The Soapbox: The long tail of game development isn’t an excuse for gouging

Don’t be too mad at Star Wars: Battlefront II. It’s a symptom of a problem, not the cause. I mean, be mad at people dumb enough to put the blame for negative reactions on the press, that’s just plain stupid. But at the heart of the matter is a problem that’s actually choking through game development all the way down the line.

Because while people are talking about “well, maybe games need to cost more” (and that aforementioned none-too-wise comment of an analyst does precisely that), the reality is that this would still be happening no matter what. The problem is not a matter of Battlefront II costing too little money to pay for its development. The problem is that design and budgets are broken, the market is a mess, and microtransactions are being used as a bludgeon instead of a tool.

And all of this is exacerbated by the fact that every single publisher wants to pretend that everything is peachy.

One of the things that I’ve long been an advocate for is the idea that publishers exist to make money. On the face of it, this is a good thing, because you cannot make a game funded by pixie giggles and unicorn farts. You need someone whose only interest in the game is the money side of things, because that’s how you make enough money to continue making games.

The problem, of course, is when the publishing side of things realizes that there are ways to break the system to make more money off of nothing. Everything I discussed in my Overthinking response last week is still true – games cost more and more to make and have longer and longer tails in terms of support – but the problem is not simply that these facros combine to mean that games are now money losers. The problem is that when you then inflate the marketing cost, the profit margin starts to diminish.

I do not know how much this cost. There isn't a price tag where it justifies other things, though.

It doesn’t help when the upper management wants to make the game ever bigger and ever more expensive. And the programmers and art staff don’t wind up seeing much, if anything, from these incresed profit margins, still being subjected to an awful volume of crunch time and demanding workloads with ever-growing headcounts.

The thing is, trying to get some extra money out of these games is not inherently a bad thing. There’s a great piece from Ask A Game Dev about why DLC exists, and it’s a wonderful thing to read because it shines a light on the reality of design and content. Games are expensive, and DLC means that you can, in theory, add stuff to the game that had to be cut from the default retail release due to time and circumstance.

But what we’re talking about here isn’t DLC. It’s a feature of the game that had numbers tweaked to essentially hold part of the designed game as a hostage. Battlefront II is a symptom of the whole mess. There’s no actual way to prevent a game from advertising something and then requiring you to pay to access it after you’ve already paid for the game. And if this already didn’t seem fun enough, it’s worth pointing out that there’s an entire segment of the enthusiast press that has actually made this worse by referring to any DLC as a blatant cash grab.

Something about this IP makes for a perfect chance to see what you're willing to pay, huh.A blatant cash grab, for the record, looks like Battlefront II. It looks like the game selling you something as part of the game and then forcing you to wait forever to get it… or letting you pay money right out of the gate to bypass it. It’s a gross example of trying to abuse that long tail of games to force players into a situation where you have to pay more money to get something you were told you get as part of the entry price.

Gamers, as an aggregate, are a bit guilty of not understanding how the sausage is made. But in this particular analogy, the sausage factory has roving death squads preventing anyone from seeing that the sausage is being made at all, much less the process.

This, then, is why the system is just plain broken at this point. We’re unwilling to pay more for games than we already do, in many cases preferring “not paying anything” as an entry price. Publishers, meanwhile, are willing to keep inflating budgets for things like marketing and graphics, and when that eats into profit it can eat right into the game. And the people making these games aren’t seeing any benefit from all of these increases; salaries aren’t going up except for the people at the top end.

Someone was bound to go this route eventually. It just happened now with a game that the publisher thought was immune to being spot-checked for these decisions, because at face value Star Wars: Battlefront II should be an enormous hit. What’s damaging it is entirely the fact that it has a set of predatory decisions made to make sure that players have to buy the game, then buy more of the game or crawl along. It’s a downright nasty free-to-play model in a game that is not, in fact, free-to-play.

