Activision is changing the way it does Call of Duty DLC with Modern Warfare. In a blog post today, it detailed the game-changing overhaul that upcoming shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has undergone to make the game and its economy more equitable and fair.
New maps and game modes introduced after the launch of Modern Warfare will be free for all players, Activision said, and go live simultaneously on all platforms. That way, content that significantly impacts the game isn’t totally reserved for the players who shell out lots of extra money, and Xbox owners won’t have to wait for timed exclusives to be up. The game will also feature cross-play between platforms.
There will be no loot boxes in Modern Warfare, Activision said. Instead, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will have a battle pass system, much like those of Fortnite, Apex Legends, Rocket League, etc. Players can unlock weapons, attachments, and other content that can affect game balance as part of either a free or premium content stream—and that’s all just through playing. As the post says, the streams “will feature a variety of cosmetic content that does not impact game balance.”
“The new Battle Pass system will allow players to see the content that they are earning or buying,” Activision wrote. “Battle Passes will launch timed to new, post-launch live seasons, so you can unlock cool new Modern Warfare-themed content that matches each season.”
Call of Duty’s microtransactions in Black Ops 4 were pretty unpopular. Expensive skins or emblems received big discounts shortly after lots of players purchased them; a reticle—yes, a red dot—was being sold for $1, which isn’t a lot, but still felt money-grabby to regular players. Its pricey and inconsistent loot box system irked people, too. In fact, developers told Kotaku that they weren’t fans of the microtransaction system, either, in our investigation of Black Ops 4’s development.
Unfortunately—maybe even predictably—the battle pass system won’t launch on October 25 alongside Modern Warfare. Activision said that’s so players have “the chance to work their way through the new game and unlock all the rewards that are waiting for you.” It will go live “later this year.”
A large part of the Game Connect Asia-Pacific conference, held days before PAX Australia as part of Melbourne International Games Week, is developers sharing their wisdom with other developers. Some of that wisdom comes in the form of monetisation strategies, because most Aussie developers are small studios working on mobile platforms or free-to-play titles, and at the end of the day, everyone needs to pay rent.
So there’s often quite a few talks about making money, what strategies work for what games, and at what parts that should factor in the design process. Henry Fong, the CEO from mobile publisher and developer Yodo1, and Featherweight Games co-founder Dylan Bevis, spoke about how free-to-play games needed to consider the monetisation process from the design stage, instead of factoring it in afterwards.
But a key part of the process is understanding the audience of a game — and what they are likely to pay. In the case of Rodeo Stampede, an endless runner which has gotten over 100 million downloads, Fong told the crowd that the highest spending users (or ‘whales’, as they were referred to in the talk) might spend a few hundred. But in the case of Transformers: Earth Wars, another game published by Yodo1, one whale spent around USD$150,000.
I asked Fong to clarify that figure after the GCAP talk, or whether that was just a projection for the mobile game’s highest spenders, and he confirmed that one player “has spent over USD$150,000″.
Given the concern and outrage over microtransactions already, like the player who spent $62,000 on Runescape purchases, it’s hard not to imagine this capturing the attention of regulators. The authors of the recent Entertaiment and Media Outlook told the Australian games industry only last week that regulator attention on loot boxes and microtransactions was likely to intensify.
That’s especially the case once more AI tools become incorporated into the mobile market. Another element of the panel concentrated on the possibilities of automated tools and finding ways to locate the most likely spenders in a game. One tool allowed developers to automate the moderation of communities within mobile games, while the Yodo1 developers created a machine learning neural network that analysed player behaviour and session times to predict what players would become high spenders.
The bot could spot “potential whales” with about 87 percent accuracy, but “we think we can get it up to about 95 percent,” Fong said. The model was trained with around two and a half years of player monetisation data, and Fong explained that it was even technically possible to build in logic that would target different players with different monetisation packages.
But such a model would ultimately backfire. When asked to clarify the capabilities of the tech that, Fong explained it would be a net loss for the studio, since the backlash from players would be disastrous. “We don’t want to create a situation whereby different people pay different prices for the same thing,” he said.
The fact that studios can incorporate that kind of behaviour, however, is usually a good argument for more industry regulation. Fong expected more regulation as video games continues to grow in status, but it was important for developers to work with government along the way. “As gaming becomes a mainstream industry that impacts billions of people, regulation is inevitable and its part of our industry growing up and hitting ‘prime time’,” he said.
“We need to work with the regulators to make sure that they have the full context of the industry and that any regulations work as intended and don’t break a bunch of other things by accident.”
Unlike Gears of War 4, Gears 5 technically doesn’t have loot boxes. But don’t have a party just yet. It has a convoluted system for unlocking cosmetic rewards that can be used to outfit the characters in Gears 5’s many multiplayer modes. It’s not intuitive, partially involves microtransactions and will definitely test people’s patience. For those of you playing the game who want to understand how it works, we’re breaking it down.
Cosmetics in Gears 5 are represented as Cards which are described, for some reason, as Supply. You can get Supply Drops by playing the game’s Versus, Horde and Escape multiplayer modes.
