The Age of Games: Where pay-to-play meets pay-to-win

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Gaming has taken a forefront in the 21st century. Glorifying geeks and creating new technology and software to accommodate for the growing industry. While “what is push to talk” might have been an alien sentence ten years ago, it is now a largely understood phrase as instant voice communication through a laptop or mobile device. So how far has gaming gone?

Star Wars: Battlefront 2 has been the centre of a storm of controversy within the online gaming community and has once again brought forward concerns about how microtransactions are affecting the gaming industry. Fan’s first expressed concern about the game’s loot boxes, called ‘crates’ during the beta, and the criticisms only got louder in the lead up to the game’s launch this week.

Generally, loot boxes contain in-game goodies. Either superficial rewards like skins or cosmetic changes, or in-game bonuses like new weapons, ability upgrades, weapon mods, and passive stat bonuses that give you an edge in game. In Battlefront 2, crates include a combination of cosmetic and in-game bonuses. They can be purchased by spending real money, or through earning in-game credits.  But the number of hours involved in earning cosmetic rewards and gameplay boosts through play as opposed to handing over cash, caused many fans to ask the question; will this game be pay-to-win?

For years now, gamers have claimed that microtransactions are devaluing game franchises and dampening player enjoyment. Social games pioneered microtransactions, and companies like Bethesda jumped on board to add customizable, cosmetic elements to their games like Armor for mounts and character costumes. It was Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 which first introduced microtransactions that would affect game-play. Mass Effect 3’s loot boxes caused massive uproar amongst players five years ago, and we’re seeing the same outrage and anger from the community, this time directed at Electronic Art’s and Battlefront 2.

All the biggest game developers have been floating the concept of ‘games-as-a-service’ for a while now. If you’re not much of a gamer, this idea refers to a set of practices companies can use to offer players ongoing, smaller transactions to continue game play for as long as possible. These don’t just include loot boxes, but can also include additional levels or other bonus content. Across the industry game corporations are now using these add-ons to maximize profit and keep players involved in individual games for as long as possible.

In 2016 NDP group, a market research company, released a study showing how gamers felt about this trend. They surveyed male and female gamers between the ages of 13 and 54. 68 percent of those surveyed said that the pay-to-win aspect of microtransactions was unfortunate for gaming. For many within the community, the problem with microtransactions and DLCs is that it creates the feeling that the initial release is incomplete. It forces people to continue to pay to play the full game. A practice that might make money, but is slowly eroding consumer confidence in games and developers in general.

Square Enix, the developer behind the massively successful Final Fantasy franchise, appear to be preparing for a future where microtransactions are the norm and games are expected to change constantly. Their massively successful recent release, Final Fantasy XV, has now become a service thanks to patches and downloadable content of additional levels and side quests. It remains to be seen whether this will prove a successful move for the company, with many fans questioning why they want to continue to spend time adding menial or inconsequential patches, rather than developing a new title in the series.

In many ways, microtransactions became the new gaming hacks and cheat codes. Just ask Blizzard, the creators of Diablo 3, who ended up shutting their real money auction house down in 2014 after less than two years. The mechanics of Diablo 3 are built around acquiring bigger and better gear, which made the auction house a huge deal for players. Some player’s made thousands of dollars selling random drops for real money, but for those not lucky enough to get a drop, or with the real-life cash to pay for one, the auction house became a problem for balance.

Blizzard didn’t give up on microtransactions though. Instead, they used what they learned from the community to successfully implement a microtransaction system which doesn’t affect balance and game-play. They’ve done it right, turning their microtransaction focus towards mainly cosmetic options or small boosts to experience over a period of days. They also utilise in game currency and daily quests to pay for cosmetic options and boosts as well. What this means in the end is no matter how much one player spends on a game, it will never impact the game-play of other players. Plus, those who are spending on microtransactions in game effectively fund future free DLC the whole player-base will get to enjoy.

For now, EA have stepped back from microtransactions, turning off the ability to purchase in-game currency off. A statement on the games official blog reads “We will now spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing and tuning. This means that the option to purchase crystals in the game is now offline, and all progression will be earned through gameplay. The ability to purchase crystals in-game will become available at a later date, only after we’ve made changes to the game. We’ll share more details as we work through this.”

The idea of games-as-a-service seems to be here to stay, but the developers and companies who are profiting most from it are those who are willing to spend time listening to their player bases, and finding ways to implement microtransactions and DLC which don’t risk ruining the game play for fans.

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