Category Archives: Commentary

Holiday Updates

I got in some quality gaming time in the past few days.

Far Cry 4

As mentioned in previous post, I was having some issues getting into (or really, staying into) Far Cry 4 despite it being better than what else I was playing. I originally attributed this to the breakpoints within the game, but as others deduced in the comments, it might have been from other tertiary concerns as well. After thinking about it, I agree it was not so much the game itself. Part of my “obligation” in playing Far Cry 4 was that it was taking up a lot of hard drive space, and I thus felt like I needed to finish it and make room for something else I had wanted to try.

After the insight, I went back to Far Cry 4 and enjoyed the experience more as I coasted into and past the endgame. I feel like Far Cry 3 is the better narrative experience overall, but Far Cry 4 plays much better and is a much more cohesive as a whole. Being able to get mobility options like the Wingsuit early on really opens the game world up, without being overpowered.

The Talos Principle

In a word: Amazing.

Portal 1/2 are better games overall, but The Talos Principle is the first puzzle game in quite a while to engender a sort of mild existential crisis. And that’s really what puzzle games are for, right?

Inevitably, everyone always seems to point out the most superficial philosophical questions when it comes to games like this – “Can robots be people?” “Are people just robots?” – and then just stop there. The Talos Principle should invite more salient questions though, and did for me. The game’s setting is one in which mankind is slowly dying, and you can read (and listen via audio logs) to how various individuals react to that inevitability. Some fight on to the bitter end, some leave to spend their last days with family, others do a LAN party, and another pair enjoy one final sunset and then commit mutual suicide. Milton, the AI “serpent,” will question your grasp of the meaning of life over the course of the game, and how it can be ascertained, often deconstructing arguments in ways that would lead some people I know IRL into tears.

That is what The Talos Principle should be noted for, not because the player-character is an android. If anything, whether the player’s android avatar is truly conscious in the same way people are is the least interesting question posed.

Anyway, I highly recommend it if you intrigued by philosophy or pathos or puzzles. It gots all three.

Warframe

According to the Search bar, I have apparently never talked about Warframe before. I played it once last year for about two hours, and then dropped it. I was interested in taking a second look primarily because my Amazon Prime account gave me Twitch Prime, which in turn gives free goodies every month, including what I thought was a free “warframe” but ended up being cosmetics. I think.

Warframe is a third-person over-the-shoulder looter shooter. Think “Diablo meets space ninjas” with a generous helping of impenetrable nonsense. It is also about the slickest F2P experience out in gaming right now.

The general idea is that you are a space ninja and need to space-grind ninja-resources across the solar system. Maps are surprisingly well-crafted, although you will be seeing them quite a bit, as each one serves several different gameplay types – sometimes you need to kill X mobs, sometimes you need to do a sort of King of the Hill node capture, etc. As you finish missions and kill bosses and collect loot, you unlock the ability to craft different warframes (aka classes), which come with different movement abilities, attacks, and so on.

I doubt I stick with Warframe for much longer than what I have already played. While it is a lot of visceral fun being able to jump around the map as a space ninja doing cool space ninja things, there doesn’t really ever feel like much of a narrative “point.” When I completed the first story section, for example, the next required me to reactive a Solar Relay to access missions on Venus. The activation though, required a laundry list of different, metagame-related things, like obtaining 20 mods, equipping four of them, etc. While that is a good way to ensure I am playing the game properly, it also meant I had to play several maps for the express purpose of trying to obtain randomly-dropped mods. Each map probably lasts 10 minutes or less, so it’s not a huge ask, but it still didn’t sit well with me.

Guild Wars 2

Even though I had not been playing playing GW2 for quite some time, I kept it installed on my PC and had been logging in once a day in order to accumulate the free goodies ArenaNet gives you. The currency is nice, but the real prize for me were basically the Tomes of Knowledge, which are free levels. The idea was that once I ended up purchasing one or both of the expansions, I’d have the opportunity to actually experience the content on a class of my choosing, rather than having to stick with the Elementalist, which is the only level-80 class I have.

Well, I picked up Heart of Thorns this past weekend for $15. So I’m playing GW2 again.

It’s funny though, the sort of things that go through my mind when playing MMOs like this. For one thing, I really enjoy the Necromancer, and that is the class I wanted to experience more of the game with. Since she was level 45, I could have skipped near the cap with my 34 Tomes. But wait a minute, I could also get an easy 10 levels via leveling up crafting, right? Gotta save those Tomes for when they are more valuable. Probably like never. But, whatever, I have level 400 Cooking now.

