Nicole Randol — a Missouri-based mother of two boys, ages 6 and 10 — recently posted a message on a popular Facebook parenting group about Robux, the virtual gaming currency for the platform Roblox: Target was having a 40%-off sale for Robux.
In the moments that followed, nearly two hundred parents responded, saying they ran to the store to buy handfuls of the cards, or quickly added them to their online shopping carts before they sold out.
“I expect it to be the most exciting thing they open [on Christmas],” Randol, who bought two $100 Robux cards, told CNN. “Because we always say ‘no,’ they are going to be very surprised. The most they hoped to get and asked for was $20 worth.”
Like the Randol kids, many young people this holiday shopping season are asking for virtual currency, such as Roblox Robux and Fortnite V-bucks, that give users access to premium features, exclusive games and the ability to create and sell items — even more so than physical video games and other toys. Roblox reported 70.2 million average daily users in November, up 20% from a year ago. Rival platforms such as Fortnite and Minecraft boast similar user numbers as children and teens spend billions of hours each year in these virtual worlds.
According to a recent study published by the Entertainment Software Association, the majority of girls (59%) and boys (86%) ages 10 – 17 said they want video game-related gifts for the holidays, with video game subscriptions (39%), consoles (38%), gaming accessories (32%) and in-game currency (29%) trumping asks for physical video games (22%).
Although the concept of virtual gaming money isn’t new, platforms such as Roblox continue to build out their own economy, where kids not only spend money on virtual items for avatars such as clothing, accessories and new content and features, but can create and sell them, too.
“It’s an outgrowth of the ‘freemium’ model that we’ve seen for a while on app-based games,” said Christopher Byrne, a toy consultant and founder of The Toy Guy. “From a marketing standpoint, the genius of these is that they keep players engaged in the world of the game.”
Roblox declined to share data around how Robux was selling this holiday season. Fortnite’s parent company Epic Games did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gaming subscriptions continue to gain popularity, too. For example, Microsoft’s subscription service, Xbox Game Pass, and Sony’s PlayStation Plus both offer access to a library of games for a monthly fee; Google’s cloud gaming service Stadia Pro lets people play games without a console; and Apple Arcade provides a similar service for iOS, Mac, and Apple TV users. Prices vary depending on the service and varying tiers.
“Both subscriptions and digital currencies have been popular in the past years,” said Michael Inouye, an analyst with ABI Research. “But subscription services, due to more recent additions of premium tiers, likely have seen more interest than previous years, especially now that they carry a higher annual price tag.”
The study comes as projected toy sales for the holiday season are expected to be down this year amid the sluggish economy and households prioritizing essentials. About 200.4 million people, or more than 60% of the US population, shopped over the five days from Thanksgiving to Black Friday and through Cyber Monday, trumping last year’s record of 196.7 million shoppers, according to the National Retail Federation, the retail industry’s largest trade group.
But the amount of money they spent in total on traditional seasonal gifts, decor, and food was down. The group said the average consumer spent about $227 on gifts, well below the average record of $361 spent in 2019 on holiday purchases.
‘Cozy’ games and growing trends
Beyond digital currency and subscriptions, one of the biggest growth areas in gaming is what Byrne calls “cozy” games, known as non-competitive or non-aggressive titles that enable players to explore worlds and relax their mind.
Some console advancements have also made it easier to have more dynamic interactive experiences, such as Nintendo’s WarriorWare which has games that get players up and jumping, and competing.
“The play in the living room may look a lot different,” said Byrne, adding that parents who grew up on gaming are more likely to join in nowadays. “What’s changed, naturally, is the games that families are playing.”
According to ESA, more than 212 million Americans play video games on a regular basis.
Many retailers this season are also offering gaming consoles at a discounted price of 15% off, along with bundle deals that tend to be bought up quickly. “The best advice is to set a Google alert for a console you want and you can have deals pushed to you,” Byrne said.
Gaming-related items aren’t the only things on gift givers’ radars this year. Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of toy reviews site TTPM, said people have been snapping up discounted toys from popular brands such as Barbie, Lego, Hot Wheels, Squishmallows and LOL. Breakthrough items such as Spinmaster’s Bitzies and the relaunch of the all-new Furby are gaining attention, too.
Still, with the rise of subscriptions and gaming currency, what lands under the Christmas tree may be smaller in size than years before.
“It’s hard to speak for Santa, but if he really is as magical as kids believe, he should be able to source the gift cards,” Bryne said. “It would give the elves a break from actually making the toys … and besides, you can fit a lot more gift cards on the sleigh.”
CNN’s Parija Kavilanz contributed to this report
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