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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.

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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.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Often unnoticed, but never unfelt, matchmaking in multiplayer games forms the invisible core of our gaming experience. In the old days, happenstance determined the characteristics of our neighbors. Maybe one server was labeled “Recommended,” but for the most part players were left to their own devices. If you were lucky, you might discover that mythical “Good Server” which featured players with similar skill levels as yourself. If not, perhaps there was some means of at least balancing the teams occasionally, by forced shuffling or similar. Otherwise, players were left to “self-deport.”

Automated matchmaking has been around for a long time now; long enough to demonstrate both its virtues and its vices. The virtue is, of course, being intelligently matched based on a whole raft of heuristics. The vice meanwhile… is being maliciously matched based on those same heuristics. Gevlon has long warned about overt rigging of games for monetary profit, but we have truly crossed the Rubicon when Activision itself has submitted (in 2015) a patent specific to that purpose.

And it was granted a few weeks ago. Feel free to read the whole patent yourself.

Granted, it isn’t entirely an engine of evil. The patent covers a process in which matches are made on a variety of characteristics. For example:

In another example, if a player has been performing poorly (e.g., getting killed at a rate higher than the player’s historical rate), the scoring engine may dynamically adjust one or more coefficients to match the player in a game that will improve the player’s performance. For example, the player may be matched with easier opponents, matched with better teammates, and/or placed in a game that is more tailored to the player’s preferences (e.g., players that play in games more closely aligned with their preferences tend to perform better).

This sort of balancing matchmaking is not hypothetical – Supercell, makers of Clash Royale – have already admitted in a Reddit AMA last month that there is indeed a “losing streak” pool in which you are placed after X numbers of losses. Why Supercell thinks this is a particularly good idea in 2v2, I do not know. For every person who just happened to statistically fall into a losing streak (e.g. 50% win rate), there are many more who are losing because they are tilted, trying out new decks they have no experience with, and so on. Grouping people this way is a sure-fire method of condemning players to ELO Hell, until and unless they happen to be paired up with truly abysmal opponents. So, in this regard, I prefer Activision’s method of “correcting” winrates.

Of course, the problem with picking winners and losers is when you are selected to be the loser. For every time you are gifted strong teammates to help you out of a losing streak, your opponents are punished by withholding of the same. We all want fair fights, being matched not just on skill levels but progression level too. It’s cruel to have new Hearthstone players face people with dozens of Legendary cards, even if the impartial ladder states they are equivalent players. Actively sabotaging games, though? We want fair fights, but not like this.

That is not even the most nefarious part of this engine, though. The true evil arises in plain text, in an approved US patent application:

In one implementation, the microtransaction engine may target particular players to make game-related purchases based on their interests. For example, the microtransaction engine may identify a junior player to match with a marquee player based on a player profile of the junior player. In a particular example, the junior player may wish to become an expert sniper in a game (e.g., as determined from the player profile). The microtransaction engine may match the junior player with a player that is a highly skilled sniper in the game. In this manner, the junior player may be encouraged to make game-related purchases such as a rifle or other item used by the marquee player.

“Matched” in this case, largely reads as matched against. In other words, the matchmaking system will notice you choosing the sniper role, then placing a more-skilled sniper opponent with a P2W rifle on the other side, for the express purpose of “encouraging” you to also purchase the rifle. It is bad enough having P2W elements in a game generally, but here we have a mechanism by which it can specifically be rubbed in your face. On purpose. To get you to buy shit.

This level of evil is not Google reading your email and popping up ads for dandruff shampoo. This is Google sending Fabio to your workplace to specifically call out the dandruff on your shirt, in front of your coworkers.

Could things get any worse with this patent? Activision is asking you to hold their beer:

In one implementation, when a player makes a game-related purchase, the microtransaction engine may encourage future purchases by matching the player (e.g., using matchmaking described herein) in a gameplay session that will utilize the game-related purchase. Doing so may enhance a level of enjoyment by the player for the game-related purchase, which may encourage future purchases. For example, if the player purchased a particular weapon, the microtransaction engine may match the player in a gameplay session in which the particular weapon is highly effective, giving the player an impression that the particular weapon was a good purchase. This may encourage the player to make future purchases to achieve similar gameplay results.

There it is, ladies and gentlemen. Activision settled the debate. Because now even in scenarios in which in-game purchases don’t directly increase one’s power (e.g. naked P2W), it’s quite likely that a matchmaking engine engineers a scenario in which you are more likely to win. For having paid. So even “purely cosmetic” purchases can end up becoming de facto P2W.

