R.E.M. sang about it. I feel it
I promise that I don’t want to keep talking about loot boxes in games. But those fucking loot boxes keep showing up in my games and fucking shit up!
Recently, I began to download the free trial for Destiny 2. I had been on the fence with the game, mainly because I absolutely suck at FPS games. I tried the original game back in the day, using my son’s account on my Xbox 360. I was so bad at it that I stopped playing. I was afraid his account would suffer because of my epic badness. But I wanted to give the new iteration a try. I may suck at FPSes, but maybe the game is enjoyable despite my suckitude.
I downloaded it on my PC. I’m not an idiot. If I’m going to try to play an FPS, a genre I historically suck at, I want to exploit every advantage I can. Playing an FPS on PC is advantageous for me. Contrary to what console apologist Grumpy Joe says, I feel PC is inherently better for FPS games. Then again, I suck at FPS games regardless of platform. Maybe I’m trying to make excuses. I don’t care. I started the download and install on my PC.
That’s me in the corner…
Have I mentioned how much I love Losing My Religion by R.E.M.? We all have a song we irrationally love. That is one of mine. My list of irrationally-loved songs rotates regularly. Recently, I can’t get enough of Don’t Stop the Music by Yarbrough & Peoples. Many songs enter, leave, and re-enter my irrational love list. Losing My Religion has not left in over a decade.
That little diatribe wasn’t important. I just wanted to mention how much I love a song from R.E.M. But honestly, that song is pretty symbolic of my love/hate relationship with games right now.
As I install Destiny 2, a cloud hovers over it. Recently, it was discovered that Bungie, the game’s developer, was cheating its players. Basically, Bungie and publisher Activision Blizzard decided players haven’t paid enough to enjoy their game.
Finally, the problem is something other than my suckitude in a game. It really IS the game this time!
It all has to do with leveling in the game. For dedicated players, leveling up is always crucial. As you play, the game rewards you with XP. If you get enough XP, your level rises. Once you reach Destiny 2’s level cap of 20, XP takes on a new form. Instead of rewarding you with more levels, gaining XP at level cap gets you closer to a new Bright Engram.
What’s a Bright Engram? Well, that the game’s version of a loot box. You know, those delightful microtransactions that contain the essence of RNG hell and are about as anti-fun as anything can be.
For fuck’s sake, we’re here again!
Once you fill your XP bar past level 20 in Destiny 2, you’re awarded a Bright Engram. The Bright Engram can contain any of a myriad of coveted items, from equipment or weapon upgrades to cosmetic enhancements. Trust me, Bright Engrams are sought after.
…that’s me in the spotlight…
I want every game released to succeed. Gaming is my love, and I would love for a vast audience to share in my love.
For those asking, no, I don’t have a serious relationship with a woman. Why do you ask?
I wanna go to bat for good games, and I constantly hope that announced games are good, even great. But decades of dealing with the reality of video games as a business had cured me of that naïve mentality. Unfortunately, those who make the games aren’t altruistic enough to give a shit about what I feel about the games.
As Destiny 2 finished installing and I started to play, the thought of Bright Engrams disappeared. I was a newbie, thrown into a new and hostile area. My basic gaming instincts took over and got me past the initial areas. The whole time, I marveled at the visuals and the amount of effort put into the game. I could do that because I hadn’t paid for the game. If I had, maybe I would be upset once I hit level cap and couldn’t progress the way I expected. I’d be mad because Bungie and Activision Blizzard would be screwing with me.
I enjoy Destiny 2 so far. I’m at the point where I would actually go to bat for it. I’d go into the spotlight and defend the game. If Activision Blizzard and Bungie would only shut up and just make a good fucking game, I wouldn’t need to go to bat for them. The game would speak for itself.
Unfortunately, Activision Blizzard doesn’t care if I go to bat for them. To them at that point, I hadn’t paid enough to enjoy their game.
You see, Bungie was cheating regular players who played past level 20 in Destiny 2. Once they capped at 20, XP gains were mysteriously shortened. Bungie and Activision Blizzard were artificially limiting XP gains for level-capped players. The limit was more noticeable to players who spent the day doing shorter events like Public Events, not for folks who did longer Leviathan Raids. The idea was that they would purposely gimp players who did those shorter events. Why? Because maybe shorter events can be farmed for XP quicker. If you do a Leviathan Raid, you are doing more time-consuming content. That may merit some serious XP rewards. Public Events are quick and dirty. Why dole out lots of XP for things you can do quickly?
