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Breaking Down the Microtransaction Discussion Further

Yesterday’s blog about Battlefront 2 being pay to win started a good F2P / cash shop discussion that warranted further dialog. The main comment that prompted this post comes from Gankatron, a long-time reader and active participate in the comments. I appreciate the active participation, and hope you won’t mind me using your comments to prompt further discussion!

Here are two clips of the comment that I want to discuss.

Selling a fun game the devs purposefully broke that can be repaired with real money is a parasitic monetization scheme.

I can’t believe people will willing buy a box for $60/$80 and then continue to pay real money to remain competitive.

Treating your player base like bags of cash to be repeatedly harvested over time through “fun pain”, on top of a premium priced box purchase, is an extremely disrespectful and exploitative business model that I wish people would stop supporting.

And…

It is hypocritical to condemn F2P games while simultaneously supporting a game that incorporates a F2P P2W type of cash shop, but even worse, on top of a premium box price.

First, let me start by saying that I do not approve of microtransactions or cash shops in any form. Whether they be cosmetic (WoW/Overwatch/PUBG), Pay-to-Win (Battlefront 2), or even only in single-player type games (Shadow of War). I’m also not a fan of “crates” — the industry’s latest cash shop disguise.

Let’s try to separate our dislike for a system and proceed with analyzing this a little further. And please, don’t read two sentences of this and comment. Read the whole thing.

We must separate the idea of “F2P” from “cash shop” or “microtransactions.” They are not the same thing.

Free-to-play games are free to play, and typically (99.999% of the time) built/designed around their cash shop. The goal of the “game” (and they are rarely true games) is always to get you into the shop. This can happen when a game starts out F2P, or after a game becomes F2P. It matters not.

F2P games typically contain predatory pricing schemes. The cash shop comes first, and the gameplay comes second. This is why most F2P “games” are shallow. [Standard Disclaimer: There are exceptions, particularly those with cult followings.]

On the other side of this are the “premium” games that charge a box price (often called “buy-to-play” games) which offer cash shop incentives. These can be “pay-to-win” when they offer an advantage. Developers with a cash shop in their game are obviously drawn to the idea of enticing players into the shop. Blizzard markets the heck of out their cash shop. It’s on the launcher almost every time. Marketing your cash shop does not make you predatory.

Things get a lot more interesting when the cash shop offers an advantage to those who make a purchase.

This type of “pay-to-win” can be handled in so many different ways. Here are both extremes:

  1. You simply can’t play without paying. You have to drop dozens, maybe hundreds to even matter. You can’t simply play and ever achieve the success of paying players.
  2. You can completely enjoy the game without paying. The advantages provided offer a bonus, a boost ahead, and a lot of pizzazz to your gameplay, but can be skipped or achieved by playing the game without paying.

I don’t know where Star Wars Battlefront 2 falls on this list, but having seen what the star cards do, I have a hard time believing it will be closer to the first than the second.

Where would you place a game like Hearthstone on the scale? I would place it closer to #2. Is it pay-to-win? OMFG yes. The more you pay, the more cards you get. The more cards you get, the better your chance of getting better cards. The better your cards, the better your deck, and the better you’ll do.  Hint: people pay a lot more than a box price on card packs.

In the case of Battlefront 2, it has a box price. It has a cash shop. It has pay-to-win elements within that shop. Ouch, that is indeed a trifecta. HOWEVER…

It also has a fully-functional game behind it. It doesn’t feel designed to force anyone into the cash shop. You can obtain the same rewards by playing the game and purchasing as you can with spending real money (think Hearthstone here). And… there’s no season pass. There’s no paying for more maps or more content. They’re making that portion free, which is typically a very pricey and in my opinion much worse way to charge players. I also do not see a broken game needing to be fixed with a cash shop purchase.

Much remains to be seen with how EA/whoever is in charge over there handles this business model. Much, indeed. But please don’t obfuscate the separation between F2P games and games with stupid cash shops. There can be a very, very big difference. The main one being one being the core game behind the business model.