Supply Drops contain character emotes, weapon skins, and even customized blood sprays. If you attach one of these sprays to a gun in the customization menu, the enemies you kill with that gun will leave behind a blood splatter shaped like a specific image. There are some pretty silly blood sprays available, like a blood spray shaped like the Forza 7 logo, or one shaped like a winking smiley face. These and other Supply Drop cosmetic rewards are potentially available to any player who boots up a multiplayer match in Gears 5.
You don’t have to play super well in Gears 5 to win a cosmetic in a Supply Drop, because Supply accrual is based on time, not experience points or player performance or difficulty settings. Playing a match on a harder difficulty won’t result in better Supply Drops, although it will help you get more XP and unlock more character skills, which is a whole other set of card-based unlocks. What you get from a Supply Drop is always a random dice roll.
The longer you play any multiplayer mode, the more Supply you can accrue. If you get a duplicate piece of Supply, the game will automatically turn that duplicate into Scrap currency, which you can save up to trade in for Supply items that haven’t yet dropped for you. This is a big change from Gears of War 4, in which players had to purchase loot boxes full of potential items, then delete duplicates themselves to create Scrap. That whole convoluted system has been, uh, scrapped.
No major modern game with a complex unlocking scheme can have just one currency, right? Gears 5 has Iron, which can be earned in very small amounts by playing but also purchased with real money; 500 Iron costs $4.99 in the digital store.
Iron can be used to buy items in the store, such as character emotes, weapon skins, customized blood sprays, and character costumes. Except, according to this summary of the game’s microtransactions on the Gears 5website, the cosmetic items you can buy with Iron are not the same as the ones that can be received in Supply Drops or with Scrap. The items in the store are “exclusive customization content” that “can be bought with a premium in-game currency… Content found in the store is direct purchase, meaning what you see is what you get. No Gear Packs, no randomness.” That’s different from the Supply Drop cosmetic items, which “cannot be purchased with real-world money” and can only be earned through playing multiplayer matches.
There’s one exception to all of this, which is the new battle pass-like “Tour of Duty” mode in Gears 5. Unlike most other games’ battle passes, this mode is free and its rewards are available to all players with the skills to unlock them. It’s a season-based system that will offer “exclusive earnable content” to anyone who can surpass certain sets of challenges, such as killing a certain number of an enemy type, or surviving a certain number of Horde waves, and so on. You perform three of these challenges, and then you advance up a ranking, for which you get an exclusive reward. Sometimes it’s a cosmetic item. Every now and then, the reward is a little bit of Iron.
You have to climb up 24 rankings in the Tour of Duty, all the way to the level called “Officer III,” before you finally get Iron as a reward. At that level, your reward is 100 Iron. That’s about a dollar in real-world money. Not exactly a pro gamer salary, plus it can only be spent in the Gears 5 store, but still. Then you have to climb dozens more rankings again before getting a buck fifty. The other rewards along the way, which are cosmetic items exclusive to Tour of Duty, are much cooler. Kait’s desert armor from the third act of the campaign mode, complete with those bad-ass red goggles, is exclusive to Tour of Duty. That’s available at the Major General II level, which is just a couple levels down from the highest accolade in the whole tour: General.
If you want to get every single cosmetic item available, you can’t just earn them all through playing Gears 5 and never spend any money. There is a costume in the shop right now that costs 1000 Iron. You can’t earn enough Iron from playing Tour of Duty to buy anything that good, basically, because it’ll take you weeks to even earn one dollar. However, playing Tour of Duty challenges will give you costumes that aren’t available in the shop, or in Supply Drops. Also, getting regular Supply Drops will provide you with a lot of other cool stuff.
You can also buy a Boost pack in the store (admittedly, for real money) that will double both your XP rewards and also double the speed at which Supply Drops come your way. The Gears 5 store doesn’t say that Boosts give a Supply Drop boost in addition to an XP boost, but it’s stated in this post on the Gears 5 website.
One interesting exception to all of this is the Pride banners, the item in Gears 5 that I happen to be most excited about. These banners are only available to be purchased with Scrap currency; they aren’t categorized as “Supply” like the other items that can appear in Supply Drops. These banners are also not available to be purchased with real money. So you can only get them if you save up Scrap currency. They cost 100 Scrap apiece, and I’ve earned 5 Scrap after playing two and a half hours of multiplayer matches.
I get why Gears 5 wouldn’t include the Pride banners in randomized Supply Drops for all players, because there are plenty of players who wouldn’t care about these banners and might even be annoyed that they’re taking up space in the randomized drop system. I also get why these banners don’t cost any money to buy, because that would seem unfair, like Gears 5 is only allowing the rich queers to express themselves in-game and the poor ones have to just deal. That said, the results are still kind of sad to me, because now I have to grind for 100 Scrap just to get the flag I want, and I don’t yet have a sense of how long that’s going to take me. I expect the accrual of Scrap will be exponential, though, since the longer I play the game, the more likely it is that I’ll get a duplicate of an item I already have.
