite V” – that’s FIVE more times you have to acquire the card.

So surely a quick shortcut is in a order?  Just a little cash to boost your flagging spirits and get you back into the game so you can fight? No problem!  A measly $1.99 will get you 12,000 coins – and of course, the more you spend, the more you save!  You can even drop $99.99 for 1,500,000 coins.  You too could be a million and a half coin-oinaire!

That means even at its least expensive, a single gold booster is $6.67 – assuming you have $100 to drop.  At the least efficient a single booster is $16.67.  A single iteration of Superman, at 220,000 coins, would set you back 2.2 times as much, so $14.68 to $36.67.  Don’t forget: To get him to “Elite V” – that’s FIVE more times you have to acquire the card.

Break out those Bat-Bucks!

Break out those Bat-Bucks!

I have included as part of this article a set of screenshots of the excel sheet I used to calculate the following numbers.  So, overall, if you wanted to upgrade the game simply by in-APP purchasing?

The 73 support cards will cost you 690,000 coins.

Cost Calculations to buy one of each support card.
Cost Calculations to buy one of each support card.

The 42 current heroes will cost 3,580,000 coins to get only one of each card.  This number is a little “fudgy” because three heroes can only be bought as a single “Red Son” booster pack – which originally cost 400,000 coins but has been recently priced at 300,000 coins, so I am using that figure as a current cost.  In addition, three of the heroes (Arkham Harley, Batman Beyond, and Prison Superman) cannot be individually purchased but are rare drops from opening gold boosters.  I simply priced them in excel as one gold booster (100,000 coins), but clearly it will take far more than that to acquire them.

Hero card cost calculations.  The first green box is for one of each; the green box to the right to get Hero cards to their "Elite V" status, and the green box below that a running total.

Hero card cost calculations. The first green box is for one of each; the green box to the right to get Hero cards to their “Elite V” status, and the green box below that a running total.

To get all 42 heroes to “Elite V” will take 21,480,000 coins.

So for buying all the cards, assuming amazing luck on randoms for the rare cards you want, is 221,700,00 coins.

But don’t forget – you also need to upgrade their special moves as well!  All cards cost 1000 coins to upgrade their first power and 5000 to upgrade their ultimate power. The second power cost shifts depending on what “level” of card it is.  Bronze cards only cost 2000 for each upgrade, silver cards and the more recent “special” gold cards have the bargain of 3000 coins per upgrade, and the original gold cards have 4,000 coins per upgrade at the second tier.  Each upgrade can be purchased 10 times, with the first level of the first power given to you for free.  So 29 upgrades per card.  That’s 12 bronze cards at 79,000 coins each to fully upgrade them all; 16 silver and 6 special gold at 89,000 coins per card, and 15 “normal” gold cards at 99,000 coins to upgrade.

The total “coin cost” to upgrade all your cards?  26,561,000 coins.  Twenty-six and a half million coins.

And what’s that in “real dollars?”  Buying the most efficient coin cost at just under $100 a pop, you’d have to buy the pack 17.7 times – well, we could round it to 18, but let’s use the raw figures and pretend Rocksteady would let us buy a “partial pack.”

See, Academics aren't happy unless they are showing their work.

See, Academics aren’t happy unless they are showing their work.

Your low, low price to upgrade everything fully?  $1,770.56

God forbid you are an impulse shopper and bought the $2 coin packs.  Then the total cost would be a whopping $4,404.70

Injustice, indeed.


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About Bill Jahnel

Bill Jahnel is a Professor of History and a lifelong and avid gamer. He has served as a reviewer and main feature writer for Inside Mac Games back in 1993 when the magazine started and was a Senior Editor for the site MacReactor. He has lectured on the role of gays in video games and comic books as part of the Political Economy Days lecture series.