Money

Activision’s Patent is Our Worst Microtransaction Fears Coming True

Just don’t buy them.

This has been the standard line on microtransactions for years now.  Whenever a game announces that it’s employing some microtransaction scheme to nickel and dime its user base for some of that sweet, sweet secondary revenue, and whenever fans upset by such an announcement have worked themselves into a froth, cooler heads have always chimed in with the clearheaded advice that we should simply not buy the micro-priced digital doodads.  Problem solved.  Play your game, ignore the in-game marketplace, and get on with your day.

In fact, mitigating this reaction and encouraging players to not buy their product seems to be part of publishers’ marketing strategy in these situations.  They’re always quick to point out that the digital gewgaws on offer are purely cosmetic and don’t affect gameplay; that buying them is, in other words, entirely unnecessary.  And when this isn’t the case, when things like weapons, abilities, and XP boosts are available for purchase, the publisher will adamantly remind us that all of these items can be unlocked through “normal gameplay,” no purchase necessary.

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If you don’t want to buy it, don’t buy it, in other words.  Vote with your wallet.  Stop buying these things and publishers will stop selling them.  It all sounds so simple.

The lingering fear, though, for those of us who prefer our transactions macro and singular, has always been that the mere presence of the in-game marketplace would inevitably impact game design, and almost certainly for the worse.  Items that would normally be unlockable rewards to earn through gameplay – cosmetic items, power-ups, and new game modes – would be stripped from the base game and converted into nominally priced add-ons, leaving the pay-oncers with the hollow husk of a game.  Progression systems would be slowed to a crawl, relegating penny pinching gamers to an interminable grind for the next unlockable, with XP boosts and other progress accelerators available for purchase.  Difficulty curves would be tuned not to provide players a challenging, rewarding experience, but instead to trap us in frustrating loops of failure, leaving us little choice but to quit the game or pay hard cash for a boost.

Anyone who’s ever played a free-to-play mobile game has seen this design philosophy in practice.  Play a match-three game long enough and you’ll discover that the levels seem expertly designed to consistently leave you just one or two moves away from certain victory.  And at the moment of your death on the one yard line, the game brazenly offers you those few moves for a mere ten gold, which will amount to something like 38 cents.  It’s hard to see this as anything but intentional, the way these games are built to annoy you into spending money.

Such games, then, are not designed primarily to offer a fun experience, but instead to offer the illusion of a fun experience, the whispered promise of fun just over the horizon, right there, behind the next microtransaction.  The average free-to-play mobile game is not optimized for your enjoyment; it’s optimized to make you feel like you would enjoy it, if only you had whatever they’re selling for $1.99.  It’s optimized to seem almost fun, and then fall short.

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To some extent, we forgive these games their audacious panhandling because they are generally both free and incidental.  They’re games you play for a few minutes at a time in the check-out line or on the toilet, and if the soft paywalls become too insurmountable, you just delete the game and download any the millions of clones.  Until then, you play through your allotment of free lives, put your phone back in your pocket while your life meter refills, and try not to think about the handful of whales who provide almost all of the publisher’s revenue.

But when you pay $60 for a AAA videogame to play on your several-hundred-dollar dedicated gaming console, you expect an experience that has been optimized for your enjoyment, or to best represent the developer’s authorial intent.  You don’t expect to pay for the privilege of being manipulated and cajoled into spending more and more money, at the expense of enjoying the game you bought in the first place.

For years, gamers have suspected that this might be happening, at least in small ways.  But knowing for sure is difficult.  Are developers, for example, making a “game’s worth of content” – whatever that is – and then making some extra content on top of that to sell as DLC?  Or are they making a “game’s worth of content” and then cherry-picking some stuff to move behind a paywall?  Is there even a difference?  Occasionally it seems so.  I recall a Tiger Woods game that required you to spend money to unlock Tiger’s iconic red polo shirt, a move only slightly less absurd than a baseball game requiring you to pay to let the Yankees wear pinstripes.  Certainly, any Tiger Woods game without an in-game marketplace would include the red shirt in the titular golfer’s wardrobe.

