What Are We Paying For? A New Era of Paid Content

Is it a good time to be a gamer? Most gamers will answer with a resounding yes. We live in an age of rapid and ever-expanding technology which gives way to daily improvements to graphics, AI, physics, level design, and so much more. Your average gamer is drowning in choices of games to play and experience almost every week, so of course it’s a good time to be a gamer, right? Well unfortunately that dark storm cloud on the horizon is about to rain our collective parade.

I have been in love with video games ever since our family had our first Atari 2600. The joy of playing and exploring in a virtual world time and time again has never lost its magic with me. I remember spending hours exploring every nook and cranny of the hand full of titles we had for our consoles as we didn’t have many choices at the rental shop in our small town, so we had to have fun with what we had. This type of exploration helped me grow a deep appreciation for games and gaming as a whole. As games became more and more advanced, I just had more and more to explore and learned just how much work and love went into building some of my favorite titles. Hour after hour, me and my friends would play these games in hopes we could not only master them, but find or unlock new and interesting ways to play them. And one of the best parts of older games were the cheat codes which would allow gamers to have everything from gaining invincibility or infinite ammo, to unlocking all the cars or tracks in a racing game. This was the extra content that was there from day one. All the content gamers strived to earn through play or sometimes just by typing in an overly intricate password of some kind. The extra items and abilities like goofy costumes and killer weapons were a huge highlight for anyone playing these games. Even if the game wasn’t great, you could usually look forward to at least having some fun with extra content tucked away in the game somewhere. Unfortunately, content is coming to a close with large AAA developers slapping a lock on those pieces of the game and placing the key behind a paywall.

Things we took for granted before like extra characters, costumes, vehicles, levels, tracks, weapons, and even emotes are now all considered “premium content” in all of the hottest AAA titles. This is content that is created as a core part of the experience only to have a giant price tag stamped on it and placed on a digital shelf for all to see.  These large developers have spent so much time digging themselves into a money pit that they can only go deeper and drag the gaming community down with them. Large devs are on the train of thought nowadays that this type of content is premium, and they charge large amounts of money for it because the game you bought is no longer a product on to itself. “No, it’s just the first taste and you’re going to pay for your next fix”. It is now part of the ever growing “games as a service model” that makes my blood boil every time I hear anyone says it. Developers are spending so much money on building games that, like Hollywood, if unsuccessful can hurt a studios bottom line severely. Many large devs now build games so expensive and massive that the only way they can ever make money back is to charge players for an initial chunk of the product upfront and then parse out the rest of it in small portions to the player pool still left that’s willing to spend more money on the title. And apparently to my dismay, this system actually works because of a small 1% of the community that buys into this type of model actually makes a large sum of money for the devs. That’s right, digital content after the initial purchase has been sited for over a quarter of the games industry income through 2016-2017 and it’s only rising from there. Of course, the rise will be a natural occurrence due to so many developers joining in on the fad. So, like it or hate it, it’s a model that is here to stay and I’m stating right now that I am not a fan in the slightest. It’s not so much that system is inherently evil, but more so the gaming industry bending it to their money gouging ways.

One of the unfortunate side effects to this model and its money gouging is the loot box craze that has taken gaming by storm over the past year. Almost every large AAA developed game has some form of loot box system in place designed to incentivize “gambling” in game with real world currency. Whether it’s the cosmetics and cars of Rocket League, or the completely broken pay to win model showing up in some shooter games. Loot boxes are the new digital cancer. Cosmetic items or other items that do not effect gameplay are one type of DLC that I am willing to put up with. I’m not a fan, but I will tolerate their existence as they technically have no bearing on how a game is played because they are purely cosmetic items. The real disease that’s beginning to spread is the pay to win model in AAA titles. Pay to Win has been a huge factor in smart phone games for years now, but recently console and PC gaming has taken note of it’s ability to rake in the dough for no extra work.

