The Endgame

You thought this was going to start with a joke about Infinity War, didn’t you? Be honest. If you are, then I will be and admit that the first couple drafts of this did indeed start that way. As it turns out trying to link Doctor Strange’s line into a conversation about the controversy surrounding Anthem’s launch state is harder than it seems.

See how I did that? Nice, right?

Anywho, let’s talk about the latest whirlwind of, I won’t even call it a conversation, as it is really just a bunch of people screaming into the void about the newest death knell for Anthem.

Endgame content.

We’re not going to start out talking about it immediately, it’ll take a minute but trust me, we’ll get there.

First off we may as well take a moment to explain exactly what that is for the curious but unfamiliar and to do that let’s go over some general info. Video games are broken down into some broad categories which over time have been parted out even more into various sub-categories. The number of these is easily into the dozens so you’ll forgive me for not listing them all here, we’ll stick with just the relevant ones. Anthem is most often referred to as a Looter Shooter which combines elements of Action/RPG/First or Third-Person Shooter games into one package. We can credit the existence of this genre to games like Hellgate: London and the short-lived Tabula Rasa. Two years after those games released Gearbox’s entry Borderlands would finally cement the Looter Shooter as a staple in the gaming industry. Titles like Warframe, Destiny and The Division were not far behind, as well as numerous indie projects. All of these games, while also being looter shooters, share similar monetization schemes ranging from subscriptions (Hellgate: London), DLC, and microtransactions.

I’m going to take just a small detour here to explain the distinction between games as a service versus DLC. It may not seem important but for our purposes, the distinction does matter. DLC or Downloadable Content for games, for the most part, exist as distinct content additions to a retail product. Usually, they are additional chunks that build on the core experience of a base game either tangentially to the story or directly related to it. Most of the time these pieces of content can be completed in the <10-hour range and costs anywhere between $5 and $20.

A Games as a Service/Live Service style product will generally package a set of microtransactions along with annual or bi-annual DLC content and seasonal events. All of these are designed to keep players engaged over multiple years of content and microtransaction releases. In effect, these games don’t want to give you the opportunity to stop playing and go elsewhere between DLC.

This is where the design of endgame content starts to matter. When the big bad is vanquished and you stand triumphant while the credits roll, what do you do after? Traditionally in linear story-oriented games, this is when you take a break and then move on to some other title. In the world of monetization that we now live developers instead want to keep you right where you are, playing their game and investing your hard earned money in keeping that experience going. By all accounts, it’s not a bad business strategy as it directly addresses the worst part of finishing a great piece of entertainment, you want more. This is where the RPG in the Looter Shooter game design really shines as one of the core aspects to many roleplaying games is the equipment. With the addition of milestone challenges, rare gear to collect, and even bits of hidden lore to uncover these are the building blocks of the all-important endgame.

Which brings us to…

The Grind

Disclaimer – I was going to make a “Bump N’ Grind” joke here until I realized much to my dismay that R Kelly sings that song and because fuck that guy, you get the gif instead, enjoy.

If you’ve ever wondered what work feels like in your leisure time I encourage you to immerse yourself in the grind of any game mentioned in this post or your choice of MMO. The more Korean the better. Ideally, it won’t feel like work because as a fan of the game you’ll enjoy what you have to do regardless of its repetitive nature.

Skill-Up on YouTube had one of my favorite descriptions of it when it came to the most recent updates for The Division.

If you watched a couple minutes of that you might end up agreeing with Skill-Up that it doesn’t seem like that was very repetitive at all and you would be right. What you have to remember though is that it took almost two years for the game to reach that point. Think about that, the endgame of a major IP didn’t come together fully until nearly two years after it’s initial release. To be honest, I was almost positive that it would never really get there after playing at launch but to their credit, they stuck with it and built a game they could be proud of. One that ended up being so good I came back to it with a friend and we poured a ton of hours into it, a lot of which was a second run for me.

So how does all this tie in with Anthem? The current picadillo that Bioware seems to be in is that no one believes their endgame is up to snuff. I’ve heard everything from it’s “light” to “non-existent” and everything in between.

