2017 will be remembered as the year microtransactions went too far

Feature article

2017 should be remembered as a year that was absolutely brimming with fantastic games. Although unfortunately it will probably instead go down as the year that publishers and developers got too greedy, and took microtransactions to an all new, anti-consumer low point.

Microtransactions within games most certainly isn’t a new concept. It’s been a part of the gaming industry for over a decade now, popularised by free-to-play games that were free initially but tempted you with in-game purchases. Since then many games, even those sold at full-price, have adopted microtransactions as a means to gain additional revenue from their player base. We accepted the free-to-play model, many even accepted cosmetic microtransactions in full-priced games, but 2017 seems to have sent microtransactions to incredible new lows.

 

Loot Boxes

The Loot Box isn’t a new concept for 2017, but oh boy is it more prevalent now than ever. We are solidly into the latter half of the year and it’s beginning to feel like Loot Boxes are becoming the standard formula for Triple A releases. Loot Boxes are a specific form of mictrotransaction where the reward you get from your purchase is unknown until after you have paid for it. It’s a lucky dip, where your real money may end up buying you something worthless. And let’s face the facts, the way video games are currently handling Loot Boxes aligns them right next to slot machines on a psychological level. The difference being that slot machines are regulated, only accessible to those over the legal age, and when you win you get an actual physical pay-out.

Loot Boxes may be the most predatory and immoral form of mictrotransaction we have ever seen. And if that sounds hyperbolic or exaggerated then I’d recommend familiarising yourself with the concept of ‘Whales’, a term used in the industry to refer to the more vulnerable gamer who is capable of spending an insane amount of money on microtransactions if tempted. Whales are targeted by developers and publishers and their addictive tendencies are exploited to bring in more profit. There are also streams and YouTube channels specifically dedicated to opening Loot Boxes, many of which are unbelievably popular. Why is this a problem? Because look at the freely available age demographics of those watching. Kids love this shit. They love Loot Boxes. That’s a problem.

Fortnite

So I’m going to rant about a handful of video games released this year that perpetuate the horrible and anti-consumer use of mictrotransactions. And the first is a game I reviewed for Checkpoint by the name of Fortnite.

Fortnite was a game I was very much looking forward to before release, and a game I still occasionally find myself playing today. It had survival elements, fort-building elements, tower-defence elements, third-person shooting, oh, and Loot Boxes (in the form of llamas). Fortnite fills this really odd place in my mind because I genuinely love a lot of what it does. But for every amazing item it brings to the table, it also brings something equally terrible. And those terrible inclusions almost exclusively have some kind of link to the Loot Llamas. The real crux of the problem with Fortnite is that the entire game is designed to get you to buy llamas. The progression of the game is gated behind rewards acquired exclusively through these zoomorphic Loot Boxes and the grind you face is deliberate and painful. What makes things worse is that you may have hit a progression wall where you need better loot to continue, but you can’t even straight up buy that loot. You have to buy llama after llama, hoping to get something worth your while.

In my review of the game I wrote that “some llamas jackpot rewarding you with a huge amount of loot. The system gives you an endorphin rush that could rival slot machines, so much so that I’d almost consider the system dangerous”. A statement that still absolutely rings true.

Epic Games made a decision during the development of Fortnite, and that decision was to tailor the player’s enjoyment and progression in the game around microtransactions. A decision that undeniably made the game worse in favour of earning the company more money.

 

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Middle-earth: Shadow of War may actually take the cake for the worst use of microtransactions. Although to be fair, a few games this year are trying their darnedest to dethrone it. We found out about Warner Bros. intentions to release Loot Boxes and a Marketplace into the game back in August and now that it has just released we know that nothing has changed to make it any better.  In fact, things are looking worse than ever. So what’s the deal with Shadow of War’s Loot Boxes?

Shadow of War occupies this really treacherous space. Many prior games that offered Loot Boxes or any form of microtransaction for that matter had a few excuses they could use. “We are a free game” is a pretty good one, “the microtransactions are for cosmetic items only” is a contentious but often acceptable one, “it’s a multiplayer game and money from microtransactions is going to fund further free updates and development” is another one we hear a bit.

But Shadow of War couldn’t offer any of those excuses. That’s because Shadow of War didn’t really have an excuse to offer. Warner Bros. wanted to push the boundaries and see what they could get away with and honestly it won’t be a surprise to see them succeed.

