So, do you ever wonder what the gaming industry would be like without microtransactions, Season passes, or loot boxes? Or wonder how the industry would look if many of our big-budget publishers and big-name developers put more care and time into their AAA games rather than just focus on the bottom line, rolling out sequel after sequel of what’s safe or easy to sell? I was thinking about this one day and found myself in a rabbit hole of how drastic the gaming industry has changed since the 90s and early 2000s compared to now, and how gamers are slowly becoming jaded, cynical, and downright fed up with certain industry practices.
Multiplayer back then was couch co-op and LAN parties. Public online gaming was getting started in the late ’90s and early 2000s with the PS2, N64, Dreamcast, and Xbox. Though many failed in that realm since they rarely had any supporting software for their modem add-on hardware. When Xbox came into the picture, it solidified online gaming for future generations.
Now that multiplayer is practically essential for many genres, we have more gamers than ever. 3.2 billion players making the industry over $184 Billion. Before this opinion piece continues, understand that I see that it’s a business first, but gamers can be very vocal about what they care about. I think developers and publishers should care just as much when it comes to how they present their games and their quality. It’s like this last decade or two, that passion for making games is dwindling, and replaced it with a lust for more money. All while finding ways to release more games with less work done or driving developers to the ground with crunch time and unrealistic release dates. Also, keep in mind, I don’t single out any developer or publisher. This is what I see from a variety of companies.
Microtransactions have been around for quite a while before games like Fortnite and Call of Duty dominated online multiplayer. Gamers have dealt with that cold hand of publishers reaching for our wallets by giving us horse armor in Elder Scrolls and true ending DLC of Asura’s Wrath for an absurd, insulting amount. Yet, there are those whales that just cave in and give their wallets to the microtransaction gods in exchange for a game they might not play much longer. This is what drives the gaming economy now. The hope is that those with “pocket money” will cave in and buy what they’re selling. Unfortunately, it’s not just microtransactions that are the problem.
There are primarily two areas I’ve observed that worry me about the game industry and its future. Firstly, it’s insatiable, increasing greed by way of these microtransactions, and secondly, its penchant for releasing unfinished, unpolished games. With those in mind, I want to break down both and explain why they are creating an unstable industry not for their businesses, but for their gaming communities and demographics. I think they’re feeling safe with their increasing wealth, but as we all know, industries can crash if they’re not careful with their consumers.
Microtransactions, Loot boxes, & Battle passes, oh my.
With the boom of multiplayer-focused games, EA reportedly said, “Single-player games are finished.” by sites like Destructoid, Wired, and GamesRadar 12 years ago. This brought up a huge debate as to whether it was true or that this was just a push the industry was taking to make more money with online play features and content such as skins, loot boxes, maps, weapons, etc. It seems like EA and others like them wanted this to be true and tried their best to make that happen with games like Battlefield, Battlefront, Call of Duty, Apex, and so many more games that have been milked to all hell.
Even though microtransactions have been around for a long time, the success of Fortnite and Call of Duty multiplayer in my opinion started the popularity and toxicity that is microtransactions and battle passes. You can even involve games like Overwatch and Star Wars: Battlefront to that mix as well, adding the gambling of loot boxes.
I feel that everyone has their vices in gaming. Sometimes it’s cool weapon skins, character creation freedom, etc. Everyone wants to show off somehow. I’m guilty of putting in thousands of dollars in Destiny’s microtransactions in the past 10 years. It’s full of skins for everything you can think of plus shaders, mounts, and their season passes. At the same time, I am not blind to my impulses failing my bank account. I’d hope most others can acknowledge the same as a first step to the problem.
That being said, it’s no wonder other countries have banned or regulated loot boxes in gaming now. Japan, Belgium, Netherlands, China, the UK, and more have all been involved in some way in the practice of preying on our urge to hope for the right loot drop, then spending more when we need that fix of dopamine again. Now that we have those regulations and bans, one problem was solved but has caused a ripple effect on the business. How do we make players spend more money while not using loot boxes to rely on? Add more microtransactions of course! Skin the game down to its bare bones and drip-feed content so players can want more.
I’ll be the first to admit that Bungie’s Destiny franchise needed this business model solely because they required more funding. One developer and little to no publishing support need a constant flow of money to keep live service games…well, alive. I understand that. I have noticed, however, not all games need this. Call of Duty is an annual if not bi-annual release, yet gamers still flock to their battle pass and microtransaction business model. A consistent feeding of the same content aside from a few changes in mechanics or graphics.
