The last twelve months have seen some great highs for the games industry (launch of the Nintendo Switch, success stories like PUBG, etc.). However, it has also seen real lows that have been making waves in the mainstream media as well as the political world. This seems to be the year that the games industry has shifted all of their focus to appeasing their shareholders rather than their customers. While I totally appreciate that they have a responsibility to their investors, without their customers they don’t have a business. So, what has happened this year?
The most obvious thing has been the loot box controversy. Microtransactions have been around for many years now. In fact, they are vital to the survival of free-to-play games. The last couple of years have seen them introduced into full price games with virtual currencies allowing gamers to purchase in-game items. Though not the first example, using microtransactions to buy in-game loot boxes was popularised by Overwatch. Since then it has been a race to the bottom by publishers to find more ways to exploit gamers and get us to part ways with as much cash as possible.
The nadir of the loot box situation (well we hope it doesn’t get any worse) was when Electronic Arts decided to force them into Star Wars Battlefront II and Need for Speed Payback. It’s the Battlefront situation that made mainstream news as Hawaii State representative, Chris Lee, described the game as a “Star Wars-themed online casino” and called loot boxes a “predatory practice”. EA’s greed (and let’s not mistake it for anything else) in adding loot boxes has led to the European Union wanting to discuss the matter with Belgium’s Justice Minister saying, “Mixing gambling and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for the mental health of children”.
Loot boxes haven’t been introduced to add to any gameplay experience, they’re sole purpose it to get as much money as possible out of gamers wallets and into the hands of publisher shareholders. I understand that these companies need to make money but when they soil their product to do so they risk losing even more money (as the original product will not sell as well). Imagine buying a bed that would only let you sleep for 3 hours at a time unless you stumped up more cash every night so you could sleep for as long as you like. You would never buy that bed, especially when there is another bed that is the same price and already lets you sleep for as long as you want.
It’s not just been loot boxes this year though. Activision has come under flak for locking previously available content behind a paywall linked to DLC. When Bungie launched the Curse of Osiris DLC for Destiny 2 they changed the level requirements for the Prestige Nightfall event, meaning that only people who purchased the DLC had the opportunity to take part. They also locked the Heroic Strike playlist so only people with the new content could play. Though this situation was corrected reasonably quickly it does show the money grabbing intent of these companies.
This year I have also heard many negative stories of independent publishers who have ruined developers by withholding money, spending money that hasn’t been agreed, and generally screwing over the game creators. All of this is being done when it’s easier than ever for developers to get their games on to the Xbox Store, PlayStation Store, Nintendo’s eShop, and of course Steam. There is literally nothing that these small publishers can do that a well-organised developer can’t do. Yes, they make things easier and allow developers to focus on finishing and polishing a game but some of the fees they command don’t warrant the work they do. I realise that there are good independent publishers out there and we shouldn’t tarnish them all with the same brush. This doesn’t negate the fact though that there are some truly rotten publishers out there.
At the end of the day, the most important people in the games industry are the developers who make the games and the customers who buy them. Without the actual games and the consumers to purchase them there would be no industry. Yes, publishers can be useful to reduce the workload of some developers (and in the case of the AAA publishers to finance the developers) but they need to remember that really they are an ancillary part of the industry. I’m not some sort of revolutionary communist that thinks that they shouldn’t make any money. I just think that they run the risk of ruining their own businesses by being so greedy and predatory. Things are not looking good for Electronic Arts with sales of Battlefront II down from where industry analysts thought they would be. Despite this, the publisher is pushing ahead with their loot box systems with UFC 3 being the next game to offer them as a pay-to-win mechanic.
Things have been getting bad for a while now with publishers not wanting to take any risks and just rehashing the same franchises with sequel after sequel. 2017 has been particularly blighted by loot boxes. What 2018 has in store is anyone’s guess but if publishers continue to see dollar signs ahead of quality products it might start to cripple the industry.