As I cycled through my characters just to re-familiarize myself with things, I also noticed that at least three of my characters received a 5-year anniversary present pack. Which, incidentally, meant I got three level-50 boosts. I had already leveled the Necro into level 55 by that point, but it will be good for later alts.

Anyway, I will be playing GW2 some more now. Seeing people running around on mounts really makes me want to pick up Path of Flames, just to make leveling alts easier, but I’m going to hold off for now. Will my GW2 experience be another passing fancy (again)? Will not jumping in with both (expansion) feet cause the game to be another passing fancy? Stay tuned.

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Breakpoints

The two games I have been playing lately have been Far Cry 4 and No Man’s Sky. While I can and have played NMS for 3+ hours at a stretch, I struggle to play Far Cry 4 for more than maybe an hour. This is in spite of Far Cry 4 being the more entertaining game on both a micro and macro sense.

On reflection, the reason seems obvious: breakpoints.

Far Cry 4 is technically an open-world game that allows you to run wherever. However, there are definitely a lot of story-based missions that have clearly defined beginnings and endings and checkpoints inbetween. While they are not necessarily spaced far apart, there comes a time at the end of a mission that you begin thinking about how you’ll be spending another 30 minutes sneaking/guns-a-blazin’ through the next one. Why not just hit Save & Quit and take a break instead, eh? The end is as good a place as any to quit.

Conversely, No Man’s Sky is a lot like Minecraft insofar as there are no particular breakpoints. Turning in Missions sounds like a good time… but as soon as you turn them in, new missions appear to replace the old ones. And, oh, this one just requires you to exit the space station and kill one pirate ship. While you’re out there, the planet in the background has the Trading Post destination for that other mission clogging up your log. Ooo, it’s been a minute since you’ve seen a planet with water, so maybe go collect some Kelp Pods… et cetra, et cetra.

This phenomenon is not new by any means. Anyone playing MMOs knows it intimately, insofar as the breakpoints offered by dungeons, turning in quests at a hub, winning a PvP match, and so on.

What has become more interesting to me now, is how these breakpoints affect my perception of the underlying game. Like I said at the beginning, Far Cry 4 is objectively more fun. I know it’s more fun. But when I sit down to game in the evening, I find myself hesitating on the Far Cry 4 icon. If the game is so fun, why can’t I play it for more than an hour? What does it say about a game that I feel somewhat relieved when it’s over, and I boot up something else afterwards?

When I think back on the MMOs I have played, especially with WoW, I recognize that while there were breakpoints in certain content, there were a variety of alternative activities that allowed one to unwind. Raid for two days a week, spend time farming mats the rest. Complete a dungeon, go back to town and look into enchanting your new gear. and so on. Far Cry 4 technically has some elements of that – collecting herbs, selling vendor trash, etc – but obviously the game isn’t exactly designed to give you as full a break as an MMO.

The other interesting thing about breakpoints is how I used to feel like games without them would lead to faster burnout. It seems to make intuitive sense that the longer you leave a candle burning, the faster it goes out. Instead, I feel like all the abrupt starts and stops in Far Cry 4 have decreased the mental shelf life of the game. It is almost as though my mind only recognizes the number of intervals, and not the total length – playing an hour at a time is the equivalent as as playing four hours at a time. This certainly makes sense to me in terms of FF14 as well, when I kept running into content walls that all but required me to stop playing for the day.

Perhaps breakpoints aren’t as good as I once thought.

Fun Collecting

Syncaine made an astute observation in my prior No Man’s Sky (NMS) impression post:

I’ve never read, this included, anything that suggests the game is actually fun. People point out what is missing or broken, and what is there, but never a series of ‘things’ that are interesting or fun.

As I mentioned in the post itself, I do find the game fun, and have been playing it now for over 60 hours – far longer than most AAA games these days. But… why? What are the fun bits?

In NMS’s specific case, I think most of the fun is derived from the accumulation of things. If you have ever played another survival game like Don’t Starve, 7 Days to Die, or even Minecraft to an extent, and enjoyed collecting 200 pieces of X so you can craft that next upgrade, well, NMS is here for you. Hell, it’s also sorta like herbing in your typical MMO. Run around, press the E button near a node, continue on. Except with spaceships and mining lasers and landing on different planets.

