Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 13, 2022

This post has it's origin in thoughts I had on video games (Roguebook, Diablo Immortal) and on a board game (Return to Dark Tower), so it touches different aspects and genres of gaming. It started with me watching a video from the BoardGameGeek channel, their GameNight series, in which usually 4 players play through a recent board game, explain the rules, and give their thoughts after playing it at the end. This video was about Return to Dark Tower. The game really appealed to me, and I ended up ordering it. But the game session had a somewhat unsatisfying end, because after doing well for the whole game, the players lost at the end in a very unsatisfying manner: They had summoned the final boss, but that boss spawned rather far away from them, and did something at the end of each turn that resulted in the players losing before even getting to him.

Return to Dark Tower is a game with some random elements, controlled by an app and an electro-mechanical device, the Dark Tower. It is not a very difficult game in the sense that the rules aren't overly difficult to understand and turns aren't overly difficult to execute. But the "difficulty" in terms of whether you win or lose at the end seems to be all over the place, with some games being easy pushover wins, and some games being losses you can't do much about. I had a similar experience when I was playing the game I reviewed in my last post, Roguebook, where the randomness of the cards also made me win some games and lose some games, with the outcome not being strictly determined by skill.

The big question is: Does that matter? Do I play to win? Or do I play because I enjoy the time playing that leads up to the final result, win or loss? For me, it is mostly the latter. That is why I ordered Return to Dark Tower, because it looked really fun to play, even if you'd suffer the occasional weak ending. And especially for a board game that I would like to play on my own board game night with friends, it is important that the game is fun during play. That is why we are currently still playing Clank! Legacy, which is fun during playing, and it is not so important who wins at the end.

Regarding Diablo Immortal, after having looked into some more detailed reviews from different sides of the love it - hate it divide, it looks as if it is a game that is very good fun to play until about level 30. Somewhere in the mid-30s it becomes less fun because of grind, with the promise of you spending money making it less grindy. But if you play to win in the PvP part, your success will be much influenced by how much you have spent compared to how much your opponent did spend. Thus the people calculating that it takes between $40k and $100k (often just cited as "$100k") to get a maximum equipped character. For somebody who plays to win, that number is relevant. For somebody who plays to have a fun experience, that number is not relevant.

In other words, in the discussion that has been ongoing over years about Pay2Win games, we have talked too much about the problems of "Pay", when probably the main problem is the "2Win" part. Whether you Pay2Win or Play2Win, if your enjoyment comes solely from the final moment of the game, it will make the process of getting there less pleasant. Which is why people usually have less problems with a Pay2Play model, even if like me they spent hundreds on a World of Warcraft subscription running for years. I don't even regret the thousands I spent in the decade or so that I played Magic the Gathering, because I didn't spend them to win, I spent them to play with all those cards.

The game industry appears currently to be focused very much on the people who want to win, because these people tend to be extremely passionate, and you can manipulate that passion into making them spend far more than the $60 of a pay-to-own game. However, that passion also easily generates a lot of hate, so that Diablo Immortal is currently both one of the most financially successful and one of the most hated games around. In the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, there are charm spells that persuade somebody to do what they want, but after the spell wears off, that person realizes he has been manipulated and is more likely to react negatively towards you. Many current games work exactly like that: People spend a bundle of money on them, regret that later, and will be wary before touching the next game from that company. It used to be that a game being announced by Blizzard would automatically be looked forward to positively. But now Blizzard announced Overwatch 2, and some people already complain about it.

It seems to me that the previous model, where a company like Blizzard simply made a game that was enjoyable to play, and built up goodwill over many years with the player base, is the more sustainable one. Concentrating on making the players happy that enjoy playing seems to result in better games, and better long-term profitability for the game company.

The huge upside of this change in development philosophy for players who aren't really interested in "winning" is that the cost of playing has largely moved to an area we simply don't care about, while the parts of the game that appeal to us are being offered for next to nothing as a kind of loss leader.

Where I used to have to pay full box price for the chance to play a game at all and a subscription to keep playing after the first month, now at most I have to pay the box fee and more often not even that. I can explore and enjoy the part of the game that interests me and by the time I hit the paywall I'm almost always ready to move on to another game anyway.

