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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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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.

Instant 90s, cont.

In a rather topical turn of events, Blizzard has confirmed both that the level-90 boost will be $60 for real, and that it’s priced that way for your own good.

“In terms of the pricing, honestly a big part of that is not wanting to devalue the accomplishment of leveling,” Hazzikostas said.

“If our goal here was to sell as many boosts as possible, we could halve the price or more than that – make it $10 or something. And then hardly anyone would ever level a character again.

“But leveling is something that takes dozens if not over 100 hours in many cases and people have put serious time and effort into that, and we don’t want to diminish that.”

He added: “I am not an economist, I’m not the one setting the dollar value myself, but it’s not the profit maximizing price. That was not our aim here.”

You know, because anything less than $60 devalues your leveling accomplishments from years ago. Aside from everyone getting a free 90 with the expansion. And aside from those free level 80s via the Scroll of Resurrection (RIP). And aside from getting triple XP for putting a character on /follow for $12.50. And aside from the people cajoling their friends for power-leveling AoE dungeon runs while wearing full heirlooms. And, of course, aside from the inevitable XP reduction that comes with each expansion.

What’s extra interesting to me now though (and with Wilhelm too), is what Blizzard is going to do when the price of the expansion inevitably drops. I ended up buying Mists of Pandaria for $20 over Christmas a few years ago. Will the $60 character boost go down in tandem with the box price? Or will their stomach for the “unwieldy” buy-extra-expansion-copies suddenly steel up?

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My post yesterday came across to Tobold as an admonition of in-game purchases or whatever. While I do not expect people to maintain a full inventory of my opinions, I do hope that I am occasionally afforded the benefit of a doubt. Just so we’re clear though, here are my thoughts.

Way back in July 2011, I posted The Problem with F2P and Microtransactions. Over the years (!), I have come to concede the point that microtransactions are not going away. However, I have and will always continue to fight to slow the steady erosion of consumer surplus whenever I can. To me, there is no inconsistency with being okay with DLC in general, but not being okay with on-disc or Day 1 DLC. Similarly, there is good F2P and bad F2P, the latter of which can be summarized in Green Armadillo’s “To Vote Against Monetizing Nuisance” post. I’ve spent real dollars on PlanetSide 2 and Hearthstone, but would never spend anything on Dungeon Keeper or Candy Crush Saga, even though I have nothing against playing those latter games.

In fact, I talked about games like Dungeon Keeper just about two weeks ago. Their business models suck and they are emblematic of the wrong way to take game design, but if you treat their nuisance as an extra layer of challenge, you can re-extract the consumer surplus you inevitably lost somewhere else. Plus, paying in time management games is an extremely bad trade of value. Getting extra imps or builders or whatever usually results in maybe an extra minute or two of gameplay if you’re lucky – you will be able to take a few extra actions but will otherwise still be required to put the game down for an arbitrary period of time. Compare that with Don’t Starve or Terraria or whatever full-fledged indie game you could have bought with those same dollars.

In any case, circling back to Blizzard, I hope it’s clear that I’m not against all in-game purchases. I’ve used both the Scroll of Resurrection and dual-boxed a RAF account in the past (that’s the origin of my Priest named Freexp). My opposition to the $60 instant-90 is precisely the dollar amount, on top of the bullshit PR logic used to justify it. I have always had a problem with the $25 character transfer service too, which really came to a head when they dropped the price for a week. These services are priced so absurdly compared to what other pieces of entertainment you could be buying because, quote, it’s to discourage their use. Yeah, okay. Tell that to the thousands of people left duped and abandoned on no-pop “Recommended” servers that Blizzard left to rot for 6+ years. To those people, it was “pay $25 on top of the subscription to continue playing the game.”

The Problem With F2P and Microtransactions

Are you someone who almost never engages in microtransactions, has no real issue with people that do, but nevertheless feel like you are losing something whenever a game company starts to embrace them? Do you get the sensation that the purchasing power of your money is decreasing the longer a game goes on, seemingly for no real reason? Do you think cash shops are just plain wrong but have difficulty expressing it in words? The good news is I finally remembered the name of the economic concept behind the sensation: consumer surplus. The bad news is… so have game companies.

