Every now and then a new game is released which shifts the designs and momentum of the greater gaming industry.
This has taken many forms over the years, with different games informing different avenues of popularisation. While these might do something new, something strange, or something we never imagined before, they also commonly simply elevate previously existing ideas into mainstream success and consciousness. We saw this with open world games after GTA 3, we saw more cohesive online worlds following the release of WoW, and we saw an increase in simple counter-heavy combat after the Arkham games, just to name a few. The most recent of these to reach the forefront of gaming, to inspire what might be considered a new genre, is the large-scale single-life battleground idea championed by Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG).
While a fantastic game in its own right, and an idea which many of us have been eager to experience for years, this game is not without its issues. Some of these issues, such as the lack of content and prevalence of glitches, will be naturally addressed over time. Others, like the problem of hacking, and the issue of monetization, stand to be much longer-lasting and can have a major inhibiting effect to the reputation of the game, and the maintenance of its player base. So how has the greater gaming industry reached this point, and why is it than many claim the current situation to be the inevitable result of uncontained avarice? In this article, we explain the bed which the gaming industry made, and why it seems so content to sleep in it.
For those younger readers out there or those who are new to the gaming industry, we need to point out that the types of monetization which we commonly see today did not arrive without complaint. Time was, we used to rely on a much simpler system of the main game, and then possible expansion content somewhere down the line. While the exact starting position of these changes is difficult to pinpoint, many list the much-maligned Horse Armour for The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion as being the first crack in the floodgates.
A small extra charge for something so superfluous? Nobody will ever pay for that! Of course, people did pay for that, and major game publishers now had a new and untapped revenue stream to explore.
This is how it started for many major ongoing franchises. Small microtransactions for small goods, cheats, boosts, and cosmetics. All things which would have been included in the base package years ago, before the pull of further profit became too enticing to the publishers, and the developers bore the brunt. This continued to evolve as the years passed, with different developers discovering new ideas and methods to squeeze increasingly more from their customers. This included practices like on disk DLC, where content was already finished and shipped with the game, yet was still locked behind additional paywalls. While there was pushback, it never proved enough to convince the industry as a whole to question its trajectory.
We would be remiss if we discarded the entirely of non-traditional funding structures out of hand. While we, and many older gamers and critics, are staunch opponents to these systems being placed on classically designed games, there are those games which rely on newer systems like free-to-play (F2P) which adopt different monetization strategies through necessity. In these systems, the microtransactions and other forms of financing are the only realistic source of revenue, and as such, they become expected.
Some of these, like those utilized in the very popular space-ninja shooter Warframe, have a heavy interest in customer enjoyment and player engagement over sheer profit, and this is often reflected in their treatment of their monetization strategies. In a recent interview for the fantastic documentary YouTube channel NoClip, designers over at Warframe lamented at how their system essentially ended as a slot machine, and this was so contrary to how they thought customers should be treated that it prompted a redesign.
The Bad, and the Ugly
You might have read recently about the PR disaster which was Star Wars Battlefront 2, a game with a lot of promise which was ultimately disappointed. This system included what was, quite literally, a pay-to-win slot machine system. In this game, players could spend real money to spin the reels, and chance an actual in-game advantage over those who chose to only pay for the base game. Not only did this tip the balance of power towards those who were willing to continuously pay out the nose for a product they had already bought, it also directly harmed and preyed on children and those who suffered from gambling addiction.
Naturally, these companies like EA continue to try and save face by claiming these sorts of systems aren’t gambling, though even a surface level understanding of psychology would show otherwise. In reality, this is a scheme which has performed so well because governing laws for such practices have never had to exist yet, and so EA and their contemporaries are taking advantage of systems which have been playing catch-up. As for how much longer this will continue, we don’t yet know.
While EA still maintains it doesn’t think of these systems as gambling, Belgium disagrees, and many other countries are gearing up to follow similar amendments to their gambling laws. On a side note, this makes us wonder who they have working in PR over at EA, as the gaming public certainly remains unconvinced by their platitudes and hand waving.
Of all of the different systems which create controversy, there are two which have remained as prime examples of problematic profiteering. The first is the slot machine loot box system, and the second is the advent and popularisation of item trading. Item trading is a simple idea to understand, being just what it sounds like, but it is the greater effects behind the scenes which lend themselves to harmful outcomes for consumers. With older games like Counterstrike: Global Offensive, this has reared its ugly head as a skin economy, which while not necessarily an issue on its own terms, introduces similar issues to loot boxes when the greater skin economy is factored in.
The most popular way this has manifested is with skin gambling websites, which again have no trouble with targeting problem gamblers and children. The supporting industry of slot-like machines to win skins with high actual monetary value is almost entirely unregulated, and the complications this can cause to an actual game, like in PUBG, can run much deeper.