What keeps this cycle going? New, young gamers that have never played a previous iteration turn them into avid, fervent fans. The same can be said for many sports games such as FIFA, 2k, and wrestling games. It’s the same thing with minor changes in mechanics, features, or roster. Fortnite at its initial release made sense. You buy the game once then it’s a continuous evolution of content. Now the game is free and solely relies on the constant content/cash flow.
Please understand, I am in no way saying any of these games mentioned are bad games. I think they’re amazing and played many of them. What I am trying to bring to light is the preying practices that these companies have turned to so they can increase their publishers’ bank accounts. It’s not about the games or the gamers, it’s about the sales and only the sales. The addition to the word “only” is what gamers have been feeling for quite a while, and that is what began this rant about the industry’s future.
Games are getting ridiculously expensive to make. Millions of dollars are put in and publishers expect not only their money back, but a profit for the work. They have to spend on marketing, development, distribution, licensing, and taxes. So much goes into these games that many don’t know or think about. My question is why does it have to be the way of live service-only games to make the industry lucrative? Making so many multiplayer games or even single-player experiences with microtransactions.
Multiplayer games such as Remnant: From the Ashes, It Takes Two, The Division series, and Outriders were hits that had little to no microtransactions and continue to be played and purchased. Why do games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Middle Earth need them? They are supposed to be single-player experiences. What are we trying to show off? What are their long-term gaming benefits of them? Granted this single-player practice is fading, but it shows what lengths companies will go to for another buck.
Giving gamers choices on how to spend their money isn’t the problem. It’s good business. It can, however, sometimes reduce the quality of a potential blockbuster game all because developers must strip it to nothing so people will buy what should already be available. A reduction in the quality or constant repetitiveness in iterations of a series can severely impact and subvert gamers’ perceptions. This is where the deterioration of the industry’s soul is showing. This is what brings me to the next core problem of the industry as well. Quantity over quality. Speed over superiority. I’m talking about the downfall of value while prices rise.
Is *insert game title* worth getting?
This is of course a question all gamers ask when they see the hype of an upcoming title. Every gamer has their preferences. Graphics, story, game mechanics, music, long-term playability above all else. It’s a balance that is very difficult to master even for the most seasoned developers. This puts a lot of pressure on developers and publishers alike to make sure a game is worth making and worth continuing to make despite delays. Delays, like Thanos, are inevitable. If you want quality, you have to wait for near perfection. I don’t think publishers feel the same way sometimes once the budget starts to rise and gamers start to raise their torches and pitchforks on social media for a million reasons.
Many, I myself included feel that publishers only care about how much money they can make. SO they get it when the getting is good. Any business would fail if they didn’t think of how to bring in that moolah, but there also should be that balance of caring for consumers and holding on to their fanbase rather than just finding ways to “grind” cash from new, younger consumers. Developers are more the souls of the industry. They’re the ones making what you love. Not to say some can’t be greedy as well, but we all know majority of their staff want to make games they can love as a gamer themselves. If they could add every single idea they had to make the game better, they would. Those aren’t realistic goals though. There are deadlines and budgets to account for. That’s where the love is lost.
Too delay or not to delay?
Way too many games lately are being rushed and thrown to the wolves simply just to recoup their costs. Delay after delay, the budget will understandably begin to rise. Developers and publishers have to act and make a tough decision. Delay again with the possibility of the hype dying or releasing it broken and/or unfinished. Probably with the hope that it will be a hit once the dreaded “First patch” arrives to fix what should have already been implemented. Sometimes games have cut content released as ‘DLC” because they couldn’t fit it in during release time. I’ve lost track of how many games, whether a hit or not, comes with a day 1 patch, a week one patch, a patch every month, hotfixes, etc. The technology we have now to update games should be a blessing, a convenience. Not a crutch!
Look at Batman: Arkham Knight for example. Decent game overall but failed to come properly fixed for its PC release. An issue that was known since day one. Assassin’s Creed: Unity was a hot mess of bugs because they had to release a game every year. It took years to realize that not only an annual release was wearing gamers down, but it wasn’t sustainable for future iteration’s workload.
