How Monetisation Destroys Good Games
Eoghan Ó Nia interviewed by Conor Kostick
Conor: We’re going to talk about capitalism and gaming. And I suppose we’re framing the discussion by saying that we live in a strange world where whenever there’s anything that human beings do that’s fun, somebody thinks, ‘oh, I could make some money out of this’. And sometimes they can make enormous amounts of money off of it. Very often by doing so they end up destroying the fun. This has happened in so many areas of human culture and I think it’s happening in gaming in a really quite stark way right now. For example, with micro-transactions inside of games. Can you start by talking about these?
Eoghan: There’s a hundred different terms that are used from game to game, but essentially micro-transactions work via in-game currency that you have to pay real money to get. Then you can use that in-game currency to go for additional items, such as a loot box. And through these purchases you have the potential of getting good items that can help you in the game. This gives you an immense advantage over people who don’t pay to use the system. So often the games get called a pay-to-play, because if you want to make any progress in the game, level up, you have to take part in making micro-transactions. If you don’t use them, then your progress is actually slowed down. It’s designed that way, obviously. They manipulate the system to push you towards having to make purchases.
And the most worrying aspect of this is in games like FIFA, which obviously are played by a lot of children. So you’ve got children getting money off their parents to buy this in-game currency for them. With loot boxes there’s a chance that you might get a good item or not. It’s risk-reward. It’s basically a form of gambling, and kids are doing this, which is what is the real concern.
I mean, there’s a whole debate around gambling and the morality of it and all this sort of stuff, but I think anyone can agree that children taking part in any form of gambling is just wrong.
Conor: As a case study, can we look at FIFA in a bit more depth then. What can a player buy in FIFA?
Eoghan: For FIFA, the loot boxes are called packs. There’s a mode in the game called ultimate team where you have to build up a squad of players: your ideal football team. That’s the basic premise of it. You’re building up your dream football team. You buy packs, and the packs have players in them that may want to use or not. Again, it’s risk-reward. You spend FIFA points that you use real money to buy. And it’s a risk-reward activity because the more money you spend, the better the pack, the better the chance of getting a good item.
Conor: And does this mean if you’re playing it online with your friends, or with strangers, it makes a big difference if you’ve spent any real money?
Eoghan: Yes. Because you’ll have better players. It’s as simple as that. You’ll have better players, and then if you don’t get the players you want, you can sell them to make more coins, which is the other in-game currency, which is used to buy players individually. But you’ll basically have more of an advantage over someone who doesn’t use that system, because if you play the game without taking part in the micro-transactions, you earn solely on barely any money to be able to buy anything. You have to play hundreds of games to even get one pack. It’s ridiculous.
Monetization is everywhere in gaming
Conor: We’ve used FIFA here as the case study, but this type of monetization is everywhere now, isn’t it?
Eoghan: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, you can take the example of FIFA, change around a tiny bit and you can pretty much make the same point about any other game that has this system. The names for the items you are purchasing change – in FIFA they’re called packs, or in a game like Fortnite it would be loot boxes – but it’s the exact same thing. One study in 2019 found that over nine years the percentage of loot boxes in the bestselling games on Steam rose from 4% to 71%.
Conor: Most combat games give you better weapons if you’ve paid real money. So if you’re duelling other people, it’s a big advantage if you’re ploughing your cash into them.
Conor: And is this spoiling the pleasure of the game?
Eoghan: Yes, because it basically means that you have to use your real money to give you an advantage. For people who just don’t bother with that, who are just trying to play the game for fun and want to switch off for a few hours, there’s no fun to be had because you’ve got these players who have this massive advantage over them. A lot of games are designed so you need to be on it every day and spending money to actually get anything out of it.
Conor: Back in 2004, this wasn’t around so much, but you could see it coming. Because that year I wrote Epic. The premise of Epic is that everybody on the planet in the book is playing an online game, and it’s corrupt. There’s a small elite who’ve rigged the system. Epic won an award that took me to China. And what I learned on my trip to China was even then – sixteen years ago – there were factories where people were farming all day inside the games: accumulating in-game coins, and then selling the packs of bundles of coins to players in the West. It’s massively accelerated now, but even then people were paying up to $2,000 for a top-of-the-range character who’d been levelled up by these platinum farmers and level grinders. And so they would be doing that nonstop, playing the game, if you can call it play when it’s working for long hours.
Eoghan: And I’m sure they weren’t paid too much.
Conor: I’m sure the pay was terrible. In fact, I remember reading a really good short story of a trade union organizer who goes inside a game as an elven warrior to talk to the people doing it. And they join the union and prepare an in-game strike.