And much like loot box reward odds, companies will obfuscate the inner workings of their matchmaking systems such that it will be impossible to know either way. Are we to just trust their word that no matchmaking shenanigans are taking place, when they otherwise have every possible economic incentive to do so? Activision is just the first company openly patenting the process, not the first company to use these methods. Who would actually go on record to admit it?

Patent

Actual diagram from the Activision patent.

Do you see now? Do you see it? This is precisely why you should be caring about Consumer Surplus; this is why you should be up in arms about gambling loot boxes; this is why you never act as an Apologist to a game (or any) company. There is a straight fucking line between Oblivion’s infamous horse armor and Activision (et al) literally patenting the rigging of games for cash. And that line is still going lower, and will continue to do so, until acted upon by an outside force.

We are nowhere close to bottom.

The days in which game companies made their money by selling more copies – and thus had every incentive to make the best possible game – is over. Voting with your wallet isn’t going to bring it back either; in the US, where money is speech, the voice of the guy spending $15,000 on Mass Effect 3 multiplayer loot boxes drowns out everyone else.

“You need to understand the amount of money that’s at play with microtransactions. I’m not allowed to say the number but I can tell you that when Mass Effect 3 multiplayer came out, those card packs we were selling, the amount of money we made just off those card packs was so significant that’s the reason Dragon Age has multiplayer, that’s the reason other EA products started getting multiplayer that hadn’t really had them before, because we nailed it and brought in a ton of money. It’s repeatable income versus one-time income.

“I’ve seen people literally spend $15,000 on Mass Effect multiplayer cards.”

When every economic incentive is directed towards Consumer Surplus extraction instead of, you know, improving the gameplay experience… this is what we get. Always-online multiplayer in every game, single-player game studios getting shut down, loot boxes everywhere.

Play stupid games, (pay to) win stupid prizes.

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.

OverLottery

One of the more interesting complaints I’ve heard about Overwatch is that of its microtransactions. Specifically, the only ones it has: loot boxes. It’s true, you can indeed purchase loot boxes:

OverwatchLoot.jpg

At least it doesn’t say “Best Value.”

I find the complaint interesting because Blizzard has opted for the Hearthstone model when it comes to loot. Specifically, the items you receive are random, but duplicate items are converted to a currency that you can in turn use to purchase your exact desire. If said desire is a Legendary skin – which, let’s face it, is pretty much what everyone wants – it costs a maximum of 1000 currency.

I just hit level 30 50 the other night, which means I have opened a total of 30 50 loot boxes. After level 20, the XP required to get to the next level stays the same at 22,000 XP, and there is no level cap. There are a smattering of bonuses depending on match performance, but the biggest award is typically based on time spent in the match. Generally speaking, then, I’d say that you can average around 2200 XP per match, which takes ~10 minutes apiece, so… 1.5 hours of gameplay per box.

Given the above… how egregious are Overwatch’s loot boxes, really? One faction might suggest any microtransactions at all in a B2P game is too many. Another faction wants the ability to just purchase the skins they want. Another more bizarre faction laments the random nature of the loot boxes and what that means in terms of how long it takes to collect all the things.

And I get it. Sorta. But just like in Hearthstone, this is by far the most fair random loot box scheme that is likely possible. Most other games would be 100% fine with giving you useless duplicates, making it possible you never received anything you wanted. I’m not sure a middle way – such as loot boxes + the option to buy game currency – would really work economically, but I suppose that would be more fair.

In any case, of all the things one might criticize Overwatch about, I do not believe the loot boxes deserve to number among them.

Hex Followup

Is it just me, or does the word “followup” just look weird after a while?

…anyway. Here are some relevant Q&A straight from the forums regarding the now-funded Hex:

Q: Any chance this might be headed to IOS as well?
A: Our immediate launch plans are PC and Mac, but the tech has built from the ground up for mobile.

Q: I would also like to know about the card rotation plan. Will there be standard and unlimited formats, or will all cards be legal to play forever?
A: Right now we’re planned for a 2 block format, as well as an everything format. That is the current plan. We might revisit it after 2 years of data.

Q: The estimated delivery sep 2013 is that for the full game or the beta stages ?
A: September is the estimated delivery for the beta, which will have all of the PvP content and some of the PvE content.

