The predatory practices of video game publishers and development houses has gotten out of control as of late. The simple truth is that consumers have been whittled down over time into accepting anti-consumer policies. It seems that with every release by one of the major players in the business the envelope of what is acceptable is pushed further and further. It is no longer about delivering just a fun and memorable video game but an experience that can be stretched until the next release in the same franchise. Monetizing the player has become the primary concern. Mainstream AAA video games are fast becoming farms where the consumers are being fed and then drained for the purposes of making more and more money. This is being done at the expense of the integrity of the publishers and developers underneath them as well having a knock-on effect where other companies attempting something similar are often fed to the wolves. There are however beacons of light in this industry and they perhaps have the perfect model to make everyone happy.
To be perfectly clear this is not an anti-publisher rant or a kind of rallying cry against the act of monetizing the player, however I do think it has been taken too far. The most obvious example of monetization has been the infamous loot box. This style of monetization can be traced back to collectable card world. Baseball cards and trading card games like Magic: the Gathering have used this process for the longest time; you buy a pack of cards, the rarities and acquisition of those rarities are known to the consumer via a simple graph on the packaging and you leave it up to chance. There is an inherently addictive nature to this process, there is the allure of the one more time nature of pulling various cards to see if you get the one you were seeking. The difference between this and a video game loot box is the inherent value of the product, and it divorces it from gambling. With trading cards, especially with investible ones like out of print baseball cards, there is an inherent value in owning a physical item; it is tradeable and forms its own secondary market economy in which players can engage, this same secondary market creates a loop business where players can buy boxes of product and trade the rarest cards found in them for a premium. It becomes a healthy business model due to the nature of what it is. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the loot box economy.
Digital items seldom have any value to them due to being in a closed system controlled entirely by the creator. The problem in this is that the plug can be pulled at any time and the consumer, who has already invested money into it, will effectively lose everything without any recourse. In the trading card game world, there are limited print runs of every set of cards, once the print run ends the cards become rarer as a whole and the value of the product can go up depending on the popularity of said set. This creates an economy of scarcity which is simply not present in a digital environment. Digital items can never go out of print or become rare due to them being data stored on a server. Various publishers retain a closed system where games do not interact with one another and there is no trading outside of games which mimic the model of trading card games, often digital versions of trading card games themselves. Once a player buys a loot box either with earned currency from the game or by real money there is nowhere to go from there. Spinning the roulette wheel of a loot box for an item you desire becomes effectively gambling. What makes this even more insidious is that a lot of the time the odds are not given to the player, so they don’t really know the percentages of getting their preferred item. Over time the in-game currency has become so expensive that the only reasonable method of obtaining what the player wants is through using actual money. This has crept into video gaming slowly over time with publishers testing the waters through several years of exploitation.
With the advent of online interactivity various video games companies have taken it upon themselves to expand upon their games. In the 1990’s and 2000’s popular video games would often receive expansion packs. This extended the life of the original game and drove up sales but also gave the opportunity to the developer to expand on ideas, create new locations, characters and various other improvements to the original game. Modern video games are expanded upon through downloadable content (DLC), an easy pipeline to the players of their original game as well as being relatively less expensive than an old expansion pack. DLC was almost immediately rife with problems due to how publishers decided to monetize their existing content. While most would add new content like multiplayer maps or even new story chapters, some publishers would do egregious nonsense to squeeze as much out of the game as possible. An early example of this was the horse armour DLC from Bethesda for their hit game Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The content was simple; pay 3 dollars for a decorative armour plating for your horse mount. The problem with this, and why it drew the ire of fans, was that Oblivion was a single player game and the armour could only be enjoyed by one person. It was basically useless cosmetic content for a ludicrously high price. Other companies like Capcom attempted on-disc DLC with Street Fighter X Tekken, which made people question if the company had gone insane by charging people to unlock something they have already realistically paid for. Fast forward to Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and selling a reticule dot for a dollar in their store. There needs to be no further explanation as to how gross this is. It becomes even more egregious when you take into consideration that there are kids playing these games. Kids often do not have a concept of how money works until much later in life and can easily be taken for a ride by these AAA publishers, their enticing video games and their predatory practices.
Publishers ramping up their business plans of milking the consumer can be easily chronicled in one game franchise- FIFA. EA’s behemoth of a soccer franchise honestly needs no introduction to the layperson or a seasoned gamer. It has become an institution and by far EA’s most profitable franchise internationally. First appearing in EA’s other soccer game UEFA Champion’s League 2006-2007 (the XBOX 360 version specifically), the Ultimate Team mode was first introduced to FIFA in the 2009 edition of the annual franchise. It is basically a collectable card game where players open packs and obtain players, staff, and other things with stats to fill their team with. Initially it didn’t do all too well, but Andrew Wilson saw money in monetizing the system and it became something worthwhile. The reason Ultimate Team worked so well was due to maximization potential of forming a team, instead of going up against existing teams the player formed their own custom super club based on the cards they gathered. An estimated 200 million was earned from the mode from FIFA 2013. While the mode has trading, it is still based on spending money on a roulette.