Today Bioware posted part 2 of their This is Anthem video series about the endgame, it’s worth a watch.

Everything said in the video pretty much lines up with what we’ve come to expect from other live services with a healthy spread between daily, weekly, and monthly challenges. In addition to world events like the shaper storms and cataclysms, the developers have also said that things like weather and time of day will also affect available activities. You also have other codex challenges like using different equipment to unlock more advanced crafting recipes for a given gear type.

The questions I asked myself while reading through all the criticism, some of which is in the comments of that video, was how much endgame is really needed at launch? Does the min-max grind count once you’re there? Anyone with any experience in the various gaming communities, or any rabid fandom really, will tell you how little time it takes people to blow through content. As recently as a day ago a world first race for new World of Warcraft content concluded. Gamers have built careers on how quickly they can knock down incredibly complex content upon its release. People plan their days off so they can binge new titles, we’ve built conventions around speed running and are still finding decades-old secrets in games most of us barely remember anymore. Whether it’s out of sheer passion or the drive to be first fans will find a way to consume content or do things faster than was ever intended. Its become a bit of an amusing arms race between developers and their communities as they try to stay one step ahead and provide new, more challenging gameplay.

Anyone remember the No Man’s Sky launch? Even Destiny 2’s community has had heated discussions since its launch about whether or not the developers should be catering more towards hardcore or casual fans. Do you do it via a majority vote? Player statistics? Squeakiest wheel? Dartboard? Guess there is always this but it just seems cruel and wasteful.

So what do they do? Bioware has been working on Anthem since at least 2012 so that is already six years worth of work just to bring the game to this point, two weeks and change out from release. From everything I have seen the game is sporting a respectable amount of activities for a new, ambitious IP at its launch and what appears to be a rather extensive future roadmap. Striking the balance between “having enough” and “ever launching your game at all” is no easy task but at some point you have to end development and go live. What’s funny is that they haven’t even really ended development on Anthem as they have already had teams working on post-release content for months to get it ready. It’s always possible that Anthem will end up like other live service games that take months, if not years, to reach their full potential. The silver lining to that possibility is that three of the most prominent titles in this genre all suffered from this at launch and since then have all gone on to rather amazing success. Bungie actually managed it twice now with Destiny 2 following a similar fate as their first game. In spite of what you might have heard Destiny 2 outsold the first and was Activision Blizzard’s largest PC launch. Far from a failure in spite of Activision being disappointed in its performance.

It’s entirely possible that this is just par for the course for this genre of games and that no amount of endgame content at launch will ever be enough. I don’t think that I’m quite ready to declare that the set in stone reality but the evidence does seem to be pointing in that direction. As I said in my last post I feel like Bioware has proven that Anthem has all the ingredients to be amazing which leaves only a couple questions up to the community.

Do you want to be there from the potentially rocky, buggy launch?

Are you okay with feeling like you’ve caught up and have nothing new to do but grind and explore until new content drops?

If you answered yes then barring any cataclysmic problems I’ll be there with you to ride the launch-day rollercoaster. It’ll be frustrating but fun I’m sure.

If you answered no then that is fine. If the game is still here and kicking out content in six months to a years time you can pick it up on sale and join in. If not then you were right all along and it was a good thing you waited.

The question of whether or not there is enough endgame content at launch is, I think, a bit of a false dilemma. The questions we should be asking is whether or not the game is done. If the story is interesting or engaging. Is the aesthetic interesting? Are the graphics good? Does it feel like the Bioware we’ve fallen in love with in the past?

I honestly don’t think I care if there is enough of an endgame grind out of the gate to keep me busy right up until new content is released.

I just care that what is there is worth playing in the first place. I can always look forward to more if it is.

  • Anthony

Anthem, Part 2 – New World

If you read part one of my Anthem ramblings from yesterday then–welcome back! If you didn’t and would like to, go do that and I’ll keep this page warm until you get back.

All done? Excellent. Seemed kind of dour, didn’t it? I agree. Except for some general “I have hope” sentiments I don’t think I really gave anyone reasons to be excited. So let’s change that and I think there is no better place to start than the setting.

