Posted on November 28, 2017
in Video Games
Just when I thought I was done with one big controversy, Battlefront 2’s ill-conceived loot boxes, we seem to have stumbled into another, this time Destiny 2 throttling XP gains which increase the grind for its own form of loot box.
Players of both games are furious about these respective issues. Battlefront 2 was taken to the woodshed to such a severe degree that it had to strip the offending microtransactions out of the game. The Destiny 2 controversy feels like it’s just getting started, as its fanbase is practically foaming at the mouth about it.
These are, of course, not the only two things gamers have been mad about over the course of the last few years. It’s now become something of a sad tradition for big and small games alike to attract the ire of players for this or that decision, but…why?
Why does this seem to happen in video games more than other forms of media? Are gamers just the toxic trolls that the rest of the world often believes them to be? I think it’s more complicated than that.
Rather, video games demand more from players than TV shows or movies do from their viewers. Both in terms of time, and money. This is why you’ll often see controversies about whether X movie or show is good or bad (The Walking Dead sucks now! Critics are wrong about Justice League!), but even with rampant anger and fanboyism in those communities, they still pale in comparison to what we see in gaming. This is why:
THE TIME COST
When it comes to time investment, movies and TV shows don’t hold a candle to games. For movies, length is a non-existent controversy. You will almost never hear anyone complain that they paid $12 for a ticket and got a 100 minute movie instead of a 140 minute one. And overall, movies just don’t add up to all that much time if you have somewhat normal viewing habits. You can watch every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in a couple days, and it’s taken ten years to assemble that large of a collection.
TV is a little more of an investment, of course, but even a 22 episode show, an increasingly rare bird in the current TV market, is going to be something like 15 hours spread across an entire year. You can run into some level of problems when fans feel like their long-running show is being handled poorly at the end of its lifespan (“I watched LOST for all these years and that’s the ending you give me?”), but generally “time” is not a normal critique of TV.
But it is for video games. There’s a fine line between creating a game that gives players the dozens or even hundreds of thousands of hours of content they want, and one that feels like a total slog that doesn’t respect players’ time in the least.
We are seeing this with both of these most recent controversies. Battlefront 2 wants players to grind endlessly for loot box upgrades, or to unlock heroes to play with like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Players just want to play the damn game and not invest in it as a full-time job. This has led to hilariously stupid commentary from analysts who say things like if players just spend two hours a day all year playing Battlefront 2, that $20 a month of loot boxes is still a “good hours-per-dollar deal” compared to other forms of media, assuming anyone actually can or wants to play the game like that.
On the other side we have Destiny 2, where players have no problem spending a ton of time with the game, but the recent XP controversy has hit home because players discovered that they’ve only been receiving a fraction of the rewards they “earned” through the XP system. Here, it’s not that the grind exists, it’s that the grind is exploitative and rigged in favor of the game’s microtransactions.
When games routinely demand anywhere from 20 to a thousand hours of your time, it’s no wonder that fans are more upset when these issues crop up. But increasingly, the larger problem is…
THE FINANCIAL COST
Again, there’s no real comparison with TV and movies here. Yes, an 80 hour game at $60 is a “better value” than a movie ticket, but the issue is becoming that games are turning away from being art-as-entertainment and toward becoming casino attractions. Movies and TV simply are not doing this. They can’t do it. Obviously, there are some financial issues that crop up with those forms of media. Movie ticket prices go up over time and gimmicks like 3D are meant to milk extra money from moviegoers while adding little benefit. For TV, cable bills have always been bad, but streaming generally offers a frankly ludicrous amount of content for the price. We are moving to an era when fractured streaming services will probably add up to be a larger cost than a cable bill, but even then, looking at what publishers are trying to do to games and gamers, there’s just no comparison.
It’s been a slow crawl to get here, but it’s turning into a sprint. One of the good things about gaming was that despite the years marching on, that the $60 cost of games remained roughly the same. The problem became that in order to try to make up the lost revenue from not increasing game prices, developers marched down the nickel and dime road until those nickels and dimes turned into a Scrooge McDuck-like pile of swimmable cash.
DLC was the first harbinger, additional content that could maybe have been carved out of the original game to be sold separately, but you usually couldn’t prove that, and most of it was pretty good so the complaints eventually died down. Then came microtransaction stores, where items were sold on a per-unit basis, bits of code with no real world value that players would pay money for regardless. How games like League of Legends made their fortune.
But the last few years, it’s all blown up completely. Blame mobile games, blame Asian F2P MMOS, blame whoever you want, but we have seen a gold rush like nothing else before it the past five years especially. Loot boxes have spread like an infection across nearly every form of game, hugely profitable for publishers as they prey upon the easily exploitable addictive nature of gambling, and they are incredibly easy to implement. Who needs paid DLC when you can sell someone a handful of loot boxes for the same price that cost practically nothing to make?
It’s hard to even think of an equivalent here in TV and movies because none exists. None even can exist, given the format of those forms of media. Every example I think of doesn’t even make sense, like a movie loot box deciding whether or not you get 3D glasses or your Justice League movie has scenes with The Flash or if you get to see the after-credits bonus scene. Or a TV loot box deciding which shows you have access to on Netflix, or which episodes you can watch. But even those things don’t line up because those aren’t the kinds of things game loot boxes are doing. What they are selling is something that does not translate to any other form of media, virtual items, currency boosts, character skins, power advantages. This is why gamers are able to be taken of advantage of easily while the worst AMC or Netflix can do is raises their prices by a few dollars. The nature of games makes this possible, and after years of circling their prey, publishers have found this weakness and have torn it open into a giant, gaping wound.
So yes, gamers are mad. They’re sometimes mad about TV and movie-like problems about stories being bad or sequels being underwhelming, but they’re mad about other things. Mad about colossal amounts of their time being wasted. Mad about their money being extracted from them at every turn.
We have seen this anger manifest in ugly and inappropriate ways. Death threats, personal attacks, these kinds of things are never justified. But we’ve also seen it directed at corporate entities in ways that actually produce results. Yell loud and long enough, and things can change. That’s been the lesson for many games recently, Battlefront 2 and Destiny 2 among them.
Yet it’s hard not to see this like a losing battle. While yes, $25 movie tickets and Netflix monthly fees are inevitable and annoying in their own way, they are not fundamentally changing what those things are. But microtransactions, loot boxes and the like are now starting to alter the fundamental nature of games, with games being designed around those money-making mechanisms with overall quality a secondary concern. Movies and TV shows are trying to make money by…creating things that are good enough to get people watching. But that’s not enough for most game publishers now. There’s blood in the water, and it’s not enough to move millions of copies of $60 games, you need each of those copies to produce X dollars in “ongoing revenue” which means long grinds and plenty of things to gamble your money away on.
This is why gamers are mad. And most of the time, I don’t blame them.
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