For me, it's a vastly superior and very much cheaper option. Someone must be paying to keep the games up and running but it isn't me. Whether it's a sustainable development model long-term or not is another question but I suspect if it wasn't working we'd already be seeing a change in another direction. If anything, the opposite seems to be the case, with new games pushing further in the Pay2Win direction and more companies climbing on the bandwagon. If players are starting to question whether it's worth spending all that money just to do better in a video game than someone else, we're not really seeing it yet. Until they do, I can't see it changing much.

As for the days of players feeling a sports-team loyalty towards a particular video-game company, I suspect those ended a good while ago. Brand loyalty in general is a bit of a throwback nowadays.
For devs it's no surprise which model is better in the short term. For as much as gamers want to talk about games like Elden Ring or Call of Duty, mobile games absolutely dwarf traditional games.

It's funny that we all call Activision Blizzard by that name when really the money maker in that company is King who nearly makes more money then the other two thirds of the company combined.

I also don't think the devs care as much as we think about the public backlash. Consumers have short term memory and as much as they used to fight about horse armor back in the day gamers now find things like cosmetic microtransactions as perfectly normal in even $60 pay to play games.

There is a whole generation of gamers that grew up with micro transactions and see nothing wrong with them. Eventually if devs continue to release these types of games they will just become the norm and while folks like us will complain our opinions will stop to matter because the money will be too good to pass up.
> For me, it's a vastly superior and very much cheaper option.
Is it, though? Vastly superior, I mean. I won't contest that playing for free is probably cheaper. But on superiority, at least design-wise, I would strongly disagree. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer playing a game that's designed to be enjoyable, rather than just unenjoyable enough to goad a portion of the player base into paying for a shortcut, but not quite so unenjoyable that a lot of them quit outright.
One issue is that 'addictive' was a term of praise for games long before microtransactions became a thing. I think they actually work so well in games because the same grindy mechanisms already existed and were part of the reason people play many genres! Buy a typical CRPG, ARPG or roguelike from the classic era, and you'll be repetitively killing thousands of monsters just to build up your strength against the boss.
To this day I have yet to play a F2P game or a game that uses loot boxes or other monetization methods aside from a monthly subscription.

It's saddening to think that more and more games are bastardizing PvP into Wallet v Wallet because of grind elements and design philosophies where discordant and disparate elements are being introduced into more and more games.

I remember a time when the argument was being made that developers needed to earn a living as the means of justification for all of these new monetization methods. In that regard, Blizzard must be really hurting if Diablo Immortal is any indication of their financial well-being.
The problem is also that randomness means you don't control what's going on. If I don't have control why play a game? I can watch a TV series and when it comes to story, it'll do a much better job..... The same with PvP, if I get one-shot what is the point of participating? Unless my actions have some kind of effect, I'm just a spectator.
A good game is one that has an interesting mechanics and one where at the end of the game, be it win or loss, you know why you won or why you lost. If the answer to those questions is "luck drawing cards", then it means that all the mechanics is pointless and you can safely ignore it.
@Helistar : I don't think all randomness in a game is bad. I think good gameplay can be had in which the challenge for the player is to deal with events, and those events can have some degree of randomness. The effect of a random event shouldn't be too strong and be totally dominant to success or failure. But complete predictability can be boring.
I'd also like to comment into the void that besides Pay 2 Win stuff I'm still upset over cosmetics turning into an acceptable form of microtransaction. I'm still baffled that so many gamers consider cosmetics not to matter and find it totally acceptable that $60 games charge extra for them when we used to earn them in game by accomplishing things.
I have problems with "the $60 of a pay-to-own game" that many critics mention.

First, I think EA earnings call said they had a 75% uplift (stores, DLC, ...) so the average gamer spent about $105 for a "$60" game.

Most importantly, why should games be the last software you buy? I don't buy music or movies or Office or Adobe or ... If you spent $2,000 on Spotify or Amazon/Apple Music or Netflix or Disney or Hulu Or Office or Adobe and then stop subscribing you have zero. I don't particularly like it, but don't see that Game devs are being evil when they get rid of "box" "sales", just like other software companies.
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