Wednesday, September 26, 2012

#40: Nostalgia and the Perception of the Game Industry

Many of the people who read the things that I write have been playing games for a very long time. We have together poured tons of hours into exploring worlds, meeting people, and doing amazing things otherwise impossible in our regular lives. When you reflect back upon the games of previous eras, the odds are in favor of you looking back fondly, having pleasant memories of your experiences. However, the opposite is often said of modern gaming. When many of us think of modern games, we do not think highly of them. What is the reason for this? Is it because gaming actually has gotten worse over the years, or is there something else to it?

In all honesty, I do not believe that it is the former. There have been vast improvements in the way games play as the years have gone on. I know this from experience. Recently, I went back to replay a franchise from the Playstation 2 era, Jak and Daxter, because it had been re-released in the form of an HD Collection. When playing through, I realized something: Older games are much less fun than I remember. While I still enjoyed the series, I was also amazed at how much I tolerated when I played those old games as a child. I had forgotten about how aggravating it was to die at the very final part of a boss fight or a platforming segment and have to start over from the very beginning due to a lack of checkpoints. The frustration and tedium that is born from having to do many pointless, uninteresting, and arbitrary mini-games and challenges in order to unlock bonus content and extras seemed almost alien to me. This was the moment, for me personally, where I realized how far games have grown. Just like how PS2-era platformers grew out of the lives system of their predecessors (itself a hold over from the bygone arcade era), modern games in all genres have streamlined their mechanics and learned how to alleviate frustrations in order to make the experience more enjoyable. While I do not think modern games are perfect, I do not necessarily long for the “good old days” of gaming. So why do we get this feeling that old games were awesome and new games suck? This week, I will try to find the answers.

One of the most obvious reason for the nostalgia we have for previous generations is a combination of Sturgeon's Law and human nature. For all of the two of you who frequent the internet, yet are completely unaware of Sturgeon's Law, it is a rule discovered by science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon in 1951. When critics of the science-fiction genre said that the vast majority of its works were of poor quality, Sturgeon made the realization that, in fact, all genres and all forms of creative works are composed of mostly inferior, crappy productions with only a few real gems standing out. This rule has stood the test of time and has been condensed to “90% of everything is crap!” In that sense, works from this period in gaming are no different from previous eras. However, when we look back upon the games of old, we rarely remember all of the sub-par works. In fact, we mostly focus on the best works from prior generations simply because they are the ones that became more popular, widespread, and long lasting. These circumstances combined conspire to make us feel like we are surrounded by a pile of crap. While it is true, it is no less true than it was before.

But even with that in mind, we have not quite accounted for all of the nostalgia. No, there have to be other factors at work. I have a number of theories as to possible factors of this. My first theory is that the internet has made it much easier for dissenting opinions to become widespread. Think about it. In the old days, the only way we would be able to hear other people's opinions of games is through gaming magazines and friends. Nowadays, we have ready access to the opinions of millions of people at our fingertips. Notable dissent like the Retake Mass Effect movement among other vocal elements of the gaming community were almost completely unheard of until recent history. This is a unique era in that respect. The prevalence of the internet has had an amplifying effect on the spread of information. Not only do we communicate faster, we form opinions and do critical thinking/analysis much more rapidly as well. Furthermore, negative opinions are much more likely to be spread online than positive ones, which results in an overall warped perception of gaming culture.

Another factor working to reinforce our nostalgia for the “good old days” are the increasingly intrusive business practices of gaming publishers. In the old days, publishers did not have much choice in what they did with their games. Since most consoles lacked reliable internet connections, they had to release the complete final product on the disk without the capability of altering it in any way. Back then, for better or worse, the product you bought was generally the product you got simply due to the technological limitations of the consoles at the time. This meant that it was necessary to do extensive bug testing and proofreading. Nowadays all consoles (except for those of the unfortunate group of people that live in rural areas) have access to stable internet connections, which means games can be patched and extended after the fact. Of course, since publicly owned corporations tend to value profit over all others, it was natural that they would try to milk these new innovations for all they were worth with things like On-Disc DLC, Day 1 DLC, cutting corners only to patch the game later, and DRM schemes. which I have discussed in the past. Make no mistake, this would have happened earlier if the capability to do so was more widespread in prior console generations. Nonetheless, this has caused a warped perception of the games themselves. It is difficult for us to divorce the qualities of the overall game with the practices of the publishers who help create it, so it should not come as a surprise that people have begun to hold this generation in contempt.

