On EA, Battlefront 2 and how making money from a game shouldn’t be seen as a crime but how there needs to be serious conversation about how to do this responsibly before it’s too late.
I think it’s fair to say that EA will be glad to draw a line under 2017. It has been a year in which they’ve caught a lot of negative attention, much of it valid, some of it blown out of all proportion, for apparent missteps they have made. The closure of Visceral, a fan favourite studio, the re-focusing of the single-player Star Wars game into a “game as a service” and the backlash to the Loot Box/Microtransactions that have permeated the design of Star Wars: Battlefront 2 has resulted in a relatively small but sharp drop in the companies share prices. This is, by no stretch of the imagination, the “end to EA” that some soap box commentators would have you believe, but it has certainly not been a landmark year for the American software giants.
The latter of the previously mentioned incidents has blown open the topic of “monetization of customers” like never before. While the business of microtransactions and loot boxes are not new to the gaming industry, they are now a very hot topic and they’re causing a lot of internet rage being directed at any publisher using methods seen as underhanded intended on making more profit from their titles. The patent filed by Activision R&D in 2015 that would use matchmaking to convince people in multiplayer games to purchase items for a game through microtransactions is one such incident that recently surfaced, despite Activision confirming that the methodology had not and would not be used in their games.
Behind this anger aimed towards publishers and developers, when boiled down to their base arguments, is the fact that customers/gamers don’t like to feel as if they’re little more than a cash flow into a company’s bottom line. It’s a fair reaction to have to the influx of various monetization models that are now being used in games and how predatory and prominent they have become within the design of boxed titles. As an entertainment product, value is seen in how much “bang for the buck” there is and there seems to have been a concerted effort from many publishers to try and earn more buck for the bang, sometimes at a detriment to the entertainment. However, as the consumers and gamers, I think it’s important we understand where this drive for increased monetization is coming from…
On the other side of the fence, publishers need to make money. The gaming industry is, after all, an “industry”. Now, I’m not going to try to argue the case for “the poor old publishers who need to earn more money to keep studios open” because several of these companies have recorded record profits in the past year and studios still close regularly. They’re not evil or malicious – these issues are more often than not a business decision, as hard as that is to swallow and as irrational/uncompassionate as they seem, as the publishers are held to account by their investors. The vast majority of shareholders and investors of these companies are solely interested in the shape of the bottom line and this isn’t something new. They’ve always written the cheques that have been used to create some of the biggest, best and most loved games you’ve ever played and while that might bring them some small joy, their return on investment is the end goal. Games like Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto, Fallout and probably any “big AAA game” you could care to mention and have enjoyed would have been paid for by investors and in return, we line their pockets.
The issues we are seeing with monetization in the gaming industry right now are due to a number of factors and they’re not all immediately apparent. The most obvious is that investors want a better return on their investment, and why wouldn’t they? Put in their position, I’d expect 95% of people to ask for the same. This permeates the way that publishers guide their studios and, in turn, the way that game designers are directed towards increased monetization. This is driven by the fact that game publishing, from AAA behemoths right down to indie publishing, can be risky. Possibly more so now than ever before. As customers demand bigger and better games, the cost to create them increases – even excluding those eye watering budgets from the big 3, mid sized publishers are needing to invest more to stay competitive. This is compounded by the “Build it and they will come” approach of creating a top quality game, marketing it and it selling as expected that worked for so many years is no longer a guarantee for investors. Just last October/November alone (historically a high spending period), Titanfall 2, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Watch_Dogs 2 released to critical acclaim but failed to translate that into the game sales at launch. Prey, Dishonored 2 and several others under-performed at retail this year too. The reasons for these relative flops are numerous and often difficult to quantify effectively but investors have taken note of these releases and are asking publishers to be more risk averse.
To reduce risk, publishers are now looking at other revenue streams to offset the possibility of a game not meeting its sales projections. Loot boxes, microtransactions, season passes, DLC bundles, subscriptions and “games are a service” are all ways in which publishers can further guard against a flop which, when used in a successful game can feel predatory but can rescue a studio in times of adversity; a good example of this is Rainbow Six: Siege which has gone on to be very successful thanks to continued support through DLC, despite a sluggish start.
So, finally, to the point. Why am I writing this? Well, having experience in both sectors – being an avid gamer and critic as well as someone who has extensive experience with business practices and dealing with investors – I can see both sides of this story and sympathise with both parties. As a gamer, I get frustrated when I play a game and the optional monetization is predatory or compromises the core boxed game for which I’ve already payed for. Similarly, I can see why these monetization practices exist in a potentially risky market that is seeing more games released per month than ever before. The balance between providing value entertainment and ensuring that people get paid for their creations feels entirely out of sorts at the moment and a serious, open, measured and realistic discussion between gamers, shareholders and publishers needs to take place soon. Publishers need to lay their cards on the table and say honestly “Look, we need to make money. No more ‘we’re doing this for you’ lip service and intrusive and exploitative monetization. Tell us what you’ll pay for and we’ll adjust our budgets accordingly” and gamers need to be realistic in what they’re willing to pay. If we as gamers want a “game as a service” akin to Destiny 2 that we expect to be fully supported for a decade, we need to expect to pay a little more for it or to pay small amounts regularly or accept a compromise with non-essential microtransactions. Finally, with the knowledge exchanged between Publishers and gamers, investors/shareholders need to start accepting some of the risk while taking more of an interest in what goes into the products they’re paying for. If this honest and frank dialogue doesn’t start to take place and the “F**K EA!”, “F**K Konami!”, “F**k Ubisoft!” rhetoric continues without everyone sharing at least some of the blame and their understanding and a responsible way of monetization gaming is discussed, our beloved hobby will head to a very dark place indeed.
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