Unless you’re building a game that functions solely on its mechanics like Dead Cells, Tetris or QWOP then a story is an important fundamental aspect to your title. One that I think Anthem has in spades.

The Anthem of Creation

Whether we acknowledge it or not originality is one of the key hooks in any creative endeavor. Even if the skeleton of it is the same as it’s been for decades the veneer, a lot of the time, is what really counts. As more and more information about Anthem has been released the comparisons to recent and games long past have been steady.

The loot and RPG systems of Diablo.

The shooter mechanics of Destiny, and the loot.

I’m sure there are more than a few passing references to Borderlands.

The movement, combat and, loot of Warframe.

The cosmetic microtransactions of… any number of games.

The Sci-Fi setting of… any number of games, books and, movies.

I mentioned yesterday that as more details about the game have come out I was surprised by how many people were down on it’s aesthetic and story. I won’t deny that in many broad ways Anthem feels familiar, just like a lot of games to their spiritual predecessors. I’ve remarked on numerous occasions that to me Destiny at times feels to me like Bungie is still a bit lovesick for their Halo IP. The Cabal and the Covenant, Master Chief and the Guardians, humanity on the brink. In a lot of broad themes, these games to me have a lot in common beyond just their aesthetics.

But how similar are they? The truthful answer is not at all really, especially once you start getting into the details of the settings where they are significantly different. Each one with a lovingly crafted lore built out into a living, breathing universe that is constantly growing and changing. It’s not an easy undertaking to build something like that from scratch and only bear a passing resemblance to IPs that have come before. Bungie and Bioware both deserve a round of applause for managing to do this multiple times over their history as game developers.

Anthem for all its familiarity feels to me like a fresh universe to explore and that in and of itself means it has cleared one of the biggest hurdles a new IP has. So, let us take a look at what know so far before heading into the Open Demo Weekend.

The World of Anthem

Humanity struggles for survival on the ever-changing world of Anthem

The as-of-yet unnamed planet players will be exploring in Anthem is a world described by Mark Darrah as, “… a world stuck in the middle of its genesis.” As far as I can tell it’s not entirely clear whether or not the planet was being created from scratch or being terraformed from a previously uninhabitable form. The Shapers or Shaper Gods have long since left the world with their work unfinished and the inhabitants of the planet struggling to survive the aftermath. The technology used by the Shapers to harness the Anthem of Creation, energy unique to this universe, were also left behind and still active. Occasionally bursts of energy from these relics will radically alter the landscape and go so far as to mutate the indigenous life. These changes affect everything from their physical appearance to potentially making them more aggressive. We hear several references in trailers to something called The Heart of Rage which may or may not be related to the Anthem itself. This results in a dangerous and ever-changing planet where humanity fights back the chaos from heavily defended enclaves called Forts.

One of these Forts, Tarsis, is where the player begins their journey as a new Freelancer pilot responsible for flying one of the worlds rare Javelin mechs. Javelins are handcrafted suits of armor used by talented pilots to ensure the safety of the remaining human settlements. The story of the Freelancers and their inception actually goes back quite a long way according to the Legion of Dawn trailer. The voiceover talks about a time when humans were slaves to the chaos of the world. That is until one figure, in what we assume was the first Javelin, lead the fight to establish bastions of humanity that still stand today. The technology of the Javelin and this unnamed figures victories lead to the establishment of the Legion of Dawn. Precursors to the modern day Freelancers who still risk their lives to protect and someday reclaim the planet from the constant upheaval threatening to destroy it.

On top of the Shaper Relics and indigenous dangers of the planet, there looms another threat in the form of the Dominion. A faction of humans from the northern reaches lead by a man known only as The Monitor. The goals of the Dominion are simple: survival through strength. They seek to consolidate all of humanity under their banner and claim the Anthem of Creation for themselves. With that done they will be able to make and remake the world at a whim in any fashion they desire. As such the Dominion and The Monitor will be one of the main antagonists through much of the game as the Freelancers stand between them and their search for ultimate power.

