Category Archives: Commentary
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.
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.
Big props to Eph for bringing my attention to a recent Gamasutra article entitled “How the Data Implosion will trigger the Great Game Dev Correction.” In it, the author put his “100% predictive accuracy” record on the line to portend the coming (Date: TBA) collapse of the F2P market.
If you want the short version of the 3100-word article, here it is: erosion of Consumer Surplus.
Really though, the author points to two primary trends that have entangled with one another in a negative feedback loop. The principle one is that the User Acquisition Cost, e.g. how much money spent on advertising/etc, continues to increase. One of the main drivers of that is the simple fact that there are thousands of competing titles on the market, with more arriving all the time. While we like to imagine that more options are better, the truth is that nobody really goes past the first two pages of Google results, much less browsing all 21,000 new games that came out in the last month. By “mathematical certainty,” costs go up trying to find new customers, revenue goes down as a result, and studios close their doors.
…but not before engaging in some Consumer Surplus shenanigans.
See, the second part of the feedback loop is how most F2P game companies are engaging in their data-driven quest to extract the maximum amount of Consumer Surplus from each user. Think lockboxes and timers and “special, one-time deals” that are psychologically honed to trick you into believing them to be worthwhile purchases. The very real problem though is that consumers have finite money. Shocking, I know. Since all of these F2P titles are trying to extract the same pool of dollars, all that happens is that each individual app only receives a smaller share of them.
And even worse than that is what we as gamers come to understand intuitively: these games just have less value as a result. In every sense of the term. Studios are spending more time and development dollars on ever more novel ways of tricking you to part with your cash, than they are with creating content worth purchasing in the first place. But even when those two points intersect, we’re left with little to no Consumer Surplus. At a certain point, you are better off watching Netflix than having to spend precisely the amount of money as enjoyment received from a game.
Now, the author is predicting a Correction at some point, with the Creative forces – as opposed to Big Data – rising up from the ashes of a devastated (F2P) game market and commanding a higher salary since we all suddenly realize we want better content again. I’m… not so sure.
For one thing, the F2P genie is out of the Cash Shop bottle. There is zero reason to believe that the surviving games of a post-Correction world will leave that
extracted Consumer Surplus money on the table. Secondly, the game industry itself has proven rather resistant to the notion that content creators should be paid practically anything. Undoubtedly part of that is due to the fact that everyone wants to be a (armchair) game designer and thus there is no market pressure to improve working conditions/pay. Hell, I wanted that job so much that I spent two years of college studying programming and Japanese so I could try to break into the industry back in the early 2000s.
Finally, there’s Minecraft. You know, that little indie game that was sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion three years ago? While an excellent case study in why Creatives are better than Big Data, the fact remains that this “simple” game won the lottery in a way that will inspire decades of copycats and dreamers, just as WoW convinced everyone that MMOs were the next big thing. The MMO fever has mostly died down, but that’s because it costs $60 million a pop to roll the dice. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of people creating apps in their basements for free, let alone the corporate code monkeys churning out thousands of Flappy Bird derivatives. The cost of each attempt is so low, and the payout is potentially so high, that there is no reason to believe investors wouldn’t keep some pocket change flowing into basically purchasing Powerball tickets each week.
So, while I do agree there will be a Correction of some sort in the game industry, it’s ultimately not going to fix the flooding of garbage games. What I expect to see is a return to Curation: a sifting through the river of shit for those few nuggets of value. People will find the voices that they trust, and those voices will end up picking the winners and the losers. At least, up until the Curators become corrupted by studios throwing money at them, and the great cycle repeats.
Last week, Keen blogged about a tweet that should be filed under “Things that make you go Hmm… not really”:
In a world of $5 lattes a game with 50 hours of content is worth $1,000. Instead, many won’t touch a game until some stupid Steam Sale. (source)
Wilhelm has already penned an exceptionally good take-down of the latte vs game comparison. What struck a cord in me the most, though, was this follow-up tweet:
The unwillingness to pay what a game is actually worth is why we have on disc DLC, F2P, micros for single player games, season passes, etc. (source)
This, my friends, is the embodiment of everything I warned about six years ago.
We as consumers have been beaten down so often and for so long that the argument almost makes sense. It seems “fair” that someone gets paid a proportional amount for the benefit received. But the funny thing is that reasoning only ever seems to go in one direction. Price exceeds the amount it costs to create? Capitalism, working as intended. Benefit exceeds the price? Suddenly there’s a whole lot of hand-wringing and articles about Millennials killing functionally useless industries.