According to Bungie and Activision Blizzard at that point, folks who grind Public Events hadn’t paid enough to enjoy their game.
Why do I say that? Well, because Destiny 2 has a cash shop that is happy to sell you the ability to get as many Bright Engrams as your wallet allows. You know, assuming they can curb your ability to earn enough XP to earn a Bright Engram in-game. Their mentality is simple: stop people from easily getting Bright Engrams in-game, make it more attractive to spend money on them in the cash shop.
I wasn’t thinking about that while I was slogging through the early phases of the game. Since I suck at FPSes, I had to concentrate on what I was doing. Fortunately, the keyboard/mouse combo helped me. It’s much easier to aim and fire when using a mouse to do the aiming. YOU READING THAT, GRUMPY JOE? IT’S BETTER TO PLAY A FUCKING FPS ON A PC THAN ON A GODDAMN CONSOLE, YOU PEASANT!
Sorry…got carried away there. That’s me in the spotlight. I lose my shit. And my religion.
…losing my religion…
I’ll say this again: I want video games to succeed. When I have my knockdown drag-out fights with Grumpy Joe and Dv310per, my bile comes from a place of love. I’m passionate about gaming, and I just don’t want my passion to hurt me or anyone else. But they consistently do. And it makes me question why I defend them.
Video game publishers are absolutely spineless when caught cheating customers. Video game developers often have to hold the shit-laden bag that the publishers defecated into. It’s not a cool scenario. Oftentimes, developers have to introduce money-grubbing mechanics like loot boxes into their game. I’d like to think that it’s not their desire to have the loot boxes. Maybe the publishers demanded that the mechanics be shoehorned into the game.
I’d like to think that. But then again, who can I trust in the industry? The amount of faith I have in developers and publishers is thinner than my hairline. Their actions lend credence to my doubts; their attempts to spin their actions worsen the situation.
For example, once caught with their Destiny 2 XP cap bullshit, Bungie took to their blog to explain away the system. Here’s an excerpt from the blog post:
We’ve seen community discussion around XP gain in Destiny. After reviewing our data, we agree that the system is not performing the way we’d like it to. Today, we’d like to describe what’s going on under the hood, and talk about what you can expect going forward when it comes to earning XP in Destiny 2.
Currently, XP will scale up when playing longer or fixed duration activities like Crucible competitive multiplayer matches and the Leviathan Raid, and XP will scale down when playing activities that can be quickly, repeatedly chained, like grinding Public Events. We are not happy with the results, and we’ve heard the same from the community.
Effective immediately, we are deactivating this system.
As a result, players will see XP earn rates change for all activities across the board, but with all values being displayed consistently in the user interface. Over the course of the next week, we will be watching and reviewing XP game data to ensure that these changes meet our expectations, as well as yours. Any additional updates to this system will be communicated to you via our official channels.
Okay, great. Another developer gets caught trying to cheat players, apologizes, and gets to undo the cheating. Cue Officer Barbrady from South Park explaining this bullshit away. Nothing to see here, just the normal thing.
Except it’s not supposed to be normal. Developers and publishers are not supposed to bilk their player base and do so unabashedly until caught in the act. But they do.
I cannot stress this enough: in their eyes, players haven’t paid enough to enjoy their game.
Suddenly, my reticence on buying into Destiny 2 isn’t dumb. I may be the smartest person in Digital Crack because of my reticence. And I’m a fucking idiot.
…trying to keep up with you…
This is the status quo in gaming nowadays. One only needs to look at EA and the minefield they’re trying to tap dance across with Star Wars: Battlefront II. When your anti-consumer actions are so egregious that you invoke the ire of entire countries, you royally messed up.
Guess what? EA designs their games this way. They did the same with Need for Speed: Payback. They added a loot box system to it and initially parsed out minor upgrades to players who didn’t throw extra money at the game. EA and developer Ghost Games walked that system back after customer outrage as well. It’s still there, but the penalties aren’t as severe for players who don’t want to buy loot boxes.
Okay, great. Another developer gets caught trying to cheat players, apologizes, and gets to undo the cheating. Hey look, there’s Officer Barbrady again. Nothing to see here, just the normal thing. Except it’s not supposed to be normal. Repeatedly, developers and publishers are forced to apologize and walk back predatory practices.