On the periphery of this growing conflict, there is also an alien faction which comes from off-world called the Scars. This enigmatic force appears to also seek the technology left behind by the Shapers for their own nefarious ends.

This is only the tip of the iceberg with regards to enemy and allied factions out in the world and even within your home of Fort Tarsis. In classic Bioware fashion, our actions and interactions with each them will shape our version of the story and the world as we play and develop those relationships.

I think that is about as good as I can do for the “in a nutshell” version but suffice it to say for me this was enough to get the wheels spinning. Anthem’s developers have said that while we’ll learn more about the world during the campaign we won’t learn every detail about it nor solve all of its mysteries. Whether or not we’ll eventually learn the truth about the Shapers or their original intentions for this world is a toss up but in my estimation, a well-teased story is as good or better than a fully explained one. After all, there is something to be said about keeping the mystery alive and in this case, my place in the grand scheme of Anthem doesn’t have to sit front and center as long as I can keep flying my javelin.

A Good Mechanic Goes a Long Way

A great story and setting is all well and good but what about the mechanics of the game? This is the part where I really wish I had done some capture during the demo but with the limited amount of time I had to play it was a secondary concern. Fortunately, there are plenty of great content creators out there on YouTube who have more than enough captured footage for you to enjoy if you weren’t able to play last weekend. Even better is that if you want to try it yourself there is an Open Demo starting tomorrow that you can take part in on the PS4, Xbox and PC.

In the interim what I will tell you is that the game feels amazing. I’ve read, listened and watched a lot of reviews in the last few days and much like the aesthetic complaints I’m just not seeing a lot of the criticism being levied at Anthem. That is until you get to the swimming part and I will 100% agree that feels abysmal with a mouse and keyboard. The flying took a little bit of tweaking on M+K to get just right but once I had it dialed in I didn’t want to do anything else. There is absolutely no substitute for the freedom and verticality offered by Anthem in its traversal which is made only better by the sheer mobility in combat.

The mission structure of the game is one aspect that I will say is not my favorite as it sort of breaks up the immersion. As funny as that is to say about a third person shooter. Queueing up in a lobby before loading into a mission or Free-Play is fine but it sort of bypasses the potential magic of suiting up, walking out to the launch platform and jumping. I won’t quibble too much about a load screen being in between a player and their adventure but you can’t argue with the beauty of a seamless transition from one area or activity to the next. In this age of gaming, it would have been nice if Bioware had found a way to ditch the dreaded static load screen for something more immersive. That being said once you are loaded in the world is your oyster with loads being limited to entering into caverns, buildings or other dungeon-like areas. Many places, even underwater, are free to be explored without hesitation.

As the name looter shooter implies guns play a rather large role in Anthem although perhaps not as large a role as we initially assumed. Bioware has stated that the main reason for the lack of a PVP mechanic in the game is they didn’t want the power of characters limited by necessary balance concerns. As such the Javelin’s myriad abilities recharge very quickly ensuring that you are never relying on only your weapons for very long. The ensuing cacophony of explosive elemental effects comboing off one another is truly a sight to behold. The rattle of guns is still a constant soundtrack in combat however and they handle okay. There is a jittery aspect to the machine guns that I don’t care for although I suspect its a conflict between aim assist and M+K control scheme. Shotguns feel and sound incredible, there is a weight to them that is unmistakable and satisfying. Sniper rifles, especially my favorite the Devastator variant, bring long range damage with an explosive kick to the battlefield. Marksman rifles for me felt the best to me during my playthrough although as a Storm main it was always destined to be. Pistols I could take or leave although I didn’t spend as much time with them as I should have.

Gangs all here.

Before this gets too much longer the last thing I want to talk about, in broad terms, are the javelins themselves. The stars of the show. From top to bottom they feel different, look different and play very different. While there are only four base javelin types the weapons, mods, and components you pick up can radically alter how you approach a battle. None of them are relegated to any one role except in the most general sense.

A Storm will never tank a battle or spend much time on the ground, in the thick of things.

A Colossus will not sit back and pick off targets from afar or hover above the battlefield.

An Interceptor will not deal extensive area damage or spend much time in one place, ever.