Anyway, that’s it, right? All of Gears 5’s confusing unlocking systems have been explained, you’ve got them sorted out and we’re good, right?
In addition to all of the aforementioned cosmetic unlocks, there are cards players can earn through playing that can give them special skill abilities in multiplayer. As far as we can tell, you can’t buy these. Instead, you earn each skill in a predictable fashion and then upgrade them in a more confusing one.
As you play multiplayer, you earn overall experience points that raise your player ranking. You also earn experience points specifically for the character you just played (in the image above, you’ll see that Kait is Level 2). As those characters level up, they unlock new equippable skills, each presented as a card. The whole XP and skill card system is, understandably, based on skill. Each of the skill cards has some stats associated with them. As you play more multiplayer, you will earn random duplicates of these cards. You can fuse duplicates to make better versions of a card-based skill or rush those upgrades by spending Scrap currency to level up the cards. Cards have rarity, and you’re more likely to receive rarer Skill Cards if you play matches on harder difficulties. There’s no money involved in this whole process.
Anyway, I love that Gears 5 doesn’t have loot boxes. However, I don’t love that certain items can only be bought with real money, while others can only be earned through multiplayer. I don’t get how the team decided which items would go in which bucket. Plus, there are also the cosmetic items that are only available to players with the talent to plow through tons of Tour of Duty challenges.
The result of all of this is that almost every cosmetic reward in the game is exclusive, on some level. Some rewards (in Supply Drops) are “exclusive” to players with enough time on their hands to play the game for hours and hours and hours. Some rewards (in the store) are “exclusive” to players who can afford to shell out real money. And some rewards (in the Tour of Duty) are “exclusive” to players who have the skill to unlock them. To some, that’ll seem fair. To others, it’ll seem confusing. Personally, I just want to unlock that Pride flag. I guess I better get cracking.
At about this time next year, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what the next generation of video games will look like. New consoles will likely be shown off, bold new streaming initiatives will begin to launch, and we’ll see all the wonderful kinds of games they will bring us. All these new things will come, and we’ll close the book on a generation that saw the industry that makes games come under greater scrutiny than ever before, as studios shuttered, developers burned out, and toxic work culture fostered environments hostile to marginalized people.
These are not problems that have been resolved, but the wheels of the games industry keep turning, in spite of the strain. So how much bigger can video games get? Video games are only getting more costly, in more ways than one. And it doesn’t seem like they’re sustainable.
That’s only the start of it. When you adjust for inflation, the retail cost of video games has never been cheaper, and it’s been this way for some time. The $60 price point for a standard big-budget release has held steady for nearly 15 years, unadjusted for inflation even as the cost to make big-budget video games has risen astronomically with player expectations. (Here’s some math that gives you an idea of just how absurdly expensive games are to make.)
Since changing the price point seems to be anathema, we’ve seen the industry attempt to compensate with all manner of alternatives: higher-priced collector’s editions, live service games that offer annual passes or regular expansions a la Destiny, microtransactions, and free-to-play games. Then you have loot boxes, which in many cases boil down to slot machine-style gambling inserted into retail and free-to-play games alike—something that is coming under increased legal scrutiny that might potentially cut off what has quickly become a major source of revenue in the industry.
These aren’t all necessarily responses to thinning profit margins in the face of rising inflation. Game publishers are often publicly-held companies, with investors that need to be shown endlessly increasing profits that are then used to justify ridiculously large executive paychecks. Perhaps that’s a problem that needs solving, too.
Because of all this, $60 is often just the minimum buy-in, the ante in the pot, for some of the biggest releases. If you want every character in a game’s roster, or every map in its playlists, you’ll have to pay more, and increasingly, you have to. Big-budget single-player games that deliver a single-serving experience with minimal strings attached have largely disappeared from the lineups of major third-party publishers.
Let’s run down the Big Three. We’re more than halfway through 2019, and Electronic Arts has only published one single-player game, the indie Sea of Solitude. Last year was much the same, with two indies as its only single-player releases: Fe and Unraveled 2. Activision’s portfolio of single-player games looks even thinner: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the only exclusively single-player, non-remake game that the publisher has released since 2015’s Transformers: Devastation—which itself is no longer available, thanks to an expired licensing agreement.
Ubisoft is an exception, regularly releasing entries in single-player game franchises like Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed. But it buttresses them aggressive microtransactions and extensive season pass plans. (And the occasional diversion like Trials Rising and South Park: The Fractured But Whole.) The big-budget single-player experience is now almost entirely the domain of first-party studios making marquee games for console manufacturers, which bankroll games like Spider-Man and God of War. The economics of first-party exclusives are totally different—they’re less about making money by themselves and more about drawing players into the console’s ecosystem.
This is worth considering, because as big publishers prioritize live, service-oriented games, the number of games on their schedules has dropped. If you look at the Wikipedia listings for EA, Ubisoft, and Activision games released by year, you’ll get a stark—if unscientific—picture of how each big publisher’s release slate has thinned out in the last five years, relying on recurring cash cows like sports games and annualized franchises and little else. In 2008, those three publishers released 98 games; in 2018 they released just 28, not including expansions.
