Category Archives: Commentary
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.