Paying Your Way Ahead: Are Premium In-Game Boosts Fair or Foul?
Alex and Chris share their thoughts on the increasingly common trend of letting gamers pay to skip the grind in games.
As video game consoles have become increasingly online-centric, the games industry has experimented with different ways of making money from the opportunities this has presented. One such example: offering paid boosts that provide players with in-game money or immediate access to unlockables (be it cars, guns, or whatever else).
Several developers have been implementing these boosts in their games over the past few years. For example, Battlefield 4 has "Battlepacks" for purchase that give you several items and sometimes temporary experience boosts, and even World of Warcraft allows you to pay for your character to automatically level up to 90. Grid Autosport is one of the latest games to offer such a boost, releasing a "Boost Pack" DLC for $3 that makes you earn experience and in-game cash more quickly. This sparked a discussion online about why these kinds of things are offered, resulting in an astonishingly honest explanation from developer Codemasters' community manager: "It sells."
Many players find these boosts objectionable, while others are less bothered by them so long as they're optional. We turned to two of our writers for their thoughts on this trend.
Alex Newhouse: Boosts Undermine and Devalue Gameplay
Clearly, designing a game based around DLC boosts undermines the whole experience of playing a video game. It nudges people who don't have time to waste to purchase upgrades. Grid developer Codemasters understands the shady nature of this type of design, which is why we see it adamantly stating that no parts of the game were changed to sell DLC.
But it doesn't matter if no developer ever intentionally changes its project. DLC boosts have that effect regardless of the state of the game. Simply put, the existence of boosts alters the perception of the game. Without them, the game is a known quantity; the speed of the progression is constant and unchanging. With an option for increased advancement through the game, that opportunity is immediately put into the player's mind. In a way, it's like hiking up a mountain with a paved road to the top. You can walk all the miles to the summit, or you can pay a small fee for gas or toll to simply drive to the top in comfort. When you've been hiking for hours, driving by car and paying the fee seems increasingly attractive.
By adding boosts to a game, a developer is fundamentally altering its design whether intentionally or not. It's changing the game by adding an easier path. The game is skewed toward encouraging the player to spend more money.
Additionally, boosts harm the game itself by lessening the value of the gameplay. When you're able to buy your way past some of the grind, what is the point of the grind in the first place? The message imparted by DLC boosts is that the basic process of playing the game is made up of superfluous material that can be streamlined. Having a boost that reduces the time to a certain goal from 15 hours to seven hours, for example, devalues the other eight hours. There's no real purpose for making a certain task take 15 hours if half of it can be cut out. It shifts the focus of the game to the goal and marginalizes the journey.
DLC progression boosts probably are here to stay for some time, but there's no reason we have to like them. I enjoy games for their gameplay--in other words, the process of striving to achieve, not the achievements themselves. I like the journey. And even if the journey is preserved during game development, the addition of boosts afterwards reduces its importance. The danger isn't intentional manipulation--what is really concerning is the unintentional effects and the subconscious response from players that compels them to take the easier path.
Chris Pereira: What's Wrong With a Choice?
I'm not vehemently against these DLC boosts like Alex; my only real objection to them is when the game's design has been altered to account for them. The mobile Dungeon Keeper game was obviously designed with them in mind, and no one thinks that turned out well. A game like NBA 2K14, on the other hand, looks less offensive on the surface, but was ruined for me by its Virtual Currency system. The game actually put you in a position where you have no choice but to hurt yourself (by declining a coach or player request, for instance) if you're short on VC and unwilling to spend real money on more.
Examples like that aside, I don't see the harm when these boosts are offered in a purely optional way. The matter of perception is a non-issue in my mind; if the game truly was designed as it would have otherwise been, I don't see offering a DLC boost as a problem. There are countless examples of things where public perception is skewed. Take downloadable expansions, which some people bemoan because of the belief that the content must have been excised from the initial release so it could be sold to people later. While it's possible this has happened, most of the time this isn't the case--and we shouldn't simply do away with DLC because people might get the wrong impression about it.
And I don't buy the argument that the mere availability of these boosts will act as some kind of Jedi mind trick on players: If the idea of them offends you, I don't imagine you'll be buying them just because they're there. If a large group of players are going to ignore them, you might ask why include them at all--and the aforementioned point from Codemasters explains exactly why: some people want them.
The notion of using a boost to skip the grind in a game might be appalling to some, and I undoubtedly would have viewed them in the same way when I was younger. After all, that grind can represent some of a game's real meat, such as in a JRPG like Persona 4 where those countless battles open the door to the nuance that makes its combat enjoyable.
As long as the grind isn't made longer for the sake of selling boosts, who am I to stand in the way of someone short on time who doesn't mind paying to get access to the weapon or car they want?
But as I've gotten older, I've found myself with less time to play games. As a result, the grind that comes as a part of certain games--earning currency in a Forza or unlocking the multitude of weapons, attachments, and upgrades in a Battlefield--is becoming increasingly insurmountable. I'm not quite ready to start paying to skip those grinds, as there remains a satisfaction in earning those things for myself. But as long as that grind isn't made longer for the sake of selling boosts, who am I to stand in the way of someone short on time who doesn't mind paying to get access to the weapon, car, or whatever that they want? And if you're concerned that the grind is excessively long, I'd suggest holding out on buying a game at launch to find out if reviewers and other players have found that to be a problem--advice that I daresay would be a wise move no matter how you feel about this subject.
Really, the only question I have regarding these sorts of boosts is whether they ought to be free so that players have the flexibility to play games however they wish. But, as Codemasters says, people are willing to pay for them, and as long as that's the case, it's unlikely many publishers will pass up the opportunity to make an easy buck. As long as they don't allow that to affect game design in any way--and only if that's the case--I won't begrudge them much for it.
What side of the discussion do you fall on? Let us know your thoughts on these DLC boosts, as well as whether you've purchased one before, in the comments below.
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