That’s… kinda it, really. Well, assuming you aren’t interested in the background plot.

Let me contrast NMS with two games. First, Starbound. Staround also features procedurally-generated planets, collecting all the things, and a plot that mostly glues the experience together. Starbound is the better game by far though, because combat spices things up and synergizes with the collection of things. In NMS, all you really fight are the Sentinels, which are everywhere all the time, and only ever escalate things if you don’t kill them fast enough. Compare that with Starbound having to dig deeper into a planet for the best minerals, with enemies getting tougher the deeper your go. The gameplay loop in Starbound and the engaging fights are more interesting and fun.

The second contrast would be with Sunless Sea. Procedurally-generated exploration game with a focus on profit from selling trade goods. Sounds pretty similar, right? Sunless Sea also has a mild Lovecraftian vibe and some great narrative. It also completely sucks as a game and feels terrible to play. The nominal gameplay is quite different – FPS versus overhead ship battles – but that is kinda the point. NMS feels engaging in a way Sunless Sea does not, even if they are both games that revolve around exploring and collecting and obtaining cash.

In the comments, Helistar mentioned that they would just “stick with ETS2 for the time being.” I had to Google the acronym, which is apparently Euro Truck Simulator 2. My first reaction was to scoff. What does driving trucks and selling cargo for cash have to do with flying around space… and selling cargo… oh. Well then. There you go.

If none of the above clears anything up for you, then No Man’s Sky is not for you. It technically really isn’t even for me. There is something there though, some half-formed game system I can’t quite describe, which is compelling. Or, perhaps as Zubon would describe, “compelling but not entertaining.” But I’m weird in the fact that compelling is automatically entertaining for me.

Full Circle

I saved almost $400 this Black Friday! By… not buying anything, thanks to bots.

Truth be told, it might not actually be due to bots, but I have my doubts. Specifically, both the GameStop $199 PS4 + $50 voucher deal and the Kohls $199 PS4 + $60 voucher deal were sold out by the time I got up on Thanksgiving morning. I am sure there are still technically $199 PS4s floating around (Edit: Looks like a no), but considering those vouchers were almost the equivalent of all three of the PS4 games that I would have played, I’d rather take my wallet and go stay home.

Then again, maybe it was all normal people pulling annoying arbitrage bullshit like WoW AH goblins. Out of curiosity, I went to eBay to look at the current listings of things.

PS4old1

Seriously?!

WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?! Both the clueless idiots still capable of navigating eBay but un-savvy enough to not look for deals with a simple Google search, and the swindlers preying on them. This is all a prime counter-example to show whenever someone tries to win an economics argument with the assumption of rational consumers. We are all irrational as hell.

Alas. Perhaps this entire episode is doing me a favor by not enabling me to buy three $20 PS4 games at technically $86 apiece. Even if I had gotten the voucher, they still would have been the equivalent of $66. In almost all other cases, I would prefer to play games on my PC, which already has a Blu-Ray player. Now, I may have eked out a bit more value from the free games from PS+ each month, but considering that my PS3 has gotten zero use in the last year, that’s still debatable.

I also passed on the Honor 6X for now. It actually went on a flash sale for $145, but in the process of looking at it closer, I realized that I bought my Honor 5X back in June 2016. Seems a bit silly to buy a new phone 1.5 years later when my current one is still functioning at 100%. People spend way more money on new iPhones every year, but those people are irrational.

What I did end up picking up were Far Cry 4 and No Man’s Sky, for about $13 and $20 after discounts, respectfully. I’m still on the fence about Destiny 2 at the moment, but I might take the plunge with some of my $90 in Blizzard credit from having sold WoW gold a year ago; I should still have enough for the next WoW expansion since Destiny 2 is on sale. That should be enough, right?

…right.

Survival Equilibrium

I may have mentioned it before, but I really enjoy Survival games. For the most part.

I am currently playing The Flame in the Flood, which is a Survival roguelike, and not at all a catchy Vance Joy song. The experience was immensely frustrating for my first run, as I felt like I never had enough of any supplies, and was about to uninstall and set the category as Finished in Steam. The second run, which I have been playing for the last five hours or so, has reached that point beyond which eventual victory is all but assured. Nevertheless, I hit up every single location I can, hoarding ever-greater numbers of probably unnecessary supplies for some kind of nightmare scenario. Which kinda makes sense in the vague, post-apocalypse setting.