Fight for your own Consumer Surplus! The difference between how much you paid for something and the amount of enjoyment it provided is yours. That’s your profit, not the game company’s. These corporations will try to erode your consumer surplus with ever more novel monetization schemes, and other people might try to guilt you into “supporting the devs” or admonish your “unwillingness” to throw your hard-earned money in a hole for literally no reason. But the fact remains that it’s the game company‘s responsibility to effectively manage their own resources, to figure out what payment models they should utilize, etc. Not yours. Their business is not your responsibility.
Don’t settle for the precise intersection between Supply and Demand. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for getting a deal. If you want to donate extra money to random devs in some idealistic hope they generate future value, go for it. But understand this: the only person looking out for you, is you.
If you haven’t already heard the scuttlebutt… well, I’m sorry. The former lead writer for the Half Life series has released what is widely reported as a summary of the hitherto (and likely forevermore) unreleased Half Life 2: Episode 3. While it is being termed “fanfic” by the author himself, keep in mind that Marc Laidlaw left Valve in January of last year, and there are no other writers from the series remaining in Valve.
Divorced from physics-based gameplay and otherworldly vistas, the plot ends pretty quick. And it certainly still leaves the door wide open to some kind of proper Half Life 3. But… this is closure enough for me. It feels right. While nothing can really assuage the ire I feel after the ending of Episode 2 almost ten years ago, this nevertheless meets me halfway. It lines up with pre-established lore, and completes the themes presented since the original game.
Which makes sense, coming from the person who wrote everything in the first place.
At the same time… goddammit. Valve hasn’t released a single-player game since Portal 2 in 2011. That’s more than five years ago, for those (not) playing at home. And really, they don’t need to anymore. Steam obviously more than pays for itself, as evidenced by the non-standards of Early Access and shovelware that make it to the front page. For all intents and purposes, Valve has taken the ball and gone home, having monetized every inch of the field. They built it, we came, they left.
Oh, well. At least there are all these other games I can play on Stea…
About a year and half ago, I was excited about Overwatch in large part because it was new. I enjoy FPS games in general, and have spent countless hours over the years playing the Battlefield series. There were several titles though, such as Team Fortress 2, that I either tried and dropped or didn’t bother trying at all because of accretion:
the process of growth or increase, typically by the gradual accumulation of additional layers or matter.
That’s the dictionary definition, but I used it this way: “the older a game gets, the less space exists for the ‘skill middle class,’ and the less the developers seem to care about catering to said group.”
For example, getting into Counter-Strike or Team Fortress 2 these days, as a brand new player, would be an exercise in futility. Not only would you be useless to your team generally, your opponents are most likely extremely skilled veterans, and you are likely to die to mechanics/map secrets you don’t even understand yet. It is a frustrating situation for everyone involved, compounded twenty-fold considering the bile and vitriol that exists just below the thin skin of faceless internet gamers.
After this weekend in Overwatch, I can sadly report that the accretion is getting real there too.
The last time I talked about Overwatch was more than a year ago – ironically around the Summer Games, which are currently ongoing – and I stopped playing towards the end of the second competitive season. Competitive Mode was a necessary addition to the game overall, but I found it has actively made the Quick Play experience worse. First, naturally competitive players got their taste of what it’s like playing with people who actually want to win the objectives, which makes the Quick Play environment feel worse in comparison. Second, new players generally avoided Competitive Mode until they got more practice, lest they tank their ranking when it matters. And finally, the toxic tryhards that couldn’t try hard enough to be successful in Competitive Mode find themselves surrounded by other toxic tryhards and complete noobs in Quick Play all day long.
“Cream rises to the top.” Sure does. But once you remove that, everyone else is stuck drinking the creamless sediment that sunk to the bottom of the glass.
In short, the experience was awful. I stopped playing Overwatch before Ana was even released, so I’m four whole characters and countless patches behind the metagame curve. Team needs a tank? Okay, let me play… Orisa. That probably wasn’t the best pick for the team composition even if I had never played her before, but nobody else cared about team composition anyway (Hanzo and Windowmaker on a point control maps? Sure!), so why not?
Because it results in an embarrassing loss. I’m frustrated because I’m still trying to figure out the correct use of my abilities, but my team is also just bad players… unless they are just trying to figure out their characters… and oh my god just end it now. In another match, I decided to go back to my old standby, Zarya, to get a win. Things were good… until they weren’t, when I realized that the healer Ana spent more time sniping instead of healing. So here I was bringing my A-game with a hero I’m actually good at (but don’t want to play anymore) and everyone else is dicking around.