The reason these Loot Boxes are such an issue is because they do exactly what we feared they would do when their announcement was made. We feared that the game’s progression and balance would be tied to loot that a player may or may not have thanks to Loot Boxes. We feared that the game would be designed in such a way that the alternative to buying Loot Boxes was to instead grind for the content. We feared that Loot Boxes weren’t a simple added extra that didn’t have too much of an impact on the game. And if pre-release reviews are to be trusted, we were right to fear.

 

NBA 2k18 and Forza Motorsport 7

So I’m going to go for a double whammy with this one because both NBA 2k18 and Forza Motosport 7 have done some very similarly crummy things with their microtransaction model. Both Forza and NBA 2K are big yearly franchises and they highlight why 2017 is such a bad year for greedy microtransaction use better than any other game in this article. That’s because you can directly compare the games to their counterparts from last year.

I didn’t review NBA 2k18 myself but it certainly sounds like I dodged a pretty sizeable bullet. The microtransaction purchases within the hit basketball gaming franchise were outrageously ludicrous this year, with things like stat increases for your character purchasable with real world cash.

Our reviewer Ed summarises his frustration within his review pretty succinctly:

“I was in a world of grind to get even a few minutes of game time during my debut which made collecting Virtual Currency (VC) for stat increases very very difficult. And given the very low amount rewarded to you in NBA 2K18, I felt like I needed to purchase VC to improve.”

“If you’ve built a game which forces players to feel like they need to purchase in-game currency to complete the main storyline then you should be marketing your game on the iTunes app store as the next Game of War.”

Forza Motorsport 7 is certainly no better. The game actually has the audacity to lock features and options that were readily available in past iterations of the franchise behind a Loot Box. Yep, features such as track conditions which were previously a click away are now acquired as “mods” and locked behind a randomised pay gate.

We should be celebrating Forza Motorsport 7 for what is apparently a really fantastic game, but instead our thoughts are muddied by frustrating practices performed by greedy developers and publishers.

If you didn’t need anti-consumer microtransactions to further fund your game in 2016, you don’t need them now. And if you’re going to sell key features of your game such as stat increases or track conditions, or make people grind for content, then you’re no better than free-to-play mobile games.

 

Star Wars Battlefront II

The most recent microtransaction-riddled fiasco can be found within Star War Battlefront II and what players of the beta are discovering to be an atrocious pay-to-win Loot Box system. The game is offering gameplay altering buffs found within Loot Boxes that could make a very substantial difference to your effectiveness in game. This is paying to win, and it’s one of the worst thing to happen to competitive multiplayer games.

I actually thought we had moved past this phase. Games like DOTA 2 proved that you could make a successful game without needing to resort to a pay-to-win system, and many games begun following suit. These are free games I’m talking about, by the way. Then in waddles Battlefront II, pockets already bursting with cash, demanding you give it more of your money in order to maintain an even playing field. It’s gross.

What makes this so nefarious is that these companies know they can get away with it thanks to their brand names. It’s a freakin Star Wars game. George Lucas could ask you to make a blood sacrifice before each purchase and the game would still sell copies into the millions.

 

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I don’t know what happened that made Triple A developers suddenly start looking at microtransactions the way Wile E. Coyote looks at the Road Runner, but it’s not good for the player. A trend is forming and it’s setting a precedent for what we should expect in the future. If things are bad now and publishers are getting away with it, expect things to get even worse from here.

What we are seeing above all else is a noticeable trend of microtransactions being a big part of a game’s makeup. These aren’t added extras, they are structurally embedded into the core experience of a game and linked in with progression and reward. They are as big a part of a game’s design as any other aspect and gameplay and enjoyment is being knowingly jeopardised for their intrusive inclusion.

Here’s a fact. If you are asking us to pay real money for your game as a shortcut to acquiring loot, then you are telling us that your game is not worth playing. You are telling us that there is an actual monetary value associated with skipping sections of gameplay. You are telling us that you built your game to be deliberately frustrating and/or grindy to encourage your players to spend more money. And that’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that you’re selling things for an unfair competitive advantage or selling features you would have previously released for free.

Honestly, it’s just not acceptable. And as an industry we can do much, much better.