Q: Will the game require a big internet connection? I’m currently working 6 month a year in a inuit village with Satellite internet connection and wireless modems and I get a 5000 ping in online games like Path of Exile here. Wondering if the game will be playable in those condition (Drop out, Lags, ect).
A: The internet overhead of the game is very, very low. The amount of data that goes back and forth to the server is minimal, and we have a 3 minute reconnect timer, that if you lose connection during a game, you have 3 minutes to log back in and you will be automatically rejoined to that game. Any single player experience just uses save states, so you can actually rejoin almost any time after disconnecting.

Okay… hold up a sec. “Working 6 months a year in a inuit village”? You know what, nevermind.

Q: Weird question i know, but any plans of a post beta wipe, getting packs and such back?
A: We will not do a post-beta wipe. Once we give you something, we won’t take it away in even the most seemingly kind way (eg, by refunding packs.) If you open a super rare awesome card it’s yours until you decide to trade it.

Q: So there is currently no other way to get cards for PVP except through initial pledge and buying $2 each?
A: The only way to get PvP packs is through the KS rewards, at $2 each, or as rewards for playing in drafts/constructed tournaments. We will also have an auction house, and I’d expect that PvP commons can be easily picked up off there at budget prices.

So it’s official: you cannot earn booster packs in PvE content. In other words, the only way anyone is playing Limited/Draft formats is for them to have bought, traded for, or won boosters themselves. Based on other questions, it appears the first set is 350 PvP cards that only come from boosters, and 300 PvE cards that are only earned in PvE and cannot be used in normal PvP games (but there might be “anything goes” formats for fun). Now, it is likely you will be able to sell a particularly nice rare you got in a Draft (that you otherwise lost) to help purchase boosters to try your luck again, but otherwise these games are going to cost you $6 a pop for less than an hour of play.

By the way, the stretch goal for $540,000?

540K – Add Primal Packs

Primal Packs are “god packs” that will drop for lucky players when buying HEX booster packs. It is not a separate item in the HEX Store. Every card in this booster is a Rare or Legendary! In addition, each Primal Pack will contain a Legendary Treasure Chest that will hold some truly incredible items, which you can open or trade in the Auction House. Speaking of which, should you be lucky enough to get one of Primal Packs, they are tradable and can be given or put in the Auction House for others just like any other pack. To maintain balance in a tournament setting, you cannot get a Primal Pack during a draft.

“Yo dawg, I heard you like gamble boxes. So we put gamble boxes in your gamble boxes […]”

If it sounds like I am being unduly harsh, it’s simply because I know the effect these sort of games have on me. Drafting is addicting: you get to see 24 boosters being opened, passed around, and picked apart, plus the 30 minutes of frantic deck-building, plus the very-real pressure of best-out-of-three duels with the prize being enough boosters to join another draft for free. That’s a sex, drugs, and rock & roll combo of endorphins right there.

But you’re going to pay. A lot. Unless you’re good, I suppose, in which case the poor players will be subsidizing your gameplay.

Just screwing around in 1v1 Standard duels is fun and all, but you won’t be getting any new cards; there is no progression without pay. Then again, I suppose that is what the whole PvE side of the game will be about. Will it be enough? You cannot use your PvE cards in PvP. Then again, PvE cards do not “expire” and yet there will be additional PvE sets in the future, presumably along with additional monsters/dungeons/raids, so… yeah. Maybe Cryptozoic will be able to shore up the one weakness Magic Online has.

I suppose we’ll see in September, once the Beta is released.

Hex

In the event that you didn’t read last Friday’s Penny Arcade, they talked about the Cryptozoic Kickstarter for a “MMO-TCG” called Hex. Basically, Hex is Magic Online meets WoW TCG meets cards that can get socketed gems, equip gear, gain XP, earn achievements that expand artwork and upgrade cards to foil versions. Also, there will be PvE, apparently including dungeons and raids. And all of this is Free to Play.

Of course, just like with Hearthstone, calling a TCG “F2P” is criminally misleading.

I have some concerns with Hex. First, while I am frankly excited about the unique opportunities involved with an all-digital TCG – cards that buff your creatures do so for the rest of the match, you can put tokens on cards that get shuffled into your library, and all sorts of crazy nonsense that physical card games couldn’t pull off – this game skews so heavily towards Magic Online that I’m surprised Wizards of the Coast hasn’t issued a takedown notice.

Seriously, look at this video:

I’m not talking about Apple’s “rounded corners” copyright bullshit, I’m talking about Grand Theft Mechanics. Creatures have summoning sickness, there is First Strike, Haste, seven cards in the opening hand, 20 life per player, four copy limit on individual cards, 60 cards per deck, land cards, instants, discrete turn phases (Draw phase, main phase, declaring attackers/blockers/combat damage, end step), and even the goddamn Stack.