The “vote with your wallet and show EA who’s boss” mantra falls flat for me on games like this. I have too much fun to deprive myself of hours, and hours of enjoyment. I reserve the right to change my mind if EA screws things up worse.

And finally, we must realize the key factor in all of this is truly what is “fun.” If a cash shop offering any P2W at all is not fun for you, then I respect that. For me, there’s more ‘fun’ and game here in Battlefront 2 than many games recently, and I look past some P2W when I enjoy the core experience well enough.

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Gankatron - October 9, 2017

Thanks for the highlight.

I should start my wall of counter-point by first asking if hero cards once obtained are yours to keep, or whether they only last for a limited amount of time?

While in any case I despise the idea of charging to unlock difficult to obtain premium content, especially after spending $60/$80 for the box, my argument would have less of a harsh tone if at least you got to keep what you paid for, with the obvious dilemma being that given enough time there would be a battlefield full of Boba Fetts, Darth Vadars, and Obi Wans as far as the eye could see.

The reason why I bring up F2P in the context of a premium box price purchase + P2W cash shop is solely due to the P2W part, as obviously many F2P games incorporate P2W microtransactions.

Without P2W microtransactions in either context I wouldn’t have any concern, as an example let’s take Pillars of Eternity. In PoE I have absolutely no problem with the cash shop as it is cosmetic, and moreover I have happily and repeatedly given the devs my money, checking in daily to see if a desired skin is on sale.

I completely agree F2P is separable from P2W, not just in theory, but also in practice as exemplified by PoE. The problem as I envision it is for F2P games the entire cash flow has to be generated by microtransactions (or in very weird cases by in game advertising), and as such there is greater pressure to squeeze the player through “fun pain” as coined by Roger Dickey of Zynga.

So, this brings me to my dilemma with BF2, why is EA incorporating a P2W cash shop when they already have a cash stream from charging $60/$80 for the box?

I think we both know the answer to this question, …because they are EA, or in other words, they are greedy with no respect for their player base.

For me the decision to buy the game stopped at acknowledgement that EA purposely designed this game to be P2W, that’s it for me.

Perhaps by being too idealistic I am depriving myself of Star Wars themed fun, but I know my experience would be tainted by the feeling I allowed myself to be prey to the P2W bane of many F2P games, only much worse in that I also paid a premium box price for the privilege of being treated like I was playing a F2P.

This type of P2W monetization scheme rubs my rhubarb the wrong way, and every time a crate lands it is an announcement that someone now has the opportunity to buy an immediate advantage over their competitors, even if hero cards can be eventually obtained through other playing.

In BF2 the entire system of hero cards could exist without real money piñata crates. The inclusion of real money P2W cash crates does not make the game better, it degrades it and is specifically designed to foster “fun pain” in those who don’t spend money.

Buying a game that includes a real money P2W cash shop is literally buying into the P2W cash shop monetization concept regardless of whether it is part of a F2P or premium box purchase, the main difference to me is that only in the former case can I potentially justify it, and the only if it isn’t a recurring charge. In my head, fun shouldn’t be used to justify piggishly exploitive “fun pain” based P2W game design.

I do suspect that your strong affinity for the Disney/Star Wars IP may make this an inevitable purchase in your case, and may very well be worth supporting EA’s P2W game design for the amount of fun you will derive especially once you start feeding their real money microtransaction machine.

So that is pretty much all I can say without repeating myself, but before I go I would like to leave you with some good old-fashioned guilt. I see the justification of a P2W cash shop game in a similar light to littering; it is easy to rationalize that a single piece of trash is insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but there is a reason why such trash accumulates over time, and I don’t want to be part of the problem as I have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once the face of premium box game purchases.

That is why every time you buy a P2W crate in BF2 I will feel it and this will be my reaction:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Suu84khNGY

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    Keen
    Keen - October 9, 2017

    @Gankatron: I think you might have a few details crossed that are making things seem a little worse than they really are.