In short, the single-player game was not sustainable. So why should we think the current model is?
The smaller release slates make for a precipitous state of affairs where too much is riding on too little, a shaky foundation for big-budget game development to rest on. Granted, there are other publishers, like those in Japan, that are still very interested in single-player games. Independent games have also filled the single-player void and achieved greater visibility than ever before. But each of these alternatives face their own challenges in a volatile market, one where just five years ago conventional wisdom held the Japanese games industry was dead. Independent developers, meanwhile, continue to fight for the smallest slice of an impossibly crowded market. No matter where you sit on the games industry ladder, stability remains elusive.
That’s the present of video games. Let’s talk about the future. The intersecting trends of games-as-a-service and the increased emphasis on streaming mean an increased reliance on off-site computing with data centers and server farms distributed across the globe.
Microsoft’s Project xCloud wants to use the company’s data centers to provide high-end console and PC gaming to anyone with a good enough internet connection. Google Stadia is a service that pitches something similar if not even more wide-reaching, angling for the big-budget video game experience in a web browser. And Sony already offers a streaming service, PlayStation Now, which is likely to expand in the next generation.
A 2016 study from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory gives us an idea of the sort of things to consider in this arena. The outlook gives reasons to both be alarmed and also be hopeful.
The foremost takeaway is that while data centers are growing in number, their energy consumption is starting to plateau out of necessity, as the dramatic increase in cloud computing has actually forced tech companies to become more efficient. The biggest companies, according to the Berkeley Lab report, are actually remarkably efficient.
Data center efficiency is measured by power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating. PUE is found by measuring a facility’s total power delivered divided by the power used by its IT equipment. Under this rating, the platonic ideal is a PUE of 1.0: power input and output perfectly balanced. Google, then, is in pretty good shape as far as this standard goes, with the average PUE of all its data centers currently at 1.11.
Efficiency, however, can remain good as power consumption increases, and consumption is going to remain a problem.
Data center energy consumption has been a concern for some time now, particularly in the United States, where data center energy consumption dwarfs that of the rest of the world at 1.8 percent of all energy used in the countrySmaller data centers, which estimates say make up 60 percent of data center energy-use, are inefficient compared to the biggest players, and with no legal standard or universal benchmark, there’s no way to ensure that efficiency gap is closed.
Making this problem even more dire is our current political climate, where developing sources of clean, renewable energy is an idea met with hostility by countries like the United States throwing their weight behind fossil fuels, even outside of its own borders. That doesn’t even account for the ways games contribute to the world’s electronic waste problem. E-waste is toxic, and only 40 percent of it is properly recycled.
And all that is before you even start to think about climate change, and the urgent action needed to avert a major crisis in our lifetime.
Video games cannot do this forever. If any of these things were to collapse—the people who make them, the economy they’re sold in, the ecosystem we’re all a part of—it would be catastrophic. All of them at once? That’s a disaster we need to talk about, openly. Because there are solutions to these problems.
Some of them are small, like making sure you know how to properly dispose of e-waste, should you need to throw out a busted console or peripheral, and doing what you can to live sustainably, even though climate change certainly requires the sort of large-scale action that only governments can enact To that end, you can take more involved action, like calling your local congressperson or government representative and asking if climate change and environmental concerns are on their agenda, and keeping apprised of any legislation up for voting in local elections.
Other solutions are harder to parse. How do we account for the data center sprawl of tech companies and their energy consumption? Is it ethically sound to use a service like Project xCloud or Google Stadia or Playstation Now, knowing all this? Should we push for a global green tech agreement of some kind, so companies that contribute to server sprawl and energy consumption do so in a sustainable way? A carbon tax seems like a good start, but this is a problem in need of many answers, not one.
Some solutions are thankfully, underway. Labor practices have come under scrutiny and developers are beginning to discuss organizing in earnest. Unionization is not going to solve every problem, but it can lead to meaningful progress in a lot of ways that trickle outward into other arenas. More equitable practices can mean the relentless pace of development is slowed down, which could make for fewer, better games and a course correction in supply and demand. Or it might only make things marginally better.
Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all have stated sustainability initiatives and reports, but these programs are all buried in corporate sites and paperwork—a better approach would be to make sustainability as big a talking point as load times or ray-tracing. Something we could look at and compare to the previous year, and make note of how better off we are.
These are big, insurmountable seeming problems, but like all incredibly big projects—like, say, game development—they’re things that can be done, slowly, a little bit at a time. We just have to start.
It’s unlikely that video games will ever truly go extinct. We’ll probably always have something called “video games,” but what those games will look like is still very much in flux. There’s no guarantee that the way games are currently made will remain viable for another 10 years—games aren’t even made today the same way they were 10 years ago. They will look different. They will change because they can, and because they must. Hopefully, all the ways games change will be on our terms—otherwise disaster will change them for us.
As expected, Republican Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri has introduced a bill that would ban the inclusion of “pay-to-win microtransactions and sales of loot boxes in minor-oriented games.” It would not affect cosmetic items and also has a long way to go before it could become law.