Hitting that equilibrium moment in Survival games though is bittersweet. It’s like the middle of every Civilization game I have ever played – the game part is over, and now you must go through the motions towards inevitable victory. Ideally, you would want the challenge of the game to match up with the game’s end, and not midway. Some games like 7 Days to Die will try extending the challenge with escalating enemies, but there comes a moment when the escalation outstrips the whole Survival aspect and the underlying game becomes something different entirely, e.g. a shooter.

Then there is the opposite problem, in which the game’s challenge doesn’t ever really end, and part of the reason I added the “for the most part” caveat. I have not played it since its release from Early Access, but I never felt good in The Long Dark. There never seemed to be enough food, or fuel, or supplies. You were always on the precipice. And that’s the goal, right? The precipice is where all the fun is had. But while the surviving part is fun, I feel like there’s an invisible Anxiety Meter that fills up for me, and once it tops off the fun drops to zero.

Plus, sometimes Survival games are bullshit. I frequently found dead bodies in The Long Dark, searched them for candy bars, but could not, you know, take their clothing. I get it, things are simplified and balanced accordingly. Still, it gets a bit annoying when you come across dozens of boarded-up buildings in The Flame in the Flood, but “Old Lumber” is a relatively scarce resource you have to specifically loot from places. Or that Flint is a consumable resource for making a Campfire. Or that nothing could be salvaged from a sprung trap you just made.

Makes me wonder though. Would a more “realistic” Survival game be any fun? Seems like the more realistic it is, the less the game could actually be about Survival. At least, unless you set it out in the straight wilderness. Which kinda brings you back to The Long Dark.

Temporary EAnity

EA has temporarily removed the loot boxes from Star Wars: Battlefront 2, right before the official launch of the game:

We hear you loud and clear, so we’re turning off all in-game purchases. We will now spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing and tuning. This means that the option to purchase crystals in the game is now offline, and all progression will be earned through gameplay. The ability to purchase crystals in-game will become available at a later date, only after we’ve made changes to the game. We’ll share more details as we work through this.

I am honestly quite surprised. The negative press surrounding GTA Online’s Shark Cards or Shadows of War’s single-player loot boxes affected zero change, but here we have EA, of all people, turning off the cash spigot right before the water main gets connected. Then again, EA did get mentioned in half a dozen news article for having the most-downvoted comment in Reddit history (-676,000 at the time of this writing). Not exactly the narrative you want to be having right before the game’s release.

It’s tempting to pat ourselves on the back, at least those of us who actually care about game design and our fellow human beings. But the victory feels… well, like EA says, “temporary.” They did the right thing… under withering criticism. It’s like a politician apologizing for a decades-old scandal – an apology is more than we can expect these days, but it would have been nice if they had apologized before it was news. Or, you know, never did the action in the first place.

Alas, here we are.

It will be interesting indeed to see under what conditions the microtransactions return in SWBF2, and what possible new permutations they might take in other EA games. Will Battlefield Whatever’s design be impacted by this learning experience? Is this a learning experience at all, or simply an unfortunately-timed (for EA stockholders) zeitgeist?

We already know that the suits from TakeTwo don’t give a shit:

It appears that the GTA Online/MyCareer model is going to be the standard for big Take-Two Games going forward. People have expected a GTA Online type environment for Red Dead Redemption 2, which launches next year, though Rockstar has not announced what its online features will be.

“One of the things we’ve learned is if we create a robust opportunity, and a robust world, in which people can play delightfully in a bigger and bigger way, that they will keep coming back,” Zelnick told investors. “They will engage. And there is an opportunity to monetize that engagement.”

And that sort of underscores the vice gamers are put in to begin with. SynCaine pointed out that anyone buying SWBF2 is complicit with its monetization scheme, even if they don’t spend cash on loot boxes. That is technically accurate. But by that same token so is anyone who bought GTA V, given the Shark Card shenanigans. Do we really need to commit to never touching Red Dead Redemption 2 or the inevitable GTA VI?

I dunno. On the one hand, I am obviously an idealist when it comes to the purity of elegant game design. When the pieces fit together, when the various game systems synergize so perfectly… it’s orgasmic. Microtransactions have literally no place in any such gaming schema, any more than the concession stand does for the symphony performance. The symphony or game might rely on outside money in order to exist originally (artists have to eat), but once created, the art does (and should) exist independently.

