Last updateWed, 22 Mar 2017 3pm


Controversial Practices in the Gaming Industry

Call Of Duty Advanced Warfare 13991332947595Video games, as a newer medium of entertainment, have seen their fair share of controversy. Many are aware of at least some element of this, even if they don’t play video games themselves. I remember hearing from my grandparents (who don’t play video games) about “violent video games” such as the infamous Grand Theft Auto series. But what many non-gamers (and even some dedicated gamers) haven’t heard of are the controversial business practices within gaming.

Franchises such as Call of Duty, Assassins Creed, or Madden are the poster children of annual video game franchises, the merits of which are open to debate. An annual franchise is a series of video games, such as Assassins Creed, with at least one major release every year (in recent years, Assassins Creed has actually started to release more than one game in a year). On the plus side, for fans of the series, this means more content. However, critics argue that this also means a shorter development cycle for each game, and less improvements from one game to another. Proponents claim that the large development teams allow them to develop games more quickly, without sacrificing quality. One thing’s for sure: a $60 game every year will likely generate more money that a $60 game every other year, provided people buy it.

Imagine if there were a new A Song of Ice and Fire book released every year. On the one hand this would be great—more content for fans. However, previous novels were written over the course of several years. Would the same quality stay constant if they were both written and released in under a year? Getting back to gaming, there appear to be some annual franchises that have managed to keep quality more or less constant (such as Pokémon). However, other franchises once seen as the pinnacle of their genre, such as Call of Duty, have fallen out of favor, at least somewhat. Some, such as vocal gaming critic Angry Joe, believe this is a result of lack of innovation due to the rushed development cycles of annual franchises. 

Micro-transactions are, within video games, the selling of in-game content apart from the original purchase of such a game. Some games are completely free, with the main source of profit being micro-transactions. This in-game content can be anything: narrative, in-game currency, weapons, music, cosmetic items, cheats, etc. Many are wary of micro-transactions as, if improperly managed, they can ruin a game by making it pay-to-win. Most believe that games should be play-to-win, that the only contributing factors to one’s success within a game should be one’s base skill at said game and their experience with the game or genre. In a single-player game, pay-to-win may seem rather harmless, but what upsets most is when it is included in a multiplayer game; few are willing to suffer a loss simply because their opponent spent more money than they did.

Typically this sort of practice prevents a game from succeeding. An example of such a game would be Game of War—most probably wouldn’t have heard of it, if it weren’t for the tens of millions spent on advertising it (and the use of supermodel Kate Upton as the face of the game). There are only few successful games with this business model, as most don’t find spending money to win a game either fun or ethical. A more acceptable business practice, somewhat comparable to the aforementioned one, is the selling of “boosts.” Boosts speed up the development of a character in a video game, but their effectiveness is dependent on the user actually playing the game. This is somewhere between play-to-win and pay-to-win, and can be seen in prominent video games (such as TERA, Warframe, League of Legends and Elder Scrolls Online). 

The least controversial form of micro-transactions is probably the sale of cosmetic items. Cosmetic items only affect the audio/visuals of something within a game, and usually provide no tangible benefit to the buyer. By selling cosmetic items, a game developer can generate more profit by selling entirely optional in-game content. League of Legends, one of the most successful modern video games, with millions of active players, generates much of its revenue through the sale of cosmetics. This form of micro-transactions allows a developer to profit and keeps a game from becoming pay-to-win.

Subscriptions are a business model of old, popular in massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft. This model has become much more controversial in recent years (it was once very widely accepted), with newer games increasingly turning to micro-transactions as a replacement source of income. Subscription games charge a recurring fee, almost always monthly, in order to play a game (for AAA games, typically around $15 a month). That might not seem like much at first glance, but if you subscribe for a year (which is quite common with these sorts of games), that turns into $180, three times the cost of most other games. If one is playing a subscription game, they typically don’t plan to stop playing. These persistent games are like their own worlds, constantly growing and changing (more so in recent games than ever). 

Perhaps, to some, $180 may seem affordable for a single game (although it would likely be a niche market where people are willing to pay that much). However, what if you want to play more than one subscription game? There are many good subscription games out there, and most can’t see their way to keep multiple subscriptions active, so competition among these games is fierce. In order to sustain themselves and continue updating, the developers of these games need a stream of revenue. With the subscription model, it isn’t enough for developers to get someone to play their game, they need to hold the customers’ interest (and wallet). When players stop subscribing, profits decrease, and eventually the developer isn’t making enough money (leading to the “death” of the game). This business model appears to be dying out, being replaced with alternatives that are profitable for developers and affordable for players. For example, some games, such as Elder Scrolls Online, are bringing in premium subscriptions, with added benefits for subscribers. One doesn’t have to pay the premium subscription, but if they’re particularly passionate about one game, they may choose to for the added benefits. As one who enjoys multiplayer online games, I am quite happy with these new directions. 

Persistent world games, many of which embrace some or all of the aforementioned controversies, are growing in prominence within the video game industry. World of Warcraft, EverQuest and other MMO’s are more traditional examples of this type of game. Some of the games that I reviewed over the past year, such as Warframe and Destiny, are borrowing elements from these sorts of games. Both Warframe and Destiny are action-based co-op shooters, but rather than use traditional pricing (pay-one-price or subscription) developers are adopting new and exciting business models specifically tailored to their individual games. Warframe, for instance, is a completely free game that gets its funding through nonessential micro-transactions. Destiny, on the other hand, is a single game that has been built onto with paid downloadable content, or DLC, which once or twice every year. DLC is similar to a microtransaction, but a large fee for a large chunk of assorted content; it’s also generally not very controversial, although DLC sold at the release of a game has turned some heads. Rather than build a new game every year, Bungie (Destiny’s developer) is building onto Destiny. They still make as much money as annual franchises (probably more) but they seem to sacrifice less quality. In the video game business, controversy can be a sign of progress, which surrounded both Warframe and Destiny at one point (and some still does). 


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