There’s always been something about that word that hasn’t sat right with me – “Consumer”. I know this isn’t a term used exclusively within the games industry, it’s a term used to describe most retail shoppers… or someone who eats a lot of food. I think that’s where the term sticks with me, as I’ve always seen it as the latter. People within the game industry describing us as some ravenous horde of hungry all-consuming monsters, and for the most part they’re right. The scary thing is, they know this.
They know that we’re consumers, spurred on by our never-ending hunger for content, for more, MORE, MORE! So, its become rather easy for them to prey on the search, that desire, that drive and hunger that can never be fulfilled. How? By giving us less content, or the same amount of content we’ve grown used to, chopped up into smaller bits and served at timely intervals.
They’ve done this in many ways; Pre-Release has a range of different versions available to buy now with exclusive content tied to stores; Preorder Bonuses DLC tied across several SKUs, some of which is exclusive just to THAT version of the game; Day 1 Editions; Steel books, Limited and/or Collector’s Editions, etc. and most recently Loot Boxes. We’re just like Pavlov’s Dog; we’ve been classically conditioned to expect reward when we hear the DING of a bell, reach a milestone or, if you’re that way inclined… pay. If you mix that conditioning with a gamers already natural inclination for achievement, reward, success and that MORE, MORE, MORE hunger then it becomes easy to serve up those little loot boxes as a quick fix at a ‘small’ price. I say ‘small’ as sure it only costs a pound or two to buy that box, but often that one box becomes five, which quickly becomes 10, and so on, and on, etc.
We’re easy targets, even more so when we like a game, developer, publisher or whatever. We can turn a blind eye to the practice. “I’m supporting my favourite developers!”, we’ll champion proudly. “It’s content in the game anyway.” We’ll shrug at the voice of dissent. So, excuse me for being old here, but most of what I’m seeing in these loot boxes (cosmetic or otherwise) used to be free, used to be in the game, and used to be handled as ‘rewards’ for playing the game. They were called ‘unlockables’. Yes, that’s still the case in some respects (such as in Overwatch), but now you have the option to pay for those unlockables – or more accurately pay for a CHANCE for those unlockables. Only you don’t really know the chance, it’s not stated anywhere (unless you live in China). It’s gambling; you’re paying money for a chance to win something, only you can’t choose what you win as it’s all down to lady luck.
Destiny 2 becomes another game in a long list (Overwatch, Battlefield, Shadow of Mordor to name a few) that has added lootboxes into its game design. I say game design, as I think it’s important to link the two together. Destiny 2 that retails at anywhere between £45 and £100 depending which version you buy, now gives you the option to buy boxes that content in-game items. They had this in Destiny to be fair, so it shouldn’t be a huge shock that it’s also in the sequel. Yet, the shocker is these boxes contain more than just cosmetic items, they now contain booster items.
The defence is that these are available free in-game, so it’s not as if anyone is getting an unfair advantage by buying them in a box. However, for me this is missing the real issue here – the game will have been designed with the loot boxes in mind, with the boosters in mind, in such a way that it won’t overtly affect the game (the player can still do all they could ever do with their abilities), but in such a way the player will feel in some way they could be better. The recharge rate can be faster – if only I had some of these boosters. Oh, I can buy or play the game and get one naturally. The seed has already been planted. The gamer KNOWS they can be better and there’s an option to make it so, a potentially easier one in that they can just outright buy it. What if the game goes a step further? (And this is just me talking shit I’m sure) What if the game has been designed in such a way that the boosters don’t really make things charge FASTER, but to the rate they were originally designed to recharge at? What if the recharge rate was lowered to make the gamer feel things were slower.
Of course, there’s no evidence of this. This is just me thinking out loud. I mean it’s not as if there are mobile games that do things like this. Give the player just enough to play, but not enough to be strong.
The worry I have is that it’s all too common to shrug it off, apologise for it, or even attack those who have an issue with it. Yet, in some ways I can see how we ended up in this situation.
It’s been over 10 years since ‘Horse Armor’, a piece of DLC for Elder Scrolls that was entirely pointless and strangely priced. At the time it was rightly laughed at, ridiculed – WHO WOULD BUY THAT!? Yet, people did. Perhaps not at first, but at the back of their mind there was that growing feeling that they had to have it, it was a bit of content for their game that they didn’t have. It was only £1.50 or so, at the end of the day what’s £1.50!
£1.50 was you showing that you were OK with this practice. That you would be happy to pay extra money after the point of sale of extra content, which isn’t a bad thing by any means if that content is quality. I myself paid for the DLC for GTAIV, as well as a bunch of DLC from Paradox over the years for both Cities Skylines and Crusader Kings II. I’m not opposed to the idea of DLC when it’s quality, and offers you something substantial – such as new stories, or gameplay features. However, all those DLC sales of cosmetic goods, items that used to be unlockables slowly showed publishers that we couldn’t do without. That we’d pay for things that were once free. We can’t do without, or as I’ve seen it put lately ‘Fear of Missing Out’, which I think covers it best.
Don’t’ forget we’re ‘consumers’, we need content, we want content, we desire content. ANY content… seemingly at any price.