How I Learned to Stop Caring About Diablo Immortal’s Pay-to-Win Mechanics

Which is disappointing because I like Sisi’s writing in a lot of other contexts! They have a very well developed and sharp critical voice.

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Massively Overpowered just published a great general response to this line of argument.

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Even as someone who personally isn’t affected by these predatory mechanics, I do think articles like these are a bridge too far. But one part of the discussion I’m not seeing being reckoned with is a specific roadmap to monetization for these games that would be considered ethical.

Like, here’s where I’m coming from. I think free-to-play games themselves are generally a great advancement for gaming. Having a game where I can get my friends together without worrying who has the $60-90 CAD in their budget that month is fantastic. And I can only imagine how cool it must be to be a kid and have access to incredible social experiences like Fortnite without begging your parents to buy it for you. But of course developer salaries need to be paid, and I’m ok with a subset of the audience (like myself) subsidizing this cost so that the broader game can be easily accessible to people with less disposable income. And of course I would like the way it is paid for to be ethical and non-predatory.

So what are payment models that can work for free-to-play games? I’m not yet willing to concede that there is no way to do this ethically, as going back to having everyone pay for a game outright only makes these social experiences more limited and basically makes video games the privilege of the middle and upper classes. So what’s a free-to-play game that gets this right?

So, a few years ago, the “obvious” solution to this would have been Patreon [or other community patronage services on similar models].
I think we now know that whilst this model does work for some people - there absolutely are developers who release work for free, supported by Patreon donations - it unfortunately doesn’t scale as well as we had hoped.

Similarly, other kinds of “donationware” have been tried lots of times in the past - shareware, pay-what-you-want downloads etc - and it feels like they mostly “work” if you’re prepared to accept that (like most authors) most developers aren’t going to earn enough to support this as their sole source of income. That is: people absolutely do donate for these kind of things, but just not enough to pay for them in total.

(Now, part of this is because the current Western economic system is actively hostile to this kind of “community-funded” model of organisation, but still… I assume it’s also more sustainable if you live somwhere with a lower cost of living than Western Europe or the USA?)

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It’s explicitly not the answer you want (and, IIRC, it’s the same answer that someone else reluctantly gave you during the last kerfuffle), but I genuinely don’t think that there is “a specific roadmap to monetization for these games that would be considered ethical” in the existing political and economic reality. (Admittedly I’m also the lifelong film buff who routinely alienates my fellow hobbyists with my view that the resources used in mass-market filmmaking are objectively wasteful and arguably immoral, so if there is a viable solution I almost certainly won’t be a part of it coming into being.)

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I feel like there’s been a solution for years and that’s just that used games are supposed to get cheaper. That’s how I lived during my poorest days, I was basically a half-console behind the world and played Bayonetta in 2012 for like $5.

Now meanwhile we have Nintendo deciding their games are infinitely worth $60 and that sucks (also the handheld game discount has disappeared entirely) and it’s one of many cases where Nintendo’s greed is bad for everybody, including themselves.

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The ethics issues at least partially come from using addictive, FOMO and social mechanics to extract maximum cash from vulnerable people. For me, you’d have to remove both of those pieces to approach being acceptable.

Start free, pay a finite and reasonable amount to unlock all of the paid things (possible a rent-to own model where after you’ve bought X dollars worth of things, you are a VIP and get all the things), and maybe? But I think the pitfalls in even that model are still there. Social mechanisms will drive anyone who keeps playing to go VIP, and I still don’t like that.

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I find this interesting, because from what I’m seeing these sorts of free-to-play games are even more popular in the BRIC economies, which decidedly aren’t the global west. And so, do we put a kibosh on this model and basically gut the emerging gaming culture in poorer parts of the world? It doesn’t seem like that’s a better solution to me. And yes, of course predatory capitalism is at the root of this, and yes the whole system needs to be torn down. But that’s not happening tomorrow, or next year. And for people to live in this system, can we not accept an imperfect solution?

I mean, sure that makes sense. But what I’m saying is that a lot of these games are fully continuous and evolving social experiences and not boxed, non-internet enabled products in days past. And it’s become a social nexus for lots of people, especially poor youth. And so, going back to the boxed model of Fortnite costing $60 and then down the line selling for $20 gets us into a have/have nots situation that any kid in a schoolyard can tell you sucks. And I don’t think that model can then bankroll live events like an Ariana Grande concert, which honestly, are cool as hell.

I really like this model to cap spending. I’m curious though, how would social mechanisms driving people to pay for VIP be any worse than requiring everyone pay $60 upfront?

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Collectively, we have. It’s the one that exists, the one the author of the piece is arguing for, and the one that the hard-liners like myself are objecting to in the first place. The predatory capture of attention/time/money is not a side effect of the design, it is the design.