EA itself is responsible for the microtransaction culture of video games, where more and more money is injected into the game after the initial buy-in to own the game. EA’s soccer game isn’t the main culprit, but it has emboldened other developers, especially for mobile games, to take things further by using the systems of microtransactions to gouge players. An example is Bungie’s Destiny 2, while not a mobile game, it is a free-to-play game which has recently changed its own in-game store to sell items such as the hover swoop bike (called Sparrows in the game) for as much as 8 dollars. The most evocative and original designs are behind the in-game cash store and players have complained that Bungie have been developing the game to sell the most unique items through that store. This doesn’t stop at just a vehicle either, but it involves other things like skins and emotes as well. While the mainstream AAA video games are seemingly marching on a never-ending journey to see how they can degenerate further, there is in hope in the industry.
While free to play games are built for microtransactions from the outset it becomes ironic when the best examples of monetization come from them. The model of free to play games tend to be to let the player experience the game by being openly generous to them from the beginning to hook them, and then slowly put barricades up to slow progression so they can sell progress to the player. This opens up a disparity between players of haves and have-nots, where the paying player would have all the power in the game and thus be able to see more of it quicker versus the person who pays nothing and will progress through the game at a snails pace. Of course, what this is meant to do is build a sense of aspiration in the free player to convert them to a paying player. This can be seen in free mobile titles such as Netmarble’s popular Lineage 2: Revolution, a game which can be played for free but always tries to sell aspiration to the free player. This is not however true with all free to play games or even mobile titles.
There are two successful free to play titles which have made their customers happy to the point where they would pay the developer due to good will. The titles I am referring to is Digital Extremes’ Warframe for PC and console and Yongshi and Manjuu’s hit mobile game Azur Lane. Both titles exist in a sea of games which callously take advantage of players and prey on their psychology.
Azur Lane is a Chinese mobile phone game developed in the wake of the very popular Kantai Collection franchise from Japan; a game about anthropomorphic representations of World War 2 ships turned into anime girls of all shapes, sizes and personalities. The game is open to abuse with its subject matter, but they have decided to provide a full free game to people. The game is a fully fleshed out scrolling shooter like Gradius or Lifeforce using random drops in game maps as well as a gacha system to collect more girls to add to your ever-expanding fleet. Gacha is similar to the aforementioned collectible trading cards, but instead you get a random capsule and open it up to find your random toy inside. The genius of the game is that everything in it is doable for free. Nearly every aspect of the game can be garnered through just playing the game without progress being slowed one bit. The differences between players who spend a lot of money and no money amounts to fluff like costumes for the hundreds of characters. It is possible to be a premium customer in this game and buy your way into grinding more levels and trying to spin the roulette for more ships but it is barely noticeable and not at all advertised to the player constantly like it is in Lineage 2: Revolution for example. The gacha system is also incredibly fair to the player and lets them know what the percentage of pulling rarities are. The game is also supported by a team of people who are open to criticism and are in constant communication with the player base. Earlier in the year Yostar (the international arm for the game) celebrated the first anniversary for the English release. The celebration took place on the USS Iowa, a real warship, and had a live-stream to communicate with the fans. It was a complete disaster with many problems but as a way of saying sorry they bequeathed all the players premium currency and another highly desired item from the game. This happens quite often when things go wrong and the company has created a great relationship with the player base. There is trust to the point where some players have expressed the desire to pay the company money because the free game runs so smoothly and they have never felt like they’ve been taken advantage of. Similarly, this happens in Digital Extremes’ game.
Warframe has a similar model to Azur Lane but it takes it a step further. The communication effort of Digital Extremes is very similar to Azur Lane’s developers but there is something the phone game doesn’t have; a player economy. Warframe is a fast-paced loot game based on creating the titular warframe robot suits, powering them up through mods and letting them loose on enemies to do it all over again. It is a good gameplay loop made famous by Blizzard’s Diablo series. The player economy in Warframe is based on the actions of the players and is kept up by them as well. The various items in the game which are tradeable create a running economy which Digital Extremes does not interfere with it. The company allows players to inject more premium currency into the economy by using real money to buy various items and then it cycles into the pool of the player economy. Like Azur Lane, Digital Extremes never throws the in-game cash shop into people’s faces, it is simply a thing that exists on one of the pages where other in-game shopping is done and it’s certainly never a requirement to enjoy the game to its fullest. Warframe uses a similar system of correspondence to Azur Lane; through constant communication with the players they have fostered a relationship with them that is positive for the game and the player experience. Players can easily hold the developer to account and it is encouraged.
The predatory practices of the video game industry are ingrained in how it currently runs. The AAA publishers continue to move in the direction of cutting up their games to sell small portions to people at a premium. While the titans of the industry are battling it out with these tactics, smaller companies are finding newer ways which are more pro-consumer. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and people will simply reach it if they vote with their wallet if they think they have been taken advantage of. The power is in the consumer.