Vague Patch Notes: Mobile MMOs, free-to-play MMOs, and the path of microtransactions

Oh dear.

When I first started playing Magic: the Gathering, Revised was the new hotness and I got used to the idea that Serra Angel was considered to be an overpowered creature. We’ve come a long way since then, but I remember when I started buying Mirage cards and found that they weren’t just a little better than the cards I already had, but a lot better. Some of this was due to the fact that my collection was garbage, but some of it was just due to Mirage being a more coherent set as a whole.

Then I remember the Urza block, then the Tempest block, and things cycling out of legality. And I remember thinking, even at that young age, that it felt kind of like the designers were trying to just get me to buy more cards by making them ever more-powerful and also ensuring that I couldn’t use my older cards any more. Which, you know, was kind of the game’s main business model.

Now that I’m a bit older, of course, I’m no longer really bothered by this overmuch… in no small part because we have much, much worse examples of the same basic problem to point to. And that’s what I want to talk about today, as a further exploration of the predatory monetization that I’ve already railed against.

Veteran readers will know that I have criticized the term pay-to-win because it elides a much more important discussion about when a game’s monetization turns predatory. And the thing is that predatory monetization is usually when I start clocking out of a game altogether… or even start getting actively angry at the game. It is, unfortunately, something that becomes very common in mobile games, and it comes about a lot when a game is designed based around monetization first with a theme stapled on later.

During a recent stream, I played a game from Ubisoft called Horse Haven World Adventures. The thing is, what upset me about the game was not its core conceit there. I fully believe, without an ounce of mockery, that it is not just possible but easy to make a fun game about raising and caring for horses in a way that treats its audience with respect. No, I do not have a particular affection for horses, but that doesn’t mean this has to be a low-rent prospect because of the subject matter.

What made it a low-rent title, though, was the simple fact that the actual gameplay was nonexistent. You had the steeplechase events which had the closest thing to “gameplay,” and that was just tapping the screen to jump over things during an endless run tin which you were graded based on how far you got before running out of stamina. Breeding horses was just a matter of mashing two horses together and hoping you got the result you wanted. That’s it. That’s the gameplay.

Oh, and you can pay money for a better chance of a rare horse breed.

Pictured: A much better honse game.

That was the moment when I got annoyed. Not only was there no gameplay to begin with (and I would note that I’m not using the game as a screenshot here; I’m relatively sure that Star Stable is a far superior game about horses), the completely random mechanics here themselves were available to circumvent by tossing more money. And that was one of the least gross parts of the game.

Well… I say game. It wasn’t really a game; it was a means of placing a particular demographic in the path of as many microtransactions as possible. There wasn’t a compelling game here. There wasn’t a fun experience to be had. There was a way to buy things with the loose framework of a game attached.

That’s predatory. And that’s when my eyes start to twitch at everyone involved.

I freely admit that Ni no Kuni is not my franchise, but Ni no Kuni: Cross Worlds earned my immediate side-eye from association. But this also appears to be placing you directly in the path of microtransactions based on your positive associations. Whether or not you like the gameplay, the idea here is clearly to create an environment where you want to pay money, just a little bit of money. Come on… it’s not expensive. It’s just offering a little boost. It’s only a couple dollars, right? What can it hurt?

You don’t really have to go searching for this, either. You don’t have to spend money in Diablo Immortal. We’ll happily sell you lockbox keys promptly and put you right in the unavoidable path of it by making you pay to open the lockboxes you receive anyway, of course. It’s a psychological trick that makes it harder to ignore these lockboxes along the way, because instead of just having them as a thing you can buy, you got the lockbox already. Now you don’t have to choose whether or not you want to buy one; you have to choose to pass up the potential rewards you already have.

Come on. It’s just a couple dollars, right? You’re so close.

You aren't fun!

I’m not going to mince words when I say that this stuff is what bothers me a heck of a lot more than power. If a game sells power, well… that in and of itself is bad, yes, but it’s mostly bad because it does the same thing wherein you are placed firmly in the path of microtransactions no matter what you do. There’s no opting out of the fact that you can pay money for this, no choosing to pay because you are enjoying the game enough that it feels like a worthwhile investment.

MMOs are by no means immune to this. Remember Star Wars: The Old Republic and selling you hotbars? Because I sure do. But even that game isn’t one of the more egregious examples simply because it was a game originally made to work as a subscription title rather than something that was always designed, top to bottom, as a means for placing you in the path of more calls for your money and more barely adequate gameplay loops just to get a few more dollars out of your wallet.

Business models are, on some level, always going to involve tension between players and marketers. That’s just the nature of the relationship. The people who are responsible for the game as a business want you to spend as much money as possible on the title; the people who are paying for the game want to get as much game as possible for as little investment as possible. This is not a problem or a mark against anyone. I wait for games to go on sale before buying them just like everybody else does.

But when you’re playing a game, ask yourself how much time it spends putting you in the path of microtransactions. Ask yourself how much of the game you’d play if you weren’t invested in it by this point. And keep a close eye on whether or not this is a fun game that you would play no matter what… or an engine to take something you’re interested in and ask you to shell out a few dollars along the way just as part of its core loop.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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