That’s not even really my concern here though. My concern is what occurs about 200 times in the bottom right corner of that video: spamming of the Pass Priority button.

This is alpha footage, things can change, etc etc etc… but not really. Magic is an incredibly nuanced card game with thousands of pages of technical rules that few follow to the letter in non-tournament settings; friends usually don’t ask each other if there is any response to their Draw Phase, unless one of them was packing a relevant card in their deck. My initial few weeks with Magic Online was a brilliant experience because the game reminded you of all the sort of routine Upkeep triggers and the like that can bog down/derail completely a physical game when you forget one. Trouble is, Magic Online is going to ask you every damn time because it has to. You can manually change your settings to ignore certain steps if you want, but again, Magic is an incredibly complex beast – if you aren’t careful about when you cast a spell or use an ability, you can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in an (cough) instant.

So that’s concern number one: the Pass Priority button is going to simultaneously be annoying as hell and be the reason you lost a perfectly winnable match. It’s also incredibly high-brow for as much as Hex is being marketed as “easy to get into.” I was a tad disappointed at first when I watched the Hearthstone duels and realized that there would be no “in response I play X!” back and forth. But seeing Hex and being reminded about how cerebral Magic can get… I think the Blizzard folks are on the right track, at least for a casual audience.

Calling it now: this will sell for at least $60.

Calling it now: this will sell for at least $60. Each.

Concern number two? You’re going to spend probably $100-$200 a month playing this F2P game.

Look at this paragraph from the official website regarding the above card Extinction:

Every last troop in sight bites the dust. This card will be a crucial staple of many control decks in any tournament format for a long time to come. In other words, in addition to being awesome, these will be quite valuable to all types of players. If you’re dungeon crawling instead of tournament crawling, you can even keep troops off the board for another two turns while you finish your master plan, with the all-powerful equipment Grips of the Unfortunate!

Translation: everyone will be paying out of the ass for this “crucial staple” of a card.

Even if you don’t see yourself competing in the sort of obvious P2W Constructed deck format (or presumably high-end PvE raiding), you will still probably be spending many times the average monthly subscription if you are remotely interested in the game. It is all right there in the Kickstarter page:

For experienced TCG players, we have designed the card set around Booster Draft and Limited play. We have engineered the card sets to launch three times a year, like a standard TCG.

In Magic Online, a Booster Draft = eight players buy three booster packs apiece. Open pack, take one card, pass remaining to the left, repeat. Build deck. Limited = buy six booster packs, open them, build deck. Booster packs in Hex will cost $2 for 15 random cards, which is half of what WotC charges. Magic Online rewards the winners of these mini-tournaments with extra booster packs, such that those coming in 1st and 2nd place can generally leave with a profit of a few packs; I assume Hex will reward similarly. Everyone keeps the cards they play with, so you don’t leave empty-handed if you lose, but… well. Suffice it to say, I finally overcame my game subscription aversion when I realized I spent $24 in the course of a one hour in Magic Online. Suddenly, a mere $15/month seemed like a total steal. Cue WoW purchase.

Frankly, Booster Drafts and Limited are the best Magic tournament formats to play in because there is no Pay 2 Win pressure – everyone starts with the same random chance to get good/bad cards, and skill plays an exceedingly strong role thereafter. But, again, in Hex you are looking at dropping $6-$12 to participate in “content” that evaporates after an hour, if you’re lucky. This is to say nothing about the fact that new sets will come out three times a year, which means most of your cards will be unplayable in Standard settings (which is the big set and its two smaller components in Magic). You can still play older cards in Magic, but only in Extended formats where most people are still packing the overpowered cards of 5 years ago, not the leftover garbage from your Limited games that just became old news.

My deck-building sense is tingling.

My deck-building sense is tingling. Or that could be the withdrawal.

If you haven’t noticed, I am extrapolating a lot about Hex from how Magic Online worked, but Cryptozoic has already stolen so much shit I feel safe that they will keep the theme going here. Perhaps Hex will feel a little different since it will have a PvE aspect, where some of your “outdated” cards might find a long-term home. Perhaps you could even earn boosters from said PvE – that would at least make the F2P claim less of a bald-faced lie. But make no mistake here: Hex, like any TCG (digital or no), will contain the two worst components of consumer-gouging videogame design: Pay 2 Win and gamble boxes.

And goddamn it if I’m still reacting like an ex-junkie, credit card in shaking hand.