Generally, though, there’s no way to know which of those two scenarios is playing out, and the reality is that it’s probably neither; game development just doesn’t work that way.  All we really have is suspicion, and nostalgia for The Way Games Used to Be.

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But then news broke that Activision was recently granted a patent for a “System and method for driving microtransactions in multiplayer video games.”  The patent describes a series of algorithms that could be used to subtly manipulate matchmaking in ways intended to drive in-game purchases.  For example, a game might analyze your gameplay and determine that you like shotguns, and then pair you with a more experienced player who is skilled with shotguns and, crucially, has a really good shotgun equipped.  Impressed by this so-called “marquee player’s” performance, you will then buy this shotgun or, more likely, the appropriate loot chest that might possibly but probably not contain it.  And then, once you’ve paid for the shotgun, the game’s matchmaking algorithms will put you in friendlier matches where you’re more likely to do well with your new toy, reinforcing your purchase decision with some instant gratification.

If that makes your skin feel a little greasy, you’re not alone.

Unlike many aspects of a game, matchmaking is nearly impossible to evaluate.  It’s a black box.  When you buy a game built around online play, you have to just trust that the matchmaking is designed to evaluate your skill level and place you in matches that will offer a reasonable, enjoyable challenge.  You can probably tell when matchmaking is wildly broken, but not when it is subtly tweaking the way it finds matches for you.  And the reviewers and YouTubers you consult before buying the game can’t tell, either.

Which is the point.  The system described in the patent is designed to deceive you.

Activision insists that the technology is not currently being used in any of its games, that it was developed by an R&D team, and was just an “exploratory patent.”  This very well may be true.  Companies often patent ideas that they never use (see: Nintendo).  And some patents are strictly defensive.  Little purchases are big business for Activision; the company sold $3.6 billion worth of in-game content last year.  The last thing they want is for some other company to stumble into – and patent – a better way to sell loot chests.  But whether or not Activision is currently using this specific tech seems almost irrelevant.

The big takeaway here is that Activision has an R&D team working on ways to manipulate people into making in-game purchases.  And they’re working on things far more insidious and sophisticated than simply moving all the good weapon skins behind a paywall or increasing the amount of XP it takes to unlock the ACOG.  Activision seems at least willing to reach into their games’ inner workings and redesign fundamental elements to steer you towards the in-game shop.

Put another way, Activision has an R&D team working on questions for which this patented tech is one answer.  What else has that team cooked up?  Yes, Activision has said they’re not using the tech, but they didn’t say, “We’re not using this technology because it’s gross and deceptive and against everything we stand for, and the people who designed it have been fired and the R&D department has been shut down.”  So while the patent doesn’t tell us anything about what Activision is actually doing, it does tell us about the way they’re thinking.  And in doing so, it confirms some of our worst fears about the interaction between publishers, microtransactions, and game design.

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Of course, maybe there’s really no story here.  Maybe this patent grew out of an R&D team that works on out-of-left-field hypotheticals; maybe Activision doesn’t have any other projects in the works to try to goose microtransactions; maybe their developers are perfectly insulated from any pressure to boost secondary revenue.  But to some extent, that doesn’t even matter.  If the fear is that the mere presence of microtransactions will affect game design in ways that impact even the players who don’t use them, then that fear has essentially been realized.  Because we can no longer trust that we aren’t being manipulated.

Whenever a progression system seems particularly slow, you have to wonder if it’s been designed to frustrate you into spending money to speed your progress.  Whenever you have a string of bad multiplayer matches, you have to wonder if the matchmaking system is trying to nudge you towards a paid upgrade.  Whenever you earn a loot chest through in-game progression and open it to find a bunch of commons and duplicates, you have to wonder if the game is withholding all the epic and legendary items for when you drop real cash.

We may never definitively know whether any game’s features have been specifically designed to encourage us to spend more money in-game, but only the most credulous of us can argue the opposite.  And regardless of how game design has or hasn’t been affected by microtransactions, your experience undeniably has.

Read all about What I Play When I Play.

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