It might shock you all to learn that I actually do have friends.
Not that many, but enough. I’m more of a ‘small circle of close friends’ kind of guy, and since I meet most of my friends through gaming and my brother, who works in the industry, it’s only natural most of them are gamers and people who work in the industry, as artists, programmers, coders, whatever. I was chilling with a bunch of them at a local burger festival and the conversation, inevitably, took a turn towards games we’ve been playing and what we’re looking forward to. I, begrudgingly, admitted I’ve been playing a lot of Orcs Must Die Unchained, even though I hate the loot box model that it relies on. And one of my friends, who I won’t bother renaming since he’s the only one important to the story, said that he actually liked the first two Orcs Must Die, but refuses to play any free-to-play game, because he disagrees with the entire payment model.
Fair enough. But then he went on to say he was very excited for Shadow of War. And when I told him it was kind of silly to be excited for that game when it costs a full 60 bucks and still uses all the same tactics and microtransaction trash that he disliked Free-to-Play games for, he hit me up with these two counter-arguments: 1) Game development is very expensive and developers need to make back their money somehow, and 2) there’s nothing in the loot boxes that can’t be earned in-game.
Now, back in the past, I would have clung to this, and debated with him passionately about it long into the day, viciously tearing into his argument in a passionate debate that would likely fray at the edges of our friendship. But older and more mature, I simply let the conversation change, and held all my points and arguments inside, storing them to unleash upon all of you one week later in a medium where he has no opportunity to refute my points or even realize I’ve obsessed over a half-argument he’d likely forgotten about, even though there’s a far more relevant discussion rocking the gaming world right now - the PewDiePie controversy.
Because that’s the kind of person I am.
His first point is one of the less common but still fairly prevalent arguments, and it’s mostly tossed around by industry folk. To his credit, he actually does work in the industry, so he certainly has a perspective into the costs of development that I do not. That said, I’m still a games journalist, and to call me entirely ignorant on the matter or game costs would be a bit of a stretch. Through the years I’ve become familiar with how much games cost to develop, and moreover, how much they exactly sell.
…And yes, it’s not an invalid argument. Games cost more money to make as technology advances and user expectations grow. What’s more, making some profit off a game is fine and well, but since games do cost money to support (especially ones with online functionality, which is basically all of them), microtransactions allow a game a way to continue to support itself after release. But...
...It would only be really hard to argue against that if CD Projekt Red didn’t decide to show the world that yes, it is VERY possible to make a massive game and support it without charging an extra cent to the user. Without any loot boxes, or in-game stores, or any charged DLC, The Witcher 3 was the biggest and best-selling games of 2016 and even 2017. The company was swimming in money, and they didn’t need to strangle anyone’s purse strings to do it, either. All they did was make the best damn game they could and give it to the public with a full price tag and a promise that it’d be worth every dollar they invest. And then they kept that damn promise.
And if the relatively small CD Projekt Red can manage to accomplish something like that, I think a monolith like Warner Brothers has no excuse. They already have advertising deals, collector’s editions, and probably an expansion or two in the works, they have more than enough opportunities to “make their money back” without these ludicrous loot boxes. And if they don’t, then it’s not the consumers' fault they’re bad at managing their money and making good video games. It’s not our responsibility to make you financially efficient, we shouldn’t have to pay extra money on your “triple-A” game because you can’t budget as well as CD Projekt Red and Ninja Theory. Yeah, Ninja Theory, the people who used to be known as the boob physics guys; their Hellblade proved that Triple-A quality can be done cheap with low cost to the users.
So either WB is just being greedy or bad with money. Either way, it’s not our problem, so we shouldn’t have to be the ones to fix it by enduring this miserable “loot box” system.
As to his second point, that “everything can be earned in-game," that’s one of two common arguments from the consumer side, the other being “It’s just cosmetic so it doesn’t affect the game”. But here’s the big question you can always ask in response to either of those arguments, one that was penned by Jim Sterling: “Why charge for it, then?”
Here’s the thing. You can say “it’s just cosmetic, it doesn’t affect the gameplay”, which might be true, but it still affects how much people enjoy the game. I’ve bought champion skins on League of Legends for the sole purpose of giving myself something new to look at, or because I think the new skin looks cool and I just need it in my life. Skins and cosmetics are still content, and if it really didn’t matter, no one would buy them and they wouldn’t be hidden behind a paywall. It’s stuff in the game you don’t get to enjoy because you didn’t pay extra money for it. And obviously, developers want you to spend the extra money, so they know it’s not nearly as ‘optional’ as it might sound.
It’s similar to something you can get ‘in-game’. What game developers are effectively doing is giving you the opportunity to not play the game, or more specifically, play the game less. And like I said, developers WANT you to spend that extra money, otherwise, they wouldn’t be charging real-world cash for it. Which begs the question, if the game was fun to play, why on Earth would you pay money to do less of that? Any system that’s designed to accommodate loot boxes is going to be designed in a way to incentivize you to buy them, which might mean making the currency so rare that the only way to get it without paying is waiting a long time (thus meaning the player is playing your game more to wear down your resistance) or by forcing them to grind, which is boring and tedious. Either way, you’re making the game less fun in an effort to grab those extra dollars.
And in Shadow of War’s case, where players can attack each other’s fortresses in a mode similar to Metal Gear Solid 5’s Forward Operating Base raids, if you’re not buying orcs and you’re attacked by someone who does, guess who’s going to have more orcs?
At least in a free-to-play game, things are justified a little bit. Orcs Must Die Unchained has all the same features, where you can ‘technically’ earn everything in-game, it pressures you to grind for in-game content, stuff is randomized so you’re never sure to get exactly what you want, it incentivizes you to play every day, all that: but at least you can download it for free and the developers really DO need you to make those purchases if they’re going to support themselves. This is a 60+ dollar game. And how it can somehow be more ‘acceptable’ to do it in the latter case? What the heck is that thinking?
But look. I’m not the first person to say this, I’m not even the best person to say this. But it still needs repeating because for way, way too long, people have let themselves become numb to the terrible practices of the industry, even going so far as excusing it on behalf of the games industry that’s trying to screw them because they’re fans, or because trying to justify it is just easier than speaking up.
But man, gamers, we can do more, you realize, right? Heck, Mass Effect fans were able to get the entire series canceled (inadvertently, but still), stop Xbox One from becoming an online-only console, and even defeat customer unfriendly DRM. You could even argue we beat the industry’s attack on the used game market, but really, that was just a rise in digital games and reducing the significance of physical resellers, so I guess we can call that a joint victory.
So we can beat this, if we just try. All that energy devoted to defending the industry can be put on the attack. And I, for one, will do just that: because it’s way easier than fighting for anything that matters.