There's a lot to be said about AAA gaming in 2019, and a whole lot of it is particularly not good. In between all of the recent Blizzard controversy and every single fucking little thing Bethesda does, big studios are drawing a lot more negative press than ever before. And, if I'm being quite honest, that's a very good thing. As is typical for big companies, as long as something is profitable and there are no ramifications for it there becomes no reason not to do it, regardless of how bad it screws the consumer. We're used to this in the video games industry as microtransactions, the little in-app purchases that are normally delegated to (and vehemently defended for being) cosmetics within games. Plenty has been said about the state of microtransactions, both from the people arguing that they are predatory and cheapen the experience of games in an effort to squeeze every last nickel from the consumer, and the people who are wrong.
I make no effort to hide my great disdain for the state of the industry in regards to what I perceive as predatory monetization practices, but I understand the need to generate more income. Budgets to create these games are inflating year-over-year while the price of a new title is roughly unchanged at approximately USD $60 for a very long time. Games and studios use microtransactions as a supplementary income, and from a business perspective it makes absolute sense. Selling a copy of a game is a one-time income, and selling a lootbox for $5 is a repeatable income. It's essentially free real estate for developers.
But it's not the only free real estate.
It's called "Fear of Missing Out." Or "FOMO," as the youth say. The short explanation is a limited time event, but it's sort of a particular kind of limited time event. The overall idea is to create an artificial drive to get players to purchase something because it will only be offered for a limited time. This movement in relation to gaming probably has a lot of roots in the accidental phenomenon of RuneScape's party hats, the items from the game's 2001 Christmas event that go for billions of gold on the game's market. A set of stupid paper hats becoming the most expensive, sought after, flagship items in the game is something a lot of companies behind multiplayer games took notice of. Most RuneScape players seek them as a status symbol akin to "Look at how much money I have." Due to the effect these early holiday items on the game economy, Jagex began to make all holiday items account-bound and not able to be traded. This restored the holiday items to their original purpose: being a fun reward for players who were there at the moment. And, not to brag, but I've still got my rubber chicken from ye olden days of RuneScape.
But games like this have had to evolve with the times. While most MMO-style games of the past sustained themselves solely on subscriptions, microtransactions eventually crept in alongside the traditional payment models. In most cases developers are more than happy to sell cosmetics alongside their required subscriptions. Other developers have gone a different path, one that seems better on paper but ends up executing itself somehow far worse: making the games "free" to play while using microtransactions as the main source of income and using FOMO to drive those purchases.
Aaaaaaanyway, I'm going to complain about Destiny.
ME complaining about DESTINY?!?
Oh, Destiny. Right before E3, Bungie announced that the base game for Destiny 2 would be going free to play for everyone. As someone who has been a huge fan of the studio and the franchise for a long time, I had been through enough Bungie release cycles to where I had a hard time suppressing my skepticism for such benevolence. Right off the bat it was rather apparent that this would put an even greater emphasis on Eververse, Destiny's real-world-money store for cosmetics.
Oh wait, my apologies. Their SILVER store, because adding an intermediary, arbitrary currency somehow makes this whole business model less evil enough to be a-ok.
But while this sucks enough, it didn't quite stop there. While rolling out their plan for the purchased seasonal activities, which the kids are informing me is a form of Fortnite's "battle pass" system, Bungie decided to go full FOMO in addition to the regular monetization scheme.
And don't just take my word for it; game director Luke Smith has said it himself in a Bungie blog post:
And at the end of the Season, your collective actions will have caused the world state to change and the Seasonal Activity connected to those events will also go away.Doing this allows us to evolve the world—narratively, but potentially physically as well. It is not possible to keep Destiny frozen in place to allow all activities to live forever while also changing the world in meaningful ways. This strategy lets our team be agile and innovative. We believe that Destiny will grow even better when the world state can change, and that the best Destiny stories are the ones where “you had to be there when….”
Okay, now you're forcing me to ask a genuine, journalistic question in a ranting op-ed: Exactly how the absolute hell does removing the previous seasons activity allow the team to make more activities? I wouldn't exactly consider myself a mathematician, mostly due to my inability to count, but by my count:
- 1 activity per season that persists
- 1 activity per season that goes away at the end of the season
seems like the same amount of activities from the development team? The only room for development agility that I can see is that if a seasonal activity vanishes at the season rollover it does not have to be updated, balanced, or be very meaningful content that players would want to replay after the seasonal change. I'm not the only one who is wondering about the sustainability of events like this. Lots of arguments have been made about part of this decision being made to not inflate the size of the game files, however not only do we not have evidence of that, but this has kinda been a thing with MMOs forever. I also disagree with Smith's statement that the seasonal activities persisting would inhibit the growth of the game world. From a narrative point of view, we have no more reason to run the Black Armory forges or play Gambit Prime, and yet we can, and that has no negative impact on the overall story.
This leads to my main concern with this approach: by intentionally designing a purchased season around an event that is destined to disappear, I do not trust that it would be worth my purchase. Reception to the first season activity Vex Offensive has really backed this up, as it's been universally agreed to be shallow and not really worth the time. So now the big question is how is Bungie going to sell season passes based on FOMO when there's nothing to be afraid of missing? Either Vex Offensive is indicative of the quality of content that will be coming out and people will not want to spend their money, or the experiment will work and Bungie will create a truly fun and engaging activity that is designed to go away. It's a lose-lose for both Bungie and the players.
The most important issue with this artificial FOMO model is that those "you just had to be there" moments only work when they're completely natural. It's not about "you should've been there when Vex Offensive was around." The true experiences we look back on fondly are about the people we were with, doing new things for the first time, and enjoying the current sandbox as it evolves organically. The illusion is even further broken when the ratio of "Eververse cosmetics that have a chance to be earned through gameplay" to "Eververse cosmetics that must be purchased with real money" changed drastically with the big switch. So not only are we faced with the forced-artificial fear of missing out, but also an increased monetization from microtransactions. Particularly in Destiny 2, the argument of "It's just cosmetics!" doesn't quite hold water when the entire endgame is designed around being able to use whatever style armor you want and relying on mods and upgrades for stats.
I've taken my share of breaks from the Destiny universe before, however this time really feels different. I played for a couple weeks after the launch of the expansion and season but felt... nothing. No desire to check out the new expansion, no desire to bug my friends to run activities with me, just nothing. The forced attempt at FOMO just has a certain aura to it and when I looked past it I could see there really isn't anything there. At least not enough to make me want to buy something that, and I cannot stress this enough, is intentionally designed to go away after a couple months. It's the problem I felt when the Taken King came out and the year one activities of Destiny 1 were left behind, except at least I could still play them if I wanted to. Maybe it just took this approach for me to finally convince myself that there are better experiences to be had elsewhere. Maybe I'm at a point in my life where I would've hard quit Destiny regardless of what happened. But one thing I can unequivocally say without a doubt is that if a studio has to try to create a drive to sell their product by designing it to be taken away and replaced with a new thing that will be later taken away, then your product sucks and I don't want it. I hope the consumer base agrees so this practice can die and we can go back to complaining about spending $10 for a stupid fucking dance.