My passion for gaming started at an early age. Like most gamers, I can vividly recall my first experience with a video game: my uncle had taken me to his girlfriend's house on a Sunday afternoon, and it was there that I played Doctor Mario on the NES. I was six years old at the time, and it would forever change my life.
Before I was old enough to earn a paycheck, I had to rely on my parents to sustain my hobby. On average, I was able to acquire maybe 2-4 new games per year, as Christmas and birthday presents. Eventually, I started earning a meager allowance from mowing lawns and other small odd jobs. Based on conversations I've had with fellow enthusiasts, this is not an uncommon story. It is because of this lifelong relationship with gaming that it pains me to see where the industry is heading.
Gaming culture was in its infancy during the early 90s, and combined with the steep retail cost of each title, developers knew that reputation was invaluable. Since most kids were limited to a handful of new games per year, we had to be very picky about which ones we wanted, which created healthy competition between software developers. Patches and DLC were virtually impossible at the time, so once a game shipped, that was it -- any glitches that got through the cracks were there to stay. Developers and publishers were held to a higher standard because a product had to work, out of the box, and be engaging enough to make us want to keep playing; making a bad impression meant that their customers might take their limited funds elsewhere. Evidence of the rivalry between industry leaders could be seen in all forms of advertisements, with Nintendo and Sega going head-to-head for years.
A lot has changed over the past few decades, both in technology and business practices. It's not uncommon for publishers to rush a game out the door to get quick returns on their investment, despite the game being unfinished or even completely broken, in the worst cases. Even if you haven't played Fallout 76, you've likely heard about the state of the game at launch. That's just one recent example, but it's a problem that is becoming more prevalent. More and more, games are being sold with day-one patches, or require hot fixes for glaring bugs that should have been addressed before they hit the market.
The gaming business is growing, and that means profit potential. Companies like Activision and EA are run by people that seem to be more interested in increasing sales than creating a quality product -- to the point of insulting their own player base. Activision recently updated the cash shop in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 with the option to add a red dot to the crosshairs on your gun; that's right -- they're charging approximately $1 USD for a tiny red dot, something that couldn't have taken more than 30 seconds to create in Photoshop, and should be a feature in the game's default options. Decisions like this set a bad precedent going forward. When I heard about this, I couldn't believe it. I don't consider myself a CoD fan by any means, but this feels insulting to me as a gamer because I know it's not likely to stop there.
EA launched Star Wars Battlefront II with microtransactions that allowed players to gain an in-game advantage by spending real money to upgrade their characters. It was only after severe community backlash that they decided to remove microtransactions entirely, to completely retool the system. EA did eventually bring the shop back, but promised that they would only sell cosmetic items that won’t affect gameplay. The fact that the game launched in such a state worries me, because had the community not spoken up, who knows how far EA would have taken it. Practices like this feel like publishers are testing us to see exactly how much they can tap our wallets before we react.
Destiny 2 was, until recently, another title under Activision's umbrella, and 2018 saw its ups and downs for Bungie. While members on the Destiny 2 development team have stated they are overall satisfied with the game's direction, Activision was disappointed with the sales numbers and wanted to pursue more monetization options. All of this came before the announcement that Bungie has split from Activision, which is a move I could not be happier about. Still, this is more evidence that some publishers would rather seek further means to monetize their games before focusing on improving quality, which could potentially attract more players and retain the current ones.
Microtransactions are seemingly here to stay, now being added to single-player games such as Devil May Cry V and the Resident Evil 2 remake. However, cash shops aren't the only way publishers are squeezing money out of gamers: season passes on day one are also a normal practice now for a lot of games. We're offered more content for games we haven't even played! Season passes are the evolution of pre-orders. Speaking of pre-orders, they typically come with exclusive content that can't be obtained by any other means. Some games even have retailer-exclusive DLC. Am I painting a clear picture?
Don't get me wrong, I am not wholly against publishers or developers monetizing their games post-launch. I understand the nature of business. However, I do think there is a right way to do it, where we as gamers can see real value in our purchases. Custom skins are a great source of revenue, they don't affect gameplay, and they add value to games we already enjoy. DLC packs with added story content, new maps, etc. are also fair means of monetization.
Small, independent developers have been steadily rising in popularity (Celeste was even nominated for game of the year at VGA 2018), and I think a part of that is due to their respect for the medium and for their fans. Passionate people create the best work, and I think some of the bigger studios could learn from the independents. Great games sell themselves by word of mouth.
I miss the days before big business took over and made it all about money. Games are about sharing fun experiences. As a lifelong gamer, I sincerely hope we never lose sight of that.
EA committed to microtransactions (GameSpot):
EA brings microtransactions back to Star Wars Battlefront II (Kotaku):
Activision adds tiny red dot to black market in-game shop (Kotaku):
Activision disappointed with Destiny 2’s sales numbers (PC Gamer):
Bungie leaves Activision, keeps Destiny IP (Bungie):
Tweet from Luke Smith, director on Destiny:
Microtransactions included in Devil May Cry V (GameSpot):
Microtransactions included in Resident Evil 2 remake (Game Rant):