How much money does it take to make a game? Moreover, how much profit does a game have to garner before it is considered successful? Costs can differ widely depending on the studio and how many people they employ. A small independent company like Freebird Games, developer of To The Moon and Finding Paradise, is comprised of four team members while Electronic Arts employs over nine-thousand. With size comes cost and not just in the department of manpower. Similarly, when the scope of a game increases so does its cost. A game like To The Moon which is made in RPG Maker, a creation engine that ameteur developers can use to create JRPG style games, has a relatively low cost of development. In contrast, Grand Theft Auto V was built from the ground up by Rockstar’s development studios with an estimated development budget of $256 million. That is an impressive price tag that requires equally impressive sales numbers in order to compensate. In fact, it is so daunting that developers routinely add in ways to continually generate revenue from their games after release.
Yes, I’m talking about Loot Boxes. These insipid RNG based slot machines dole out prizes in an attempt to squeeze every last penny out of your wallet and send it straight to the publisher. Despite the fact that game sales revenue increase each year as digital distribution methods become the preferred method of purchase, publishers continue to put recurring monetization schemes into their games. Sometimes in unobtrusive ways, and sometimes in a way that is meant to instill a sense of “pride and accomplishment” as Electronic Arts would put it. In truth, the bottom line is money. Shareholders want to see returns on their investment and their continued pressure necessitates divisive tactics such as gating away content behind season passes and Loot Boxes.
What does this mean for games and the creative process behind them? It means that the objective of game creation, at least at the AAA level, has changed. Developers have changed their mindset. They are not creating games for the story, to create a new world, or explore the facets of a complex mechanic. Those aspects have taken a backseat to revenue generation. Games such as Grand Theft Auto Online, Star Wars: Battlefront II, and Middle Earth: Shadow of War have fallen victim to this new style of game development. Each of these games feature hundred-hour grinds in order to fully unlock their content unless you dig into your wallet and cough up more cash. In the case of Star Wars, the community backlash to “pride and accomplishment” forced EA to disable Loot Boxes for a number of months. In this time, players were able to see the beast unmasked as they were left with no option but to grind their way through the game’s economy just so they could have a chance to unlock their favorite characters and upgrades. The game was not designed to reward players for their continued dedication; it was designed to frustrate them with slow progress and goad them into paying for a faster method to get the items they truly wanted.
This is the true problem with recurrent monetization in games today. Developers are purposely designing games to be slow, unrewarding, and psychologically manipulative. Narratives are interrupted by senseless busy work, cosmetics are being gated away, entire chapters of gameplay are sectioned off and then sold piecemeal as downloadable content. Gameplay is now a cycle that revolves around player engagement. Games are designed with large sections of boring amorphous content and long grinds standing between players and the real meat of the game. Think about Destiny and its implementation of strikes that require players to run the same mission over and over until they have leveled up just enough to . . . run the same mission again at a higher difficulty because the real raids are still too high-leveled, not to mention inaccessible because you did not shell out for the expansion pass. While you are grinding through this riveting content, you will earn bright engrams that require you to go over to the real money market to exchange it for loot. Just like Disneyland requires you to walk through a merchandise shop before leaving each attraction, Destiny requires you to enter into the Eververse and see all the tempting cosmetic offers for sale while you exchange your engram for the equivalent of Chuck E. Cheese tokens. Modern games are starting to sound more like a form of manipulation rather than actual games.
So what is the solution? According to the developers, it is to buy Loot Boxes. By paying real money you can skip the grind and get to the fun part of the game which poses the question: why did they put the boring part there to begin with? Games are designed this way purposefully because they are no longer forms of entertainment but a means of psychologically exploiting consumers for their money and it is up to us as consumers to be aware of this and take action.
Unless we as consumers voice our opinions about predatory monetization practices within the game industry, the state of video games will continue to degrade. Our voices matter as was demonstrated by the Star Wars fan base on Reddit when they protested against Star Wars: Battlefront II. Belgium has outlawed Loot Boxes due to their classification as gambling. Chris Lee, a representative of Hawaii, is pressing to put laws into place banning the sale of Loot Boxes to anyone under 21 years of age. We can force publishers to be honest by letting them know that we are tired of them sacrificing good game design in the name of greed. Be considerate of the games you’re buying and avoid buying into the Loot Box scam. If they cannot make money by scamming consumers, then eventually they will remove those elements in fear of losing profits. That’s the secret to all of this. We are in control. Game carefully, Dragons.