Thing is, the predatory practices are often baked into the game ahead of time. Again, the loot boxes served a purpose. In their eyes, you haven’t paid enough to enjoy their game.
…and I don’t know if I can do it…
The urge to add loot boxes to games became too desirous to ignore for EA. So far, it’s ruined two games that would have been successful otherwise.
In the case of Need for Speed: Payback, the result was muted. Yeah, I’m a driving game fan, and I want a good Need for Speed game. I’ve been disappointed at the series for years. I love Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit on my PS3. If asked, I would extol the virtues of the former. But I still love the latter. EA, however, hasn’t risen above those games. Need for Speed: Payback is a shit show despite the loot box system. So it’s not just loot boxes that ruined my second favorite driving game series.
(Quick aside: My favorite driving game series is Burnout. EA published that series, too. Until they decided not to anymore. Criterion Games, the developers of the Burnout games, worked on Most Wanted and Hot Pursuit. They rock. EA ruined them, too. Yes, I’m bitter.)
In the case of Star Wars: Battlefront II, the loot boxes were fully ingrained into the experience. When they turned them off after consumer backlash, the game became a mess. The game’s progression was entirely dependent on its loot box system. Without the loot boxes, progressing was a ridiculous grind. There are reports of players farming XP by tying rubber bands to their controller and not actually playing. This, of course, frustrates players who actually want to play the game and succeed. If they’re teamed up with these rubber-band players, their team is at a disadvantage.
But those players shouldn’t blame the rubber-banders. They should blame EA. If EA hadn’t turned the loot boxes off, the game’s progression would have remained. If the loot boxes weren’t so insidious, people wouldn’t have bitched so much that EA felt forced to turn them off at all. And if EA hadn’t baked the loot boxes into the game’s progression so completely, none of this would’ve been an issue.
I have to emphasize this point: THIS IS A STAR WARS game! All EA and DICE had to do was to make the game they made, with all the visual and aural splendor already present, and NOT fuck it up! Like, seriously, how do you fuck up a Star Wars game? The 2015 version looked amazing, and the newest incarnation looks better? How do you fuck that up?
How? Well, by jamming in a system that prioritizes revenue over gameplay. To EA, monetizing their player base was more important than blowing the minds of gamers dying to play a good Star Wars game.
Because to EA, players don’t pay enough to enjoy their game.
I keep harping on that point, but it’s literally true. EA boss Andrew Wilson hasn’t said as much. Neither has EA Executive VP Patrick Söderlund. For that matter, neither have Activision Blizzard CEO Robert Kotick, Ubisoft head Yves Guillemot, or whatever crony calls the shots over at Warner Bros. Interactive. (I can look it up, but I refuse to put more effort into this article to just call out another robber-baron CEO.)
But Take-Two Interactive’s Strauss Zelnick actually did say players don’t pay enough. No, seriously, he did. In late May of this year, he spoke at a technology conference and said Take-Two is under-monetizing its customer base. Take-Two. The people who employ Rockstar Games. The makers of Grand Theft Auto V. A game whose multiplayer portion is absolutely lousy with microtransactions. THOSE bastards are under-monetizing their player base!
My favorite quote from his monologue absolutely floors me. It’s almost like an excuse for their money grubbing:
We’re not going to grab the last nickel.
Really, Zelnick? Is that why you put insidious microtransactions in 2K Games’ NBA 2K series? Is that why the microtransactions were so ham-fisted in the series’ latest incarnation, NBA 2K18, that you had to roll them back with another bullshit non-pology? Yea, you don’t want “every last nickel.” You’re a good person; you wanna leave gamers with one last nickel. Ya greedy asshole!
(Now that I think about it, maybe the CEOs of video game publishers are secretly really evil. Strauss Zelnick? Yves Guillemot? Patrick Söderlund? Those sound like Bond villains. Well, Bobby Kotick doesn’t sound like one. He sounds like a douchey NASCAR driver in Talladega Nights. And Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford just sounds like a douche. Motive Studios and Ubisoft Toronto founder Jade Raymond looks like a decent person, so I’ll exclude her.
Okay, this was a silly tangent. Back to the article.)