Also, Consumer Surplus. It’s a thing.

On the other hand, we live in an absurd universe in which any sort of meaning or value is surprising. Thus, EA’s capitulation here, however temporary, is something to be celebrated. I certainly don’t think any of us expected it, especially given the likelihood that whales would have justified the PR hit by buying thousands of dollars of loot boxes on Day 1. And even if EA hadn’t backed down, if it’s possible for you to enjoy playing the game, what particular sense does it make to deny oneself? They’re microtransactions, not blood diamonds. Go have fun – nothing matters anyway.

All things considered though, I do think I’m giving SWBF2 a pass for now. Who is buying a game at full MSRP a literal week before Black Friday? Wait a month or two, save some cash, play your thirty other Steam games, and see how it all plays out. At least, that’s my plan. You do you.

Loot Boxes, Supplemental

We already know that Star Wars: Battlefront 2 has loot boxes and that they’re bad, but we can always use more articles about them, right? In the comments of that Kotaku article though, someone questioned the author about what exactly the “moral issue” is when a company is trying to extract money from their consumer base. The author responded with some more general criticisms of capitalism as a whole and the conditions it creates, but when pressed by the commenter again, came back with this:

If you really want the “Heather isn’t fucking around version,” here it is:

Loot boxes are, ignoring the hair splitting of insufferable pedants like yourself, gambling. They are crafted, from probabilities to visual to their contents, to condition individuals and encourage repeated purchase and use. People with addiction problems will be funneled towards a system designed scientifically to exploit them. Kids will open the shiny boxes. They’ll do it with their parents credit cards without understanding the effect. Players frustrated with the grind will throw down money because that’s what the grind is designed for: to fuck you over and take your cash so some executive can take a vacation while the people in the trenches crunch.

If you don’t see what the problem is or if you somehow think this an acceptable state of affairs or what to talk about how it’s some God given providence of the rich to seek further profits at any cost, I don’t know what to tell you because I am so very tired and I just don’t know how to explain to you (or anyone anymore) that you should care about other people.

Yeah, that.

Pretty much the only thing I would add to that is how the rise of “recurrent consumer spending opportunities” has perverted the fundamental design of these games. SWBF2 doesn’t need loot boxes in order achieve some gameplay goal – progression from simply playing the game is more than sufficient to generate fun. The loot boxes exist to make money, and that’s it.

If you don’t care because you’re not going to be playing SWBF2, well… just wait a while. Guild Wars 2 introduced the Mount Adoption License as a method of randomly delivering 30 new Mount skins. Most of the outrage has understandably been directed towards the fact that it’s gambling, especially if you were only interested in a few of the skins (a few of which are for a mount you might not ever get). But here’s the real rub: 30 Mount skins were introduced into the game with zero gameplay elements. These aren’t spoils for defeating a boss, these aren’t the rewards for a long quest-line, these aren’t the goal at the end of a difficult achievement. Nope, they’re just item shop fodder. If each were attached to a task that took an hour to complete, that’s like a month of casual content removed from each individual player.

Do loot boxes make games better? Fundamentally, that’s the question you should be asking yourself every time. A raid boss dropping random gear on a weekly reset creates content by encouraging you to face that raid boss again. A loot box dropping random gear does… what? You do not have to care about other people – although you probably should – to care that loot boxes are fundamentally destroying elegant game design. Instead of developers focusing on tighter gameplay loops or additional content, they care more about monetization opportunities. Which used to be “sell more copies of the game,” but is now “sell random in-game content for cash.”

You know, I never thought we’d see something more abhorrent than on-disc DLC. But here we are.

[SWBF2] Loot Shift

While not exactly a change of heart, EA is making some cursory changes to its loot boxes in the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront 2:

  • Epic Star Cards, the highest tier of Star Cards available at launch, have been removed from Crates. To help keep everyone on a level playing field, these Star Cards will primarily be available through crafting, with the exception of special Epic Star Cards available through pre-order, deluxe, and starter packs.
  • You’ll need to reach a certain rank to craft upgraded Star Cards. You won’t be able to buy a bunch of Crates, grind everything up into crafting materials, and immediately use them to get super powerful Star Cards. You can only upgrade the ability to craft higher tier Star Cards by ranking up through playing the game.
  • Weapons are locked behind specific milestones. While a select few will be found in Crates, the rest can only be attained by play. Want to unlock a new weapon for your Heavy? Play as a Heavy and you’ll gain access to the class’s new weapons.
  • Class-specific gear and items can be unlocked by playing as them. As you progress through your favorite class, you’ll hit milestones granting you class-specific Crates. These will include a mix of Star Cards and Crafting Parts to benefit your class’s development.

