"The power of the Audience – how can developers, publishers & audiences listen to each other more effectively whilst making video games?"
Having seen the latest Star Wars movie and prior to that, played STARWARS BATTLEFRONT 2 (SWBF2), I must admit that the franchise has been through its fair share of reinterpretations; some good and some not so good. When I first purchased SWBF2, I was very surprised from a developer’s perspective that EA took the stance to heavily focus upon their loot box system of item distribution. To be honest, I was even more surprised when I heard that I was playing a game which costs £1600 to unlock everything, or the equivalent game-time of 4528 hours, over 188 days, to obtain the same items. I wasn’t the only one who was ‘surprised’.
Having worked for EA, my surprise extended to this ‘approach’ of heavily monetising in-game item delivery. The aftermath of audience outcry only accentuated that this re-interpretation of the time-honoured franchise was unfortunately ‘not so good’. With a 3 billion dollar price devaluation of EA Stock Value since all the SWBF2 controversy, even today (21/12/17), the impact of their loot box strategy coupled with the public outcry which ensued, has seen Cowen reduce “its price target and profit forecasts for Electronic Arts shares, forecasting poor sales for the company's "Star Wars" game.” It’s clear that EA have really upset their audience, and not just any audience, Star Wars fans and Battlefront fans. EA ‘partially’ listened to the gamers during their Early Access to the game, subsequently ‘tweaking’ the method of how their in-game progression system works within multiplayer, governed by how much in-game currency gamers have/are able to accumulate. However these ‘tweak’s were far from optimal/ what players really wanted. Ultimately they ignored main feedback centred on how much time and/or money would be needed to be spent within the game to unlock main staples, such as the ability to play as one of the main protagonists/antagonists, Darth Vader. To quote a recent Gamasutra article: “someone on Reddit claimed that they'd played the game on Access and had roughly calculated that it could take as much as 40 hours of play to earn enough in-game currency to unlock Darth Vader as a playable hero.”. Immediately after launch and the outcry, EA DICE’s general Manager, Oskar Gabrielson, released a blog statement stating “We hear you loud and clear, so we’re turning off all in-game purchases” – why did it get to this stage at all? This poses the question; are large AAA developers/publishers focusing upon investigating and delivering methods of FUN for Audiences, or are they more focused upon how they can effectively monetise their game-systems, without audiences noticing or getting annoyed/angry/outraged?
To start, I would consider asking why do AAA developers/publishers not learn from lessons past? As a game designer myself, having worked in both indie and AAA development, understanding that studios and publishers are established based on the Intellectual Properties they release, and more importantly, the monetisation strategies adopted by these IP’s are a key consideration factor towards company/organisation strategy. One must appreciate that it can be challenging/somewhat difficult to be flexible where monetisation is concerned. That is unless at a fundamental organisational level, these studios and publishers can adjust how they fund and deliver projects, so that they are monetised appropriately, without negatively impacting upon their audiences. Take for example Smite Vs The Witcher 3 – EA could have adopted a ‘cleaner’ business/monetisation model when considering the release of SWBF2. ‘Cleaner’ by adopting one monetisation strategy and sticking with it, rather than muddying the waters, learning from games such as Smite, which is free to play but is clearly designed for micro-transactions, compared to the Pay-Once Model of The Witcher 3, with 16 free DLC’s and 2 paid expansions. Whilst it can be appreciated that certain AAA’s/large scale game service providers avoid freemium because the financial rewards associated with this monetisation strategy are hard / impossible to adequately predict, then why do some of them chose to venture into combined strategies of releasing products within premium price bracket, together with huge amounts of focus upon micro-transactions (based on items governed by chance/limited availability); do they not realise that today’s gamer (especially the ‘hardcore’) will eventually not accept this monetisation, of what is supposed to be a ‘fun-filled’ experience?
But we must consider here, who are the people within the audiences voicing their opinions; do they represent the majority? We must consider that on average 5% of audiences are usually vocal on social media (the Posters), with the other 95% accepting the status quo, being the Silent Majority (the Lurkers). However when some of the 95% get involved vocally, then something significant has disrupted the status quo. In this case, it’s these two words: Loot Boxes. There’s a growing number of AAA Developers/Publishers adopting this method of delivery, and one must question the ethical delivery of content; can this be classed as a form of gambling? Obtaining desired items on a basis of chance (variable ratio), or limited availability (the scarcity principle), would be an argument towards this question. Consider the UK Gambling Commission’s stance on Gambling in Videogames, they detail that:
“A key factor in deciding if that line has been crossed is whether in-game items acquired ‘via a game of chance’ can be considered money or money’s worth. In practical terms this means that where in-game items obtained via loot boxes are confined for use within the game and cannot be cashed out it is unlikely to be caught as a licensable gambling activity. In those cases our legal powers would not allow us to step in.”
Sure it’s an ethical issue, but it is also regulatory issue too; using ‘fake’, in-game money to create a gambling game would get UK Tax relief, however using real money to buy in-game currency would not get UK Tax relief. From a PEGI rating perspective, if the game had any form of ‘gambling’ in it, it would have been classed as at least a PEGI 12; ironically the game rated PGI 16 due to its "Violence consists mainly of players using guns and lightsabres against enemy forces, who fall down limply when struck, though there is never any blood or visible injury."