Hawley outlined the bill in an interview published earlier this week on Kotaku, telling our Jason Schreier that game publisher executives who promote lootboxes and pay-to-win microtransactions are “basically adding casinos to children’s games.”
The text of Hawley’s bill was released today. It defines a pay-to-win microtransaction as one that:
… with respect to an interactive digital entertainment product that, from the perspective of a reasonable user of the product, is a game offering a scoring system, a set of goals to achieve, a set of rewards, or a sense of interactive progression through the product’s content including but not limited to narrative progression—
(I) eases a user’s progression through content otherwise available within the game without the purchase of such transaction;
(II) assists a user in accomplishing an achievement within the game that can otherwise be accomplished without the purchase of such transaction;
(III) assists a user in receiving an award associated with the game that is otherwise available in association with the game without the purchase of such transaction; or
(IV) permits a user to continue to access content of the game that had previously been accessible to the user but has been made inaccessible after the expiration of a timer or a number of gameplay attempts; or
(ii) with respect to an interactive digital entertainment product that, from the perspective of a reasonable user of the product, is a game featuring competition with other users, provides a user with a competitive advantage with respect to the game’s competitive aspects over users who do not make such a transaction.
The prohibited microtransactions would not include higher difficulty modes, cosmetic items or add-on content.
The affected microtransactions, along with lootboxes, would be barred from “minor-oriented games.” Which games would those be? The bill does not refer to game ratings such as E or T and instead defines the targeted games as those “for which the target audience is individuals under the age of 18.” Games that are played by adults could be viewed as highly appealing to minors and could be impacted.
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
I’m playing Dota 2 again following the release of the game’s 2019 battle pass. There are new treasures to collect. Big tournaments are just around the corner. And I’ve spent another $10 on that battle pass. I can’t tell if this game is actually exciting again or if I just feel compelled to play because there’s a fresh batch of brass rings to grind for.
In my first match after coming back, I played as Zeus. He’s been a favorite hero of mine since the game’s beta, mostly because of how straightforward and instantly gratifying he can be. Zeus is a nuker, which is the genre’s parlance for someone with a few attacks that deal lots of damage. His ultimate, God’s Wrath, doesn’t even require you to be near your opponents; it automatically hits everyone on the map, no matter where they are, dealing a hefty amount of damage in the process.
Whether you’re a newcomer to the game, an experienced verteran, or somewhere in between (like I am), killing some unsuspecting player with a move like God’s Wrath is incredibly satisfying. I keep coming back to Dota 2 because it’s a deep and complex competitive multiplayer game, but these simple pleasures are what really make it fun.
This year, it’s less clear to me how the battle pass factors into that. I still want to collect all the goodies, and I don’t mind throwing some extra bucks Valve’s way after spending over 1,000 hours with its game, but the grind has become more of a time suck than ever. Also, some of the new ways that statistical analysis have begun creeping into the game have made it feel like a chore.
The battle pass was once little more than a glorified guide to Dota 2’s annual world championship tournament, The International. In recent years, the battle pass has become much, much more. It allows players to bet special in-game currency on their matches, which can then be spent on increasing their battle pass level. It also opens up entire new modes. The pass itself can be leveled up, and as players hit certain tiers on the path to ranking up their battle pass, they can unlock things like new special sound effects, map skins, and character cosmetics. It’s sort of like a giant, communal scavenger hunt, and some of the proceeds from that go to help fund the prize pool for the tournament while the rest flow into Valve’s coffers.
This year’s version has included some strange and unwelcome choices. You used to be able to earn extra levels by trading in Immortal Treasures, the loot boxes that gift you anywhere from one to several unique and intricate skins. Now you can only recycle the contents inside of the Immortal Treasures to get new unopened ones. And even to do that, you need to collect four or more. It’s always been hard to level up the battle pass beyond 100 just by playing, but now it’s that much harder.
But a lot of the best rewards require you to do just that. Custom lane creeps that change the game’s main computer-controlled enemies into lizards require reaching level 182 in the battle pass. Axe Unleashed, a special skin completely changes the look of one of the game’s most iconic characters (and one of my personal favorites), requires reaching level 425. A custom visual overhaul of the game’s map that makes it into a series of ancient, jungle-engulfed ruins, requires reaching level 160. I could pay for additional levels at $10 per 25, but that feels like it would defeat the purpose of earning cool new Dota 2 stuff by doing cool stuff within the game.
Then there are the ways that the battle pass is optimizing play in conjunction with the Dota Plus AI coaching service. The tool now shows you win rates in-game depending on which hero you pick at the start of the match and also depending on who else has already been chosen. A special meter in the top left corner lets you know exactly how much of the damage you’re taking is physical as opposed to magical, which can guide you in your decisions about gear to purchase during a match. There’s even a timer now to help automate the stacking of creep camps, one of Dota 2’s more esoteric skills that can help teams gain material advantages over one another by farming the enemies on their side of the map in the most effective way possible. All of that is very helpful. But it’s not available to anybody who didn’t bother to buy the battle pass, creating an uneven playing field that encourages everyone else to join the arms race.
