Monetization of AAA gaming

I'm going to be all trendy and write my two cents about the recent ripples Battlefront 2 and EA have managed to cause with their inclusion and then later on temporary withdrawal of the so-called "loot boxes". If you've lived under a rock, "loot boxes" are essentially a pay to win mechanic, where you use real money to purchase in-game items that will help your character progress faster or gain other benefits that advance your playing. In an essence, they are a mechanic that freemium games have used for years, but that have found their way to full priced AAA-games. Battlefront II is not the first full-priced AAA-game to use them, but it was the straw that finally cracked the camels back as far gamers were concerned, which resulted to at least highly, around -60% or so, decreased sales of physical copies of the game in comparison to the first Battlefront game.

As a side note, I have not played Battlefront 2, so if I say anything I say here about it merely hearsay. Also, as such, I don't have anything against DLC, if it's things of cosmetic nature or larger add-ons released later on. I don't buy them full prized and in general the practice of using them just means, that I'll wait for the game to be "complete" (whatever that means) before I buy it from a discount sale years later from the release, as I rarely feel so strongly about a game that I just have to need it among the first people. So with that. let's jump in the slimy world of corporate greed and pay to win practices.

Paid content for games isn't a new thing. Before it became DLC, it was known as expansion packs, when companies released nex content for hit games on actual physical media in order to make the games last longer. Some games, like Ultima 8 and its speech pack,  had enchantments released this way. So, fully optional material, that the players could purchase if they felt like it, that was either meant to expand the game further or just add something new to it that had no actual effect on the gameplay itself.

It wasn't really until MMO games became a big thing, before companies noticed, that they could monetize games further. Not only was it evident, that people could be persuaded to pay on games in a monthly basis if they were MMO's, but that you could make a business model out of people paying of extra material and content, be it new playable areas or just merely cosmetic enhancements. World of Warcraft made Blizzard the envy of the gaming world, as they had one big product, that kept people playing and paying.

But what also happened was, that the developers noticed that the pool for MMO's is a limited one. There are niches that were filled, as the World of Tanks as an example that saturated the need for those interested in tank combat. Not every game could tap the limited pool though and for every successful MMO game, there's ten that died without even making a tiny splash. 

So, if not MMO's, what then? DLC was the first option. One of the first big DLC memes was born when Elders Scrolls Oblivion got the infamous Horse Armour pack, but despite it was widely laughed at, DLC became a thing and a lot of games stated to produce cosmetic material, as they were cheap and easy to do. It wasn't like they had to design all-new game areas with new content to play.

Elsewhere in the world of games, developers began to notice the rise of mobile platforms. While there had been handheld consoles before, they were expensive luxury items, that not everyone was buying. But cellphones were a different matter, as they were commonplace items, that people didn't buy in order to entertain themselves, but which still could be used for entertainment purposes, so games were an inevitable conclusion.

While there are full prized games for mobile devices, it is more common to see either free or freemium titles. In general free games make their money from adverts you have to watch now and then while playing, freemium games can do the same, but they also rely on players to use actual money for in-game purchases and this is really where pay to win enters the picture and where the games themselves are actually designed so, that at some point, if the players want to actually progress, they are forced to use real money to do so, as the progression through gameplay alone is so tedious time-consuming task that it feels more like work than fun.

You only have to take a look at popular freemium games, like DC Legends or the Simpsons Tapped Out to see how this system works. When you start the game, the progression is pretty quick. You learn the ropes and after a couple of levels, the progression gets slower, but not inhumanly so. It's only after ten or so levels when the realities finally start to hit in: doing things takes hours, even days of times. Levelling up slows down to snails pace, upgrading characters begins taking more and more time while actual progression through the game content comes almost to a halt and you are forced to grind content you've already seen far too many times, as getting to new content is almost impossible, unless you are willing to play the game almost 24/7.

This is the pay to win trap, which crops out those who are hooked and those who just stop playing after a while. The people that are hooked begin to spend actual money in order to make progression faster. While the purchases are relatively small, they stack up if you have big enough of a player base wanting to go forward or want to purchase their personal favourite character to play with. I've even seen comments, where people compare these freemium games to MMO's and their monthly fees.

This freemium model is, what EA has tried to desperately bring in their full priced AAA games with Battlefront series. On the top of paying a proper AAA cash of the game, the players are also expected to spend real money in order to progress in the game. Now, you can progress in the game by just normally playing it, but unlocking new characters and equipment has been designed so, that doing that would require os much time, that some people just opt to throw money in order to get them. And here's where the problem lies: the design of the game and how this greedy monetizing affects it.

Griding and time are the two main factors in this design. Of course, the game has to be addictive enough so that the players keep returning to it, but it also has to be grindy and time-consuming enough, for only the most tenacious of the player base stay forever freemium. When you place a game you like and time against each other, it becomes easier for people to actually shell out money, as they get the feeling of that they are using money on something they enjoy, despite the reason they are using the money in the first place is, that the developer has basically tricked them to do so.

Personally, I noticed that when I was still playing the Simpsons Tapped Out actively. While I didn't use real money on progressing in the game, I did end up shelling around 5 bucks in order to get lottery tickets, that had a possibility to win a big amount of in-game currency that could be used to purchase characters. The tickets themselves were cheap, less than a dollar, but when you consider the fact that you don't actually get anything tangible for that money, you can't help but feel a bit cheated in the end. It was, however, decisively easy to end up shelling that money, as the donuts, as in the in-game currency of the game, were so ridiculously expensive, that spending less than a dollar to a change of winning tens of dollars of worth digital currency felt like a good idea despite it was anything but.

I've since stopped playing Tapped Out, despite I had a lot of free and won doughnuts in the game, as it finally got to the point where time/enjoyment ratio didn't work anymore and actually playing the game felt more like a job of which EA should have paid salary for me.

That "feels like a work" or "feels like a chore" feeling really is what the developers are after, as that's when the money can potentially start cashing in. By then the player has either quit the game or is already so invested in it, that it feels like a good idea to some actual money into it so things will go a bit faster.

Feeling invested is an important factor as well, what comes to monetization. The more invested you feel towards something, the less likely you are to give it up. And when you aren't willing to give something up no matter how tedious that thing is turning, you might be willing to spend some money to make that thing less tedious. And that's the trap the developers are using to squeeze more money out from you.

It was bad enough when this was the common practice of mobile freemium games. Not only were many parents dumbfounded when their kids have managed to make thousands of dollars in game purchases in a seemingly free game, think about the implications of when the same starts to happen in a full price AAA-game people buy thinking that at least with them they're safe from such predatory practices.

There are claims, that the kind of a monetization that is happening here doesn't have an effect on the game design, but that in itself is not true, as you can't just tackle them on. Had they been just tacked on, they'd be put on games in which players don't need them for anything in the end, like what happened with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Sure, it has in-game purchases, but there's never a need to buy them as the game itself is easy enough to be played through in the most difficult setting with relative ease. Had the game been designed microtransactions in mind, there would have been a mindnumbing amount of grind somewhere in the game, blocking the progression or slowing it down to a crawl.

The debacle caused by Battlefront 2 is a good thing. It finally pushed the boundary too far and hopefully, EA and the industry will learn something from it before every big game turns into milk farm designed to get everything possible out from peoples pockets. Hell, the debacle has even caused many countries looking at if the practice like loot boxes is actually a form of gambling. And even if they aren't, they've at least put the whole morally questionable design practice into a spotlight, where the developers need to think long and hard how they'll proceed from here.