My final theory as to why this nostalgia is so widespread is a very simple one. Because of the high risk/ high reward nature of the industry today, such as it is, games have become increasingly homogenized over time. It takes many more resources and significantly more time to make a AAA game now than it did in the past, we are all painfully aware of this fact. This means that where in the past, publishers could produce several different and diverse projects and were almost guaranteed to profit off their combined sales (some would flop, some would so well, yet they would generally balance each other out), it is a different story altogether for the modern industry. They have to be more risk-adverse in order to ensure that they mitigate losses and profit at the end of the day. Unfortunately, “risk-adversity” tends to lead to publishers wanting to copy the thing that is most successful, even if they do not fully understand it. In other words, where we saw diverse games in the past that could cater to different player tastes and demographics, we now see a shooter, another shooter, a shooter/RPG hybrid, and still another shooter. These are not just all shooters, but they are all shooters with the same “gritty realistic” tone and bland color palette consisting of fifty shades of gray. There is less balancing these games than there was in the past. While the indie scene and Kickstarter are certainly doing their part to mitigate this homogenization, they simply are not large enough to cause a significant impact. Besides, most people think about the AAA side of gaming when the gaming industry comes to mind.

Again, modern day gaming is by and large much better than gaming of previous generations. However, there is much that contributes to a perception of lower-quality than previous generations. Unfortunately, in any entertainment industry, especially one as expensive, culturally pervasive, and profitable as the gaming industry, perception is everything. If people start to think that games are sucking, they will just go find something else to spend their money on. The industry is not like food or gas. It is a frivolous expense that can be easily cut. The AAA industry will need to clean up its image and stop its unsustainable business practices if they wish to remain in the top dogs in gaming. It is a sad fact of life, but it is true and we all know it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#39: Kickstarter and the Risks Behind It

Many of the people who watch the gaming industry look at the trends and patterns of it and foresee many problems plaguing it going forward. The stock prices and profit margins for the biggest publishers in the industry are doing very poorly. AAA gaming is given ridiculous and unnecessarily high budgets that transform mild successes in terms of units sold into amazing failures in terms of profit. Lastly, a lot of the innovative elements of the industry feel stifled by the increasing oppressive environment fueled (knowingly or otherwise) by large publishers. Many great ideas and developers have had difficulty getting funding in this climate for a variety of reasons like niche appeal and risky ambition. People were getting fed up. And then something interesting happened. Double Fine studios, headed by Tim Schafer, decided to make a bold and up-until-then unheard of move: They decided to use Kickstarter to crowd-fund the studio's next project, allowing them to make the game of their dreams free of the influence of publishers. It made headlines and became very successful. This inspired other developers to place their own ideas on Kickstarter, including projects like Wasteland 2 and Ouya. Kickstarter campaigns have once again reached the headlines with Obsidian's Project Eternity.

For those of you who do not follow the industry, allow me to explain the gist of Kickstarter and crowd-funding. Kickstarter is a website that allows people to post their ideas for “creative projects” in the hopes that people will take interest in it and donate money towards funding the project. (Note: This does apply exclusively to video games. It can be any creative project that has a definite end goal and results in the creation of something.) When a project is posted, the poster sets a goal for the amount of money received through donors and the time allotted to reach this goal, usually within the span of one month. During this time, people pledge money to the project. While the money never changes hands until the very end, backers promise, as specified in the Terms of Service, to keep enough money in their account to cover their pledge. At the end of the time period, if the money pledged to the project meets or exceeds the goal posted at the beginning, then the project poster takes the money, after Kickstarter deducts its fee for services rendered, and agrees to spend it on completing the project to the best of their abilities in a binding legal contract enforced by Kickstarter's terms. If the project fails, then no money exchanges hands and the project goes unfunded. This means that the project has to set a goal high enough to theoretically cover the estimated costs of the project, but low enough to avoid falling short of its goals, providing an interesting competitive dynamic. For those with a creative mind, the concept of crowd funding can be extremely useful. Naturally, it would make sense to extend this to video game development, since it too is a creative endeavor. However, there are some unfortunate realities that we need to accept with Kickstarter.

