The phrase ‘games as a service’ was coined a few years ago, and it has since become a buzzword in the industry. Companies have been using it to justify continuously charging customers, in an attempt to turn players into ‘payers’.
The introduction of lootboxes especially has been a major sticking point for members of the gaming community. With random in-game items dropped from virtual boxes, most of these items have been largely cosmetic. However there have been instances where these objects provide players who fork out more money an advantage over those who keep their money in their wallets. While this practice has been going on for years, it has never been so egregious as it has gotten in the last year.
With the release of Star Wars Battlefront II, and Destiny 2, it is clear that the situation is getting out of hand. While these 2 examples are extreme, they are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. But more on them later.
The uproar from players has sparked conversations on a larger scale. From the mainstream media to politicians, everyone has begun talking about the detrimental effects micro-transactions have been having on younger, more impressionable gamers.
Price of Gaming
Some might argue that over the years, the price of games have not seen a huge change, with most AAA games largely staying at the 60 dollar price point at launch for as long as most can remember. However, in this day and age, the 60 dollar price point is merely an entry level price, with the introduction of season passes, special editions, Downloadable Content (DLC), and of course micro-transactions, the price of a single game can easily climb into the hundreds.
Take for example Watch Dogs, which was released in 2014, where players had to follow a chart on Wikipedia to try and get all the collectibles.
Looking back at 2017, the chase for collectibles has entered the digital realm, with special editions often including exclusive in-game items, like skins or pets. Where different tiers of special editions giving players different levels of rewards, these rewards usually have little impact on the final experience, other than a feeling of exclusivity where you have something a portion of the player base doesn’t.
Supporting a game post-release
We cannot argue that games have evolved to being more than just something we can enjoy for a few hours, put it down and never return to again. The introduction of multiplayer has also added countless hours of playtime to many games. (Thank goodness the idea of the online pass is dead and buried). Another way some companies add playtime to the game is by adding content to it, in the form of expansion packs or DLC.
Since the introduction of expansion packs, and DLC companies have added hours upon hours of playtime to their games from the base experience.
We’ve all seen the memes, expansion packs were originally seen as additional content, expanding on the experiences provided by the base game. However, in this day and age, DLC especially are seen as essential parts of the game’s experience. Instead of being add-ons to the base experience, DLCs are now seen as locks on content unless you are willing to cough up the additional cash.
Recently the addition of lootboxes have added an additional way for players to ‘support the game’ after it has been released. Like pre-order bonuses, these lootboxes contain in-game items that can be purely cosmetic.
Developers often provide longevity to their games through time exclusive events and as a result time-exclusive lootboxes. These lootboxes are seen as especially sought after as they are not available at all times.
With the bases covered, let’s take a look at, what in my mind, are this year’s biggest culprits. Star Wars Battlefront II, and Destiny 2.
Star Wars Battlefront II
A game which courted much controversy even before it was released, Star Wars Battlefront II, did not start on the right foot with fans. It all began with the realization that the franchises most popular characters were squirreled behind lootboxes which would have required players to go through an unbelievable grindfest.
If players were unwilling to grind for them, they could shell out cash for a chance to unlock those characters. Outraged at the blind side, players turned to reddit to vent their frustrations, and while their voices were heard it led to EA receiving the unwanted distinction of having the most downvoted comment in reddit history.
The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.
As for cost, we selected initial values based upon data from the Open Beta and other adjustments made to milestone rewards before launch. Among other things, we’re looking at average per-player credit earn rates on a daily basis, and we’ll be making constant adjustments to ensure that players have challenges that are compelling, rewarding, and of course attainable via gameplay.
Following the torrent of negative reactions, the developers reduced the price of all hero characters by 75%. With the reduction, however there the reward for completion of the campaign also saw a 75% reduction, falling to 5,000 from the original 20,000.
Before the game’s official launch, according to various reports, Disney stepped in and pressured EA into deactivating the option to buy currency, as it worked to figure out a way to retool the micro-transactions, with the aim of reintroducing it at a later date.
Disney’s intervention came too late, as the conversation on lootboxes and their effects had already begun. On a larger scale, lootboxes are also being investigated by several governments to determine if they violate gambling laws, with Star Wars Battlefront II, and Overwatch among those being closing scrutinized.
