Cheats With a Price Tag, Part 2; The Larger Question

Thursday, March 6, 2014

We left off talking about Shortcut kits showing up in single player games. In particular, Assassin's Creed IV and it's use of these kits. Called "Time saver's" they unlock the locations of all the various activities and collectible in the game as well as removing the requirement to unlock the advanced upgrades for the Jackdaw. While it's not as extreme as collecting all of the items in the game for you, I still have some issue with the idea of paying to remove possible gameplay time.

Thinking over the issue a little more, I realized something. This kind of offer is nearly identical in design to the "time saving" micro transactions in mobile games like the loathsome Dungeon Keeper. It is a small structured payment aimed at reducing the amount of time a player must spend in game to complete a given task. The way by which it's executed in a AAA title like Assassin's Creed IV is different enough to disguise it at first glance. The multiplayer shortcut packs for ACIV and Battlefield are no different upon examination.

Thus exposed, the issue goes back to the "pay to win" debate. It's a difficult thing to strike a balance on. While the theoretical uses of a shortcut kit could be benevolent - as mentioned in the previous article - it's designed and targeted purpose is to give new players an advantage over others by giving them early access to the equipment and abilities that usually require a significant investment of time.

Can't be bothered to follow the maps? Buy a "time saver!" Let Ubisoft take care of that mechanic they implemented.

It's my opinion that these packs cheapen the games in which they are featured and damage their overall success. I am one of many players that have been pushed out of play early on by players using the shortcut packs to gain serious ground over the rest of us. Essentially, players are punished for using an advancement system put in place by the same people providing a way to circumvent it. 

I can't quote statistics for sales of these "shortcuts" and "time savers" unfortunately. I can only make assumptions as to their overall success. It seems clear enough that the player base lost from discouraging multiplayer experiences has cost less than these packs have made. In simple business terms, the lines are much clearer, but the issue can't be isolated into simple business terms. It's murkier than that.

Through a great deal of that muck lies the issue of value. Microtransactions depend on a perception of value. The idea that since you've already paid sixty or so dollars, a few more isn't a big deal. Over time, those small amounts can build into serious numbers. MMO's and mobile games are the biggest proponents of these practices, but the offers from Mass Effect, Battlefield and Assassin's Creed (among others) are tentative dips into these waters. Further immersion into the microtransaction pool depends on the success of these systems. 

You thought I'd forgotten about this, didn't you? Not a chance

I do not feel the worst case scenario is terribly likely, at least in the short term. The up front cost of most AAA games precludes large scale micotransactions from being effective. Pay to Win is an issue because it deteriorates the relationship between developers and players. A thriving community is the lifeblood of any successful game or franchise. Just look at the incredible fan base behind Borderlands and Halo. The active participation of the developers in these communities have led to these franchises incredible success. 

These communities don't exist for every game. I'd argue it is only possible for those developers that maintain the trust of their players, and show that the players are valued. Anything that erodes this trust can only harm the overall success of an IP. I can think of no clearer method of deteriorating that perceived value and trust than implementing play to win methods. The message sent to players by shortcut kits, time saver packs, and other microtransactions is that we are nothing more than a source of revenue.