The first thing we need to accept with Kickstarter is that successfully generating enough funds through the site is more difficult than most people would be led to believe. A successful Kickstarter campaign needs to be able to generate enough buzz and publicity to attract potential funders. This is easier said than done. The project in question would need to set itself apart from other projects by providing a unique gimmick, an interesting concept, or a pedigree that other projects would lack. We have seen this more than once. The Kickstarters that are most well known are from established developers and gaming personalities. Think of the campaigns I listed at the beginning of this article. Out of the four of them, three came from highly established brands and/or names in the industry. The last one, Ouya, was from a less established industry veteran and had the good fortune to be one of the gaming press's darlings. All of them had a bigger claim to fame than most Kickstarter campaigns have and thus attracted a larger crowd, meaning they did not have to worry about the second half of the equation. They had enough publicity and reputation to gain funding. Should another campaign come along that attracts enough people, they need to then convince those people to agree to part with their money in the name of funding a project. To do that, they need to be convinced that the campaigner and their team have the ability to actually create the game. Writing up a design document alone will no longer cut it here. It would be necessary to have a working model of the game and either a gameplay footage reel or, preferably, a demo version available for play. Funding and/or time would be essential in making this a reality, so a layman making a game from start to finish using only Kickstarter funding is highly impractical. All of this combined results in less than half of all gaming related Kickstarter campaigns earning enough to reach their goal. (Note: That statistic includes tabletop games as well as video games.)

Though that still leaves a number of campaigns that achieve the goal and get successfully funded. You may be tempted to believe that because they received money, they now have to build the game. There is a bit of a problem with that though, which leads me to my next point: We have no guarantee that a Kickstarter campaign intended to make a video game will actually result in the creation of a video game. Before anybody of my readers panic, let me make this perfectly clear, by the terms of service put forth by the folks that run Kickstarter, which all of the users agree to, all of the funding for a Kickstarter project MUST go towards that project. The person/company who ran the campaign will be held legally responsible if they take the money and instead go on a vacation in the Bahamas or do anything else with it that could not realistically benefit the project. In that sense, the contributors can feel secure in their investment. However, just like with investors and stock owners of major corporations, Kickstarter campaign donors are not guaranteed a return of investment: There is always a risk involved. While the money gained does have to go towards the project outlined on Kickstarter, they are not obligated to succeed and create what was specified. There are very good reasons (legal, practical, and moral) to not hold them responsible for the success of the project, but it is an important thing to make note of. Unlike AAA publishers who have the authority and responsibility to check-up on the project and oversee its development, possibly firing and directing staff on the project (for better or worse), Kickstarter donors have no form of oversight unless the campaigner chooses to give them one, thus the gamble is significantly higher. They are going on blind faith that the creator has the skill, knowledge, and time to complete the project. It is not a deal-breaker as donors acknowledge that they will make no profit beyond the rewards specified by campaigners and contributions are rarely high enough to cause people to worry if they made the right decision, but it is something we need to acknowledge regarding the crowd-funding model.

The last thing I wanted to point out with the trend of Kickstarter funding is that not every game would work as a Kickstarter campaign. In fact, the games that would potentially benefit from this method of acquiring funds cover a very narrow spectrum. An ideal Kickstarter game would have a budget out of reach for most people and small, start-up companies normally. However, they cannot be too big or they would never be able to acquire enough funding. This would mostly cover games along the lines of indie games, two-dimensional platformers, isometric Role Playing Games, and others along those lines. Games like that would only require a couple of thousands to one or two million dollars in funding. While many people would scoff at me for saying “only a few million dollars,” keep in mind that most games in the AAA market cost several tens of millions dollars or more. Even in the PS2 era, some games cost around ten million dollars or more to produce. Getting that much money through a Kickstarter would be next to, if not outright, impossible. The only semi-reliable way to acquire that kind of cash is through the financial backing of large publishers like Ubisoft or EA. Rarely do we see a group of people or a business that has the savviness to remain independent while funding and making consistently good games. It is much more difficult than it sounds, which is why publishers are still around. As much as we dislike companies like Activision and EA, they do serve a purpose. I feel like this is common sense to a degree, yet I do find that people on the internet sometimes seem to forget this simple fact.

