Sage’s Gaming Corner Episode 3: The Sixty Dollar Problem

by Sage Ashford

The micro-transaction debate continues to rage on, as Middle-Earth: Shadow of War releases to unsurprisingly great reviews from critics, and probably great sales as well, but new games reveal themselves to be riddled with the “lootboxes” that have become such a hot topic in the gaming community. Most recently, Battlefront II’s beta test for whatever reason contains lootboxes, and supposedly Call of Duty: World War II’s zombie mode will have them as well.

Now, personally, I’m not a fan of covering the same topic multiple times—and you won’t see that on SGC a lot because I don’t do this for clicks. But I did want to come back to this particular idea because I left off without talking about the most important part: what do I think should be done, going forward?

It’s a question that needs answering, as one thing is certain: as games become more expensive to develop, they can’t remain the same price. Not while also being expected to offer the same level of quality and polish—that’s an unreasonable expectation. So this week, I thought I would discuss a few potential solutions from the perspective of a fan.   And only a fan—I don’t work in the industry, nor do I have any connections. I’m just some jerk with a blog…that also spends money on video games, and would prefer not to quit because gaming has become too predatory an industry to continue.

Before we go much further, let’s get this out of the way.  It’s unreasonable to think video games should simply “cost less” to develop.  While some of the most popular games in the world look like they can run on a plastic cup, for many more released every year, a good bit of their appeal is in being a technical marvel. It also doesn’t mean they can just “market less”, because gaming is in a never-ending arms race for your attention alongside films, television, and every other form of entertainment in the world. They can be more efficient about both development pipelines and marketing, but those aren’t discussions that someone with your average fan’s limited information can really have.

Now to begin with, let’s not discount the idea of outright raising the cost of video games. Adjusted for inflation, people claim that video games would likely cost $79. The easiest thing to do would be to simply cut the BS and raise the price of games to $70-75. Fans would grumble at first, but if micro-transactions disappeared entirely that would go a long way towards quieting most of us down. There are two big problems in the way of this, though.

For one, I’m not sure companies are willing to accept “putting the genie back in the bottle” and going back to flat rate income for games they develop. And for another, with multiplayer games being the most popular titles in the world right now, additional content in the months after a game’s release has become accepted as standard—but with the rise in price, most fans would doubtlessly expect that content to come gratis. This would likely just leave publishers in the same place (or worse) than before.

Another idea is employing the usage of micro-transactions without randomization. The biggest problem most players have with lootboxes is the random aspect. You’re literally paying for a thing you may not want. In fact you probably don’t want it, depending on the probability involved with the item you do want.  Publishers could simply allow players to buy the armor or the weapon or the voice or shader or whatever it is that they want, and leave it at that. They’re still making extra money, but they’re not preying on the gullibility of some of their customers any longer.

Failing that, they could introduce a system to craft/buy the items they want by trashing useless items from their inventory (also gained from lootboxes).  This is a system that card games (like Shadowverse, pictured above) are often known for–where different forms of in-game currency can be used for nearly everything, and in cases where it can’t the game simply lets you purchase what you do want.

Lastly, the truth is that season passes were and are becoming more accepted all the time. Those in favor of MTX seem to love pointing to games wherein season passes had a tepid or outright poor response, but let’s look at some of that. Star Wars: Battlefront’s season pass was disparaged by its playerbase, and presumably sold poorly because for the sequel they’ve decided to ditch a season pass entirely and focus wholly on MTX which will provide free updates to players over the next year or so. But was the problem with Battlefront that players don’t like season passes?  I’m not so sure.

Around the time the game was first being hyped, the image above started circulating online. It’s possible this wasn’t entirely true, but it sums up the real problem people had with the new Battlefront: there wasn’t nearly enough content being offered in the base game. Players felt like they didn’t get their money’s worth in the original, only for EA to try and offer a season pass that cost nearly as much as the game itself?

The price of the title effectively doubled, all to get a single complete game—as Jim Sterling put it, consumers who only spent sixty dollars paid for a shell. I’m understanding towards developers and the hundreds of hours they pour into these games, especially as it becomes harder to create titles at the graphical fidelity we’re all used to, but at the end of the day most players are only thinking about the end cost to them and the perceived value attained from that end cost. The multiple impressions I watched, heard, and read about Star Wars: Battlefront was that the game didn’t feel complete–which meant content felt stripped out rather than legitimately additive.

It doesn’t always have to be that way.

Comparatively, I’ve scarcely seen much outside of mild grumblings for the Injustice 2 gold edition charging $100 for its full game.  Both online and with the people I know in real life, everyone seems satisfied by the amount of content that NetherRealm Studios provided in the base game, and thus have no problem paying an additional $30 for further content. It’s considered a worthwhile additional expenditure to add more life to the game several months after the release period.

This is actually a practice I’m not against with respect to single-player games, either. The Witcher 3 was considered a masterpiece by many not long after launch, and may go down as many people’s game of the generation. As it currently stands, it’s certainly mine. But CDProjekt didn’t simply release a $60 title and stop—they released a pair of expansions that combined totaled up to $30, and they were lauded for it. Players had already sunk dozens of hours into Geralt and his morally grey medieval fantasy world.  They’d experienced a complete campaign filled with multiple side stories and dozens of quirky characters that made the world feel alive and fun to explore. The expansions just added on to what was already a complete experience.

Frankly, there’s a lot of potential for someone to use that exact model in future games.   Final Fantasy XV is doing something similar, but their way feels more haphazard–the more critical players of that game have made the claim that it’s story felt incomplete and the DLC is merely filling that out–and while I hope more developers try to create continuous expansions for single player games, I hope they don’t fall into the same trap as Square-Enix did with their flagship franchise. In any case, as much as I rail against the rising cost of games, that largely comes from the feeling of not getting enough value for the experience being offered.

If I felt like I was getting my money’s worth from the base game and whatever expansions came out, the same game could get far more out of me than the usual $60.  I’ve often fantasized about a single-player, open-world action game that emulated the DC or the Marvel Universe, expanding itself with new characters and cities that extended the game’s life months (or even years) after release and I’ll be honest–a game like that could probably milk me for hundreds.

I feel like if players don’t make themselves a helpful part of the discussion, we’ll always be confronted with the worst options, the worst choices. Companies aren’t looking to do you any favors, nor should they be expected to—but we can at least steer them in a direction that’s beneficial towards both us and them.