Consumer surplus is the difference between the maximum price a consumer is willing to pay and the actual price they do pay. If a consumer would be willing to pay more than the current asking price, then they are getting more benefit from the purchased product than they spent to buy it. An example of a good with generally high consumer surplus is drinking water. People would pay very high prices for drinking water, as they need it to survive. The difference in the price that they would pay, if they had to, and the amount that they pay now is their consumer surplus. Note that the utility of the first few liters of drinking water is very high (as it prevents death), so the first few liters would likely have more consumer surplus than subsequent liters.

The description is pretty self-explanatory, but I think the graph is a bit more useful.

And why not, here is a Greek college professor talking about it.

Do you want some videogame examples? Think back to multiplayer Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3. When I bought Diablo 2, it was because I wanted a quality dungeon-crawler experience similar to Diablo 1 – that there was an entire multiplayer experience attached was pure consumer surplus for me. Same with thing with Warcraft 3. Would I have paid an extra $5 for access to multiplayer? Probably. That $5 that I would have paid but did not have to amounted to Blizzard “leaving money on the table.”* Non-game examples includes Netflix Streaming, where you can access hundreds of movies at any time for $7.99. In spite of the “controversy” surrounding them raising prices of dual streaming/DVD plans, I think it is rather obvious that most Netflix customers would actually pay $10, $15, or even $20 a month for the service, especially since Movies On Demand-style services can cost upwards of $4.99 per movie.

The entire premise of microtransactions is dividing your content into smaller chunks to (re)capture and monetize every ounce of consumer surplus. While it is true that overall the game and it’s various monetized components are still worth buying – it falls within the bounds of the Demand Curve, which by definition means you value the game more than the money used to purchase it – it is equally true that literal value has been extracted from you. In other words, microtransactions remove value from games by reducing your consumer surplus.

Now, there may be the open question of whether the sort of microtransactions Blizzard is doing “counts” as consumer surplus mining. If Blizzard could/did not charge $25 for a mount, for example, would they have made the mounts at all? Would Blizzard have never made the Mobile Armory and/or the premium RealID grouping features if those did not tack on an extra subscription fee? I think they might not have developed those features and mounts, but that is more of an issue with the lack of credible competition** Blizzard faces than anything else. Indeed, competition generally engenders the greatest amount “value-added” consumer surplus since direct price wars are untenable. Then again, I might also bring up the Red Queen argument in that, much like raiding content, Blizzard has to continually be moving forward to maintain its present position. The artists that made and animated the Disco Lion would have been working on something either way, so if not adding that mount in as a PvE/PvP reward of some type, the effort might have been directed into a Titan or Diablo 3 model instead (increasing consumer surplus in those games).

In any case, I find the F2P and microtransaction model somewhat disturbing, yet inevitable. It obviously has the power to save games that would not exist otherwise (e.g. LotRO, APB, etc), and thereby opens the possibility of radical innovation in the types of games we play. Similarly, the rise of Steam and iTunes (and Facebook for that matter) as content delivery services makes indie games/music possible that could not exist in a typical retail box store. That said, the existence of that hitherto unexploited consumer surplus also leads to worse games, like Tiny Tower***. Meanwhile, instead of growing the industry, we have the major players pumping out sequals and squeezing the blood from what rocks are left instead of, well, mining for new rocks. This same phenominom is going on in the movie industry, with parallels like making movies 3D not because that adds value, but because A) they get to charge more, and B) it makes the movies nearly impossible to pirate.

The way I see it, the more game companies fall over themselves trying to monetize every corner of our consumer surplus, the less they fall over themselves giving us quality entertainment. Eventually, there will be some break-point beyond which lies an Era of Subsistence Gaming where we get exactly what we pay for and not one whit more. And those will be very bleak times indeed.

*Except Blizzard did not actually “leave any money on the table,” since that implies there was no value to Blizzard for giving consumer surplus. As we all know, it is the exact opposite: we as players give that value back to Blizzard in the form of brand loyalty and positive word-of-mouth recommendations. Part of that comes from the (historic) quality and polish of their games, but the feeling that we are getting more plays a non-zero part in the calculus.

**Blah, blah, Rift, LotRO, etc. Rift peaked at 600k subs and is now hovering around ~480k. LotRO peaked at 560k and is now at 360k. If you add both Rift and LotRO numbers at their peak, and then multiplied that by two, WoW would still have had more players than that in just North America… in 2008. Lost subs are lost subs, but I bet the Disco Lion made more money in the opening day it was released to cover a year’s worth of lost subs.

***Worse as in psychologically designed to exploit your nucleus accumbens, and essentially disprove the economic theory of rational consumers single-handedly.