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12 October 2015

Pay to win: how videogame companies exploit players with deliberately poor design

Designers will destroy the games industry if they continue contriving frustrating, time-consuming situations that players can only avoid by paying.

By Phil Hartup

If a line exists between earning money making videogames on one side and grifting on the other, then the recent change to the surprisingly enjoyable Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain represents Konami crossing it. Konami is a company with a storied history and some genuine classics in its oeuvre, now embracing pachinko parlours and mobile games like a fly fisherman who just found a box of hand grenades.

The specific change is quite small in practical terms, but the bad faith it represents has a disproportionately potent stink to it.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (MGSV) has the player build one or more bases called FOBs, which are like their main base but separate to it. Your FOBs give you advantages in the single player part of the game and allow you to store a greater number of resources.

However, the FOBs exist outside of the single player game and alongside those of other players in the online portion of the game. You are allowed to send soldiers to infiltrate the FOBs of other players in order to abduct their staff and steal their resources and they can do the same to you. This part of MGSV is similar in some regards to games like Clash of Clans.

At the outset, the FOB game favoured those who spent money to acquire the in-game currency called MB Coins, which are dished out in tiny numbers as a daily login reward but generally have to be bought. These coins allowed for players to buy more than one FOB, which was a benefit in the single player game but no advantage against other players as you could still only raid one base at a time – if anything, spreading resources over two bases made players more tempting targets.

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The FOB management part of MGSV is sparse and incomplete and likely to stay that way. There’s simply not very much to do except attack visually near-identical bases crewed by soldiers who look exactly like your own. Even when these raids are contested by defending players, they are so woefully unbalanced that it doesn’t constitute an improvement.

So what was the change? Insurance was added, bought for MB Coins. You can now spend MB Coins to insure your base so that anything you lose in an enemy raid is replaced.

This sounds like a spectacularly small change, and it is. It won’t affect most players at all other than to cause them to roll their eyes so hard they might see their brains. What matters here is not the effect on the game, but the principle. What Konami are offering is an expensive opt-out for any negative consequences that the online portion of the game might bring, negative consequences that they built into the game by design. What we are looking at is a de facto protection racket.

Principles, even in something as wretched as the videogames industry, matter. What Konami and other companies are up to represents a very real problem in videogames. The wanton, gratuitous monetisation of any aspect of any game that a developer thinks they can squeeze a dollar out of is a sickness within the industry and it’s not without consequences. Games are built to accommodate pay-to-win mechanics. For example, MGSV has huge time delays attached to things like developing your base, time delays you can bypass by spending MB Coins – in effect, time delays added for no other reason than incentivising you to spend money.

We are seeing games designers building boring, time-consuming, frustrating elements into games deliberately in order to encourage you buy your way out of them. We’ve seen this before in free-to-play games like World of Tanks and War Thunder but it feels less obnoxious given these are games with no up-front fee. There’s a sense that a free-to-play game has a right to try to crack open your wallet; it goes with the territory. But a full-priced game shouldn’t be designed to mooch off its player base like some third-rate app-store scumware.

The greed of the games industry manifests itself in other ways too. The pre-order culture that now employs glorified pyramid schemes to secure early sales. Paid-for mods, a concept roundly rejected by players that may yet resurface with the release of Fallout 4. The pre-order DLC (downloadable content) packs where developers place chunks of content behind unnecessary pay walls or tied to specific sellers, preventing players from owning the whole game on launch day.

Players have complained vociferously and voted with their wallets too, but even so, tricks and gimmicks that would have seen hell raised just a few years ago are now sadly accepted as standard practice.

If there is a threat to the artistry of videogames development, it lies not with censors, critics or angry mobs; it lies in the stultifying over-monetisation of videogames and the insidious way that commercial interests are creeping into the design of the games themselves. It doesn’t have to be this way, and for the good of the medium this has to stop.