A Ranger will not… uh, well. Ranger is kind of all-around good at everything so if you don’t like being pigeonholed this is the javelin for you.

Short of these clear divisions of labor, you can outfit your javelins to fit a wide variety of playstyles even if they may seem to run contrary to the javelins stated role. With only PvE content to consider it opens up the way for more experimentation with potentially sub-optimal builds. At the end of the day, the way you enjoy playing will trump the statistically optimal choice. With a group of three other javelins, their combined firepower and some skillful play I think we’ll find most if not all styles of play are viable in Anthem.

Anthem in its current state is far from a perfect game but as I said before it has enormous potential and that is what excites me the most about it.
Attentive readers will notice that I didn’t talk about the microtransaction scheme that will be in the game which is a fair criticism. The main reason I don’t want to is that the community already got what it wanted from Bioware and EA in regards to real money purchases. Cosmetic only. The supposed pricing debacle is something we can discuss after launch when it is set in stone but for now, the game is releasing with exactly what we said we wanted. They listened, we won to get out the ticker tape and let’s throw that parade.

With the fixes to come in the released game and the technical difficulties (hopefully) ironed out for the Open Demo starting today I think Anthem is finally a game that we can be honestly excited for. It’s here, it’s real and thus far it isn’t all of our worst fears from EA‘s corporate meddling to Bioware’s rocky reputation combined. We chided them for a long time that this game was shaping up, and indeed intended, to be their apology and redemption tour and it seems we were right.

Eventual success or failure aside I think we can confidently say that Anthem is the game Bioware set out to make. They offered transparency to the fans and listened to their feedback over the last couple years to improve on their vision. In a few weeks, the world will get a chance to vote with their wallets on the final product.

I don’t know about you but I can’t really ask for more than that.

  • Anthony

P.S. Bioware also announced that all story-based DLC for this game will be free going forward because they don’t want to split up the player base.

Lootboxes: A Random Chance at Fun

In an ever increasing suite of tools that developers and publishers use to monetize their games why is it that lootboxes stand out head and shoulders among them as the most odious? Lets look at a quick and dirty list of monetization schemes currently present in the game industry before we get started, in no particular order:

  • DLC
  • Season Passes
  • Lootboxes
  • Microtransactions
  • Premium Currencies
  • Pre-Order Bonuses
  • Platform Specific Content
  • Publisher Specific Content
  • Retailer Specific Content (Gamestop)
  • Early Access
  • Alpha/Beta “Testing” with Purchase
  • Forced Multiplayer/MMO Lite Mechanics
  • F2P Games (Cost More in Aggregate Than a Full Price $60 Game for the Experience)
  • Full Price $60 Games That Still Include Microtransactions

I’m sure there are more but that list is just what comes up off the top of my head. A lot of these you might say could be combined into a single category or are now defunct practices which is a fair criticism. A lot of these things are tied very closely to one another in their implementation but I’ve broken them out like that because it makes it easier to visualize all the different avenues used to siphon more of your entertainment dollars. A practice that I actually have no problem with in theory as long as what you are getting in return is commensurate with the price tag placed on it which is largely not the case in most of the above examples. Today though I’d like to specifically address Lootboxes and why even the “fairest” implementations of them still sour what may be an overall excellent game experience. Lootboxes are a sort of gambling mechanic introduced into games to serve as an alternate form of progression that sidesteps the investment of time and skill for real world dollars. The argument for why this sort of system is okay is predicated on the idea that it is primarily for players who have more money than time. It’s not an argument without merit however it requires such a delicate balance in order to maintain fairness for people who don’t want to pay vs those who overwhelmingly pay to advance. This results in a system referred to as “Pay to Win” when a game has a multiplayer component whose real money transactions confer a competitive advantage on those who use them. It undercuts the importance of skill and emphasizes instead the size of your entertainment budget and the overall luck of what randomized items you get from Lootboxes. Few people want to play a game where on release day players who purchase $1,000 in microtransactions can artificially reign supreme while players who grind their way will have a much harder time doing so. There have also been rumors and rumblings around the industry that companies have gone so far as to use multiplayer matchmaking as a sort of advertisement for items gained through microtransactions. The algorithms used to keep matchmaking roughly even based on skill instead will match newer players with ones who are significantly better equipped in order to encourage the less equipped players to buy lootboxes to be competitive. YouTube creator SidAlpha had a fascinating and chilling video out back in January about the future of microtransactions in games that I highly encourage you to watch for how these mechanics are viewed from the business side.