Mission Accomplished, eh?

Well… maybe. It’s certainly a better situation than we were in before. Just keep in mind that each Star Card has four levels of potency, and you can in fact randomly get higher potency Cards from the loot box. At least, I did during the Beta. Perhaps the above information can be taken to mean each Card is always going to be the lowest level one, or that you can get a higher-level Card and simply not be able to equip it until you’ve ranked up some more.

In any case, this might be the moment at which we can call a ceasefire. EA is committing to free map packs/content, and always-relevant loot boxes is an alternative method of replacing that revenue. Of course, paid map packs are abysmally stupid and just segment the playerbase, but… baby steps. We may have to see how it plays out in practice.

Gambling is Gambling

There have been a lot of posts about loot boxes lately, here and elsewhere. In fact, even the ESRB have weighed in on the subject, determining that:

ESRB does not consider loot boxes to be gambling. While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.

This is the sort of absurd logic that allows Pachinko parlors to exist in Japan despite more traditional gambling being illegal. “It’s not real gambling because you’re buying and winning steel balls… and trading them for prizes… which you then sell for real cash at a sketchy booth literally 5 feet from the parlor doors. But no slot machines!”

Maybe all the casinos in the US should start giving out commemorative business cards or wooden nickles to people who lose, so that they can avoid gambling regulations. You wanted X, and spent real money to get it, but got Y instead. #TotallyNotGambling

Look, we can have the semantic argument if you want. But you know it, I know it, the devs know it, scientists know it: loot boxes are gambling.

“The player is basically working for reward by making a series of responses, but the rewards are delivered unpredictably,” Dr. Luke Clark, director at the Center for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia, told PC Gamer recently. “We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards. Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis.”

Psychologists call this “variable rate reinforcement.” Essentially, the brain kicks into high gear when you’re opening a loot box or pulling the lever on a slot machine or opening a Christmas present because the outcome is uncertain. This is exciting and, for many people, addictive.

“What about Magic and Pokemon cards then!?”

Also gambling. In my replies on the subject up to this point, I played the role of TCG Apologist a bit. You know, all “these games feature pack opening as a central conceit, which is completely different than in Star Wars Battlefront 2, in which the system is just bolted on as a cynical revenue stream.” But… honestly? The gameplay of paper Magic exists completely independently of how you acquire the cards. If everyone who played had every card available by default, the only real things that would change would be the game being more fair (e.g. less P2W) and WotC making less money.

Keen replied in the comments of his own post:

I think what most people are conveniently ignoring is that with loot boxes and card booster packs you are trading one form of base value for another form of base value.

I put in $5, I get back a guaranteed set of cards that I must be willing to accept as worth $5, otherwise the exchange would never have happened.

Even Bhagpuss stated:

Lockboxes contain precisely the value you pay for them: if you buy $5 worth of lockboxes you have, de facto, agreed that there’s $5 value in them – you just proved that by paying $5, after all.

Please excuse my tone, but that is some Econ 101 perfectly rational economic actor bullshit. And a complete tautology besides. Like, how do you conceptualize a reality in which that is true, and yet the concept of Buyer’s Remorse exists? People make dumb economic decisions all the time. Are the people buying $2 lottery tickets doing so because they expect at least $2 of value in return? If they are, and they’re buying them when the jackpot is less than $500 million, they are irrational. The expected value of a $2 Powerball ticket is -$1.38. Similarly, the expected value of any given paper Magic booster pack will quickly (if not instantly) fall into the negatives, considering that the alternative means anyone can make free money by just opening the packs.

We can try and put a value on the “hope” and “dreams” of getting X instead of Y, but the bottom line is always the same: by virtue of paying real cash money, you had a chance at getting X and instead got Y. That’s gambling whether its a Charizard, a Black Lotus, or Boba Fett’s Rank IV Death from Above star card.

Is it legally gambling right now? No. Does the ESRB consider it gambling? No. But we all know what’s happening here, and the psychological mechanisms involved. Rational people do not buy loot boxes – the entire target market is for irrational people. And its profoundly sad, in a sort of “did we seriously give little kids candy cigarettes for Halloween?” way.