(If it were, this would be a very different discussion. The business model still wouldn’t be very good, but it would have the excuse of asking you nothing up-front. But I digress.)

And none of this is new this year. We already saw titles early in the year experiment with lockboxes in single-player AAA games. As we’ve accepted the mechanic in various online titles, it’s becoming more and more palatable to add the mechanic to games where it really doesn’t belong, where there’s no online component or shared world to justify a constant rolling income.

This is just where the stupid stars aligned in the right place. And it’s the point where I would think, as a publisher, it’s time to take a step back and look at the Pyrrhic victories bringing you to this point. If you exhaust your market, you go down to making zero dollars an hour, and while the prices of games haven’t risen as fast as the price of making them, a lot of that is due to the non-stop race to add in the newest and greatest graphical flair to a title when it really doesn’t need it.

Cash shops are not the enemy, DLC is not the enemy, and even lockboxes aren’t the enemy. It’s entirely possible to implement lockboxes in such a way that they’re welcome; Overwatch and Hearthstone are both fine examples here. For all the issues I have with those games, they make a strong effort to let players feel like you pay a bit for convenience rather than need, and there’s at least the appearance of developers trying hard to make sure that each purchase feels worthwhile even if you don’t get what you want.

So what can we do, on our end? I think there is something we can do, and ironically, it involves not looking at the price tag at all. It involves looking at time.

The issues for the game have to do with depth, viability, and being locked in place, not with the business model.

At the end of the day, what makes the model of Battlefront II so nasty and predatory is that there is, theoretically, a way to earn this stuff in-game… at a miserably slow and laborious pace. If you buy the game on the basis of “I can play as Darth Vader” and then have to spend a couple of months earning your way to playing as Darth Vader, you are essentially having the game you want held hostage. Even if the rest of the game is fun, it’s tainted by the fact that the thing you want is so painfully, unpleasantly slow along the way.

By contrast, if you’re having fun in Overwatch and really want a specific skin for D. Va, you’re still going to be having fun with D. Va until you get it. If you really want to try a specific character in League of Legends, you can wait for them to come around to the free rotation. And if you really want a specific card in Hearthstone, you will eventually be able to craft that card by getting random packs; it’s cheaper and faster to just get it right away, but every pack is a step toward your goal just the same.

One of the bits of advice Kurt Vonnegut offered about writing was that a story should use the time of a complete stranger in such a way that it does not feel wasted. The same is true of games.

If you had to play an hour of Battlefront II a night for a couple of days to unlock Darth Vader reliably, it’d be a mild irritation at best; you couldn’t just jump in and start at the top, but you wouldn’t feel like it was being held hostage. That is a sense of pride and accomplishment. Finishing out my “Commander of Argus” achievement in World of Warcraft gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment, because it took time but also felt rewarding and fun along the way. It wasn’t just a matter of tediously grinding for hours every day and knowing that money would just finish it.

At the end of the day, yes, we’re going to have to accept that games cost money and sometimes the things you really want cost money for various reasons. Developers need to eat and all that. But we don’t need to accept that part of the price we pay is “don’t have fun until you pay up,” and we don’t need to prop up tentpole releases with the expectation that they’ll sell even with nasty, abusive practices.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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70 Comments on "The Soapbox: The long tail of game development isn’t an excuse for gouging"

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Alex Malone

For me, its all about value for money. If a game looks like good value for money, I’ll buy it. If it doesn’t, I won’t.

The problem I have (and I expect many other older gamers have) is that I’ve simply been around too long. I’m only 32, but I’ve been gaming since I was 5. I’ve seen some truly astonishing games, as well as some utterly worthless ones. This means every time a new game is released, I am judging it against 27 years worth of experience and trying to determine whether I’ll get value for money.