Duke Nukem was a legendary example of how unpredictable games can be when it comes to delays and quality gaming. So many took the reins on that game, and it became a jumbled mess of bad jokes, gameplay, and graphics. It essentially missed its core generation by 20+ years! But they had to release it in hopes the hype was still there to make up for it lose of money. Do you want more recent release examples? The GTA trilogy was a disaster. Fallout 76 was a clear case of greed, miscommunication, and mismarketing. Aliens: Colonial Marines was a travesty and Pokemon: Scarlet, Violet, and Arceus were divisive to its fanbase.
No one is safe from the decision to release unfinished or delay for the millionth time. CD Project Red is now infamous for its Cyberpunk 2077 release after decades of quality games from the Witcher franchise. They failed to keep gamers and the media involved in their progress and even blocked reviews and limited gameplay previews to avoid an inevitable backlash from an incomplete mess.
So what about finished games? Saints Row was a beloved franchise for many, and the remake came out as a lifeless cash-grab game. Using the name alone to sell copies and pander to a new generation of young gamers. Gotham Knights were divisive. Four characters to play as, yet it’s only a 2-player co-op. Then WB Games Montreal announces a 4-player co-op amidst the cries of fans, just not co-op for their story campaign. This confused gamers. Some enjoyed what it had to offer, others thought it was a shell of an Arkham game.
Then there are games as recent as The Callisto Protocol. Oh, the hype gamers had for this one. By the few original developers of Dead Space, the blockbuster series that revived survival horror. It took 2-3 hours of a playthrough to see how little love this game had been put into just to mimic the success Dead Space had. It’s a finished game, but another shell simply released way too early. Rumors are, that it was released so quickly that it can beat the release date of the Dead Space remake, but those are not confirmed yet, I believe it.
With everything mentioned about online gaming, microtransactions, unfinished or mediocre games, I worry about where the industry is headed. What is the next shift in gaming to make a quicker buck? These games are now multimillion dollars in budgets. There is no excuse as to why it shouldn’t be a full, finished, quality game every single time. Now preferences in what you consider a good game is debatable. Not everything will be a hit because not everyone likes everything. So many can love multiplayer compared to single player, or story versus graphics, just an example. With everything mentioned, you have to admit the industry is headed somewhere dark if they don’t change their mindset.
The good, the great and the best.
I have to leave this piece on a good note. There are amazing games out there recently. Games that show how much love developers and publishers put into them. Funny enough, most of them are single-player experiences that show, a game can be successful without microtransactions and a season pass. Games like Sony’s Spiderman, Star Wars: Fallen Order, Ghost of Tsushima, Elden Ring, Last of Us, Witcher series, Hi-Fi Rush, High on Life, Monster Hunter, Red Dead Redemption 2, Dead Space remake, and Hogwarts Legacy.
Now games are $70 to make up for the rising budgets of games and hardware. This in itself is a divisive topic but I wholeheartedly support this change, with a caveat. That is, raise prices, but ensure a finished, quality product. I don’t want to buy a $70 game and its 2 hours long, or it’s a bare skeleton but has $5,000 worth of content I have to buy first to enjoy it, or lie about what the game is and market it as if it was the end all, be all videogame…I’m looking at you No Man’s Sky.
Keep in mind I am in no way attacking any particular developer, publisher, genre, or game title. Some have learned about these practices and some have not. I know No Man’s Sky devs have learned their lesson and have created an amazing game now, and most for free! There are so many games that can run through my head to use as an example while keeping professional and subjective.
With everything said. Do I believe the game industry is dying? Will there be an inevitable crash? If these trends continue or get worse. Absolutely. I can see in the next 10-15 years prices will rise in games and hardware, and not as many will buy them. What would be the point if the game comes broken, or I have to buy a season pass or rely on patches to fix it on day one? Live service games can also be difficult to play with bad internet connections, or if the developers’ servers go down.
Then there’s of course the problem of losing your game if they take down servers. For example, Marvel’s Avengers game is going offline, and the entirety of their microtransactions will now be free. After all those gamers spent time and money on it. That “I’ll just wait til it gets cheaper” mentality will become more common if these practices continue.
Do I have a solution? No. I’m just ranting and observing what I feel and know so far. I love the industry. The artistic, business, and entertainment aspects. I don’t want it to die. Sadly, I don’t see it getting better with developers being bought off. Publishers fighting over exclusivities. Companies getting so large, they can’t or won’t even track compliances in their harassment policies. Crunch time is damn near forced labor….. What do you think of it all?