So moving forwards, gambling in a video game is a wider issue; again whilst appreciating that development costs for AAA products are increasing into the hundreds of millions, as users are wanting deeper, richer and more complex experiences within large-scale games, it is questionable that the makers choose a method of delivery which can potentially exploit vulnerable members of their audiences, from an on-going cost perspective, especially those with addictive personalities. How can AAA Developers/Publishers understand and appreciate their audiences more on an intrinsic level, to understand what they are prepared to pay for, along with the frequency of payments, without reaching a level of social discontent amongst their audiences, thus potentially undermining the IP’s of their product portfolios?
Take for example the monetisation wrong-doings in Eve Online’s ‘Monoclegate’. In 2011, the ‘Summer of Rage’ took place over 11 days - turmoil that pitted players against developers – after a period which started in 2007, developers CCP chose to focus on developing and releasing a new updated ‘issue-ridden’ game engine. This is so that micro-transactions could be facilitated, focusing on high priced vanity items (including a monocle valued at the equivalent of upwards of $70, hence ‘Monoclegate’), rather than fix on-going bugs with the core game. Naturally players were disgusted and then angered, especially when an internal CPP paper was ‘leaked’ talking about numerous methods to further monetise the game, ultimately driving it towards ‘pay to win’. Player rage then “spilled over in game into what became known as the Jita Riots where thousands of pilots converged on Jita to shoot the monument outside of the Jita 4-4 station.” which then broke the trading station, which broke the game.
Ultimately players will always find a way; soon after SWBF2’s release there were published articles which highlight another problem which players found a way to work around. The aforementioned problem was a discrepancy around how many credits users were awarded after each match. Regardless of whether players come first or last, a small amount of credits are awarded between the two ranks, thus highlighting a statistical reward issue associated with balancing. The interesting, and somewhat humorous workaround is that players in SWBF2 found a way to grind for credits, using two elastic bands wrapped around the controller, so that the player character runs around continuously in a circle in game, so upon match completion they easily obtain credits. Since multiple articles emerged, EA worked to fix this problem. Again, why has it come to this?
Ultimately it comes back to the original question; how can developers, publishers & audiences listen to each other more effectively whilst making video games? How can problems like this be fixed early enough using a more inclusive, more collaborative process? Why didn’t EA use a more tiered process of design, which allowed a more transparent, clearly road-mapped symbiotic relationship with their players throughout the entirety of development, to establish the ‘best’ ongoing monetisation strategies and metrics for the IP, the game and its audience? Consider the success of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds; from mod, to early access, definitely an unfinished title, but one that garners huge transparency with its following. Whilst there’s huge confidentiality concerns dealing with an IP as epic as Star Wars, EA could have followed these suggested tiers, which are transparent and adjustable depending upon audience feedback from the previous tier:
Stage 1: Release a multiplayer version of the game for free on Digital Download to all players, cross platform, to develop audience participation/user base and hype, with ‘enhance items’ (such as skins) attainable through playing the game through short to mid-term grinding. Furthermore a fixed amount, specific in-game currency for specific ‘Pay to Enhance’ characters could be released here (accumulating more of this currency could be achieved via in-game play only). An example of how this could work would be to first reflect back on Star Wars Galaxies. Upon launch players wanted to be Jedi in the game, but this was not possible. Jedi were seen as uber-powerful and rare, and were subsequently left out of initial release. Players eventually accepted this and were happy to play the classes they chose until dips in the subscribers saw Lucasarts marketing insist that Jedi be available in the game, which lead to the Holocron hints being released. Everyone they broke class and played the game in ways they did not enjoy, just to unlock the ability to play as a Jedi. Fairly soon, something that was seen as a rarity was commonplace, devaluing the lore’s special content. This was seen by many as the downfall of the game. Potentially this is the same with SWBF2 and Darth Vader; however instead of playing for over 40 hours to obtain the character, the solution could have been to allow players to purchase their choice of a ‘Hero Character’ right at the start of the game, governed by a fixed amount of ‘Hero Credits’ the player has available to spend. For example, the player is able to purchase any number of Hero characters, however each comes with a cost; the player starts with 20 Hero Credits, Darth Vader costs 20 Credits, but Han Solo Costs 10, and Lando Calrissian costs 10, so players could have 1 Hero Character or 2 Heroes right from the start of the game, they have the choice.
Stage 2: Update 1 for the game: Add small amounts of specific micro-transactions (not randomised loot boxes) which are ‘Pay to Enhance’ products, compared to ‘Pay to Win’
Stage 3: Paid Expansion 1 (for example the addition of the Single Player Campaign) with items attainable through play & mid-term grind, along with micro-transactions (again, not randomised loot boxes) focused on ‘Pay to Enhance’
Stage 4: Paid Expansion 2 (for example an addition to the Single Player Campaign, along with additional Multiplayer modes) with items attainable through play and mid-to-long term grind, along with micro-transactions (not randomised loot boxes) focused on ‘Pay to Enhance’.
So moving forwards, the debate around monetisation strategies, what audiences want and are prepared to pay for, together with ethical considerations towards chosen delivery methods is far from over. As we move towards more audience-driven delivery methods, it will be interesting to see how AAA Developers/Publishers refocus, re-purpose and adopt systems which allow them to be more flexible and transparent, taking on board the considerations and needs of their audiences, working with more of the ‘Silent Majority’, whilst also ensuring that they remain commercially viable. WE as Gamers and Game Developers must work more closely, to learn from this example, so we can move forwards to create more cohesive games, together! Watch this space!
Thanks to Dr Nick Webber