…oh no, I’ve said too much…
So the Bright Engrams in Destiny 2 are just a way to monetize players. But does it ruin the game? It hasn’t for me. I’m still playing the game, although real life and other games are vying for my attention. And I’m enjoying my time playing. True, it’s a trial version, so I won’t be able to do later content. I’m limited to Earth and Titan, and the only multiplayer is in the Crucible. But I can join clans. Whatever progress I make in the trial is carried over to the full game should I decide to purchase the game. I also don’t have to worry about Bright Engrams for now. They’re endgame content, and I’ll be capped at level 7 in the trial.
It’s a shame, though, that Bright Engrams have to even be a thing. Maybe that’s just me. It’s not like loot boxes are completely unpopular. Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch is constantly praised for its loot boxes, mainly because the items are cosmetic-only. Yea, EA is being pilloried for their loot boxes in Star Wars: Battlefront II, but it’s not like they’re going to stop offering them. Shit, the recently-launched beta forEA’s UFC 3 has purchasable loot boxes. They work similar to the Ultimate Team loot box system already in their FIFA, Madden, and NHL series. And the Ultimate Team system is wildly popular. There are tons of videos on YouTube glorifying the opening of Ultimate Team packs.
And loot boxes make money. Video game developers and publishers wouldn’t be putting them in games if they weren’t lucrative. Overwatch raked in $1 billion in revenue. That’s not just revenue from regular game purchases, but from in-game purchases as well. You have to figure EA, Ubisoft, and the other AAA publishers want a slice of that pie. And you have to figure they know it’s a lucrative pie. Why else would EA engage in a practice that’s so dodgy, the resulting outrage tanked their stock price?
I know it’s hyperbolic to write that last sentence. It’s not the loot boxes that tanked EA’s stock; it’s how they went about the loot box system in Star Wars: Battlefront II that tanked their stock. But EA took that chance on a quest to make ALL THE MONEY. Instead, they pissed off their fan base, regular consumers, and both LucasFilms and Disney, stewards of the Star Wars license.
…I haven’t said enough…
The loot boxes also ruined the game. They also ruined WB’s Middle Earth: Shadow of War by introducing a grind that hides the “true” ending in an effort to encourage loot box purchases. They ruined NBA 2K18 for a lot of players. They ruined Need for Speed: Payback, another EA game.
But will they ruin Destiny 2 for me? So far, no. I’m actually enjoying an FPS for the first time since Halo 2. I don’t have to deal with Bright Engrams, so that may color my judgment. I’m also not committed to pay for it, so I’m irrelevant in the grand scheme.
But it doesn’t color my son’s judgment. He bought the game Day One. He thinks that the fervor surrounding the XP gimping is silly. When he says that, he’s focusing on the cosmetic rewards in Bright Engrams.
Because Activision Blizzard is a corporation looking to bring in as much revenue as possible, they have locked shaders into Bright Engrams. The shaders change the color of a Destiny character’s armor. In the original game, they were rewarded after completing missions, raids, Crucible matches, or reaching rep milestones with factions. They could be purchased, but they were rewarded by doing in-game things. They also colored all armor pieces in one fell swoop.
Destiny 2 includes shaders in Bright Engrams. They’re not there exclusively, but they pop up frequently in them. They also don’t work the same way as they did in Destiny. Back then, shaders were persistent and could be applied to all armor infinitely. Now, they can be applied to just one armor piece, but they’re consumables. When you find a new shader and use it to color an armor piece, the previous shader is gone. If you want to get a certain look, you have to hope that the next Bright Engram has the shader you want. When you use it, the shader you used previously is gone. If a stronger piece of armor drops and the shader you used on the previous piece is gone, you have to hope that the next Bright Engram has the shader again.
My son has a point. Shaders are cosmetic-only rewards. He doesn’t care about them. For the record, I don’t either. Sure, there are gear rewards locked in loot boxes as well. But players run across epic and legendary gear during normal gameplay. You can also come across shaders after performing challenges. You also earn Bright Engrams when you grind XP after level 20.
So it’s simple, right? You can earn them in-game once you hit the level cap. Just grind some Public Events and…oh, that’s right. Activision Blizzard and Bungie tried limiting that. They rolled back the limits after the outcry, but they tried it.
Because, as I’ve been hammering home all article long, they didn’t think players paid enough money to enjoy their game.
Once upon a time, video games were my religion. When shit like this happens, I feel like I’m losing my religion. And I’m trying to keep up with them. But I don’t know if I can do it.