Video gaming has never been a ‘cheap’ hobby. Games are often priced at premiums and consoles are usually an expensive proposal and investment. But over the past decade it seems that publishers and marketers have been more busy devising new ways to nickle and dime players rather than promoting their games or coming up with the next big idea. And while it might be loot boxes currently dominating the headlines there’s been a lot of other insidious money-making schemes developer over the past 10 years, some of which have (thankfully) gone away more or less and others that are still being encountered in almost every major release. But out of all of these, which one really is the one we want to see disappear right now?
With both the gaming and mainstream seemingly taking the fight to loot boxes and fans boycotting some of the biggest games of the year over their inclusion let’s start by taking a look at why these digital treasure chests have incited such a negative reaction. At their core loot boxes offer players rewards in exchange for in-game or real world currency. These rewards typically range from costumes, buffs, useful items and (in the case of Star Wars: Battlefront II (2017)) new characters to play as. While paying for additional or helpful content is nothing new (more on that below), look boxes add in an element of chance to the mix, since you never really know what you’ll get when you decide to put down some cash on a loot box. This leads to a whole new concern entirely – gambling. Many jurisdictions around the world set a minimum age for games of chance since minors are more susceptible to marketing and tricks to get them to spend money on a random shot at a prize. There is of course no age limit to playing video games, only the ESRB rating to gauge the content of the title, and in the case of Star Wars: Battlefront II (2017), the game received a ‘T’ rating, meaning it should be suitable for players as young as 13 years old to play.
This has led to government agencies in Belgium and the United States to launch investigations in the practice of loot boxes and if they do in fact violate gambling laws and that if so, it would be made illegal to sell games that include loot boxes in certain regions. In addition to this there’s also the fact that despite loot box payouts being governed by random number generators the odds of a ‘good’ drop are still controlled by the game’s designers. This opens the door for a whole new set of problems as it would therefore be possible for them to not only control the rate of more desirable drops but adjust drop rates to balance the game once too many players end up with coveted items which dramatically impacts the fairness towards players who might be coming later to the game.
So loot boxes are pretty bad but they are just one of many ways that publishers use to monetize their games. One of the most common ones is of course post-launch DLC, which since coming into the industry in the mid-2000’s has become a mainstay and a commonly accepted fact of modern gaming, despite being a source of much controversy when the practice was new. While I don’t see anything inherently wrong with downloadable content that is properly produced and actually makes the base-game better it has given rise to a few shady practices, namely season passes that allow you to essentially ‘pre-order’ DLC content, sometimes on the same day as the base game’s release. The problem here is that it’s often tied to an exclusive item that you can’t get in the game otherwise but will receive for pre-ordering the pass, often without knowing in full what the content of the season pass will be, meaning you might be wasting your money in the long run.
And then there’s the fact that downloadable content has become so prevalent in the industry that’s it’s just assumed that most games will end up getting new features down the road, often released as ‘Game of the Year’ editions that bundle all of the game’s original content and DLC for a new lower price. This will lead gamers who know DLC and GOTY editions are coming to hold off on the game and wait for the price to drop on the entire bundle, which while fine for them and their wallets seems to almost punish early adopters who wanted to check out the game when it was new. Sure it can be argued that you are paying more to play the game earlier, but you’re also paying more for what is essentially an incomplete version of the same game that may also be refined and tuned up over time.
On the topic of special editions, filled with more content, we also have the relatively new trend of offering multiple launch day editions of the same game, usually in a ‘Basic’, ‘Silver’ and ‘Gold’ format with the higher tiered editions coming with more digital goodies and sometimes even physical rewards (though those seem to be few and far between these days). My concern with this type of launch format mostly comes from competitive gamers who, if they decide to get a lower tiered edition are immediately at a disadvantage when compared to those players with more cash to spend on the gold edition of a game. This essentially makes the early online meta-game essentially useless as only a core group of privileged players will have access to the better content, giving them a boost that is unavailable to other players.
This is similar in concept to the paywall mechanics found in many mobile games however in an opposite order as most mobile games will only introduce their payment mechanics once you’ve made considerable progress into the game. And while it may be annoying to suddenly have to pay to proceed its important to remember that their was likely no barrier to actually begin playing the game and the players who are going for the top are likely dropping money because they enjoy playing the game. With console games however, players often have no choice but to pay more money early on in the process in order to remain competitive and not lose ground to players with more disposable income.
It’s unlikely that micro-transactions will be going away anytime soon, as publishers continue to push ways to recoup costs from game’s every ballooning budgets and passing that onto the consumer. And while it might seem that we, as players are powerless against these giant corporations, remember that we actually hold all the power. We can decide which games we buy, what DLC we pick up and only we can decide when too much is too much. Never before have consumers have so much power to influence major decisions thanks to social media and if the backlash EA received over Star Wars: Battlefront II (2017) is any indication, we can definitely keep gaming something that we can all afford to participate in.