As these predatory practices have gotten a foothold in mainstream gaming it’s been a rough road for adoption as gamers have fought each step of the way to keep them from becoming the new normal. Unfortunately while it slowed their implementation it has done little if anything to stop it, companies were simply making too much money from them due to the large majority of industry customers not speaking out or still purchasing titles with microtransactions while “Not planning to use them.”. While the sentiment is nice the purchase of the game itself is still profit for the company and as we know not an effective protest of these policies. Thankfully the rise of Indie titles in the last handful of years has given people other outlets and has made it easier to avoid entirely Triple A titles laden with microtransactions and lootboxes. Nintendo has also, as far as I know, steered clear of microtransactions in their games and only this year will for the first time charge for their consoles online service with the Switch. Throughout the last few years language has begun to creep into game development like “Games as a service” which implies that design was now more focused around ongoing experiences that don’t end after a single playthrough but instead keep players returning indefinitely. Linear single player games are tough to monetize like that so multiplayer became a necessity for any title attempting to do so. Adding co-operative or competitive multiplayer to games is not inherently a bad thing however it can still cause problems. If the game development did not originally include a multiplayer then time and resources must be diverted away from the main focus of the game in order to create it which could end up leaving the whole product worse off at release. Games released in that state can feel markedly worse with the inclusion of microtransactions especially if you already feel like you overpaid with the initial $60 price tag.

Over the years many different styles of microtransactions have been tried with varying degrees of success and there are some important distinctions within that:

DLC Packs – Games like the infamous Train Simulator which boast a whopping 437 pieces of downloadable content for sale at a staggering price of $4,132.24 and thats when its on sale for anywhere from 40-90% off. A more popular example would be Just Cause 3 with 12 additional pieces of DLC adding more than the cost of another full Triple A game at $63.39. The Sniper Elite games are also notorious for the slew of small DLC packs post release. Sniper Elite v3 offers an additional $67.87 worth of post release content. Dead or Alive may be one of the most head-scratching examples of this list with the most recent iteration sporting 71 additional DLCs at the low price of only $1,289.79

Cosmetic Only – Games like Overwatch which are critically acclaimed across the industry offer lootboxes however the contents contain only cosmetic items that have no effect on the gameplay, removing balance issues like we’ll get to below. Counter-Strike has a similar system of cosmetics that live completely outside of the mechanics of the game. Most MMOs who implement these microtransactions make them largely cosmetic however when they don’t they are generally very careful about keeping their balance carefully in line with non-premium items. The new Far Cry 5 also includes these types of microtransactions.

Non-Cosmetic Items/Buffs – In this category is where we find games like Battlefront II whose lootboxes were heavily criticised for being “Pay to Win” as you could boost your power and access to items significantly just by paying. AC: Origins although only a single player game has microtransactions that offer more than just cosmetic items including the ability to buy crafting materials and skill points with real money. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War contains an almost needlessly complicated microtransaction/lootbox system that I’m putting under this heading for several reasons. Here is a story over at Kotaku that has a decent breakdown if you’re curious. While I would not classify Team Fortress 2 as a classic Pay2Win game items you can acquire through microtransactions are not strictly cosmetic so it belongs here.

