When Good Games Go Low-Rent
There's a tendency for games to start strong and make a powerful first impression, but then peter out when company avarice starts to trump the game's design.
The other day, I was clicking through the ad links on Ten Ton Hammer - something I recommend for everybody - when I happened across a particular "news" site that shall go nameless. This "news" site had lots of articles that were clearly targeting a very specific market, with articles about video games, sci-fi movies, hot girls and zombie stuff, and about 80% of the articles had titles like "10 Things About (X) That You Probably Didn't Know," "5 Things That (Y) Doesn't Want You To Know About," or "The 20 (X)-est (Y) Scenes Ever." These articles were clearly written to generate pageviews, rather than to express an opinion or inform the reader of an issue of personal relevance to the writer. Low-value, lucrative trash.
Normally, this sort of thing would kind of disgust me, and I would simply close the browser tab and do something else instead. But I've grown accustomed to this kind of low-rent marketing, because that's how they do things in MMO's these days. In fact, this "news" site reminded me of a couple of games in particular, and of how they would be a lot better if it weren't for aggressive, spammy marketing taking place inside the game - low-value items being pushed too hard, making the whole rest of the game suffer for it.
PerfectWorld/Cryptic are, unfortunately, pretty bad for this. In both Star Trek Online and Neverwinter, their low-value, hard-push item is keys for lock-boxes. These lock-boxes drop quite often, can't be sold to vendors, usually contain items of marginal worth, and can only be opened by spending money on them. To make matters worse, in both of these games, anytime someone lucks out and finds a very rare, high-value item in one of them (in STO it's Tal Shiar ships, in Neverwinter it's the fiery Heavy Inferno Nightmare mount), a message pops up on the screen informing everyone on the server.
This system creates an artificial demand for items of very little actual value. The keys usually don't get you much; they're essentially digital slot machine tokens, and the loot boxes are the one-armed bandits. Certainly, these gambles have some kind of payout every time, but that payout is usually low-value junk that you wouldn't normally pay real money for.
Even this wouldn't be so terrible if the boxes dropped far more rarely than they do. In the Lord of the Rings Online, there is a similar system in place, with leveled loot boxes requiring store-bought keys to open. In LotRO, I have personally found maybe three of these boxes since they were first introduced a couple years ago. They're rare drops, and players can sell the high-level ones for a good chunk of gold. I have no problem buying keys for these, even though they often contain little more than vendor trash.
In STO and Neverwinter, however, I find a dozen of the damned loot boxes every time I play, and I am in no way tempted to buy all the keys I would need to open all of them. It would end up costing too much money, even if I did get one of the purple-quality items. They are so common that you can barely give them away - sometimes they can be sold at auction if the buyout price is ultra-low, but more often they get returned unsold. Furthermore, I would be embarrassed if I actually did end up getting a Nightmare mount or Tal Shiar ship, because it would be announced to the whole server, and everyone would know I'm a key-buying sucker. No thanks.
Though I cite LotRO as a better system for their rare loot-box drops, that's not to say that they aren't fumbling into low-rent marketing these days. The introduction of the catch-all currency, Mithril Coins, to their cash shop gave Turbine a whole new way to sell "convenience," as these coins can be used to bypass some travel restrictions and reset cooldowns. But that convenience has become sort of intrusive lately - Mithril Coins are used to speed up just about everything, and they're even used as a cash-type currency in the new clothing store in Bree. But that little button shows up plastered all over the UI - you're encouraged to spend your coins every time you ride a horse out of a stable, every time you complete quest objectives, and for a hundred other little things. The hard sell doesn't even let up when you die; you can buy another instant-revive if you fall in battle and already used your hourly freebie. It's just as bad for subscribers and VIPs as it is for F2P players - Turbine is selling the living hell out of those coins.
It's becoming enough to make a fella want to run some kind of ad-block software in-game. I get that the studios need customers to use their stores, but the pushy sales tactics can be exhausting. Neverwinter isn't out of open beta yet, and I'm already kind of burnt out on it. It feels to me like the monetization of the game is more important than the player experience - as if they don't care whether or not we're enjoying the game, as long as we're spending money on it.
These are all good games. There are things about all of them that I adore, and they're not the only games or game developers doing these sorts of things. But this pushy, aggressive marketing of low-value junk is making these good games suffer. It's the same kind of marketing that inspired the development of spam filters for our email. The next logical step is in-game telemarketing - customer service reps sending us tells trying to sell us limited-time account upgrades and character unlock bundles. Y'know... the kind of tells we get from gold-seller drones.
There has to be some kind of middle-ground here, something less than spamming players with loot-boxes and irrelevant banner announcements. By all means, make the cash shop visible and accessible. But we don't need to be urged to reach for our credit cards with every single interaction we make in the game.