I don’t think it’s unfair to say that video games psychologically manipulate players.

In fact, they’ve been burrowing their way into our minds for quite some time. Games such as Pac-Man are addictive by design. Its what keeps us coming back for more! However, in 2017, this has reached an unhealthy peak, with addictiveness closely tied to monetisation strategies. Star Wars Battlefront 2, Destiny 2, FIFA 18 – all these games (and more) have come under fire for unethically preying upon their customer’s brains, and in turn their wallets.

It’s a sad state of affairs. Each new big-budget release seems to include an element of gambling. And it has meant that the gaming community has hit back; certain gambling regulatory bodies are now getting involved, and the games industry could be staring at a crisis not seen since the 90’s.

So what happened? How did we get here? And what’s next?

Weaponised Addictiveness

lootbox oh loot box battlefront 2

Games are addictive. We’ve known this for a while.  The ‘gameplay loop’ of playing, earning and receiving in-game rewards gives a dopamine hit in player’s brains and keeps them coming back for more. Whether it’s cosmetic rewards, weapon upgrades, or even just new levels, unlocking content in games is addictive.

However recently, game developers and publishers seem to have weaponised this addictiveness. The popularisation of microtransactions and loot boxes has meant that the ‘gameplay loop’ of earning new in-game stuff can be repackaged in small, randomised and purchasable crates. Because why earn it in game, when the psychological effect is more pleasing when you earn it through loot boxes?

And from a publishers point of view: Why let players easily earn these rewards for free, when you can make them pay for it instead?

The numbers are against us players, unfortunately. Games are increasingly using meta-data from the games we play to work out how to better optimise monetisation strategies. The ‘Whales’ that bring in ridiculous amounts of money for games are increasing, and the tactics to turn non-Whales into Whales are becoming more devious.

Through cultural shifts, more targeted advertising and underhand psychological manipulation, we’re now spending more money on a single game than we ever used to.

And according to the larger Publishers, this is a necessary development.

The ‘Games are More Expensive to Make Now’ Argument

Lootbox oh Loot box Shadow of War

As games have become more technologically advanced, production costs have gone up. That’s undebatable. However, the argument that games must include loot boxes, microtransactions and weaponise their addictiveness, in order to pay for these games, is a willfully ignorant one.

It’s willfully ignorant because it ignores what is happening to players’ experiences and enjoyment out of these types of games.

It’s willfully ignorant because it’s not like large publishers are exactly struggling for money – the industry is still raking it in.

And it’s willfully ignorant because there have been a plethora of fantastic releases, that haven’t relied upon these tactics, and have made money. Particularly in 2017. Look at Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. A game made by a team in the 10’s, not the 100’s. Hellblade has just sold half a million copies, is a bold and brave game, and completely destroys the cost argument made by larger publishers.

Certain games are more expensive to make then, because they’re being more ambitious with how they value players’ time. Large releases such as Battlefront 2 and Call of Duty: WWII don’t want to simply be a one-play-and-done affair anymore. Instead, they must offer increased content, variety and engagement, in order to keep people playing for longer. These games need to be bigger, flashier and meatier. Because the longer you play these games, the more likely you are to pay for these games.

From Time To Your Wallet

Ubisoft’s 2017/2018 earnings report (above) showed that recurring player investment created more revenue than that of initial games distribution. Engaged players, ones that spend a large amount of time with a game, are likely to spend more money than new customers. For publishers and their shareholders then, the priority is not enticing new customers to buy their products, but to monetise those that are already playing.

Games then, are looking for ways to generate recurring investment from players. They always have done I suppose. Arcade classics like Gauntlet and Space Invaders were purposefully hard so that players would put more shiny coins in. The difference now is that we’re paying full price RRP for the game, and then some.

Games are therefore becoming a service. You buy your copy of Overwatch safe in the knowledge that it will be constantly updated for you. Don’t trade it in, because you can always just dip back into later down the line, with plenty new content to greet you. Unfortunately, the way they pay for that new content definitely has predatory elements about it.

And alongside that, the ‘Games as a Service’ model means that large publishers and developers are creating fewer games.

In 2007, Activision-Blizzard released 15 games.

In 2017? They released 4. And one was a remaster.

Sadly, that’s financially healthy. However, recent events may have touched upon a tipping point for this model.

What’s Next?

lootboxes in doom blasphemy

Hopefully, loot boxes will be less frequent in 2018. The public backlash seems to have peaked with Battlefront 2. Even lawmakers and politicians have weighed in on the “Star Wars themed casino”. And despite an admittedly shifty ‘National Committee for Games Policy’ being rightly scrutinised, it seems that proper regulation isn’t too far away.

But regulation might not even be necessary. As /u/chuy1530 said on Reddit – ‘Soon games will advertise “No DLC/Microtransactions” just like food advertises “No trans fats”’. The façade of loot boxes is being seen right through now. The gaming community is increasingly retaliatory against these unethical business practices.

Unfortunately, this may mean that developers will try and sneak in tactics without letting their players know. Look at Destiny 2, a game which includes randomised ‘bright engrams’ that sold mostly cosmetics, alongside some XP boosters. No problem, right? Well, what if the game actually restricted the amount of XP you can earn, without it telling you? Well, those paid-for XP boosters are looking more enticing by the hour…

So whilst it’s possible to be optimistic about the future of monetisation and video games, keep those bull***t detectors at the ready. It ain’t over yet.

Try Something New

Conor Clarke
Writer, researcher and performer based in Leeds, UK. Enjoys videogames almost as much as he does Live Art. Overthinks.

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