Of these three main types the DLC and Cosmetic only systems are the least offensive for the majority of gamers because they ostensibly exist outside of the full priced product that you buy which should contain the entire experience. Both of these methods were also not popular at the times they were introduced as people rightly felt that studios were holding back content from their initial releases just so it could be sold later and they were not entirely wrong. Day one DLC was a stumbling block as it has been proven several times that DLC content was already loaded onto discs that were sold on release day. Purchasing the “downloadable” content simply grabbed a key which unlocked the content that already existed on the disc seemingly proving that studios were holding back content that should have released as part of the $60 purchase. This was not the case for every game that had DLC but even one unaddressed instance of this opened the door for it happening more and more often. The furor over day one content seemed to hit a peak with Mass Effect 3 when it released with a piece of DLC that contained what many felt was a vital piece of story content that had been teased in the lore since the series started. To put it lightly the move was seen as underhanded and greedy when the people they were fleecing had been loyal fans for nearly a decade. When you see me talk about the developers and publishers responsibility to treat their customers with respect that is a perfect example of a failure to do so. The incredible loyalty and love that Mass Effect fans had for the series waned heavily in the wake of several missteps made with the third entry all of which were entirely avoidable. The other issue with DLC comes in the form of Season Passes which have a questionable value return since the early days of their implementation. Like DLC in general it has certainly been done well but the number of times it’s been done poorly far outweighs them. Essentially a Season Pass is a way for companies to add another layer of Pre-Order onto just the physical game. Ranging anywhere from $24.99 to $39.99 on average the combined cost prior to a game release can run you up to $100 and the Season Pass content that you pay for is entirely blind. Occasionally companies will offer some vague descriptions about what you will be getting but it’s not enough to make an informed choice in my opinion. Season Passes can usually now be purchased after a games release and will sometimes even be discounted during sales which sort of invalidates the entire point of them. There have even been some bizarre instances on Steam where either the Season Pass or the individual DLCs will be significantly cheaper than their counterparts due to big sales. I’m not sure what causes the oversight but at the end of the day I suppose a sale is a sale, right?

Overall for the things that can and do go wrong with the use of DLC I do think that there are enough companies out there selling worthwhile expansions to their games that this is something we can continue to live with. We have enough resources and reviewers at our fingertips that we should be making informed decisions about post release content that is worth our money and time. I would caution against purchasing Season Passes prior to the release of the base game, the passes will be available after launch so there is no reason to make what is most likely a non-refundable purchase of digital content. There is no rush, if you like the game then it’s nice to know that there is still more to do once you finish the core content. 

This brings us to cosmetic only microtransactions and over the years I’ve gone back and forth over whether or not these are something I feel belongs in gaming. Overall I think I’ve landed on being mostly neutral about them since they are entirely optional to my overall enjoyment of a given game. Overwatch and Counter-Strike I think are two good examples of how to handle cosmetic only microtransactions however they fail in one significant way that makes me largely ignore them. Blizzard’s title Heroes of the Storm has cosmetics on sale for real money but the important thing about their system is that you can purchase the exact item you want with no mystery or disappointment. There are also a selection of skins on offer that can be bought with in game gold which gives players who don’t want to pony up the dough a method to still customize their characters. This, to me, is the absolute ideal for cosmetic microtransactions as it utterly removes the distasteful and predatory gambling aspect of lootboxes. Lootboxes may be more profitable simply due to their unpredictable nature but being able to purchase what you want and only what you want will yield happier customers who are content with the money they have spent in your game. Warframe developer Digital Extremes takes this approach to their totally free to play game and has seen incredible success with it as players can spend their money on items that will specifically enhance their individual experience. Virtually eliminating disappointment and regret, two things you never want to feel with your entertainments monetization scheme. Overwatch and Counter-Strike are a close second however even though the randomization of their lootboxes can yield consistent and expensive disappointment for people who spend their money. Overwatch has the advantage of selling their lootboxes for roughly $1 per box with better bulk deals as you buy more, far and away the cheapest cosmetic boxes I’ve run into. They also completely avoid the irritation of a premium currency you must buy in order to then spend on the boxes. Counter-Strike similarly mitigates the annoyance of random chance by allowing people to sell skins they acquire through the marketplace which gives players the opportunity to avoid the reward chests and just buy what they want. The downside to that system is that since they are collectible and some of them can be quite rare it can make the occasional skin sell for hundreds even thousands of dollars on the market. Overall I would still say their system is better than most at giving people options on where and how to spend their money.