Even if I chose to opt out of these tools, they’re now embedded in the rest of the Dota 2 landscape. It’s not quite a pay-to-win situation, and not quite pay-to-grind either, but for all of the delightful things attached to this year’s battle pass, so few of them feel geared toward helping refresh my relationship to a game whose fundamentals I already love.
First, we talk about Joshua Rivera’s article about the mental health impact on developers who design ultra-violent games, and then talk about the games we’re playing: I beat Danganronpa, Jason’s playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, and Kirk’s played every other game. At 35:05, we discuss the news of the week, and at 1:01:28, we get into off-topic discussion of TV, books, movies, and Kirk’s Sex Education-inspired music pick of the week.
Jason: U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, who is a Republican senator out of Missouri, announced that he is going to be introducing a bill called “The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act” that is designed to ban pay-to-win microtransactions and loot boxes in “games played by minors,” which will include games designed for kids and games whose developers knowingly allow minor players to engage in microtransactions. This is wild stuff.
A little bit of context here. Since 2017, which was the year of loot boxes—and since the Middle-Earth: Shadow of War debacle and then the Star Wars: Battlefront II debacle, which was really what set everything off—some politicians have tried to get involved in loot boxes and talking about them. There was a state senator in Hawaii who tried to introduce legislation banning loot boxes; it didn’t go anywhere. Then U.S. senator Maggie Hassan, who is a Democrat in New Hampshire, wrote a letter to the FTC saying: Investigate loot boxes. The FTC said they would.
Now, this is the first time we’re getting real federal legislation introduced to the Senate that could potentially have some regulation effects. Who knows if people in the Senate will actually care about it, if it’ll actually pass a vote—there’s lots of things that remain to be seen. But the fact that the video game industry could not control itself and let this greed get so out of hand that the Senate is now potentially going to regulate it is really, really wild …
To people like us, who play a lot of games and follow a lot of gaming news, it seems like loot boxes have gone on the downswing, that they’ve been reduced a lot. Like the new Star Wars game was announced with no microtransactions, no loot boxes. But if you look at the financials behind companies like EA, a large chunk of their revenue is coming through games like FIFA, which is all based on loot boxes and pay-to-win microtransactions. For Take-Two, it’s NBA 2K—again, all loot boxes, microtransactions. You look at Activision, they have Candy Crush. They have Overwatch, which has plenty of loot boxes, even if they’re cosmetic. So this will have a very huge impact on these companies, if it were to be passed.
The ESA, which is the video game industry lobbyist group—the Entertainment Software Association—
Kirk: Let me guess. They’re not fans of this legislation.
Jason: They are not fans. They said, “Numerous countries determined that loot boxes don’t constitute gambling. We look forward to sharing with the senator the tools and information the industry already provides that keeps the control of in-game spending in parents’ hands. Parents already have the ability to limit or prohibit in-game purchases.” Kirk, what do you make of all this?
Kirk: I don’t know. He’s introduced legislation. A lot of people introduce legislation that has no chance of passing. This is, I think, a very far cry from becoming a law, but it does escalate the conversation.
Jason: I don’t think Far Cry has loot boxes.
Kirk: You know what, you can buy stuff in the new one.
Maddy: It has other ways of frustrating you besides that.
Kirk: I don’t really know what to make of the bill. Sometimes it tickles my “this person is just trying to jump into an unclaimed spotlight” thing, partly the bipartisan nature of it. It’s interesting that this is not yet a partisan issue. Josh Hawley is the guy who beat McCaskill just recently. He’s the youngest senator in the Senate (Jason: He’s 39). He is anti-abortion, liked by the NRA, he signed onto the lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act. So he’s the kind of guy who maybe progressive people who listen to Kotaku Splitscreen would not like. And yet he’s also out there advocating for this…
I think a lot of people are feeling good about the legislation that he put forward—or at least, people who are concerned about this aren’t necessarily viewing it [as a partisan issue]. Or maybe they are, but there are Democrats and Republicans.
Maddy: It surprised me that he was a Republican, too, because Josh wrote a story for us recently about how the CEO of Take-Two can get some kickbacks from microtransactions. It’s a very convoluted setup as to how CEOs can get that kickback, but it is possible, so there’s some motivation to include microtransactions and loot boxes and similar types of things in a game for people that are at a very high level, at least at that particular company. So if you look at it from that vantage point, typically—not always, because politics are silly—but typically, Republicans are on the side of capitalism and the free market.
Jason: Anti-regulation, yeah.
Maddy: They’re against regulations like this. So it definitely surprised me to be seeing a Republican proposing a bill like this, but he is proposing it under the auspices of “protecting children,” which is always a very popular Republican buzz phrase.
Jason: A couple things on that note. One is that Josh Hawley is this guy who has positioning himself as anti-tech companies. He has come out a lot against Facebook and Google. He actually was probing them in a hearing the other week, and he’s been hammering on the whole anti-conservative bias from Facebook and Twitter a lot, which has been a big right-wing buzzword. Conservative folks think they’re being censored by these companies.