    Heroes are temporary characters you gain access to in-game by earning 5,000 (ish) battle points in a match. Think of them like being able to spawn as a special character for earning enough points. Unlocking one of those is not tied to any sort of microtransaction. It’s performance based.

    Everyone can be Boba Fett, providing you do well enough that match to choose to spawn as him.

    Most “Star Cards” are just upgrades to the normal classes: Assault, Heavy, Officer, and Specialist. Things like “your abilities cool down faster” or the ability to regain HP after a melee takedown, or the famous “Boba Fett now has damage reduction when flying and firing his wrist rockets.”

    I think you make fair points. Obviously the cash shop is there to siphon cash off the player base. I feel the same way about DLC and a “season pass” that technically locks content you already bought on the game disc when you paid box price for a full game. They just decided to gate some of that and charge another $30.

    I’d like to issue you a challenge: In the next 2 days play Star Wars Battlefront 2. It’s free on Origin until the 11th. 🙂 I want to make sure you’re getting to see the loot boxes and cards for what they are, and not how they sound.

    Reply
Gankatron - October 9, 2017

That is a fair challenge to be sure.

I will play if I can fit it in to my work schedule.

I do love the whole Star Wars theme and was there for the SWtOR release, which taught me to really hate EA for destroying my sterling image of BioWare, so I am biased against both EA and P2W monetization schemes, but the proof of the pudding and all that…

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    Keen
    Keen - October 10, 2017

    Also, go in knowing that no one has spent a dime on crates or any pay-to-win schemes. It’s all the core game right now. I think it’ll be enlightening.

    Reply
      Caldazar - October 10, 2017

      Isn’t that part of the problem? You can’t judge the impact of the p2w due to it not being available.

      Reply
      Keen
      Keen - October 10, 2017

      Correct, but you can judge the core experience. You can also see just how powerful a hero character can be without a single upgrade, and how you can still 1-2 shot people with head shots and how that won’t change with any microtransaction.

      People are thinking that Boba Fett’s damage reduction with wrist rockets is so OP, but fail to acknowledge you won’t live even 2 seconds against him anyway.

      You can also go in-game and look at all of the star cards and get a feel for how significant or insignificant the cash shop would actually be on the actual gameplay.

      Numbers on paper vs. actual gameplay do not paint the same picture.

      Reply
      Gankatron - October 10, 2017

      Just FYI, for some reason the Origin installation repeated gets to a blank pop-up window and then no longer progresses. I also tried “run as administrator” to no avail.

      I don’t mention this for advice, but to tell you I may not be able to take that challenge if I can’t figure out the problem. I’ll hit up their forums if I can carve out some time. 😉

      Reply
Bhagpuss - October 10, 2017

The real sticking point for me (not that I have a dog in this particular fight since I am never going to play Battlefront 2 in any case) is that BF2 is a purely competitive game. The whole purpose is to compete against other players and win matches. That makes any hint of Pay-to-Win a major problem.

Most MMORPGs are not inherently competitive. They provide a structure for competition and often contain competitive modes but many (I would argue most) players do not play MMOs competitively. If other players are getting better gear by opening their wallets in an MMo, by and large it has no effect on the enjoyment of those who don’t. Yes, some players develop issues about “fairness” but most players are probably not even aware its happening, focused as they are (especially these days, when MMOs are much more like single player games in many respects) on their own experience.

Competition in gaming (as opposed to sports) is weird anyway, though. The entire concept of trading card games appears to rely on the kind of unlevel playing field that gives significant advantage to those willing to spend more money, as far as I can see.

I’m not sure it matters much any more, the whole thing seems so corrupted, so the usual litmus test ought to suffice – are you having fun and am I getting my money’s worth? If you can answer yes to both of those questions, why wouldn’t you play?

Reply
    Keen
    Keen - October 10, 2017

    While Battlefront 2 is a purely competitive game, most of the arguments I see are looking at things in a vacuum.

