Saturday, February 25, 2017

Saturday Sidequest: Enough With Microtransactions Already!

This week, I took a bit of time to myself to fight off my sickness. I got hit with a bad combination of pink eye and strep throat last week and I've been doing everything I can to keep things going, both here at the Cybertavern and in my regular life. As you can imagine I was in unbelievable agony.

However, a few days ago I felt good enough to actually try to get out in the world again. Took care of some minor things, double checked my income since a new Nintendo console is coming out next week and I'm hyped as all hell, stuff like that. I even got a chance to have some time with Ubisoft's new game, For Honor, courtesy of my local Play and Trade's rental service.

Contrary to what some mouth-breathers online will want you to believe, you don't just “get” free games just because you're a game journalist and critic, it's more a matter of if rather than when at the small fry level.

Anyway, I booted up For Honor on the store's PS4 and played roughly an hour of it. Yes, an hour. It is completely possible to get a feel for a game in terms of progression and ideas in a longer amount of time, but when you are strapped for money and time, a small look is better than no look at all.

First impressions were nice. I got through the tutorial, played the first mission of the game's story mode and tried two games of the online multiplayer. I liked the combat system, a good combination of the mind games and combo attacks found in a fighting game with the realistically cumbersome and meaty animation that would come from medieval combat. The tutorial even did a good job breaking down and demonstrating the importance of the game's different stances, attack types, and environmental awareness, which was a plus.

After finishing the tutorial, I got myself 2000 of a special material called Steel and I didn't think much of it. Thought it was a simple in-game currency used to unlock new abilities and warrior classes, similar to the money system in Call of Duty: Black Ops or the Credits in Titanfall 2.

Then....I got to the online. Turns out I was right about the Steel, except that the amount given and the amount received by winning online matches is akin to a drug dealer giving away the first taste for free. With 2000 Steel to start with, I can use it to buy special weapon and armor packs full of cosmetic things for my warriors, all randomized of course, and there's even a certain level of paying to win going on, since some of the gear has RPG elements that can give you a notable advantage in two of the larger scale online modes in the game. Stuff like being able to consistently hit for double damage for example, blatantly unbalanced stuff. Also, the game's multiple character classes, 12 in total, can only be unlocked by spending 500 Steel for each. As for the packs, they'll take a couple hundred to tie you over. Of course by spending north of twenty minutes in a game whose netcode is about as stable as a mental institution built on a fault line and ultimately winning a match nets you the grand total of...about twenty Steel, if you're lucky.

Or... you can take out your credit card and spend anywhere between five to A HUNDRED DOLLARS to get more Steel! Up to a hundred dollars! For in-game currency! In a game that is currently priced at sixty American dollars with a thirty dollar Season Pass of downloadable content to buy!!

Here's a visual representation of how I feel about such a practice ever since it was implemented by the likes of EA in Mass Effect 3 and Dead Space 3 and since adopted by EVERY OTHER DISGUSTING EXCUSE FOR A GAME PUBLISHER THAT LOVES FUCKING THEIR CUSTOMERS OVER FOR SHORT-TERM PROFIT!!

And I can already hear multiple people dish out the same justifications and arguments to this practice – one that's been going on for almost a decade, that I hear them in my nightmares. Let's go over them together shall we?

They're Just Cosmetic, Stop Complaining!

Now normally yes. In a standard online game with a standardized form of progression that focuses on individual skill and merit, such things are cosmetic.

A grand example would be the shaders and emblems unlocked in Bungie's Destiny. Now, for all of the problems I still think that this game has, it is in this respect that I genuinely believe the developers should be credited. By achieving certain feats in the game, either by finishing certain story missions on a certain difficulty, pulling through a Raid with your team, or even just getting lucky with an RNG loot drop, you get a shader which cosmetically changes the appearance of your character. Same thing with Emblems, little icons that go next to your name. They give no real advantage to actual gameplay at all, but it is still a sign of mastery within the game's world.

Now, imagine this scenario. You go through the hardest challenges imaginable in your online game. You go on a massive winning streak, you get a team together and become truly amazing. To commemorate this, you get a special totally cosmetic look for your character, one that every knows as a badge of legitimate badassery.

Now picture how much that level of reward is diminished by the fact that anyone can just buy it. If someone just paid enough money to also have this item you worked really hard at. Worse still, these people pay up and get everything in a matter of hours where you may have taken weeks of your precious time to get this item.

Congratulations, you have just experienced one of the many ways a free-to-play experience manipulates you into paying for “just cosmetic items.” It's a classic duality of the Haves and the Have Nots, an expression of excess the Haves opt in to, which leaves a level of envy in the Have Nots which facilitates an attempt to bridge the gap in the fastest way possible: with cold hard cash.