Boxes, Keys, Counterstrike and PUBG
Item drops in some games with skin economies like Team Fortress 2 and CS:GO at least have similar drop rates for any regularly playing users. Play a certain amount of time and get a drop, a nice and easy start. Then, factor in that not all boxes have the same items, and that some boxes can only be opened through the use of specially bought keys, and the first hints of the real issue start to emerge. PUBG, while a fantastic game in many ways, has created an environment which takes in the worst components in many different systems, leading to a system which many consider as nothing short of rapacious.
Loot crates in PUBG change based on season and time, containing different items of differing rarities and worth. While obviously anecdotal, none of the last 8 boxes claimed in PUBG by this writer are accessible without the purchase of additional keys, and this is just the start.
You see, unlike CS:GO and Team Fortress 2, crates in PUBG can be bought through the use of in-game currency, and are not simply handed out in regular intervals. This currency is earned through gameplay, with the amount which is earned being dependent on where the player placed in the match, and how many kills and hits they made along the way. Can you see where this is going, because the developers of PUBG, Bluehole Studios Inc., apparently did not.
Hackers, China, and the Gameplay Experience
Through its combination of systems, Bluehole has created an experience where winners earn more in-game currency. More in-game currency means the ability to purchase more loot crates. More loot crates mean a greater chance to randomly uncover high-value items, which translates to more money on the real money marketplace. In fact, at the time of writing this article, some of these items can be worth more than a thousand dollars.
While hackers can and do come from almost every country in the world, it is China that is commonly blamed for the constant game-ruining hackers who appear in PUBG, and with good reasons. While the released statements from anti-cheat provider BattlEye tell that ‘The vast majority’ of hackers in this game are located within China, it’s also important to understand the fundamental structures which caused this development to take place.
China is an obviously immense and developed country, though its labour laws and career opportunities can leave a lot to be desired for persons underqualified. In essence, this means a lot of people can be left doing a lot of less-than-desirable work because it might be the only means of supporting themselves or their families. We can see this in many industries, though the one we are focussed on is based on the general concept of gold-farming. While this has its basis in MMORPGs like WoW, developments in other games also offer significant opportunities to generate a considerable profit, if it is approached on a large enough scale. Combine this with a lower cost of the base game in China than in many other nations, and you start to see the inevitability of this outcome.
- Buy a cheap copy of the game
- Hack your way to as many victories as possible
- Use the won currency to purchase loot crates
- Sell these loot crates on the real money marketplace
- If banned then use part of the money earned to return to step one
There has been a considerable outcry from the player-base over Chinese hackers in the game, which has been enough to drive many players away from the experience until something is done. Nobody likes coming down to the final ten and then being gunned down by a single headshot through a wall, yet this happens far more often than it should. While part of this is down to the ingenuity of the hackers who create programs, the primary blame, in many people’s minds, needs to be placed on Bluehole itself. It is Bluehole who lacks the anti-cheat programs good enough to combat the problem, it has been Bluehole who creates the surrounding systems which guarantee this behaviour will occur, and it has been Bluehole who is yet to address the issue in any effective way.
The Way of the Future
If the future of PUBG is anything like the past, then things might be looking grim. Bluehole, while eager to assure their customers of behind-the-scenes consideration and action, are yet to instigate any policies which affect real change. No IP wide blocks are in place to lock out those who cheat, and ideas like region locking have been waved away as ‘a bit reactive’. Nobody is claiming these methods are perfect, yet Bluehole’s inability to commit to anything considerable to combat a considerable threat is not an attitude which has gone over well with gamers or fans of PUBG.
As for the future of PUBG, this remains in question. The game is undoubtedly still incredibly popular, though other additions to the genre such as Fortnite have been making progress in usurping the previously unchallenged king. With recent developments concerning gambling monetization only now reaching the mainstream, it leaves PUBG on the tipping point. As many already point to PUBG and Bluehole as being openly avaricious and valuing money over customer satisfaction or the gameplay experience, we have to wonder which direction their next steps will take.
With the player-base on a shrinking trajectory, it’s becoming apparent that something needs to be done. Whether Bluehole has the care or capacity to fix the bed they made for themselves, well that remains to be seen. They already have generated, and continue to generate, more money through their practices than almost any other company in the industry, and from a purely short-term and capitalistic point of view, it makes sense to stay the course. Long-term, however, they have to consider their viability and the legacy they leave behind as the popularizer of this new genre. Will we look back in ten years and see PUBG as a warning of what not to do, or will it remain strong and effective within the public eye and cultural zeitgeist? The ball is in Bluehole’s court, and you can bet we’ll be keeping a close eye on what they do next.