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It’s the implied bait and switch that still bothers me. There will still be social pressure to “come play this free game that makes you feel bad you haven’t paid yet”. That’s anxiety people don’t need, you know?

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I don’t think there is any version of a ‘free but you can pay’ model, aside from donation-based, that will not create social mechanisms encouraging people to pay. Even ‘better’ ones where you can just buy a costume instead of pulling on a loot crate for it are going to create that pressure - hell, I bought a hat or two in my TF2 days. Fortnite has costumes and, from what my niece tells me, you will be made fun of if you are rocking a default skin. And tough luck to the kid whose parents can’t afford it.

I agree with @epigraph, though, finite, sensibly priced options to basically upgrade to a paid version and that’s all you can spend aren’t a terrible solution. There was a Pokemon Picross game on the 3DS that had a good take on that, basically once you spent $40 (the cost of 3DS game if you just bought it outright) on microtransactions, you got infinite premium currency. Not perfect, but not bad for the model. Certainly better than future free-to-play games in the Pokemon franchise.

I said this in another thread the other week, but my general take is that ‘if a game allows you to spend hypothetically infinite amounts of money on it, it’s inherently unethical’.

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Ok, we have one imperfect solution. Can we propose another one that can be kinder in this world? Also, I am not sure why it is predatory to capture attention or time. That’s just video games, they draw your interest and keep you playing. No one is talking about how awful 600 hours of playing Dark Souls is.

(And yes, obviously there are issues with gaming too much. I’m just saying that it’s not a specific issue with just free-to-play gaming).

I also remember the anxiety of kids getting Smash Bros. and my family not being able to afford it. I’m not sure how this is worse, at least kids these days can game with their friends with little to no barriers.

To be fair, in Fortnite’s case you can get cosmetics in a number of ways, including free Twitch drops and the like. But I do understand the pressure between kids, and that does suck.

Regarding your TF2 example, is it really so bad that you bought a hat or two though? I mean, it was an awesome game that gave me hundreds of hours of joy for no money. I certainly did not feel taken advantage of by tipping them a few bucks for a silly digital good.

Of this I am in agreement. Let’s cap spending, put in age-gates for kids, and educate the populace. But I’m just not ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Gonna be thinking about that last line a while. I think you may have cracked something pretty profound about the way these games should work.

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This might just be me that’s too far down the rabbit hole, but i find Warframe to have one of the better free to play monetizations, since the things that are exclusively bought with the premium currency are cosmetics, and the premium currency is tradeable between players. Also the closest thing to a lootbox you can buy is the Radiant Requiem Relic Pack, and those are for very lategame content, and by doing that content youll be swimming in those relics anyway.

Thats just my experience though.

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You do also need to spend real money on slots for frames and weapons. Playing the game won’t be fun for long with only 2 frame and 8 weapon slots.

This can be somewhat mitigated by trading as you say, but that’s also pretty onerous IMO.

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True, although you also get some of those from the Nightwave (basically a free battlepass), but that doesnt roll around as often.

There were a few pokemon f2p games that had a hard limit on how much you could spend. (Once you hit the limit, they give you essentially infinite in-game resource for hints and skipping timers or whatever. I think it was in the pokemon picross and one other game) But I think in the end companies realised that they can’t actually make money on that model. So pokemon and nintendo just dove deep into the gacha hole and Fire Emblem Heroes and Pokemon Go just make tons and tons of money.

I always struggle with conversations about “free-to-play games that get it right” for a lot of reasons. It’s easy to recognize the scummy games, gachas and the like. But it gets fuzzy. Like, okay, for me, I like DotA 2’s model. There are no gameplay implications of the microtransactions. It’s all cosmetic. Meanwhile, I find League of Legends’ model to be infuriating for the inverse reason. But then I’ve heard folks say that they think League is better because a lot of it can be earned through play and there’s no loot box mechanics. Then, take Battle Passes. I considered them to be sensible, but someone pointed out to me that these can create a maladaptive relationship where the play feels obliged to complete the battle pass. At a certain point, it just feels like there’s no way to make anything remotely ethical that is free-to-play with microtransactions. After all, they are games, and games have this unique power of cultivating desire in us in ways that are unnatural and surprising. Anything you put in the game within the freemium framework is going to be capable of manipulating and squeezing players. I feel like any system that works for one person and doesn’t feel dangerous for them is going to be a nightmare for someone else.

What I keep coming back to, I guess, is the inevitability of the fact that games are embroiled within the society we live in. You know, capitalism. I know that seems contrarian and cliche, but I keep ending up back at it. There is really no way, in this society, to sustainably produce games without asking your players for money. Free-to-play games usually ask their players for microtransactions. Barring the abolition of currency, I’m not sure that’s going to change anytime soon. It is very easy to identify the abusive ones, but it’s much harder to find something that works for everybody.

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