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The Great Commoditization of Gaming

/ Mar 21st, 2018 No Comments

Electronic Arts has, unsurprisingly, managed to become a magnet for controversy. Their biggest debacle yet may be the 2017 release of Star Wars: Battlefront II and its use of microtransactions in the form of loot boxes: virtual bundles which must be purchased with real money that feature in-game items enabling players advantages during gameplay.

In the case of Battlefront II, beta testers reported its loot boxes were aggressive and were designed to radically favor those who spent real currency over those who didn’t. This triggered righteous outcry from both press and gamers. That outcry subsequently led to the feature being removed upon the release of the game.

Would you pay up for Battlefront II in-game content?

However, due to Battlefront II’s heavy dependency on microtransactions, the game’s unlockable content became indefinitely inaccessible. Despite speculation that EA might relent to the demands of gamers in developing a fairer means of unlocking in-game content, EA CFO Blake Jorgesen indicated the company would be still be using loot boxes, according to a tweet posted on Jan. 30 by Wall Street Journal tech reporter Sarah E. Needleman.

Once again, the response from gamers was very negative, causing EA to reverse course. Battlefront II will only sell virtual cosmetic goods that change the look of the playable character rather than important in-game items that change how players perform against others.

Despite this back-stepping, EA’s initial adamance to include lootboxes in Battlefront II should not surprise anyone considering the company’s past comments. Former EA executive Peter Moore said he anticipated all games “10 years from now” would employ microtransactions during a talk with Kotaku back in 2012. The publisher has taken steps to make Moore’s comments a fact, regardless if gamers like it.

The Microtransaction Virus

Electronic Arts isn’t the only company placing high value on microtransactions. In fact, it’s next to impossible to find a triple-A title that doesn’t employ microtransactions of some sort. From mobile devices to consoles, microtransactions are almost akin to a contractible virus slowly making its way from host to host.

Even games that didn’t initially include microtransactions, including online titles such as Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of Warcraft, have largely ditched monthly and yearly payment plans for a “free-to-play” route. Anyone who has played games using this model know this to be just a marketing buzzword. While it’s true you can play these games for free, you often have to pay to enjoy them completely.

Don’t want to pay? That’s fine. Just be prepared for hour after hour of needlessly hard work to get to experience all the game has to offer.

Two Worlds II controversially added microtransactions last year.

While many are focused on the ethics of such money-making devices in video games, there’s another aspect of this that is being ignored: games are becoming borderline commodities rather than video games.

It’s a path similar to the one mainstream music and movies have taken in recent years where quantity is more important than quality. Video games are becoming a stunted art form rather than a kind that stresses quality while asking for little in return.

To put it another way, museums ask you only to pay once to enter and admire the art it has to showcase. Microtransactions are the equivalent of cutting up that art into pieces, ransoming them off and only restoring them to their hosts when the demanded payment is made.

Yes, this is still art. But can pieces truly be fully considered art if they are deliberately held in a state of indefinite incompleteness until onlookers meet the demands of their ransomers?

This transformation is not surprising in places like the U.S., which emphasizes monetary profit to the point that art forms like video games typically become vehicles for cash rather than a means to display creativity and advanced storytelling.

The fact that this is even happening to an amazing medium like video gaming is unbecoming and undeniably needs to be addressed. So what can be done to stop video games from being degraded in such a manner?

The Cure

The answer: not much — well, unless more people can rebel against the fixed idea that life should place an emphasis on arbitrary monetary value over creativity and imagination. Sadly, that isn’t happening, at least to a point where companies like EA get the message to stop doing it. Still, people are fighting back.

This is evidenced best with the Star Wars: Battlefront II debacle. The negative reception EA received to the announced implementation of lootboxes caused the company to experience a 2.5 percent drop in its share price. When the game was finally released on Nov. 17, 2017, Electronic Arts lost $3 billion in stock due in large part to the game not meeting sales expectations. That is the textbook definition of a net loss.

Payday 2 is infamous for flip flopping between using and not using microtransaction.

You can thank aforementioned reports by its beta testers, along with the outcry of consumers and the press, for making EA literally pay for attempting to turn Star Wars: Battlefront II into an interactive piggy bank. This is a testament to how even the simple act of pointing to exceedingly problematic behavior is sometimes all it takes to produce a positive effect.

Still, unless such vigilance continues, microtransactions are a trend that is destined to continue indefinitely. While EA may have given up efforts to monetize Star Wars: Battlefront II, it’s a sure bet that the company, along with others, will continue to place an emphasis on expanding profit at the expense of creating consumer-friendly gameplay experience. To see that become normalized would be the worst “game over” possible for gaming.


Jonathan Anson

Jonathan Anson

Jonathan has been a lover of video games since his father brought home a Windows 95 computer. When he's not doing that he indulges in his other passion: writing. Jonathan holds an AA degree in Journalism from Saddleback College in Southern California.
Jonathan Anson
Jonathan Anson

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