It Doesn't Affect Gameplay At All


Oh wait, you're being serious?

Alright, fine. Technically this excuse gets lumped in with the other one, as if the two are connected, but that does an absolute disservice to what microtransactions in AAA games actually utilize psychologically on the player. In fact I alluded to one of their biggest inspirations at the end of my last paragraph: Free-To-Play games.

Yeah, not only does this practice actively undercut and lessens the impact of earning stuff in-game yourself, there's a legitimate use of psychological tactics going down that mobile free-to-play games have refined to a T.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of studies by professional psychological institutions on the subject and their findings can be found everywhere from The Huffington Post to The New York Times, seriously just Google search “Free-To-Play Psychology” and get to reading. For those of you too lazy or hopped up on whatever the heck the drink of the week is, let me give you a crash course.

A Free-To-Play game hinges its entire long-term strategy on getting you to pay real money, the developers have to eat after all, and to do so it balances convenience with the player's patience. To this end they usually give the player a seemingly large amount of the premium currency upfront, to allow them to get used to being able to get certain items, or since gambling compulsion is much easier to monetize, use it to buy packs with an element of randomization to it. Once that currency is gone however, the player's ability to earn this premium currency in-game slows down to a trickle, forcing them to either go through slogs of repetition to get a miniscule amount of coin to hopefully roll the dice some more. But the entire time, there's the simple temptation to just buy more currency rather than relentlessly grind for weeks or even months.

This is an active use of psychological warfare on the player and it is a deliberate choice by the developers. It is all too easy for an untrained player to look at this model and wonder how this is any different from a regular progression system found in modern games like Call of Duty. Except they are completely night and day. A regular progression system, the kind with no need to shake you down for money, actively goes out of its way to deliver the player a consistent dripfeed of new content to maintain engagement and to reward their investment in the game. Getting a new type of Sniper Rifle or buff in Call of Duty, obtaining some Legendary gear in World of Warcraft, all done to keep the player wanting to play more to see what they will unlock or accomplish next with the new set of tools they have earned. A Free-To-Play progression curve actively forces the player on a treadmill, they want to make the very act of grinding and earning in-game cash the hard way to be a slog, the intent is to get you to pay not to enjoy playing for free. Despite certain olive branches are seemingly enticing early game buffs, eventually the grind will come.

And in a Free-To-Play game, that makes a perfect amount of sense. It's your entry fee, an unspoken rule of what you are getting into when you play one of these games. And in this respect the Free-To-Play model is perfectly reasonable, let me make that clear right now that I am not against this practice in its respective genre and platform.

But this very psychological pummeling and penny-pinching model becomes a lot less easy to swallow when you take into account that the initial game isn't for free and on something as ubiquitous as a phone. Rather a game you pay sixty dollars for to play on a dedicated gaming machine that ranges between 300-500 dollars – even more if you play on PC, and then decides to pull this nonsense on you rather than actually treat a premium retail experience with a certain level of respect for its consumer.

As for how much resources and work hours implementing such a system can otherwise destroy a developer's original vision, look no further than an interview with the director of Dead Space 3 conducted by Eurogamer.

Which brings me to....

It's Not A Big Deal, I Don't Have to Pay At All Cuz I'm Not a Wuss

Seriously, insert any macho swagger you want because it all comes from the exact same conceit: It's not my problem because it doesn't work on me.

Except that completely misses the entire point of this entire rant, the fact that your very willpower is being tested!

If I picked up a bunch of colorful knives and proceeded to stab you in the chest with them, don't worry they're all just cosmetic, your first response to this assault would not be “don't worry I remembered to wear kevlar under my clothes today, good luck breaking that,” it would be, “what the hell are you doing? You told me we were just going to the park! Stop it I didn't ask for this at all! Someone call an ambulance!”

Which lies at the heart of why I absolutely cannot stand microtransactions in full-priced retail games. It helps absolutely no one, it actively makes games worse, and it will negatively affect your play sessions even if you go out of your way to ignore it. Sure the company will cite profits and excuse it by saying “mobile games do it so why shouldn't we,” and there will be defenders of the practice, but much like the very model itself, patience as well as money will run out, and all that will be left will be a bunch of angry consumers that will get tired and just leave.

This is extremely painful to even bring up because, as I mentioned way back in the beginning of this column: I really did enjoy what I played of For Honor. But rather than having the game respect my intelligence and my time, it started acting like a shady casino owner, giving me some gambling chips and telling me to totally have some fun at the slot machines. He tells me I have a really good chance at hitting it big.

And for a game that is all about simulating the rush and visceral satisfaction of meeting and defeating rival warriors on a medieval battlefield, that very concept and analogy is so incongruous it completely killed any interest I had for it or anything else Ubisoft would do with it in the future.

In short, screw microtransactions!

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