So, SWBF2….when I look at this game, released late 2017, I compare it to other online shooters I’ve played. Even if I simply compared it to previous series entries, the game doesn’t stand up well. The original SWBF2 from 2005 had basically the exact same mechanics and game modes, except nothing was locked and everything available on day 1. So, why would I pay lots of money in 2017 for a game that I basically already played in 2005? Even worse, when I compare the new SWBF2 to other online shooters from the last decade, you can see that it hasn’t kept pace at all and the actual gameplay is almost archaic.

And this is what happens whenever I buy a game. Most of the AAA releases are just rehashes of games we’ve seen 100 times before, just with updated graphics or a slightly different IP. Why would I pay top money for that? I’ve already played that game, I’m not gonna pay you money to play it again. I’ll spend my money on something that actually pushes the genre forwards. I’ll spend my money on a genre I don’t know. Hell, I’ll just spend my money on 4 entire games from 2 years ago in a steam sale because 2 years of graphical improvements mean shit to me.


Myth busted: Overall costs (which includes labour, and is inflation corrected) are not going up, but down!
For years!

It’s only because of the dramatic reduction of overall games per year (between -50% and -80%)! Which is why the perception gets so distorted, if all the ressources are only used by a fifth or half so many games per year!

Sally Bowls

I don’t understand what is the myth being busted? If it costs about the same money to make about half as many games, then haven’t the cost per game doubled and thus wouldn’t you expect the price per game to also double? What am I missing?


Dividing it by time! And the revenue by “services”, i.e.:. microtransactions, gamblingboxes,… that only costs half as much than actual content!


Sorry. I digress! /bow

You’re also missingng the overall decline of costs, regardless of how many games done, shown by the very first comment!

[I wish, the comment with the games per year chart, would have stayed together… :( ]

Sally Bowls

Remember when there were new games to talk about not new monetizations?

From Fan Favorite SuperData

The report suggests future game monetization may even mean triple-A publishers completely doing away with $60 products in favor of “product ecosystems.”

Sally Bowls

I am so puzzled to see “cost” come up much. Just how often do you buy items that are priced based on costs? If an item is a Walmart store brand, then they are ruthlessly and constantly trying to reduce the cost. reduce the thickness of the material? cheaper components? make the packaging smaller? … But selling a commodity item where nothing matters but price is a tough business and most companies prefer to be in better markets and try to add some value. Most things I don’t buy is because I don’t want it that much. Of the things I do buy outside of Walmart, my guess is their price is driven by the competition more than by the cost to produce it.

Long term, things are never going to sell for less than production cost nor are they going to sell for more than the price the customer thinks a competitor’s substitute is a better value. Within those bounds, why shouldn’t prices rise to about the value the average customer regards the product? If the average homeowner thinks it is worth $10 to get their driveway shoveled, then shouldn’t the kids be charging about $10? Is some gamer going to try to find the cost of their shoveling and say the difference between that cost of production and $10 is gouging? If the average customer thinks NetFlix is worth $12/month, then why shouldn’t NetFlix price it about that? Why does the cost of production matter? I would rather pay more money for a game I loved that was cheap to produce than a game that cost a lot of money to make that I only kinda like. What is the fixation in the comments with cost?

And FFS if discussing cost, at least acknowledge that the predominant cost is the salaries, not the boxes.


Games costs more but EA isn’t spending more. For the last 5 years, year after year, EA has spent less money developing games then the previous year. If games costs more they should be spending more, but they’re not. What they are doing is ruining games.


That’s a great video. What gets me is they took one mode of the FIFA and decided to make it the only mode of a star wars game.

I haven’t played it but I was intrigued by the PC Gamer review that stated that one of the better ways to play Star Wars BF2 is to suicide yourself until you get to spawn as a better character.

I also wonder if that’s a leftover of taking elements of the battlefield gameplay where everyone is more or less a soldier and shoehorning it into a franchise where those characters are killed in one hit in the movies and most everyone wants to play as the iconic characters.


