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Leveling – The Gateway Drug

Posted by Ozzallos Sunday October 4 2015 at 5:02AM
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Free to Play publishers. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Whilst perhaps not the wise words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, it's certainly a close enough description of free to play’s state these days. A company that cannot find a way to get money from you now (subscriptions) will find a way to get it from you later and perhaps with more desperation (F2P). The cash shop was and still is the facilitator of this big reach around, and is largely used to actuate the pay to convenience theme we all know and love. Buying all out gear advantage is usually frowned upon by most players, but speed leveling items are commonly accepted as only a minor sin.

With so much competition these days, publishers have to walk a fine line—They want their game to be playable in order to attract eyeballs, but not too playable. They want you to buy something from them at some point, and that has traditionally been to alleviate level grind; and therein lies the rub—We gamers are a patient lot when it comes to free stuff. Years of half-baked MMOs have numbed many of us to the grind to the point where we accept it as a fact of life. To put it simply, level grind no longer serves as an effective incentive to wring cash from us.

For the Free to Play publisher, that’s a problem. One of their primary revenue gates is being rendered ineffective, and if they can’t get their cash now or later, they’re pretty much screwed.

Now I’d feel sorry for these people if Free to Play was being used as a fair and equitable transaction of money for entertainment, and there are a few companies out there that really do deserve our business. But by and large, it’s not. Right now, I can go to Greenman and pre-order Fallout 4 for $65, a title that is 100% complete and shines through and through. It quite literally has thousands of hours of voice, a plot, and the graphics are stunning. There is nothing about this game that doesn’t scream quality entertainment.

Or I can go to Wargaming and spend that same $65 on a Tirpitz tier 8 battleship-- Basically a fragment of a gaming experience in a game that is rife with balance issues. A game that is missing core features not due out until 2016. A game that is in no way complete regardless of its launch status.

Now if it sounds like I came here to specifically rag on Wargaming and World of Warships, you’re only half right. I’m actually using them as an example of where the more unsavory elements in the Free to Play industry are taking their brand. We’ve known for a while that manipulating player psychology plays a big role in getting users to spend hard cash. The most egregious example of this is the in-game Slot Machine. Or lottery. Or cash shop random prize box. Regardless of what you want to call it, it achieves the same end as gambling does in a casino: The thrill to maybe win big with odds heavily weighted in the houses favor.

Reaching back to Firefall’s beta, this same tactic was used to simultaneously used to encourage players to retire horded currency for lack of meaningful content as well as stimulate real cash growth for the company as players bought more game currency. They could have added any of those new visuals to the cash shop as promised, but nope. Fuck you, players. We want… no, we need money from you whether this game is called free to play or not.

This is the state of most F2P today: An adversarial relationship between publisher and consumer; where one tries to exploit the psychological weaknesses of the other.

And like ebola herpes, it’s evolving.

It’s a trend I’ve been noticing across several free to play titles and perhaps you’ve noticed it too: leveling is getting easier. Taking World of Warships for example, it’s not the actual grind that’s the problem. You can get to late game ships easily enough… It’s staying there because the economy is specifically rigged to force you back down into the mid-tiers so that you can produce enough income to play at the higher ones, like some fucked up gaming yo-yo. Conveniently, you can abdicate this by buying premium time and/or premium warships to produce the cash to stay at the desired gaming levels.

Archeage provides us with another example, as I touched upon in my review of that game. Leveling and combat are almost untouched in terms of the player’s ability to play the game for free. Heck, you can even craft your way to max level. For the majority of the game, you may think you’re getting a pretty fair shake until you realize it’s not the grind they want you to pump money into... It’s everything else. Housing. Ships. Production. End game gear Etc.

Even new arrivals such as Wildstar are showing hints of this. Leveling in this game is not hard, but you start to see a hint of what the game wants to focus your finances when it comes to simple things such as dyes and cosmetics with prices now scaling into multiple platinum.

The TL;DR version is this—The scum and villainy of F2P are still looking to separate you from your money for as little as they can possibly get away with but their tactics are changing. The old barriers of enforced level grinding are just as good at turning potential players away as it is funneling them into cash shop, or even not at all. In its place a new form of psychological manipulation has sprung up—

Attachment.

The game you’re playing just made it fairly painless to level up to 100 and now you’ve got this somewhat awesome character. It dual wields two swords of +4 badassery. You’ve grown attached to it. It has a big number to go with. And now that you’re up here, you’re going to really want to compete, right? Pimp that bitch out. Buy some cash shop coins. Throw some dye on that costume you just bought. Ease the crafting grind that you really didn’t think was mandatory before.

The levels were a diversion. The real threat to your wallet was waiting up here at max level the entire time, hoping that you’ve become so psychologically attached to your character that you’ll pay the publisher to get bent over on the backside. The addiction of 'just one more level!' is now a tool of the trade.

Hey, even I’ll admit this can be a fair exchange depending on the company involved. But do yourself a favor. Well, two favors. Find out what the money sinks are before you invest the time. Second, just assume you didn’t find that single golden nugget amongst the industry flotsam known as free to play, because you probably didn’t.

Free to Play needs to change. I'm struggling to think of an industry that is so manipulative to its consumer base as to resort to such deception in order to get their sales; one that goes to such great lengths to disguise their commerce model in order to ass-fuck you for a dollar.

This it'snt the future of gaming. This is the death of gaming.

MMORPG.com writes:
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