We Lost the Battle on Microtransactions

We’ve lost the battle on MTX. Outrage for horse armor has been replaced with joy on the Carleton dance. Most people are OK with cosmetics in the store, it’s simply the price point that is debate point. 

Asmiroth (2019), Dark Clouds at Acti-Bliz (Leo’s Life)

Asmiroth’s post as you may have gathered by the title focused most on the rumoured impending lay-offs at Activision Blizzard. I replied with a comment before I left for work, but the above quote has stuck with me through the day.

Did we actually lose?

And was it ever even a battle?

Now, I’m not experienced in the games industry. I have no insider contacts. For all I know, they’re every bit as evil as we’d sometimes like to believe.

But I doubt it. I don’t have experience inside the games industry, but I do have strong parallel experience from working in product and propositions for a corporate in another industry that people love to hate. We sometimes have to make decisions that make media in less than positive ways.

We have people very focused on the business interests. The short term profitability, tactical decisions. But we also have people whose job it is to put the customer first and advocate for their needs. Long-term success requires a healthy tension between the two.

Decisions in favour of the business (e.g., microtransactions) are often the very things that allow for decisions in favour of the customer (e.g., Anthem giving story DLC to all players for free).

At the very least, consider this an alternate perspective.

First, Let’s Talk Money

In 2004, when Half-Life 2 launched the ‘Bronze’ edition (i.e., standard) cost US$49.95 ($US66.43 in 2019 money). It had a development budget of US$40m (US$53.2m 2019).

If the box-price of games followed in line with the growing costs of AAA development — we would be paying ~$US97.50 for a game’s standard edition.

Last year’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider cost $US59.99 to buy, and had a development budget of up to $US100m.1

In real dollar terms, that means we’ve had an almost 11% reduction in cost to purchase a day-1 title vs. an increase in cost to develop a modern AAA title by 46.8%.

If the box-price of games followed in line with the growing costs of AAA development — we would be paying ~$US97.50 for a game’s standard edition.

And Shadow of the Tomb Raider is not even a particularly exceptional example. Some titles have cost more, and the predictions indicate development costs for AAA titles will only continue to increase.

Of course it’s a little more complex than this. This doesn’t cover all the material factors. One could also consider the growing addressable base as more and more people accept gaming. The relative ease of cross-platform releases now compared to then. Or likely a dozen more factors I’m not presently thinking or even aware of being an outsider to the industry.

But the bottom line of it is, that MTX subsidise the increased costs of development where a box-price increase of the required magnitude could well price AAA games out of reach for many.

Test & Learn, Adapt

Sometimes, the money-people get a little too much power, or get to make one decision too many. This appears to be where Activision-Blizzard are at presently. It would have been the case in EA, when decisions on monetisation in Star Wars Battlefront II for launch were made.

To an extent it is their job, to push the envelope and find the edge of profitability, the edge of what consumers will bear.

But ideally the balance of power internally is not so far off that when it becomes exceedingly clear that edge has been found? Or even surpassed? That the customer-focused advocates in the business cannot pull things back.

There has been no indication as yet that Activision-Blizzard has found how to rebalance. EA by contrast does appear to be learning its lesson. Possibly out of fear, as I noted in an earlier post.

I think EA has been sufficiently frightened off being too obnoxious for a time by the fallout over lootboxes and the intense backlash they’ve received; not only by their customers but by legislators and as a result their shareholders.

Naithin (2019), Why Anthem? Why not The Division 2? (Time to Loot)

They appear to be in the ‘adapt’ phase, with full removal of paid loot boxes in current and upcoming titles such as Anthem, giving solemn promises not to introduce them after launch.

Anthem will have MTX for cosmetics, but real money will not be the only means of purchase. They will also be obtainable purely through ingame means. That neither the real world cost nor the time required to gain sufficient ingame currency has been revealed is certainly the cause of consternation in some quarters.

I might be crazy, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in this until proven wrong. I feel not screwing over their player base on this to be inline with where they’re at on the corporate swing at the moment. Time to adapt.

It’s Not All Roses Though…

As you may have gathered throughout this piece (or from the original comment I left) I wouldn’t exactly jump with joy for a Carleton dance, I am fairly accepting of cosmetic MTX. At least when handled in a fair and reasonable manner.

In the transition to MTX, there have certainly been losses though. I want my expansions back, dangit. No — not little pieces of DLC with a few tidbits of story and maybe one or two no areas. I want the good stuff. The expansions that essentially came with all new campaigns, like Neverwinter Nights!

Sure, they still exist in pockets here and there. WoW is a pretty easy example to point at. But there was a time when it was essentially a given that any truly successful title would gain at least one full expansion.

I would happily pay for them. But they’re also a much greater risk to a company than the more bite-sized content. Perhaps a topic for another day. :)

Why Anthem? Why not The Division 2?

I’ve been asked this question in various forms over the last little while. Some just want to know what about Anthem excites me full stop, for others they’ve been legitimately curious why I would be more hyped for Anthem than I am for The Division 2.

And my knee-jerk reaction in my head was, ‘Well duh- just look at ’em!’–but then when it came to actually articulate these oh-so-clearly-self-evident reasons, I drew a blank.

I couldn’t really say why I had such a strong preference for Anthem.