You can imagine the harm that plat farming did to the games, creating shortages for casual players and forcing committed players to spend more money. And the same trends have really grown since. Something that is new, however, is the growth of mobile gaming. Can you say something about that?
Capitalism and Mobile Gaming
Eoghan: With advances in the technology of mobile gaming – the fact that your phone can process more – you’re able to actually have games on your phone. But you can’t have the kind of complex games that you’d be able to have on an Xbox or a top-of-the-range PC. So companies have made very bare bones, simple but addicting games for phones. Social media can be addictive and mobile games are designed around the same features. I think some of the first mobile games were actually Facebook games. They began by being offered for Facebook users and then became more general.
Conor: Can you give us an example?
Eoghan: Candy Crush Saga is a good example. It began on Facebook in 2012 and soon spread everywhere. It showed games companies the power of giving players only a limited amount of turns, with the option of buying more energy to keep going. Some of these ‘freemium’ games are massive, earning over a billion a year. Another example is Simpsons Tapped Out, where you build your own Springfield. Essentially you have to pay in-game currency to speed up the time of the building because the buildings take a real day to complete. Not an in-game day, a real day, twenty-four hours to build one building. So that’s where you are encouraged to buy in-game currency with real money so as to speed up the building time.
Conor: The need for speed-ups is a big feature of these games. These games are addictive, with millions of people playing them. But it must be frustrating to have constant interruptions unless you pay.
Eoghan: Mobile games are even worse than the regular games with regard to these features, because these games are simply about the money. That’s all they are. There’s almost nothing to do when playing them, besides just sit around and wait and pay real money. They are so basic. At least with the games on Xbox and PC they try to hide the fact that it’s capitalism at work.
Add-ons as another monetization flaw in gaming
Conor: Some of the console games are works of art, quite amazing in how they look and their storylines. But they’re distorted works of art that are flawed because of the monetization aspect. Wouldn’t it be brilliant to have people making games just for the joy of it, just for the pleasure of building immersive stories that we can play?
Eoghan: You look at the older games, and you can see that. There are no micro-transactions; there’s no major content that’s brought out as a separate bundle. In the older games, they gave you everything with the game. And there obviously are still some who make games because they love making games. But I think what happened with the rise of the internet and more people playing online, was that business just saw an opportunity as more and more people played video games: this is something we can exploit.
Conor: Well, you mentioned about unlocking extra content. So that’s another big monetizing feature of modern games that didn’t used to be around. So the add-on basically. Can you give us more examples maybe of unfair add-on?
Eoghan: For some games you’ll get extra missions to play through. There’s the very popular Assassin’s Creed for example. So that’s a game where you play as a member of the order of Assassins up against the Templars. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is set in England during the Viking age. In the DLC (downloadable content), they’re going to add Dublin. It’s good that players will be able to go around Viking Dublin, but why wasn’t that part of the release considering Dublin was a very important trading centre? You could talk for hours about why Dublin or Dubhlinn, was a key centre of the Viking trading network, not just for us as Irish people, but in general, as a major city of the Viking era. It was very important. Why is it only there as an add-on? Because there’s Irish people around the world, Irish people living in England, in America, people with the Irish connection or just with an interest in Ireland: they’ll buy that for the DLC. Ubisoft know that. And so they make it add-on rather than core content because they know they can make money off that.
Pro-Gaming, sponsorship and capitalism in ESports
Conor: Another topic that seems to be relevant to what’s happening in the strange world of gaming is the growth of pro-gaming. What is it, in the last twenty years maybe?
Eoghan: Esports really took off around 2000 with millions of people following Starcraft tournaments. Again it is associated with social media, the growth of the internet, and all the people playing online, obviously.
Conor: What games are popular for ESports and what kind of audiences can they attract?
Eoghan: A good example is Call of Duty. That’s very popular and recently a pro-league was launched for it. The teams of players all have annual salaries and there’s a million dollar pool for the winners to share.
Then there’s the FIFA eWorld Cup. So you have all these different FIFA players come together, over two million in 2016. They have qualifying rounds and then the tournaments. The final games are played out in convention halls. Pre COVID there would be thousands of people present to watch the games. And then of course, they stream it, so everyone is watching online around the world.
Conor: I gained some insights from my nephew, who has the same name as me, who is an occasional Rocket League commentator. As with conventional sports, eSports have paid commentators telling viewers what’s going on in the game. It’s a bit like the YouTubers who just play their games and comment and get millions of followers.
Eoghan: Although with the YouTubers it’s a bit different because the YouTubers, they’re gamers who just happened to record it and obviously commentate on it.
Conor: Some of the popular YouTubers are quite critical of capitalism in gaming.
Eoghan: Some of them have come out. Say, like Critical Nobody, who has around 100,000 followers:
He recently posted a strong argument against Ubisoft and how they monetize games, ruining them as a result.
