BUSINESS

Gaming Has a Gambling Problem: The degradation of the $60 game

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Carter Diggs
Oxford Stories
mcdiggs@go.olemiss.edu

Since the days of the PS3 and the Xbox 360, the price of a new game pushed out by a triple-A studio has been $60. For $60, you would usually get a complete, quality-assured product.  

Games were expected to have all the necessary content on the disk, and even the notion of a day, one patch meant to smooth gameplay over, was somewhat controversial. 

Downloadable content, or DLC, was in its earlier stages, and was generally conceptualized after the completion of the full base game. It was a less essential component and extra content from the developers was used to extend the game’s shelf life. The early days of gaming’s previous generation were much more simple.

As time went on, however, game publishers have pushed developers more to include several customer-unfriendly practices in their games. This started with day-one DLC implemented often as a pre-order bonus.  

These pre-order bonuses were used to convince players to purchase games before reviews came out, thus letting the companies have more leeway on the quality of their games on launch date, since many would have pre-ordered the product anyway.  

And if you didn’t want to pay for the game before it came out? You had to shell out a few extra dollars for the DLC offered day one. This was the first circumstance in which we can see the $60 game no longer truly being $60.

The next customer-unfriendly strategy was micro-transactions. These are small purchases made in a game that can give players a bonus.  

In all fairness, there’s nothing wrong with micro-transactions in and of themselves. In the mobile game market, where most games have to be free so people will check them out, it’s one of the only ways those companies can stay afloat.  

With these small, free games, I see nothing wrong with micro-transactions since that’s how the game will get its support. Where they don’t belong is in a game that I already paid $60 for.  

Square Enix got into hot water a couple of years back for their treatment of “Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.” Close to the release of the game, they decided to have the developers shoehorn a micro-transaction-based store selling ammo and stat boosts into the game.

People were rightly furious that Square Enix would try to sneak in a way for them to peddle off a few extra dollars after already charging their audience $60 for the game. If this was some free-to-play mobile game, no one would have cared. But since this was a premium priced game, the action was unacceptable.

Above all, the worst practice that ends up affecting games is splitting up a finished product so some of it can be sectioned off and sold as DLC. Yes, companies have taken to literally splitting up complete games and providing their customers an unfinished product at $60, only to charge them $40 more for the full experience.

Hell, this practice isn’t even new. In Bungie’s hit 2014 shooter “Destiny,” it was confirmed that the developers had been told by the publishers to take certain segments of the game and wall them off so they could be sold separately. Some of this content was still found on the disk, which added to the customers’ discontent.  

The most egregious example of this practice though is in Square Enix’s 2016 open world role playing game “Final Fantasy XV.” In games like “Destiny,” the content sectioned off felt like it wasn’t central to the game’s plot, a side story if you will.

Square Enix, however, decided to take a serrated machete to the game’s plot. The game’s story was riddled with issues, such as intentionally blocking major events and information from the player’s view, having characters leave temporarily for no explained reason, and introducing new ideas that are intentionally never developed or mentioned again. These removed and nonexistent story beats are the beating heart of the abomination that is the game’s DLC.  

Want to find out about that totally important thing that Gladio left you guys? Buy the DLC.

What about that big injury Ignis sustains during the Altissia arc. Are we never going to get to see how that happened? Buy the DLC.

What about that extremely jarring reveal about Prompto’s family and origins that is literally not mentioned after it first comes up?

Buy. The. DLC.

In the end, these missing pieces hurt the overall narrative of “Final Fantasy XV.” The game feels unfinished, and it’s a universal point among critics that, at some point, the game’s plot rushes itself into oblivion.  

Had the game had all of the content and story from the DLC episodes, the game would have felt much better, and players wouldn’t be constantly scratching their heads.

Lastly, gaming has come into one last serious problem because of greedy publishers. In most cases, they don’t really affect games themselves, but do something even worse. They get into the heads of the players.

The phenomenon I’m describing is known as the loot box, a term coined in last year’s online shooter “Overwatch.” For the uninitiated, a lootbox is basically just a micro-transaction but with a dice roll.  

