Sage’s Gaming Corner Episode 2: Rated E For Expensive

by Sage Ashford

Welcome to week two of Sage’s Gaming Corner!  This week, I thought we’d get into a bit of a discussion about the “necessity” of micro transactions in more games, and perhaps offer a different perspective than the one people are used to.

I spent my first year in college with an almost non-existent social circle. I met a few people through a long-time friend I’d gone to K-12 with, but without much common ground few of those relationships ever took off, and by the summer of my first year I saw the fruits of my friendship labor. I spent the vast majority of it alone, marathoning anime series and surfing internet forums. By the end of my sophomore year however, I had so many friends I struggled to remember all their names at first. What changed?  One night another friend I’d known since grade school had convinced me to attend our college’s brand-new Video Game Club.

I stayed out until two that morning, discussing the games we’d had in common and our shared experiences with them.  But there was one more thing we had in common: we were black, and most of us had grown up fairly underprivileged.  For many of us, the games we played often took the place of what we couldn’t afford.   For me, growing up in a single-parent home, games were the substitute for expensive cross-country summer trips.   They were what occupied my time after homework on school days and on weekends, in place of going places and doing things that might cost money.  They weren’t inexpensive, but they were one-time purchases that often offered dozens of hours of playtime, and that was just on a single play-through.  Often times my mother would buy multiple games for me on my birthday and for Christmas, and I would make those five to seven games last through the next year.

As I became a bigger fan of the medium as a child, I bought magazines to keep up with what went on inside of gaming and even made lists of games I wanted to get for Christmas, knowing that was the only time my mother would be able to afford anything new.   I never got everything that was on those lists, but I never expected it either—I was just happy with whatever I got.

So where am I going with this, and what’s it got to do with that giant Middle-Earth: Shadow of War picture at the top of the page?  Well, if you haven’t been keeping up with gaming news lately, it seems that Shadow of War is Warner Bros’ trying to do something unique: create a single-player game that uses lootboxes.

For those unfamiliar with the term, lootboxes are virtual purchases that people playing games can spend real money on that include a randomized set of in-game items. These items can range from purely cosmetic like new costumes or voiced lines like in Overwatch, or new characters/powerful weapons like in some Free to Play (F2P) mobile titles.  Their existence was largely tolerated before because they existed in games that were either multi-player and had a consistent cost to publishers for proper server upkeep and new content to keep the player base invested, or in games that were F2P and had to profit some way.

But this is the first time a major game, one that’s ostensibly meant to be played solo, has offered micro-transactions.  And I’m disappointed with how people are reacting to it.  There’s your usual outrage, but then there’s also this worrying reaction from both fans and “tastemakers” alike that all reads the same: “It’s fine”, “it doesn’t affect the main game”, “they have to make money somehow”. Ultimately it all heads to the same place: gamers are just spoiled, entitled jerks who want something for nothing.  But it’s not really “nothing”, when games cost a bracing $59.99 USD, plus tax.  That’s nothing to wave off as “cheap”, especially when wages have remained stagnant for the better part of the last four decades.

Developers, publishers, “tastemakers”, and “smart” gamers alike have all allied to explain how the cost of game development has risen drastically since the halcyon pre-HD days of the PS2/GameCube/Xbox, and that’s true.   The cost of your average game these days is likely to be in the tens of millions—like my favorite new franchise from this generation, Watch_Dogs.  (Leave me alone, I like the gunplay.)  The first game cost publisher Ubisoft $68 million dollars.  Meanwhile, The Witcher 3 cost CD Projekt RED over eighty million.

Those are quite the hefty price tags to develop a game, and I won’t pretend to understand how things work on the production side. I know that developing assets such as characters and stages in high definition takes considerably more time and seems to be requiring larger and larger development teams.  And I understand that even that isn’t enough, as developers often find themselves employing 12+ hour days, called “crunch” time in the months leading up to the game’s release, to ensure that the game is as polished an experience as possible since gamers will accept nothing less for their money.  What I don’t understand is, how despite everyone’s push for diversity and inclusion, we’ve somehow allowed gaming to be a hobby for rich people only.

It’s admirable to be sympathetic towards the plight of developers trying to develop larger and larger games for an audience that doesn’t seem to be satisfied by anything less than the prettiest graphics and “thousands” of hours of content, but not when that seems to come at the exclusion of gamers of lower-incomes. The sad thing is this is just the next step in a long line of games becoming more and more unfriendly towards people who aren’t middle to upper middle class: a mandatory online service that’s currently $60/yearly but could go up at any time. (Bear in mind, Sony’s was $50 just last year.)

Mid-generation “upgraded” consoles that cost as much or more than the originals, expensive VR systems, and costly DLC that often raises the effective price of a game to nearly double its MSRP. Both publishers and console developers alike are constantly trying to find new ways of “maximizing revenue”, even as some fans and tastemakers try to convince them that we need more; more content, better graphics, more powerful systems that can more closely match their PC counterparts.  And amidst it all, the constant refrain: “You don’t have to pay for it.”

At its heart, this is a fairly accurate claim. You don’t have to pay for additional characters, you can just deal with what’s there in the base game.  You don’t have to buy the PS4 Pro or the Xbox One X, just know that your game won’t look anything close to what will be advertised going forward, and probably won’t run nearly as smoothly.  You don’t have to pay for Xbox Live or Playstation Plus, you can just play offline. (And buy lootboxes, apparently.) I admit, I find it absolutely fascinating how quickly people are willing to tell their so-called “fellow gamers” to settle for less.  You can enjoy the hobby, you’ll just have to do so as a second-class citizen in it.

But if you want to be particularly pro-corporation about it—that’s how businesses are supposed to work.  Hobbies aren’t supposed to be cheap, after all. And couldn’t you really just start reading books if you didn’t want to spend money?  More importantly, if you weren’t such a failure in life you could afford this hobby—it’s not that expensive, comparatively. And that’s certainly true—if I worked a more lucrative career I’d probably never even think about how the cost of gaming has seemingly skyrocketed.

But I can’t help thinking about the younger me, and all the friends I made that fateful night after my first time attending my university’s video game club. And I realize there’s probably a reason why so many black core gamers are big fans of fighting games and RPGs: they’re both genres that churn out games that offer dozens of hours of content, either through multi-player or lengthy single-player campaigns.  Games that you convinced your parents to buy because you knew you could make them last for months at a time and not be a strain on the house’s expenses.

As a twenty-nine year old who’s been gaming for two decades, I’m fully aware of all the short-cuts to gaming cheaply. And I’m willing to accept that if you want the best in life you have to be capable of paying for it, and if you aren’t then you just won’t get it.  But was nine year old me smart enough to make those decisions? I was a pretty smart kid, but I’m not so sure. And as the used game market becomes tougher as publishers figure out how to monetize even pre-owned titles, will it be possible to enjoy games the same way that I and my friends did, or will we just wind up telling those kids to suck it up and that they’re spoiled and entitled for not enjoying a piecemeal experience?

Understand that I’m not trying to discount the struggle of developers, but…this isn’t about the developers.  Publishers seem to be posting record profits every year, and the video game industry has surpassed even the film industry in terms of pure revenue, but developers still wind up getting paid nowhere near as much as their brothers and sisters in the software development scene.   To be sure, gamers can sometimes be spoiled and entitled, as the last couple of years have proven time and again.  But maybe, just this once, could it be the complainers aren’t entirely wrong?