Destiny 2 was a game which promised so much, and yet failed to deliver on multiple levels. From the lackluster end game, to the focus on lootboxes, Destiny 2 is arguably the worst example of the implementation of micro-transactions. The problems with micro-transactions in Destiny 2 have grown to such massive proportions that the movement #RemoveEververse has dominated the game’s official forums, with close to 30 pages of forum posts demanding that Bungie remove Eververse, Destiny 2’s micro-transaction storefront.
At launch, Bungie’s Destiny 2 was greeted with a ton of fanfare. Fans of the original Destiny were excited for a new experience. New worlds to explore, more lore to sink their teeth into, more aliens to shoot, Destiny 2 looked to continue giving Destiny fans what they wanted.
Everything started out well enough, with an enjoyable story and entertaining cast of characters, things looked good for Destiny 2. However, things quickly changed when players hit the game’s original level cap of 20. Where in the original Destiny, players played for hours on end to get the piece of armor, or gun that would help them turn the tide of battle. Or where players would need to complete the toughest challenges the game had to offer, the raid, to increase their character’s level.
All of this changed in Destiny 2. No longer were you required to play the toughest activities for the best loot. You didn’t even need to complete the most difficult activities for the best loot. As the loot pool in the normal version of the raids and Nightfalls were similar to the loot pool in their prestige counterparts. This changed the way players viewed the toughest challenges in the game, as there was no reason to attempted the highest difficulty activities.
Destiny 2 ditched all of that in favor of grinding for Bright Engrams, the game’s name for lootboxes. If players did not want to grind for said engrams, they could shell out money to get them. Contained in these Bright Engrams are items ranging from gun and armor ornaments, to ships, to Sparrows (mounts) and ghost shells. One might say that these are merely cosmetic, but Sparrows and ghost shells also have different attributes tied to them. Some Sparrows may have increased mobility, and some ghosts may highlight chests located on different planets, or drop materials when performing kills with guns containing certain attributes. These perks may not be ‘game-breaking’ but they certainly influence the way players interact with the game.
Then came the launch of Destiny 2’s first of two 20 dollar expansions, The Curse of Osiris. Judging from the pre-release live streams, and blog posts, I thought Curse of Osiris could have been a turning point in Destiny 2’s player count. But boy was I wrong. From a dismal campaign that took be little over 2 hours to complete, to a small and unsatisfying new play area, Mercury. Curse of Osiris was a slap in the face to Destiny fans hoping for more from Bungie. Not only was the content dissatisfying, Bungie introduced over a hundred new items to the game, only for more than half of these newly introduced items to be hidden behind Bright Engrams.
However, this was not Curse of Osiris’ biggest infringement, players who did not buy the expansion were locked out of prestige activities, activities they originally had access to. While Bungie later backpedaled a little bit later on, the damage was already done.
Finally, we have the Dawning, Destiny 2’s Christmas event. Together with the event, came Dawning Engrams. Where in other loot based games awarded players leveling up with the event’s lootboxes, Destiny 2 only awarded players with the original Bright Engrams. While you could earn loot from a selected pool while doing in-game activities, these items are not valued similarly as items you could get from the Dawning Engrams, going so far as to stack the same shader you get from the different means in two different slots.
What can be done?
I’ve gone on about the evils of a lootbox system and a couples of the more serious examples. But the question still remains, if a game wants to be a service and have a lifespan lasting years after its release, how can it sustain itself? How can it fund the development of future content? Well, my answer is simple albeit contentious. Instead of putting a skin behind a lootbox system, place them in plain view, with a reasonable set price attached to it. In this case, we as players can get the skins we want as well without going to the slot machine to try and get said item. Here we know what we want and how much it will take to get it.
I’m not here to say that you must not spend your money on items like loot boxes and the like. In fact, what you do with your cash is your problem. However, I must say this. I believe that these kinds of predatory lootbox systems have no place in a fully priced game.
As gamers, we must vote with our wallets. We have the power to tell companies that what they are doing is wrong. We have the power to change the way games are viewed by the rest of the public. Will you take a stand and say enough is enough, or will you continue to kowtow to publishers and continue to support their money grabbing schemes? The choice is yours.