So, if you’ve been paying attention to this column over the past few forevers, you will have no doubt noticed by this point that I’m not really a big fan of talking about pay-to-win because that’s a fuzzy term you can argue against. I much prefer talking about predatory monetization because that’s a much less fuzzy term, and using it ensures that instead of debating over a win condition, you spend your time examining how the game forces you into paying money.
The downside here, however, is that I haven’t really talked much about what makes something predatory. And it’s worth examining that in depth because as odd as it might sound, the game that costs me an average of $145 every year is actually less predatory than the game I have, in total, spent maybe $60 on ever and that I’ve spent no money on in at least a couple of years. So let’s really dive into what makes something predatory.
Here’s the thing: For a game to have predatory monetization, there are really just two conditions that need to be fulfilled. There are other things that go into it, but the important point here is that how much money goes into the game isn’t part of the equation. A game can be considered to have predatory monetization if:
- The monetization model at its core uses some degree of deception, vagueness, or subterfuge in order to first get you engaged.
- There’s no reason for a system to exist in the game except in service of monetization.
That’s it. And it probably sounds really simple laid out like that, but just defining it without giving examples is not all that great. So let’s start by examining a game that isn’t predatory, and since we’re going to be pointing to Diablo Immortal as being predatory as hell, let’s start with another Blizzard title: Hearthstone. Which is not predatory.
No, really, it isn’t. While Hearthstone is a free-to-play game, it makes it clear what you can purchase (card packs) and lets you understand what your odds are for getting any given card. Furthermore, randomized card packs do actually serve a purpose in gameplay by giving you an incentive to play classes you otherwise might ignore based on getting some really good cards. There are also ways to build up cards from unwanted cards and ways to earn cards through gameplay, both of which tilt the game more toward rewarding actual play, but regardless the base model is not predatory.
Lockboxes are, of course, often seen as being inherently deceptive and unwelcome, but if you want to get really into predatory monetization, no game so firmly epitomizes this as Star Trek Online – which, readers will note, is a game I really like. And it’s a game I have not had to spend money on in a long time. And it is, in fact, really predatory.
A lockbox in an MMO already falls pretty hard into “there’s no reason for the system except in service to monetization,” which is already a problem. But STO goes the next level. Instead of adding lockboxes as purchases in the game’s shop, the game drops lockboxes as loot, and you then have to purchase keys from the shop in order to unlock them. (This is, incidentally, specifically why core MMORPG players often refer to this type of drop as a “lockbox” rather than the softer “lootbox” term the gaming execs prefer, as STO’s version was one of the very first mainstream western games to try it.)
You might argue that in practical terms it’s no different from just purchasing a lockbox directly, but then we get to the shady part of the first point. Deception is being used in the game to engage you. Rather than being something you can choose to engage with or ignore based on your personal preferences, the lockbox is being provided to you as a reward, and the game is then witholding that reward until you pay money. Instead of pitching it to you as “you might get something good,” the game pitches it as “you already got something; now you have to pay to see if it was good!”
Many, many mobile games have developed so many predatory systems that it’s darkly impressive. The monetization models, for example, that have multiple currencies you can all pay real money for are predatory because it confuses your brain in figuring out the actual worth of any given item or purchase. Fate/Grand Order is predatory not strictly because it has gacha character mechanics but because it specifically sets it up so that a character is only available for a limited amount of time and you don’t know when or whether that character will ever be available again. The vagueness and the sense that you need to do this now or miss something super valuable? Predation all over again.
Fortnite shows only some of the options in its cash shop at any given time to much the same effect, along with using another subtle trick of monetization by making sure you can purchase currency only in bundles that are just the wrong size for anything you want to get. (That means you always have some left over, which means you’re always close to purchasing something else, and so it feels like a better deal… and so on.) And let’s not pretend that the sense of “I need to pay money to get into a ship/gear set/ability set/whatever that’s good enough to keep up with other players.”
Oh, look, now we’ve caught up with Diablo Immortal again.
Most of the things I’ve listed above as being predatory are present in Diablo Immortal already. There are lots of little touches, like the fact that there are two kinds of Legendary Crest that the game does not advertise, but there are other things like varying sorts of buyable currency all needed for various other functions to obfuscated held value on every single item. Or the inconsistently sized packs that always leave you with not quite enough for any given purchase when you buy currency. And the fact that progress is directly tied to paying in for more stuff… the list goes on.
Now, in and of itself, predatory monetization or non-predatory monetization is not everything there is to know about the game. I could (and just did) argue that STO has a very predatory scheme; I also think it’s a very good game in terms of actual mechanics and does have other positive factors to buoy it, and if you can bypass the predatory parts, you’re left with a fun game that has a lot to recommend it. But the “bypass the predatory parts” is important there, and make no mistake, the whole point of predatory monetization is that you have to work to get around how the game is monetized.
This is, in fact, the point when a lot of fans of a given game will argue that it’s not predatory because they’ve managed to not spend any money on it and it’s only pay-to-win if you want it to be and really isn’t it your fault for acting like you should be able to get best-in-slot in a reasonable timeframe without spending money? And that’s something that I’m going to address in a follow-up column next week. That’s right, we’re doing a thing; for now, just accept that the answer is that this is still a flawed argument.
But on the subject of predatory monetization itself, I think it’s worth having the tools and the insight to understand what actually makes monetization predatory or not. It’s not about the amount. A game you spend $10 on can be predatory even if you’ve spent a dozen times as much on another title. It’s all about how the monetization is presented and how it’s supposed to work.