It’s a damn shame, because DICE could have just put out the single player campaign without any controversial crap and people would be going gaga over BFII. The singly player campaign is fing amazing! I’d gladly spend $60 for DICE to do a single player Star Wars adventure FPS, with paid installments for new content. Seriously well done.

Dug From The Earth

Its not just the grind to unlock darth vader. its the grind to unlock EVERYTHING.

Ive been playing for a solid 15+ hours now. Ive been putting all my play into the officer class, as to advance one class as much as I can.

Since playing those 15+ hours, ive unlocked a total of 3 different starcards for the officer class. 2 of which were the lowest tier, 1 was blue (3 out of 4 tiers). The blue one is one of the more worthless cards (life back on melee kill). One of the other cards replaces my grenade ability, with a worse ability (homing shot.. which was nerfed to hell and back).

I do need to point out that ive actually gotten 5 starcards for the officer, but 2 of them were duplicates, which grants currency instead (boxes cost 4000 to open, and duplicates gave me 150 in return. JOY!)

Meaning, of the 3 cards ive gotten for the officer class, only 1 is really worth using. I slot the melee one, because ive got the slot to do so, and nothing better to put in it.

Ive only managed to unlock 1 of the addition 3 officer weapons too. Just 1. And have only unlocked 1 (out of 3) mods for that weapon.

Its just soooooo horribly slow paced. Even the stuff that unlocks from achievements (ie: kill 500 enemies with XYZ weapon). Starcards are by far the worst though because its based on the time to grind the currency to buy them, and then, its 100% RNG.

Jack Kerras

…Have you done any crafting? For 15 hours’ work, you should easily have enough crafting materials to unlock whichever abilities you want and level them up some. I’m 30 hours in with Vader, Chewy, and Iden unlocked, as well as the Assault and the Heavy using ONLY blue cards, and the three blue cards (actually four in the case of the Heavy, I like Explosive and Supercharged Sentry) are the ones that I use the most. Because I crafted and upgraded them after crafting lots of cheap white cards and figuring out which ones I feel best with.

Also, if you play a little Blast, you can help get over the hump when it comes to weapon unlocks and such; the TL-50 was a long road with three Heavy guns I wasn’t that fond of, and then unlocking its secondary fire was a bit of a bear to boot, since it required TL-50 kills instead of just Heavy kills; I get a lot of kills with Sentry. Same deal with Assault, I get lots of Vanguard kills.

Any road: just curious, since I’ve got double the time in that you do, zero purchases made, and I’m blued out with purples on the way plus two major hero unlocks.

Alfredo Garcia
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Alfredo Garcia

“That’s no moon… It’s a sausage factory!”

Nascent Visions

Also, does anyone have any compelling evidence that skyrocketing marketing costs are contributing to this because I’m not seeing it. EA’s 10K filed for 2017 lists is marketing budgets as $673 in 2017, 622 for 2016, and 647 for 2015 (millions of dollars). That’s a 4% difference between 2015 and 2017 and an 8% difference between 2016 and 2017. Yes, those are millions of dollars and that’s a lot, but as a percentage of costs it’s pretty tame, especially for a company the size of EA. It’s definitely not enough to make me think “EA is implementing brutal lock box systems in part to cover the cost of marketing their games.”

Nascent Visions

“Finishing out my “Commander of Argus” achievement in World of Warcraft gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment, because it took time but also felt rewarding and fun along the way. It wasn’t just a matter of tediously grinding for hours every day and knowing that money would just finish it.”

From an ROI perspective, I think this is the heart of it. Making interesting content that’s fun to play and gives the player a meaningful reward or sense of achievement is hard. And you only have to pay once to earn it. Designing and implementing lock boxes to rake in tons of cash is stupid easy and cheap by comparison and people will buy them over and over and over again. I think it’s part of the reason you’ve seen MOBAs proliferate. It cuts the cost of developing and maintaining PvE systems, content, and AI out of the equation entirely.