How much are you willing to pay for a virtual item? For years, time was the only thing that I needed to invest once I bought a game, so the value of unlockable items was based on how many hours I was willing to kill. I spent weeks unlocking every character in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, even longer to get those last cheats in GoldenEye 007, and I never could quite earn everything that F-Zero GX had to offer. That game was hard! Some of my fondest gaming memories come from finally achieving the unachievable. However, a growing trend has turned this simple practice into one that feels exploitative. Unlockables have become a grind, and the microtransactions that now provide a shortcut to those precious objects only highlights how monetization can taint even the best things.
Electronic Arts has implemented microtransactions in Battlefield 4 for those who would rather shell out a couple of dollars here and there to get every item than mess with the randomness that the real system is built around. On the surface, this seems like a handy feature for those who want to enjoy Battlefield 4 but don't have the free time to get all the goodies. And I do relate to that mindset. As an adult with a full-time job, a wife, and a dog, I can no longer spend endless hours in front of my television trying to master a game's intricacies. So giving people with more money than time a leg up in their digital escapades seems downright generous. Electronic Arts is doing us a favor, right?
Well, not really. You see, Electronic Arts has solved a problem that it has created. Keeping unlocks behind a wall--be it one you hurdle by spending money or investing time makes no difference--is a decision that the publisher made. And if it realized that a segment of its audience had no interest in going through the hoops the developers constructed, it could have doled out said items in a way that didn't require you to spend even more money on a game you had already purchased. By increasing the rewards you earn at the end of every match, or making more weapons available from the onset, EA would have cut down on the time you needed to spend to see everything. So giving us the option to spend money to avoid a time sink doesn't seem like a happy, alternate method at all, but merely another way to nickel-and-dime its customers.
Microtransactions now provide a shortcut to those precious objects and highlight how monetization can taint even the best things.
In games where I spent hours trying to unlock everything that wasn't available from the beginning, I had to develop my skills to reach those heights. F-Zero GX required complete mastery to overcome the conniving racers who populated later tracks, GoldenEye forced me to plan in-depth strategies to shave seconds off my time, and Marvel vs. Capcom 2 urged me to learn the subtleties of every one of its 56 characters. The act of playing offered an intangible reward, one in which I grew so proficient at the challenges that it didn't even matter what waited for me on the other side. These unlockables didn't require me to grind levels for hours on end, or perform the same feats ad nauseam. Rather, unlockables were doled out based on my skill level--not my time commitment--which made the process more immediately satisfying.
This is a marked change from how unlockables are often handled now. For those who aren't aware, here's a brief rundown on how you earn new gear in Battlefield 4. You gain levels by completing matches, which earns you weapons and attachments. Well, kind of. You only get new weapons based on the class of gun you're using. So, being proficient with a shotgun gets you a new shotgun. Pretty logical. Only it's never that easy. If you earn, say, a sniper scope for one rifle, you can't just use it on another rifle you unlock later. No, you have to unlock every attachment for each individual weapon, which takes hours upon hours of hard dedication.
That doesn't sound too bad if you enjoy Battlefield 4, but there's a breaking point for everyone. How many dozens of hours are you willing to put in to not only unlock, but fully equip, a weapon you have your eye on? How many times can you stand unlocking the same laser sight and heavy barrel as you work your way up the ladder of assault rifles? Plus, you earn battle packs as well. These are what EA now lets you purchase, and they add randomness to an already overwhelming unlock structure. You never know what these packs will contain, so you spend many more hours trying to get everything.
Of course, EA offered a way around this months ago. They let you spend $50 on "buy-everything" DLC, which doesn't actually fix the problem. But there is a better way to handle rewards already out there. Call of Duty: Black Ops introduced a currency system known as CODPoints. As the name implies, you earn points for hearing the call, but what makes this system work is the freedom it gives to intrepid players. Instead of shuttling you down prescribed unlock trees like Battlefield, Call of Duty lets you choose the weapons and attachments that you want to use. It reduces the grinding element that has become so prevalent. By giving you full control over what you earn, you're not forced to contend with agonizing randomization, or suffer through underpowered weapons until you get the one you want. It's a great solution that empowers players without forcing them to invest countless hours to unlock what they want or cough up extra cash to circumvent the system.
How many dozens of hours are you willing to put in to not only unlock, but fully equip, a weapon you have your eye on?
And it's not like Battlefield 4 is alone in how its unlock system functions. In Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, you can either endlessly play matches or just shell out a couple of bucks to skip over the monotony. The same is true in Forza Motorsport 5. So strong was the outrage for the microtransactions in Turn 10's racer that the developers changed how rewards are doled out so people don't feel as though they're being taken advantage of.
NBA 2K14 was one of my favorite games from last year, but the manner in which you build your created character reeks of exploitation. It takes so long to even earn a pair of new shoes--let alone boost your attributes--that your best options are to either pay the bounty or move on to another mode. Improving your player takes too much time to make it worthwhile for anyone but the most diehard. And when Take Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick says, "when we design our virtual currency packs, we do it in a way that will make consumers happier, not sadder that they are engaged with our games," it worries me that NBA 2K will continue its tradition of making people grind to upgrade their players instead of developing a smoother unlock system.
I don't want to demean the act of playing modern games with an emphasis on unlockable content. There is inherent joy in striving for excellence in all of these games, even if there weren't any bonuses bestowed upon the most dedicated. Rather, the problem is that developers design games in such a way that they demand hours upon hours of the same basic actions to see everything there is. It's such a huge time commitment that it becomes tiring moving up the ladder. The grind that goes with leveling up becomes the norm, so much so that I completely understand why someone would spend money to escape that void. This is especially true if you buy, say, Battlefield 4 after your friends have already sunk hours into it. Do you really want to play with a bunch of strangers to achieve the same rank as your buddies? Or would you rather just bypass that dance so you can have fun with the people you want to play with? It seems like an obvious decision, and one that could be avoided completely if the developers so choose.
There's a middle ground between the grind necessary to unlock items in many games and the money you must pay to skip that process. If the developers realize that people don't have the time or patience to unlock the things they want, then there should be a less punitive way to access that content than we currently have. I understand that companies aren't going to turn up their noses at an alternate revenue stream, but at some point, their customers must take priority over their bottom line. We love unlockables. Rewards can add lasting appeal to a game, give you something to strive for long after you've seen the ending credits roll. But companies shouldn't take advantage of our obsession with earning all of those bonus goodies. Making it an option to pay more money doesn't solve any problem; it just highlights one. Namely, that your unlock system is so much of a grind people are willing to pay money to avoid playing the game.