Cosmetics allow a nice balance of choice for people who want nothing to do with competitively necessary microtransactions but still want the customization options or to just support a developer they like. Another plus to cosmetics is that many games allow even free players to earn the occasional lootbox just through regular play when they hit certain milestones meaning that even if you aren’t actively purchasing you still earn rewards. Most likely I’m sure their data has shown that giving out occasional free lootboxes increases engagement by non-money players. The motivation aside it bears mentioning. Given the alternatives I find this to be a perfectly acceptable way for companies to monetize their games while being fair to their customers.

The ugliness of this entire subject falls in our final category of Non-Cosmetic Items/Buffs which happens when developers lock game altering items, buffs or even characters behind a paywall meaning that it causes a rift in the playerbase. Most multiplayer games and their appeal are predicated on tight balancing that means winning or losing is down to individual or overall team skill and co-operation. Any outside factors that tilt the scales one way or another are seen as unsporting, frustrating and ultimately game breaking. It’s one thing to work your way to the top and another to simply buy your way. I already spoke earlier about Pay2Win models so I’ll try to minimize my rehashing here by commenting on something that Battlefront II did to further exacerbate the already huge problem with being Pay2Win. The “free” avenues for progression in the game were made so arduous and time consuming that it would be nearly impossible to earn new heroes, equipment or star cards without dedicating most if not all of your free time to exclusively grinding that one game. Reality is that very few if any gamers limit themselves to playing one and only one game for a year let alone multiple years consecutively. Since I began gaming over twenty five years ago I cannot remember a single time that I was so obsessed with a game that I played it to the exclusion of all others for longer than perhaps a few months at most. EA seemed to be under the impression that players would be happy to make Battlefront II essentially a second job. If that wasn’t the case then they had the option to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on lootboxes to unlock content they technically already paid for. Lootboxes may far and away be the most profitable type of monetization but it is also the one that sports the most anti-consumer method of extracting those profits than anything that came before it. If that isn’t bad enough the entire game is geared to push you towards purchasing them as a necessity. It’s no longer an option for convenience so that busy or not any player can make progress but rather some games treat it as the only reasonable means of progression if you are a human being who occasionally has to do something other than play. The subject of these transactions when it comes to single player games allows it to side-step the issue of “fairness” but I can’t help have a sour taste in my mouth after seeing them. It makes me question whether or not the in-game “grind” was made intentionally worse to nudge you towards opening your wallet in order to grease the way. Am I paying to just lower the difficulty of my single player game now? It feels like it sometimes.

The reality is that microtransactions of all kinds are here to stay and there is little we can do to change that. What we can still affect though is the extent to which they affect our experiences. The fervor that met Battlefront II  it seems we as a community have sent a clear message on where we draw the line. I could have lived with us drawing it a little sooner but given EA’s recent decision to completely remove microtransactions from Battlefront II I think we did okay. As always we’ll see what happens going forward, it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve backed off only to reintroduce it in a more insidious fashion down the road. So keep a close eye on it.

Finally I just want to say that as a gamer you should never feel like your time and money aren’t worth some consideration by the developers and publishers we buy our games from. I’ve said it a thousand times but we want to give these companies our money and we are constantly looking for excuses to. They have only to put out a product worthy of that money and they’ll see their profit, we don’t need to have sneaky mechanics trick us into doing it, we’re already willing. It’s tantamount to walking into a store and then having an associate jam a gun in your ribs and take your wallet. Why? I’m already here to spend money, just show me something worth buying.

Don’t be afraid to let a game go un-purchased if it deserves it, there are more than enough titles to keep you occupied in the meantime.

I’m sure I’ll do a follow up at some point on the other things I listed at the start of this but this article is long enough as it is. Until then, happy gaming! I’m off to play some more Ni No Kuni 2 while impatiently waiting for the arrival of my light kit so I can get to painting my Star Wars: Legion minis. And recording that journey for their embarrassing entertainment it will undoubtedly yield.

  • Non-Washable

*I know I didn’t mention GTA:V in this post even though it’s online portion definitely deserves to be here given the microtransactions, I didn’t feel like it would necessarily add anything that the games already represented couldn’t do adequately. If you feel otherwise leave me a comment and tell me why!