We recently looked more closely at the rise of microtransactions in gaming, but geez, a lot has happened since then. Our initial article, which dropped in the wake of the release of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, looked at the issue very generally, but now, as a new year starts and following the way that the Interwebs exploded following the botched launch of Star Wars Battlefront II, we figured it was about time to revisit the subject, in particular with the way that it's going to affect the way we consume these titles moving forward.
It's a tricky situation, no matter which way you cut it. The rising cost of game development is prompting developers and publishers to seek out new ways of monetising their games. We initially applauded the decision to move away from the first Battlefront's season pass setup, but the alternative, a murky loot box system that both confuses and confounds, has revealed itself as a more insidious and anti-consumer alternative. Our initial hope was that EA would follow Blizzard's lead with Overwatch and implement a cosmetics-only policy (which, it has to be said, still has a moral question mark hanging next to it as it separates the haves from the have-nots), but alas it wasn't to be. With the benefit of hindsight, they no doubt wish they had focused on cosmetics too.
Gauging the public reaction to a particular monetisation model has been proving precarious for publishers to say the least. EA didn't predict the amount of vitriol that would be focused in its general direction around the releases of Need for Speed Payback and now Star Wars Battlefront II, but on the other hand, surely they knew there would be some sort of kickback. Perhaps they crunched the numbers and decided that a few people up in arms on Reddit was a price worth paying, though given the fallout this last couple of months, whoever made that call is likely feeling rather sheepish about it now.
We're not going to be revisionist on the matter. Despite the cumbersome progression system, we enjoyed Battlefront II, and we don't think the situation is quite as bad as some people have made out. Still, it's undeniable that the game would have been better if they'd done things differently. Reports regarding the time it would take to unlock characters were exaggerated for effect, of that there's no doubt, and by the end, people were having fun with all the downvoting and shit-kicking. It became sport. Taking aim at EA right now is like shooting at fish in a barrel: you can't miss.
It had to happen, though. Watching on while social media melted down and EA took flak from all-comers revealed the amount of discontent brewing among so-called gamers, people who are tired of seeing their hobby continually and aggressively monetised. A line had to be drawn in the sand, and where better to draw it than under the microtransactions offered by the biggest publisher working with the biggest IP in the entertainment business. While it would be a shame for a game as beautiful and fan-servant as Battlefront II to go down in flames under the weight of damning public opinion, it's going to take something as seismic as that if we're going to turn this situation around and find a mutually agreeable status quo.
Let's face it, microtransactions aren't going anywhere. Development costs and the ongoing support required to maintain games as a service demand constant remuneration from the paying public, and when you run an organisation as large as EA, running costs are extremely high and the demand for profit is constant. DLC is one way that devs like to recoup costs (it's relatively cheap because everything's set up - the engine, the assets, the tech - and all they've got to do is staff up appropriately), and we're seeing a rise in standalone mini-campaigns like Dishonored: Death of the Outsider and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The other obvious option is that the price of games might rise. Would players prefer to pay an extra tenner for a big budget game at launch if it meant no paid-DLC and no microtransactions? It's hard to say. Regardless of what we might want in an ideal world, we the public need to be realistic about the need for these companies to operate in the modern marketplace and make money, but game makers also need to know that there's a line that shouldn't be crossed, especially in triple-A.
On the other hand, as we've seen recently with official investigations popping up all over the world into loot boxes with arguments that they're gambling aimed at children (we'd say that it's gambling aimed at everyone, but that's beside the point), it's also clear that things can be taken too far, and that pay-to-win mechanics - however subtley implemented - are simply not acceptable in a game that has already asked you for a day's worth of your wages before you've even picked up the controller. Perhaps the solution is that publishers and developers need to look to streamline their operations more, and instead of looking for ways to balance rising costs with rising profits, they could scale back production costs and find a happier balance.
We've been watching the slow creep of microtransactions into big budget games, and increasingly critical feedback is reflecting when these practices affect the end-user experience. The main challenge is working out just how much these systems impact on the fun these games give us. Is Need for Speed Payback a bit grindy to incentivise microtransactions, or were they just poorly designed mechanics that ended up dominating the mid-game? Similarly, with Shadow of War, the microtransactions were most relevant to the end-game content, but that's a part of the game that some reviewers wouldn't have had too much time with before casting judgment, and it's mostly completionists hoping the platinum the game who are going to feel the effects.
As for multiplayer, it's even harder to detect the influence of microtransactions. When needlessly convoluted systems are layered on top of each other it can be hard to get a handle on what exactly is going on under the hood. In the past our progression was a means to help us find similarly skilled opponents, but as we move towards more cosmetic- and microtransaction-based systems, we're seeing publishers experimenting with matchmaking systems whereby a player's spending habits are more important than their k/d ratio. When we're matched up with opponents more likely to incentivise further spending than give us a fair fight, you could argue that gameplay is starting to take a backseat.
While there are plenty techniques for extracting cash from players, not all of them are universally condemned. Something like Planetside 2 has been using progress accelerators for a number of years, but as it's a free-to-play game it's really hard to begrudge its creators for offering paying players a fast-track solution. When it comes to triple-A, however, it's more clearcut, and the recent reaction to EA's Star Wars shooter points to a clear line that players don't want to see crossed. Battlefront II walked straight into a storm of resentment at launch, and changes to the progression system between beta and full release only clouded the situation further. Might we see more companies like EA and Activision wait until their games have been out for a few weeks before microtransactions are implemented, as we recently saw with Call of Duty: WWII?
At the end of the day this is a situation that has been brewing for a number of years now, but finally, at the tail-end of 2017, it came to a head. We were delighted to see so many impassioned people defending their hobby, and we genuinely hope that the collective reaction makes a telling difference. Microtransactions aren't going away, of that much we can be certain, but let's hope that the events of the last few months have given publishers a much-needed wakeup call. 2018 is going to be a pivotal year in this ongoing dialogue between publishers and consumers, and there's work to be done to repair the trust that has been broken. Triple-A is at a crossroads, and realistically it could still go either way, so here's hoping the next wave of big hitting titles respect our time as much as their creators seem to respect our wallets.