What do I want to see happen? Simple: a spade gets called a spade. Games that feature gambling as a revenue stream get labeled AO by the ESRB,  and the exact odds of any loot box are posted on a company’s website. If that also means people have to show ID to pick up Magic boosters, then okay. The less odious things would still survive, e.g. TCGs most likely, and the more odious loot box offenders would shift on to their next novel revenue stream. Hopefully one that does not specifically and (arguably) maliciously target people who can’t help themselves.

Do you guys remember when video game designers only got paid more when they made their game worth purchasing by more people? You know, that golden age of gaming in which producer and consumer interests aligned? Those were good days. I’d like to get back there at some point, without all the Consumer Surplus erosion.

Gaming Middle Class

Gevlon had an interesting post musing about the gaming middle class.

The current situation is this: if you are a time-rich player without a lot of money, there is no better time to be a gamer than now. Just think about how many F2P titles out there that are available. Similarly, if you are a money-rich gamer looking to get their whale on, look no further than damn near anywhere. If you fall somewhere inbetween, then you essentially get the worst of all possible worlds – pwned both by the time-rich players able to dedicate more time than you, and the money-rich players who buy every advantage.

Making things even worse, Gevlon notes the very model seems to squeeze out the middle-class:

The same question can be asked in every monetized game: why pay anything unless you go full whale? Either enjoy the game for free (if it’s enjoyable), or pay enough to be the king of the hill and enjoy pwning “n00bs”. I believe more and more people will realize this and stop paying/playing. Which in turn creates the wrong impression that potential players are either free or whale, making the games more monetized.

I have experienced this several times in the various phone apps I use to kill time. Clash Royale is an example, insofar as you should either be going all-in or not at all. If you buy a little advantage in the form of bonus chests or upgrades from the shop, you will likely be able to leverage that to boost your rank on ladder. Problem is, you then are facing either whales who are less skilled than you but are leaning on overleveled cards, or people who spent a lot of time getting to that rank with their normal cards and are likely better than you head-to-head. Eventually you will settle at your 50/50 skill range, but that doesn’t make the games in which you lost to overleveled garbage players feel any better.

Another example is a gacha-style anime-inspired game that I will leave nameless, as they are all basically the same. While you can unlock new heroes randomly from “vending machines,” there is a special vending machine that only unlocks when you reach VIP level 9. Ranking up your VIP levels is 100% dependent on spending real money buying diamonds, and VIP 9 requires $200 total to reach. That’s right, two hundred US dollars. This is quite literally pay-to-win, as the special vending machine has exclusive heroes much more powerful than anything else.

Nevertheless, I have still spent ~$35 and ~$20, respectively, in both games over the year or so I’ve been playing them. Like many games of their ilk, a “small” “investment” towards the beginning of the experience allows you to remove some obnoxious barriers for the rest of the game. In Clash’s specific case, there was 10x value deal that remains the best deal to date, such that if one was ever going to spend cash, it would be for that.

As noted, the trouble is that the very monetization scheme punishes middle-class gamers, further polarizing the remainder. How would you even focus on the middle-class in this or any scenario?

Well, just ask the WoW devs.

After thinking about it, the (intentional or not) design philosophy behind WoW from Wrath onwards caters almost directly to the middle-class gamer. The time-rich player will be decked out in the best gear either from raiding or grinding, no matter which expansion we’re talking about. The middle-class though, is unlikely to be able to raid very much given inconsistent hours. Enter LFD, enter LFR, enter Badges/Honor/etc.

Many people will try to exclaim that constant gear resets – happening on a patch basis rather than expansion – hurts people by invalidating all the work you did. Guess what: if frequent gear resets hurts you, you’re time-rich. If you want pain, try doing anything useful outside of a progression raiding guild in the Burning Crusade. If you were not cresting the wave of attunements at the right time, you were stuck in the backwash with little way forward.

So, if you want a model for capturing the gaming middle-class, WoW is it (and presumably FF14). Subscriptions to put everyone on the same field, then allow the time-rich to grind/raid their way to advantage, but cap said advantage with things like weekly lockouts and frequent gear resets. Keep the delta between the haves and have-nots at a reasonable percentage. Make progression possible without needing to specifically put a videogame event on your IRL calendar. Season with some whale-bait (WoW Tokens, cash shop) to taste, and you’re good.