The other interesting thing to think about here is how many gamers are reactionary and right-wing, and associated with the alt-right —
Maddy: I don’t actually know how many of them are. We really don’t know the answer to that question. I feel like that’s the stereotype.
Jason: Sure, but if you think about how Kotaku In Action has a hundred thousand subscribers, and think about the alt-right’s intersection with gaming. If you think about that group, and how they are almost certainly all against loot boxes, this is a very blatant appeal to that crowd.
Maddy: Right. Gamer rights, consumer rights.
Jason: Right, gamers rise up. It also is a very easy way to get younger, impressionable folks to say, “Hey look, this Republican senator, he’s on our side. Why am I not a Republican? The Democrats aren’t doing anything about this.” So I think there’s a lot of appeal for him in his office to do something like this.
Kirk: Sure. Especially a 39-year-old first-term Senator who’s doubtless thinking about possible future things that he might do, and appealing to younger voters.
Jason: Oh, yeah. Super ambitious dude.
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Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) today announced a bill that would ban loot boxes and pay-to-win microtransactions in “games played by minors,” a broad label that the senator says will include both games designed for kids under 18 and games “whose developers knowingly allow minor players to engage in microtransactions.”
Hawley will introduce the bill, “The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act,” to the U.S. Senate soon. In press materials announcing the bill, Hawley’s team brought up the Activision game Candy Crush as an egregious example of pay-to-win microtransactions thanks to its $150 “Luscious Bundle” that comes with a whole bunch of goodies. This bill will also likely apply to ahost of online games that feature loot boxes and other ways in which players can spend money for real benefits.
“When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn’t be allowed to monetize addiction,” Hawley said in a press release. “And when kids play games designed for adults, they should be walled off from compulsive microtransactions. Game developers who knowingly exploit children should face legal consequences.”
Last fall, the Federal Trade Commission promised to investigate loot boxes following a letter from Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) that she wrote in the wake of 2017’s string of games featuring the heavy usage of predatory microtransactions, such as Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Star Wars Battlefront II. Although some companies have pulled back on the practice, popular games like Overwatch, FIFA, and Apex Legends continue to make big money off randomized microtransactions. Many of those games are played by both adults and children.
Hawley, 39, has become known in Washington for criticizing major tech companies Facebook and Google, often accusing them of anti-conservative bias.
UPDATE (12:18pm): The Entertainment Software Association, the video game industry lobbyist group, sent over a statement shortly after this bill was introduced: “Numerous countries, including Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, determined that loot boxes do not constitute gambling. We look forward to sharing with the senator the tools and information the industry already provides that keeps the control of in-game spending in parents’ hands. Parents already have the ability to limit or prohibit in-game purchases with easy to use parental controls.”
Back in 2017, some of the most dedicated Dota 2 players spent hundreds of dollars on microtransactions to win a special collectible statue. The versions that Valve shipped out were so ugly, and so poorly received, that Valve said it would make replacements. Yesterday, it said that it was finally ready to ship them out.
“Today, we are pleased to announce that the Collector’s Baby Roshan statue redesign is complete and the shipping phase has begun,” read an email Valve sent to recipients on Thursday. “Baby Roshan is now physically larger, heavier, and has improved detail.” Everyone who’s owed one should receive it within the next three months, Valve said.
The Collector’s Baby Roshan was first announced in a blog post during the leadup to the 2017 Dota 2 world championship. It would be nickel-silver finished, approximately three inches tall, and be available to any player who managed to hit level 2,000 on their battle pass that season.
The battle pass itself cost $10, with players able to level it up slowly by playing matches or by spending more money. For every additional $10 spent, they could raise their rank 25 more levels. Buying your way to level 2,000 would cost just north of $800. It’s also possible to grind for levels, but only if you decide to treat it like a full-time job, and even then it wouldn’t have been enough to get all the way to 2,000. The Collector’s Baby Roshan was, in effect, meant to be a special bonus to the most dedicated (and deep pocketed) Dota 2 fans.
But the statues that eventually arrived in early 2018 ended up being nothing of the sort. Players began posting pictures of them on Reddit. Far from the antiqued metallic look in the original blog post, the statues lacked detail and had lots of visible seams and imperfections. In May 2018 Valve announced that the quality of the statues was indeed “poor,” and that it would be working on producing a new run more in line with the original prototype.
“We deeply apologize for the significant delays on these statues, as we had to overcome substantial production challenges to get a reliable process in place,” Valve said in this week’s update, though it did not go into detail about the cause of the problems. Valve declined to comment.
The email also contains several photos comparing the new versions of the statues to the original, to prove to any fans who might have lost faith that the long wait hasn’t completely been in vain. Valve is also giving each person a special custom in-game Baby Roshan cosmetic as well, to try and make amends.
Valve said it will ship out the replacements for the 2017 statues first, and then send the 2018 statues.
