Trust vs fear in player engagement and monetisation

The industry has been desperately trying to convince consumers that they want exclusively online experiences for years. Despite EA’s much-publicised assertion that players don’t want single-player games anymore, this isn’t a new idea that publishers have been trying to force into ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ status. It’s not likely to go away, either. Why? Well, there are various reasons; but if I’m going to be cynical (and I am), one of the most important is the simple fact that it’s much easier to keep selling a game to somebody if they’re playing online.

Sure, you can sell fans of an offline game chunks of story DLC, but such additions require immense amounts of time, labour, and money to develop. Better (i.e. faster, cheaper, and more profitable) to continually spit new hats, guns, reticules, skins, and so on at your consumers throughout the year. And players are going to be far more invested in how their avatar looks if there’s a constant stream of other players to show it off to, so…

It doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to assume that any publisher trying to say players aren’t interested in the single-player experience today are being disingenuous. Indeed, some of the highest profile online games of recent years look suspiciously like offline games that have been tweaked and hammered until there are enough dents and crevices to cram other players into them. Destiny, The Division, Anthem, Fallout 76… isn’t it telling that it’s entirely possible to play these games solo (excluding a minority of raid missions) should you so wish? People will always crave story-driven adventures, and publishers know it. It’s sad and frustrating to see these experiences fatally diluted by the drive to make money out of consumers long after they’ve bought their game. Maybe you love these titles, and if so – great! But there have always been proper MMORPGs, and online modes tacked on to offline adventures. The industry is losing an important part of its soul in slowly moving away from those who prefer, or at least want the option of, playing alone.

Now, I’m not under the impression that successful game publishers are run by comic book villains twiddling their moustaches and rolling around in money pits (although Activision makes me wonder sometimes). Top level game development is more expensive than it’s ever been, and it’s likely to only get even more expensive, especially with the nonsensical release of new consoles on the horizon. That has to be funded somehow; and the more expensive a game’s development, the more important the success and profitability of the final product. The truth is, I don’t usually mind microtransactions in my game, so long as they’re unobtrusive and don’t interfere with the experience for those of us who consider the initial game purchase to be the beginning and the end of our financial obligations. This proves to be an interesting jumping-off point when considering different tactics for player engagement.

While recent years have given us storylite Destiny experiences, there have of course also been games – usually shooters – that literally cannot be played alone unless you’re content with what boils down to training with bots. Overwatch is an exclusively online shooter that rapidly built up a huge devoted fanbase. Black Ops 4, notoriously, is the first Call Of Duty to ship without a campaign mode (yet still for the same asking price). Both games feature microtransactions; yet their approaches are stunningly different.

When it comes to Overwatch, the developer-player relationship is, fundamentally, based on trust. Crudely speaking, players trust the developer to continue providing free content and prevent microtransactions from encroaching onto gameplay, and the developer trusts the player base to continue spending money despite regularly providing extra content free of charge.

Since its original release in May 2016, Overwatch has added an extra eight maps and eight characters (nine including the imminent release of Baptiste), for everybody, for free. That’s to say nothing of the new game modes, both permanent and time limited, again completely free of charge and available to everybody. Loot boxes and their contents – skins, paints, icons, voice lines, victory poses – have absolutely zero impact on gameplay. Despite – or, arguably, because – of this, the loot boxes provide a healthy revenue stream for Blizzard. It’s worth mentioning that these loot boxes can be earned in-game for free, and specific items such as skins purchased with in-game currency (itself obtainable through the loot boxes). Blizzard’s generosity is perhaps reciprocated by a portion of its audience in their willingness to occasionally lay down money for the loot boxes.

If the Overwatch developer-player relationship is based on trust, then the Black Ops 4 developer-player relationship is based on fear. The developer (and/or publisher) fears that the game won’t make enough money, certainly, but that’s just the catalyst for everything else. There’s also a palpable fear that players will lose interest in the experience, although this is nothing new for the series when it comes to the online modes. It’s just been rudely kicked to the fore here.

Unlike previous online COD modes, for example, there is only one weapon that can be dual-wielded here. That weapon is the SAUG 9mm, which is not unlocked until player level 52. You then need to grind even more in order to unlock the “operator mod” of dual-wielding. Even the FPS mainstay of the frag grenade isn’t unlocked until player level 29. Unlocking all weapons and equipment takes so long, the developer and publisher can almost guarantee that there’s something you really want for your playstyle that you need to put at least a few dozen hours in for. Compare this to Overwatch’s approach to weapons and abilities. Regardless of whether you’ve been playing the game for ten minutes or two hundred hours, everybody has access to the same weapons and abilities. Blizzard shows confidence that its gameplay experience is good enough to keep players coming back on its own.

There is also, if not a fear, then at the very least an anxiousness instilled in players by design in Black Ops 4. This is partly down to the aforementioned grinding necessary in order to access the majority of game content, dangling military-flavoured carrots in front of players in order to keep them playing. It’s also, in a similar vein, down to the limited availability of items in “Operations”. When a new Operation event begins (the current one being Grand Heist), a clock immediately begins to slowly tick down until it ends. There are literally hundreds of items to unlock in each operation and, if you’re not prepared to shell out money for “COD points” or the newly introduced loot boxes, your only way to unlock them is by s l o w l y advancing through the tiers via play. Unsurprisingly, the more desirable items – interesting character skins, and even (especially controversially) weapons – lie at higher and higher tiers. Activision is happy for you to browse through the entire ‘catalogue’, naturally. That way, you can spot items that you really want. And you can have those items… if you spend hours and hours and hours and hours playing, or repeatedly buy loot boxes in the hopes of eventually striking virtual gold. Or you could buy enough points to simply purchase that skin or weapon you’ve got your eye on. Just bear in mind that if what you want is, say, at tier 50, you have to purchase every single tier along the way that you haven’t already unlocked. If you want whatever it is for free, and you don’t spend enough of your waking hours during the event playing to unlock it, your only hope is to get lucky in the loot boxes you earn slowly at a glacial pace.

Oh yeah, and also Black Ops 4 has a season pass that offers a few new maps for £39.99, which is more than many people have paid for the game itself.

While Overwatch’s approach to player engagement and reward is positively heroic next to BO4, the two games do share similarities when it comes to skins and their distribution. Despite Overwatch’s loot system being much (much, much) less egregious than BO4’s, don’t be fooled into thinking that a purely cosmetic item pool – the distribution of which is tucked away in its own menu – is devoid of potential for harm. While the majority of people will never spend money on these little extras, or at most throw a few quid in on rare occasions, a small but noteworthy number of people with gambling problems will spend more than they can truly afford. Limited time events exacerbate this problem. Not only are more desirable items thrown into the loot pool, a limited time batch of special boxes with slightly better odds are introduced. Such people will feel pressure to try and get hold of the desirable items during this limited time before it’s “too late”.

We’ve yet to see a perfect balance between business demands and player desires. Realistically, we probably never will. We’ve already seen several examples of business decisions eroding the player experience, however, and that’s something we can only hope will soon come to an end.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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