Not to worry if your preferences lean the other way–there is little doubt that I’ll ultimately cover both. I’m not really going to be trying to change your mind with this either, rather just give some insight into why I lean this way.

Going back to the Announcements

But I want to see full on expansions with level cap increases, new areas, new stories and new shinies to chase. I would have joyously paid for this for The Division 1. No amount of logic has been able to completely remove the sting of lost opportunity that The Division 1 represents.

When the titles were announced, Anthem left me with a sense of ‘Eh. We’ll see.’ Mass Effect: Andromeda was still fresh in the mind, so my usual enthusiasm for all things BioWare was tempered. Nonetheless, it looked interesting and I made a mental note to check on it again when it was a bit further along.

The Division 2 announcement, however, actively irked me. It felt to me that The Division 1 had plenty of potential life left to it, but had been left to die. Two years after launch and the story had not been moved, cars crashed into place on Day 1 were still there on Day 601.

The Division 1 had been left to stagnate, stuck in stasis, opportunity wasted. And then along comes The Division 2, seeming to me as nothing more than a rather cynical cash grab.

I’ve since tempered my view a little – I recognise that there were some fundamental problems with the way stats and itemisation worked in The Division 1. And sure, they could have done a Loot 2.0 patch but not without risk of pissing off at least some of the remaining player base who liked things the way they were.

Second, like it or not–I also recognise that Ubisoft is a business. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be treating consumers well of course, but they are not a charity. They do not carry any obligation to continue delivering against The Division 1 if the business case doesn’t stack up.

But I want to see full on expansions with level cap increases, new areas, new stories and new shinies to chase. I would have joyously paid for this for The Division 1. No amount of logic has been able to completely remove the sting of lost opportunity that The Division 1 represents, especially in light of Anthem claiming a 10-year plan.

The Story

The story and mission structure of The Division 1 was some of the best leveling content I’ve ever had the pleasure to play through. There was a sense of mystery around the First Wave agents, how or who spread the virus and more.

The Division 2’s story trailer by contrast leaves me a bit cold. The reality may be that the story is just as good and builds on Division 1’s — but if that’s true they’ve done a terrible job of conveying it.

Granted with Anthem, BioWare has been very close to the chest with the story. But even from what little has been shown and spoken about, there is mystery, forces bigger than ourselves, a misguided bad-guy with a pinch of Thanos and pinch of Darth Vadar in the mix. Reality manipulation is a thing. Forces of creation can and will go wild. Perhaps a pinch of The Dark Tower in there too.

I expect it will closely follow the BioWare tried and true template (albeit with 100% less sexy-times this time around, which personally I’m good with) but it’s been… quite a while… since I’ve been through a BioWare story in full, so I’m ready!1

But… But… EA!

Alright, let’s clear the air on this one a little.

And secondly, perhaps a bit more controversially — I think anyone holding the view that EA is evil but Ubisoft is good is being willfully ignorant or perhaps stuck in denial.

I’m well aware of the grievances against EA. They have certainly not been any kind of consumer advocate. ;) The issues were covered in excruciating detail, after all. But the resolutions and post launch improvements? Hardly a boo spoken.

Nonetheless, I don’t have any illusions that they’ve somehow overnight come up with a customer-first policy. I’m well aware that they may end up stinging us with something unwanted in Anthem.

But two points on this:

I think EA has been sufficiently frightened off being too obnoxious for a time by the fallout over lootboxes and the intense backlash they’ve received; not only by their customers but by legislators and as a result their shareholders.

And secondly, perhaps a bit more controversially — I think anyone holding the view that EA is evil but Ubisoft is good is being willfully ignorant or perhaps stuck in denial.

Ubisoft has not been a saint either, through adding microtransactions to titles (even The Division 1, in fact) post the review cycle. Even when adding them in at the game’s launch — including somewhat scummy items such as an XP Booster for a SP game (AC: Odyssey, which full disclosure I loved the game in spite of this).

They’re also a firm believer in creating a half-dozen editions of a game, and for Division 2 this has crossed from simple cosmetics or short-lived starter gear to a permanent stash-space increase only available with the super-duper uber-rich-person edition.

And in conclusion…

Anthem lets you play as fricken Iron Man, man. Case closed. Booyah. ;)

I actually went for more of a War Machine look as opposed to Iron Man. (Pfft; everyone was doing that!) Legs should have been darker as well, but were tied to the face plate colour. Overall happy with the results the customiser allowed for!

More seriously; I’d be happiest of all if both games were successful. I don’t buy into an ‘us or them’ mentality over the two. If I had unlimited time, I’d cover both from the get-go.

But since I don’t have unlimited time, and must choose — it’s Anthem for me to start with.

When my team and I run through all available content and are hankering for more, I believe The Division 2 will be there for us in our time of need. Switching between the two, allowing for content to develop in one whilst we play the other is going to be excellent.

There is more I could talk to over the relative transparency of the Devs and their community interactions, but the more I dove into my own motivations and thought processes the more I realised the centre of it for me was mostly around Ubisoft’s lack of long-term support for Div 1.

I’m willing to forgive and forget, providing a chance to Div 2 to be better. But if in a couple of years from now we’re talking about the announcement for Div 3 — I think we’re done!