Mortal Kombat 11 is getting slammed over its supposed equipment grind and the perceived greed of its microtransactions; user-submitted reviews on Steam and Metacritic have been poor. In these reviews, as well as in comments and on social media, fans have complained about the slow pace of earning rewards through gameplay and the randomness of rewards in the chest-strewn Krypt. Some say the unforgiving grind for coins and hearts and souls, the materials needed to unlock reward chests, seems like it is tailored to push players towards real money transactions as an alternative.
According to a popular post on the PlayStation 4 Reddit, it would cost $6,440 to purchase every skin in Mortal Kombat 11 with premium currency instead of winning them as challenge rewards or unlocking them in the game’s Krypt. This math adds up, in theory, but the facts don’t. You can’t use real money to unlock everything in Mortal Kombat 11. There is no convenient way to buy your way out of the grind.
As the game stands right now, yes, the grind is oppressive. This is a game in which every character has at least 60 different skins, including color variations. Every character has three different gear slots to fill. There are 30 different pieces of gear for each of those three slots. The slots themselves have to be unlocked; each separate piece of gear must be leveled up through gameplay in order to unlock said slots, which can be filled with collectible augments that enhance skills, offer resistance to certain damage types, or offer other unique benefits. If a player finds a new piece of equipment and swaps it with an existing one, they need to level it up all over again. It’s exhausting.
It doesn’t help that rewards are randomized in the game’s Krypt, Mortal Kombat’s third-person adventure side-game in which players can spend in-game currency to unlock treasure chests. Past games’ versions of the Krypt have all featured set treasure locations. A chest located at coordinates X and Y on the map would contain the same item for all players. In Mortal Kombat 11, the contents of basic chests—those opened using the game’s coin currency—are randomized for every player.
For example, in the PC version of the game, I opened a chest that cost 13,550 coins. I received an augment for a piece of gear, a Cassie Cage skin, and a “Kobat Kard” background.
The same chest in the same location in my PlayStation 4 copy of the game cost only 2,550 coins and only contained a variation icon, which is a decal used to personalize a custom-created variation of the character Cetrion, whom I hardly play.
It bears noting that heart chests, which are special chests that require some of Mortal Kombat 11’s rarest in-game currency to open, are in fixed locations and have the same contents for everyone. Fans over at the Mortal Kombat Reddit page have already got them all mapped out. Most other items are random, though. Could be a skin, or a piece of equipment. Could be a brutality or fatality unlock. Could be random crap like crafting materials or consumable items used to make battles in the game’s Towers of Time mode. The chances of getting exactly the skin or gear I want feels so slim, that if I saw the item pop up in the game’s Premium Store, I’d probably jump at the chance to pay for it.
Back to the calculation from AccomplishedPoet8 on Reddit—that steep $6,440 figure. First, it’s actually a bit too low. It’s calculating 56 skins for 23 characters at $5 worth of premium currency, a.k.a. Time Krystals, apiece. But a 24th character, Frost, unlocks for everyone as they play through the story mode, so if you include that character, the number should be more like $6,720. It goes up to $7,000 for players who pre-ordered and received Shao Kahn as well.
More importantly, these large figures assume that every skin in the game can be purchased. That’s not how Mortal Kombat 11’s Premium Shop works. Every 24 hours (not the 6-8 hours suggested in the Reddit post), the store cycles through offering a series of five items: three skins, a piece of equipment, and a brutality. There are only three skins available in the store every 24 hours. If there are 56 skins for 24 characters (let’s just say you don’t have Shao Kahn), that’s a total of 1,344 skins. Assuming the store cycled through every available skin, three at a time per day, it would take 448 days to cycle through everything.
And that’s a big assumption. Responding to the $6,440 story circulating yesterday, game director and Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon tweeted the following:
So yes, purchasing every skin in the game with premium currency would cost thousands of dollars. But it’s not something that can be done. Time Krystals, the only of Mortal Kombat 11’s currencies that can be purchased with real money, can only be used towards the five rotating items in the Premium Shop or to purchase “easy fatality” tokens, the world’s most unnecessary shortcut. Time Krystals cannot unlock chests. They cannot level up a piece of equipment. They cannot unlock items directly from the character customization menu. They are incredibly limited.
So why all the fuss? Because due to the way the Krypt is randomized and the slow pace at which in-game rewards are doled out, Mortal Kombat 11 feels like a game that wants more money. The hurdles in the way of getting any specific skin or piece of equipment leave a very cash grabby mobile game type of taste in players’ mouths. Why else would shit be so complicated to get, if not for the publisher or developer to be planning to offer an easy (but more wallet-straining) alternative?
There is no easy alternative at the moment, but Netherrealm is working to make progression less painful. While the developer has yet to respond to our inquiries on the matter, in a Kombat Kast on Twitch yesterday, the developer announced an upcoming patch will adjust the rate at which in-game rewards get doled out in players’ favor. Along with the tweaks, each player will receive 500,000 coins, 1,000 souls, 500 hearts and 1,000 Time Krystals, giving each of them plenty of currency to help hunt for those must-have items.
Hopefully the extra currency and balance tweaks helps make Mortal Kombat 11’s Krypt and progression feel more like fun and less like shady chores.