The newest and most egregious example is of course this week’s new release Star Wars: Battlefront II. The game that every Star Wars nerd has been dreaming of since EA dropped the ball on the first one. It has everything a fan could want. Beautiful graphics, insane ship to ship ground and space combat, all of your favorite heroes from the entirety of the Star Wars saga. Oh wait, did you want all… of those characters? And did you want to… be competitive online? Well, better get out your wallets kids, cause it’s time to pay again for the game you just bought. EA didn’t remove any of the characters, ships or content from the game, but, just put it behind gratuitously long grind sessions that can be unlocked with real world cash. Do you want to play for 40+ hours to play as the one and only Darth Vader? Well you could, or you can just pay EA upfront and to unlock him. And if you’re planning on being a legend in online mode, you better get your credit card ready cause I guarantee there’s a bunch of rich bratty children that already stole their parents credit card to deck out their online avatar day one so they can crush anyone who dare oppose them.

As a gamer, this type of sales model makes me physically ill. We have reached an era where gaming is about one thing and one thing only. Cold hard cash. Now I’m not saying that these companies don’t deserve money. EA has made some amazing titles in the past as well as plenty of other larger game developers. And obviously it does take a large amount of money to create some of the larger scale games that they put out year after year. But just like Hollywood, they are pricing themselves into a corner and becoming so big and bloated that if everything they make isn’t a huge success, it can be devastating to their business. I know this type of structure can’t change over night, but things need to change if were ever going to have games just be games again. Here are a few of the major issues with the current state of paid content.

  1. Money, money, money – The main problem is large devs put money over anything else. Even though you can have a passionate team working on the game and trying to make it the best thing ever, the corporate side takes over at the final hour and squeezes it for every dime they can possibly make from it. The corporate side needs to ease up and think of reasonable ways to use a model like loot boxes to make some extra money while not alienating their core fan base. Because if your core fanbase isn’t buying, then the rest of world won’t be buying it either.
  2. Pay to Win is NEVER ok – Most gamers love a challenge. Hell, some even live and breath certain games, but when you sell “skill” to the highest bidder, nobody wins. You are guaranteed to piss off your fans and drive your sales into the ground because people who win all the time by playing will probably get bored, and the ones who actually play the game to enjoy it will get destroyed so much they will give up and move onto something else actually worth their time and attention.
  3. Where’s the game? – A big problem we are seeing with devs locking up content in these games is that games are starting to feel piece meal and almost unfinished in certain cases. Characters, stories, and items are being locked up left, right, and centre to the point where it feels like we paid full price for half a game. Even though games as a service was designed to keep gamers playing a game over an extended period of time, I find that this can have quite the opposite effect where players will either grow tired of the grind way to early to get this content or they will check out the game as an upfront time investment and maybe pass on it all together if it will take too long.
  4. Dial it back – As said before, AAA titles have become so large that they are taking hundreds of millions of dollars to make which in return drives up the cost and has set us on the path of these money farming titles. This is the indie in me talking, but what if these devs didn’t feel like thy constantly had to make the biggest, flashiest, most license heavy games year after year? Can’t we just have some fun, creative, and original titles that don’t cost and arm and a leg? Buying a few $20-$30 titles through out the year and actually enjoying my experience is worth way more than spending $80 (Canadian) on one title and totally regretting my purchase. If I enjoy more titles from a dev, I’ll keep coming back to them, but if they are in it just to scrap my wallet for every nickel and dime and give me a half-baked product in return, I won’t be giving them any of my money in the future.
  5. Pre-Order madness – Stop pre-ordering. PLEASE! Pre-orders are just a shifty sales tactic to get your money upfront for a product that has not even been delivered yet. Pre-orders used to mean something when every piece of media was physical. It meant you were locking down your purchase, so you were guaranteed your copy of the game. It’s 2017 people, there is no shortage of physical media and almost half of all gaming content is purchased digitally now. There is literally zero reason to pre-order a game now so stop doing it cause you’re just giving devs another tool to extort the gaming population.

There are of course more issues when we’re talking about this kind of paid content model, but it should be a discussion for everyone. We, as gamers, should be voting with our wallets. Rather than blindly throwing money at our screens every time we see something we like, let’s take a minute, sit back, and think about what it is we are actually being sold. Large devs are taunting us with that Star Wars flavored carrot at the end of their 24k gold stick, but we should be shouting back “We already paid for the damn carrot!”

 

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Dandr0id
Creative Director and Co-Super President at Digital Fiasco

Dandr0id is a podcast host, let’s player, concept artist, and indie game lover, aka Super Nerd Turbo II Alpha Edition. He is also an avid fan of pizza and is probably a ninja.