Instead of knowing what you’ll be getting, the loot box awards you with random items or currency. The fanbase of “Overwatch” didn’t really object that much to the new concept since Blizzard stated that new content, such as maps, characters, and modes, would be free to all players in the game, and that they would pay for those through the loot boxes.  

It was seen as an alternative to the standard model of paying for DLC a few months after a game came out. Another point always made was that the loot boxes in the game only awarded cosmetic rewards, such as character skins, profile icons, and voice lines.

The moral validity of “Overwatch’s” lootboxes is still discussed today and lies in an admittedly grey area, but it didn’t take long for other developers to integrate the system into their games in a truly exploitative manner.

Monolith’s 2017 game “Middle Earth: Shadow of War” has been the center of a months-long controversy due to its handling of the loot box system. First off, the game should never have had them in the first place.

“Shadow of War” is a $60 single player action game, and as such, has no need to try to implement a loot box system. What’s even worse, however, is the lengths the developer and publisher will go to convince people to buy loot boxes.  

Players can occasionally earn free loot boxes and redeem them at an in-game marketplace, which is designed to highlight loot boxes you can buy right next to where you can redeem them. It’s a subtle, yet insidious tactic that the developers use.

The worst part of the game’s loot boxes system is still yet to come. In the final act of the game, in order for players to unlock the game’s true ending, they have to go through a punishing set of missions in which many of their units will die.  

In between missions, players recounted often having to go out and find more captains and warchiefs to replenish their army. How is this done?

You can either go out and grind a bunch until you have another set of satisfactory soldiers that you’ll just send off to the slaughter, or you can just shell out money for a loot box and be ready instantly for the next mission.

It is no secret that this last act of the game heavily favors purchasing loot boxes so players can skip the artificial grindfest developers set up.  

This starts a worrying trend. For the past year, defenders of loot boxes in premium games have always parroted the same excuse that “it’s only cosmetic,” but that is obviously not true anymore. What might developers try next now that it’s apparently OK to design part of a game to not be fun so people can pay to skip it?

The other truly worrying thing about loot boxes is that they have an opportunity to affect us in a way that no other anti-consumer decision has before. The loot boxes appeal to a pleasure many have trouble keeping in check – gambling.

While official organizations refuse to categorize loot boxes as gambling, they have the same functionality as a slot machine. You stick a small amount of money into the game, you open the lootbox, and then you repeat until you get whatever cosmetic item or boost you were wanting.  

As far as I’m concerned, loot boxes ARE gambling, and right now, they don’t have to follow any regulations casinos or other digital gambling organizations follow. This means a variety of tactics and tricks are open to developers to get people to buy.  

This is terrible, because I can see people draining more money than they want to on a system because of the tricks companies are using.

I have an addictive personality, so I understand the urge to purchase those loot boxes every time a special event comes around “Overwatch.” I can’t imagine how someone with legitimate gambling problems must feel with the state of affairs with games.

Things have recently been taken to a head with Activision’s genius idea to make opening loot boxes a public spectacle in their upcoming shooter “Call of Duty WWII.”

In the game social hub, which is Normandy Beach (no you didn’t misread that), players can select a location and have a loot box spawn there and open it for everyone to see.  

The idea is people in these lobbies may see someone hit the jackpot and try to emulate him or her by buying loot boxes of their own – just like slot machines at a casino.

Now, I’ve ranted and raved long and hard about these bad decisions that companies are making, and many are probably wondering if there’s anything that can be done. I have a simple answer, though it might not be the easiest.  

If you are a fan of video games, vote with your wallet. Go for games that respect you as a consumer and give you a high quality experience. It might take some looking, but there are some great games out there by great people that don’t force upon you the failing of the triple-A industry.  

Some good examples are “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,” which seeks to provide a premium quality game for only $30, no strings attached, and “Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus,” a story-focused first person shooter that doesn’t force any kind of micro-transactions down your throat.

Sadly, if people don’t keep pushing back, the industry is going to see these practices as increasingly acceptable and just go in harder on micro-transactions and loot boxes. Since balancing games around the loot boxes is already on the table, I really don’t want to see things go that way.

Putting $60 in a game doesn’t mean $60 any more, but that doesn’t have to be true forever. If enough people push back, companies will listen.

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