And then, on the other side, you’ve got the YouTubers like Ali-A who started off quite modestly before growing to 17.5million followers and taking sponsorship money. A lot of them started getting sponsorship deals because basically YouTube dried up advertising revenue via demonetization. Now YouTubers have to get sponsored by someone to make any money, which leads to their broadcasts become dishonest or cynical. You can almost hear the lines from scripts they’ve been given by their sponsors.
Marxism, Adorno and Capitalism in Gaming
Conor: Let me run a Marxist theory by you in this regard, because since we’ve been talking, it’s reminded me a bit of what Adorno wrote about music, because I think some of his ideas cross over into gaming. Adorno said that capitalism is destroying music in two ways. One is by destroying the audience for really cutting-edge, brilliant, profound music. Capitalism makes us too tired to engage with really challenging music because we are overworked and outside of work, our time is used getting ourselves and our families refreshed for the next day’s work. We only have time for something easy to grasp, something catchy. When it comes to music, capitalism creates a mass market of zombies. Similarly, I think in the world of gaming that means neglecting really edgy games where there’s quite difficult moral decisions and strange outcomes. I remember playing a Phillip K. Dick Blade Runner one, which had different endings where you could be the Replicants.
Adorno’s other point about capitalism and music was how it had become very big business. Companies, having invested a lot in a product (in his case musical product), cannot afford for it to fail. So they foist it on the public, even if it’s complete rubbish. And they have a wide array of tools, such as marketing budgets, friendly relationships with critics, purchased air-time, to push that music, no matter if it’s great or not. So you get this tsunami of rubbish basically. And it’s very hard when nearly all the critics (and especially those with the biggest platforms) are saying, ‘oh, this is great’ to orientate yourself and find the good stuff. I think we can say the same about gaming, and it fits with what you were just saying there about sponsorship. If they’ve invested a lot in a product, they are not going to listen to critics, they are going to double down with promotion, sponsorship, and paid reviews, obliging gamers to invest time in something that isn’t any good.
Eoghan: IGN are a company who have built themselves up solely around reviewing video games: they are really multinational, really successful. And what you were saying about reviews is evident there. Of course, they don’t take money directly for a good review but I’d guess that if you did a study of who took out adverts on that site and who got good reviews for their games, you’d find a strong match.
Revolution and the Gaming Industry
Conor: I have a critique of Adorno, which might be worth exploring for what it means for games. For me, Adorno’s theory of music is a bit too bleak because what it doesn’t appreciate enough is the constant bubbling up, especially from within our communities, of new forms of music. Invention, over-stepping boundaries, profundity. And these little bubbles can be amazing. They rarely last, because once big enough to attract the attention of marketers they are accelerated into a monstrous brand that then collapses again. So even punk, which was a fantastic working class, revolutionary musical movement, even that ends up with Johnny Rotten selling butter or something.
It’s not that these movements can ever break capitalism and achieve socialism, but they’re constantly happening. So let’s think about that in terms of gaming. Can we say the same about gaming? Are there small games companies perhaps? Or collaborative forms of gaming?
Eoghan: Absolutely. Obviously you’ve got people involved in small, independent games companies, down to individual game-making on certain platforms. The Stanley Parable is an interesting example. It was essentially the work of one person, Davey Wreden, using a popular gaming engine. The concept is basic: you are an employee in an office and working through your day and you get called to a meeting, but everyone in the office is gone. And as you play the game more and more, you’ve got all these different outcomes you can go to and different endings. The more you explore it, the crazier it gets and there are more outcomes. You’ve got this narrator as well and one of the outcomes arises if you do the opposite of what he suggests. Eventually the narrator just gets really mad and the character goes, ‘right, I’m leaving’. And he leaves. He actually gets up from his desk and he walks out of the game. And then there’s another outcome where he restarts the game because he gets really angry with you. ‘No, you’re not doing the game properly. Restart’. And then he restarts the game so many times he breaks it.’ And so he was like, great. We have to play a different game’. So he puts in something like Minecraft instead. It was the best thing ever.
Crucial to the success of indie games is crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is basically large numbers of people making small donations to the production of a game. It’s a community effort rather than an investment by a large business or financial backer. And the people who want to make a game in this way have to put the idea before gamers and convince them that this is going to be worth giving money towards. It’s just ordinary people giving them a fiver or a tenner who have to be convinced.
With these forms of games you have community involvement, you have a sort of a community ownership, because they actually gave money to that person to make that game. In this model there’s more incentive to reward backers by making the game good and less need to answer to the banks and introduce in-game monetization features. So although capitalism often ruins games, there are always good new ones coming though.