Wait a minute… now I’m the tryhard.
So, yeah, it sucks playing Overwatch now. If you never stopped playing, or exclusively play in Competitive Mode, perhaps it’s the same as its always been. Coming back from a break though, queuing solo in Quick Play? I’m not even sure I would ever recommend the game to anyone now. I would much rather be playing any iteration of the Battlefield series, where noobs can exist without constituting a full 16% of the team (6v6), or 100% of the teams chance for success should they occupy a critical role, e.g. tank or healer.
The accretion problem is real, my friends, and I’m not sure what the devs can do to counteract it. Overwatch does have Arcade Modes available, and something like “Mystery Heroes” where people get forced to play random classes can help. But these modes are not entirely satisfying on their own, and generally don’t help you develop the map awareness/strategies necessary to win “real” games.
The rise of the mobile gaming over the last couple of years has been covered rather extensively already. And up to this point, I would have argued too extensively. As a phenomenon, it is certainly interesting seeing a market emerge in real-time, but it never really seemed to impact me. The “gamer” population swelled with the ranks of people playing Candy Crush, which had little to do with any core gamers. Maybe a few well-known studios released a mobile app, whatever.
This past weekend ended up being pretty busy, but I still managed to squeeze in around 5-7 hours of gaming. And close to 100% of that time were spent in mobile games on my phone.
Granted, a few of those hours would have been dead time had I not had my phone with me. But close to half of the total was literally me sitting at my computer desk, dicking around with Clash Royale and similar “time wasters.” Part of it was undoubtedly post-game depression stemming from completing Mass Effect: Andromeda. It is always tough for me to mentally transition from 80+ hours of one title into a brand new game that promises similar hours required.
The other part, though? I am wondering whether it is due to my age that I am gravitating towards more instant gratification. Or maybe traditional game designers are getting worse at their jobs?
I spent approximately 20 minutes playing FFXIV over the weekend. I logged in, talked to some NPCs, teleported to some cities, talked some more, then had to take a minute Chocobo ride back to the main base camp to complete the quest. The main story quest, mind you. I had more fun in the 60 seconds of dead time on the Chocobo than I did in the entire 20 minutes playing overall, as I was able to boot up a mobile game, snag some rewards, and restart some locked chest timers.
Now, of course watching chests explode with goodies is a cheap, diversionary tactic at best; it is hardly fair to compare such things to the slow burn of a (supposedly) epic narrative. At the same time, those now-empty chest slots drew my eye to the 2v2 Battle button hovering just above, fat with the promise of compelling and amusing gameplay just a press away. And if I just get 6 more crowns from destroying enemy towers, I can unlock another chest with even more goodies. Hmmmmm.
Needless to say, I logged off FFXIV soon after getting off the Chocobo.
I guess what I’m getting at is the shift towards mobile is a multi-layered “problem.” There is the vapid dopamine rush from getting easy rewards, sure. There is also the front-loaded fun gameplay in quick gaming sessions. Then there is a whole class of game (MMOs) which are utterly reliant on back-loaded… everything. And it is not even that clear that such back-loaded fun is actually required to be back-loaded – that is simply how things have traditionally been done. Why doesn’t Waking Sands in FFXIV have a teleporter when just about every other town does? Is there a legit reason?
I am beginning to question everything. Opening a chest is a vapid reward. Is it more vapid than gaining levels in a traditional MMO? I am playing a Monk in FFXIV, and even after the revamped combat that came with the Stormblood expansion, I’m getting bored to tears with such a limited amount of abilities. I am stuck with limited abilities because the designers don’t want me to get all of them at the beginning because they are afraid I won’t feel rewarded enough in levels 20-60 after having received my full rotation. And they are right to be worried about that – it sounds awful.
Know what else sounds awful? Spending my time playing this game when I can play something else and be having fun right now.
Mobile gaming has not completely consumed my gaming mindspace, as evidenced by the fact that I spent 90 hours in Mass Effect just before this. But I am finding that the proverbial Fun Floor has risen dramatically over the last few months for me, more than it ever has before. Presumably, I am going to remember the twists and turns of FFXIV’s (later) story way beyond Quick Battle #4,872, and thereby justify the time investment.
But sometimes you just want to, you know, have fun when you play videogames. Right now.