In the time since I last was actively posting, my favorite drum has been being beaten by more and more people covering the game industry: microtransactions. We’ve had controversy after controversy in the past year over the newest fad, Loot Boxes. For those of you who still somehow have never heard of them, first, Welcome to Earth! We’ve been wondering about First Contact for a while now. In all seriousness, however, Loot Boxes are items in games that, when used, bestow a randomized reward, or set of rewards. These items are arbitrarily sectioned off into rarity grades, meaning that the majority of these boxes contain only worthless items, and a very slim number contain rewards of any desirability. This leads to people who want a specific reward having to open dozens upon dozens of these boxes. In game, these boxes are often given in games very sparingly, which means that the only way, in games which include them, a desired item can be obtained is through purchasing these boxes with actual money. Due to the randomized nature of the rewards even still, this has led to devoted players, often longtime fans of the franchise, spending hundreds, thousands, and beyond on these titles. Now that the basics have been established, let’s have a look at what’s changed.
Star Wars. Since the first film premiered in 1977, it has been a deeply ingrained staple in all of Western popular culture. The franchise has made fortunes, created careers, changed lives across the world, taught whole new generations valuable lessons about life, family, duty, and hope, generated one of the largest and most devoted fanbases on the planet, and created the very concept of merchandising. Regardless of quality, nearly every title related to the franchise has sold well, and it seems that Electronic Arts felt that the fanbase was ripe for exploitation. EA made the decision to develop their hotly-anticipated title “Star Wars: Battlefront II” entirely around loot boxes. Completely ignoring the usual cry of “Just cosmetic” items, nearly everything needed to progress in game (upgrades, characters, etc.) was hidden behind this contrived paywall. EA, however, drastically misjudged the fanbase’s tolerance for such practices, and a severe backlash ensued, with even legislators getting involved. Since this, EA has temporarily backed off on it’s microtransactions and has been running damage control. Now, the rest of this article could address EA’s sales projections and investor calls, or even the fact that shutting off the microtransactions was not expected to affect the game’s revenue, but Mr. Sterling at the Jimquisition has already mentioned these several times. Instead, today we’re going to be looking at a fun little phrase that has been trotted out more and more over the past year: “Live Services”.
Update: Electronic Arts has since removed these items completely, moving back to cosmetic items for it’s additional monetization. I have already mocked this idea, but I just wanted to add this update. I would completely edit the article, but EA originally stated that removing loot boxes would be temporary, so it stands.
Anyone who has followed any industry in depth for any amount of time has seen the process of rebranding. When a product is bad, or has garnered a bad reputation, a common tactic by the corporate world is to make a huge song and dance about changing the name of the product. An example from the telecommunications industry comes from Viasat, which once marketed a satellite-based internet product called WildBlue. Over time, due to bad equipment, poor reliability, and bad customer service, WildBlue gained a reputation for these things. When Viasat upgraded its equipment, WildBlue was retired, and replaced almost immediately by Excede. Terms like “Microtransactions” are the WildBlue. They have horribly negative connotations which poison even games which offer these in an ethical fashion. As a result, those terms are being quietly abandoned for the new term: “Live Services”. Now, as someone who occasionally goes on a tear about Bethesda’s practices, this is not a new term on this site. During research for the article: “Some things I noticed about Bethesda’s recently delayed new IP.“, I first came across this term. It only took a few moments to find a report on the same site detailing the definition of this term, from an EA press release about Battlefront. At the time, I mentioned this in the article and moved on to the point. However, with recent releases from EA and Ubisoft using this term to describe what they plan to center their future endeavors on, the time to bring it back up has come. Regardless of the legal future of Loot Boxes, these companies have had no qualms about telling investors that games designed with microtransactions at their center will become the rule, and not the exception.
We forget this as gamers, but video games have always been a business. The big companies which produce these games have always cared only about what will make them the most money, since video games have always been expensive to make. In the days before easy internet connectivity, that meant that the games had to be enjoyable, otherwise they wouldn’t sell enough copies to turn a profit. That was a lesson that the Western game industry learned after the crash in the mid-80’s. Over time, however, as the internet became more available, and as consoles started gaining connectivity to it, quality became less of a concern than being a vector to sell its microtransactions. As time went on, the big players have been investing embarrassing amounts of money on studying how to psychologically manipulate players into spending more money. Video games released by major publishers recently seem less like games, and far more like marketplaces.
There is no clear solution to this problem. Gigantic, monolithic corporations care little about consumers, only about their stockholders, who only care about money, not product. Jim Sterling in his recent video regarding Ubisoft’s recent activities, mentioned a course of action that I personally have subscribed to: leave the clutches of the industry. In my personal life, I get my deep, enriching video game experiences from games published either by smaller studios or independently. AAA games are things I haven’t gained enjoyment from since “Assassin’s Creed II”, and while I have enjoyed big-budget games since then, like “Bioshock: Infinite” and “Dark Souls”, these exceptions (and I’ll save to another article why I would even argue that those aren’t exceptions) prove that there is a rule. For now, stay vigilant for the next way these companies try to sneak their abhorrent business practices under your nose.