With the arrival of Diablo 3 and its real money auction house (RMAH), players worldwide* have fallen into shouting matches about the value of gear and the reward of experience.
On one hand, hardcore players scorn those who would waste real dinero on virtual items they didn’t even earn.
On the other hand, affluent adults argue they shouldn’t miss out on content because they don’t get summers off.
Both sides have valid points, of course. But ultimately, this debate was only a symptom of the real problem…
The “right” way vs. the “right now” way
For traditional hardcore gamers, the concept of paying real money for virtual items just feels wrong on many levels. These players often don’t believe cash should be wasted on digital armor and weapons, and they’re not usually fans of paid DLC or the like to begin with. Playing the game is its own reward, and patience pays off in experience, loot, and the dignity of having accomplished everything the old-fashioned way.
Additionally, anti-microtransaction gamers don’t really consider it fair if other people can swipe an AmEx card to get the same loot they spent hundreds of hours acquiring. And with an increasing number of games including such systems, it can easily feel that the power of the almighty dollar is reaching too far into an otherwise competitive, balanced system. What’s the point of getting good at a game if some geezer can just bid for the best items available?
Many older players, of course, have no qualm with dropping $10 to $20 if it means avoiding five hours of loot runs, boss raids, or other grinds. These gamers, the majority of whom are adults with enough disposable income to buy a new game every week, see their time as more valuable than the “dignity” of getting their hands dirty to compete.
From the perspective of time-strapped players, they’re the ones at a disadvantage. While they’re stuck at the office all day, or perhaps busy chasing three kids around the house, the anti-payment gamers have 20+ hours a week to hunt for loot and memorize damage charts. By the time our richer comrades get online, they’re eighteen levels behind everyone else and trodding through the game wearing something they found in a box of scraps. Should a game’s system requirements really include “Playing this title like your second job”?
The root of the problem
Trick question. Because whatever camp you happen to side with, the problem was never other players getting an unfair advantage via time or money expenditure.
The problem was that these games required so much goddamn grind to begin with.
Videogame studios were increasingly adding unlocks and random rewards to their games to increase revenue and create habit-forming playstyles that demanded nearly infinite replays. With the introduction of achievements, the perfect balance of expected and unexpected rewards had been created. Grind would become the de facto state of modern gaming.
And that addictive, random-reward Pavlovian bullshit kept you playing Diablo, Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, and hell, even Magic: the Gathering for so long. Every time you identified a rare item or bought a Premium Spectre Pack or opened a new pack of cards, the adrenaline pumping through your veins reinforced your need for more. You saved your lunch money for new packs of Kamigawa, or perhaps you even cheated at Draw Something to finally unlock another can of the world’s most expensive digital paint. And whether you were paying for these experiences with hours of work in-game or hours of work on the job, you sacrificed something meaningful every time just to have a chance at a new reward.
All these system really did, of course, was add an artificial layer of “replayability” to games via monotony and random chance. If you unlocked specific equipment at certain levels in Diablo 2, you wouldn’t have to perform Baal runs for 30 hours straight. If Bioware gave you all your single player equipment the moment you signed into multiplayer, you could crush Reaper forces from the get-go, spending your time having fun instead of farming Firebase White. If you started Draw Something with some decent colors, maybe your idiot cousin would be able to guess you were illustrating Double Rainbow.
I mean seriously how hard is it to just give me purple, Zynga?
Back to the blame game
Anyway, it quickly becomes clear that it was never the spoiled high schoolers with too much time on their hands who made it difficult to compete. It wasn’t rich, Wall Street weekend gamers who bought max-level characters that kept you from getting the most out of your game.
It was the development studio that designed your experience to revolve around flushing your time and/or money down the toilet in the pursuit of random, shiny objects you might never even get.
Instead of crafting gameplay based on skill, planning, or tactics, they wanted your entire experience to depend on how addicted you were to the game’s ridiculous systems. And if that addiction and emotional investment got high enough, you might be willing to spend more hours in game, more money in the auction house, or more time telling your friends about just how “good” your new game was and how you just couldn’t put it down.
Because even if you weren’t going to spend another dime on hats in Team Fortress 2, there was a good chance your pals would at some point. As with any habit-forming activity, it would be passed around your social circle until every last one of your gaming buddies was a mindless addict. Before long, they’d all be drooling while throwing money at the screen, shouting at the game to give their in-game avatars prettier DLC dresses.
Small hope for microtransactions
Some players will still prefer high-grind games for whatever reason. Maybe they just enjoy the thrill of the hunt. Or perhaps, whether their wealth is earned in-game or out, they’re just the kind of people who like feeling superior to their poorly-equipped contemporaries. Until you see casinos and lotteries shutting down worldwide, you can bet there’s still a market for random reward money/timesinks.
But that doesn’t mean games are doomed to grinding the fun out of their experiences. Many titles, most notably Guild Wars 2, are designed to make players competitive without huge time investments. In ArenaNet’s upcoming MMO, players and their gear are automatically upscaled in PvP and downscaled in low-level areas, making most grind (and the need to buy advantages) pointless.
And when real money shops are available, some games like Path of Exile are reserving purchases for aesthetic-only items that won’t let the lawyer next door buy his way to the top of the ladder. Valve’s hat-conomy in Team Fortress 2 is quite similar, granting players cool points without letting them win more easily with slick hats. Yes, weapons are also available in TF2’s shop, but the vast majority of them are arguably worse than the default kits for each class.
A Greek poet once said, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Truer words have never been spoken. When you boot up Diablo 3 and see a Demon Hunter stroll into town with a jewel-encrusted Windforce bow, don’t get jealous over how much time and/or money he has. Write down your scathing remarks and send them to Bashiok at Blizzard Entertainment instead. He’ll greatly appreciate your thoughtful rant.
* Except in Asia, because Blizzard doesn’t want their money.