    One vs. one, skill not a factor, yes you are more powerful when you spent $100 on crates vs. someone who doesn’t.

    But that’s almost never going to be a reality. Almost all of my deaths — and there are so many — in Battlefront 2 have been from people I never even saw or had a chance to fight. No amount of power increase is saving me from a thermal detonator rolling at my feet from a guy 30 yards at my flank.

    There’s almost never a case where you’re 1v1’ing a guy alone in a match of 20v20. There’s so much chaos, so much interference, and so little chance to even use your “win” you paid for that any difference will largely go entirely unnoticed.

    I think more people care about “fairness” that you think. “Fairness” drives all of the whining in WoW. Fairness drives all of the balance tweaks in almost every game. Fairness is what drives this entire debate about Battlefront 2 because right now we don’t even have a system in place yet! People are only decrying a system that has thus far never even been implemented because they fear what it MIGHT do to make a game unfair. Granted, all justified.

    I think I could also say a lot on competition as it pertains to MMOs and how they are build entirely on the idea of competition (whether with oneself or someone else) but that’s a topic for another time. 🙂

    Reply
Jim - October 10, 2017

I appreciate your argument Keen but for me as someone who has been gaming…40 years now…I simply have to draw a line with where these business models are headed taking advantage of the human weakness for random rewards.

If you are a gamer with bi polar or an addiction disorder what EA and WB are doing is poisonous. AAA games with a premium box price need to remain safe in that space. Look at how Assassin’s Creed is handling their loot box system for how it should be done. (Unless they are just setting us up for the next one.)

Shadow of War and Battlefront 2 went from must buy to no buy because of these greedy and manipulative business models created by a team of industrial psychologists. I bought Cupworld instead and Divinity 2. I’ve said it before. Thank god for the indy scene. EA and WB can both go to hell.

Reply
    Keen
    Keen - October 11, 2017

    I can completely respect and understand where you’re coming from. For me, the impact of optional (and they are VERY optional) crate purchases just doesn’t outweigh the fun I had in beta.

    Reply
      The Nickster - October 12, 2017

      The wallet warriors will have double your health and double your DPS. Spend a few matches being destroyed by them, then tell us how “optional” these mandatory crate purchases are.

      Also, get your purchases in early. With such a miserable new player experience, SWBF2 will only be able to make matches in the first month.

      Reply
Jenks - October 11, 2017

The problem with your argument for me is that I have a backlog of a million games that I want to play. If I was starved for something to do the situation would be different. I will never run out of amazing games to play that aren’t filled with nickel and dime crap IN THE GAME or even worse, gambling boxes. Keep it to expansion packs or I’ll play something else. Everyone’s situation is different so I’m only speaking for myself here, but I’m just drowning in games to play that don’t have the taint of psychologists maximizing their ability to prey on people. I’m losing absolutely nothing by not buying BF2 or Mordor.

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Norfen - October 11, 2017

I can’t agree with the idea that the loot crates are optional in this scenario. Any real money purchase that can give you an edge in a competitive multiplayer game is not optional to me, and probably a large majority of others.

I’m by no means against the idea of loot boxes in games, but if loot boxes either a) give you an advantage against others, or b) are required to make the game not a chore, then the game is not for me.

The most irritating thing about the whole loot box debacle is that they aren’t going away as long as there is a significant amount of whales and/or people who justify loot boxes as optional even though it is detriment to their experience if they don’t buy them. I really don’t like the way things are heading, and I just hope we continue to get such high quality games, especially from indies, that don’t rely on this dubious business model.

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Michael Whitt - October 13, 2017

I haven’t read the majority of the prior so sorry if I am way off topic. I don’t recall having anything like the microtransaction model that we see today stateside until mobile games got popular. Suddenly it was like Candy Crush and SongPop do this, so why don’t we. I think they (the companies that support microtransactions) fail to understand the difference between those of us that pay $60 up front to play a game vs. those who like free stuff but eventually get addicted to whatever mobile game and then drop a ton of money in.

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