I applaud this use of Kickstarter to begin funding projects that might not otherwise see the light of day. However, we do have to acknowledge the limitations of crowd-funding. Our industry is one that is fundamentally fueled by high-risk, high-reward investments that consume tons of money. While we can debate the necessity of AAA budgets being as high as they are (I am very outspoken in my own opposition), they are a thing in this industry and fuel many of the gameplay advancements we have seen. Until a decent conversation can be had about the fundamental nature of the industry, such as it is, Kickstarter will be far from feasible as a suitable alternative to the current business model. Even after we reevaluate AAA gaming (considering the state of the industry, it is inevitable that somebody comes in and changes how it gets run), I remain unconvinced that Kickstarter could do very much beyond small start-up projects. It would simply require far more money trading hands than would be feasible through crowd-funding. So while I do praise this wave of innovation, I urge you to remain level headed regarding the use of Kickstarter and realize that it is not the great new way to fund video games that many people make it out to be.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

#38: The RPG Genre: Back to the Drawing Board

Most people who read this regularly are aware of how much I love Role Playing Games. I love them for their emphasis on story and player interaction with the story through their mechanic. It is fun to play through these games and be truly immersed in a brand new world and its story. However, these games are far from flawless. Being video games, they can only do so much in terms of simulating a world. Since all games are just computer programs, they have to be represented in ways that a computer can easily process and display. In the old days, the limitations caused by the technology of the time inspired a number of RPG genre conventions. That was way back then. In the modern day, many of these technical limitations no longer exist because of the way technology constantly evolves. Developers are no longer bound by the technological limits of that past and are capable of doing much more with their games.

However, many of the old conventions and styles that were seen back then, once used to abstract many of the things that were (and sometimes still are) difficult to represent any other way, are still present in the RPGs being created in the here and now. A few days ago, I had a conversation on Twitter with contributor Grey Carter about some of these mechanics that have withstood the test of time. Specifically, whether or not it is worth it to keep these mechanics around. In this week's post, I will apply my analysis to the topic and see if video really did kill the radio star. Is it time we rethought RPGs and how they act in a mechanical sense?

As usual when writing an article like this, it helps to define what I am referring to so that we are all on the same page. When I refer to an RPG, I mean any story-focused game with a strong sense of character progression and/or customization. This can mean anything from the Final Fantasy games of old all the way to more modern games like Fallout: New Vegas or Mass Effect 3. I will be taking a look at how these games use old school mechanics and why they use them in the way that they do. Then, we will see if it is possible to do things differently now, either making the game either more immersive or improve them in terms of control, role-playing, or entertainment value.

One of the biggest conventions of the RPG genre is the use of skill points as a way to represent the player character's proficiency with regards to certain disciplines, both in and out of combat. In a (semi-)turned based RPG, it makes sense for characters to have stats that represent their ability to perform certain actions successfully, be it firing a gun, casting a spell, swinging a sword, hacking a computer, or talking their way out a dangerous situation. Since it is difficult to have much in the way of player input in a turn-based game, skill levels are the only way to differentiate one player's character and style from another player's. The only way to show player progression in a turn based game is to increase their character's stats and skills, which affect overall damage output and chance of success. Considering the technical and mechanical limitations of such games, implementing a system of stats and skills the determine how talented the player is makes total sense.

When we move into a three dimensional, action-oriented space, this quickly becomes irrelevant. In an action-RPG like the more recent installments in the Fallout franchise, shooting mechanics and player skill are now factors in the success of the player. However, in these games, there exists a system of stats and skills that influence the outcome of confrontations and events. Improving weapon skills increases the damage output and accuracy of weapons governed by it while doing the same to non-combat skills allows the player to do more with them via Speech checks and minigames. Sadly, I do not think any of this is necessary. Since we now have a fully realized world with combat comparable to (though not better than) many First Person Shooters and minigames that require player skill to execute properly, it makes less sense to abstract these elements. For RPGs like these, it may no longer make sense to even have skill levels and points for the character since the player's own skill, which will improve over the course of the game, can be taken into account. This can even be extended to non-combat scenarios. Lockpicking and hacking can be done through minigames as demonstrated by recent titles like Fallout 3, whose lockpicking is widely regarded as one of the best infiltration minigames of all time, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which had a very interesting and enjoyable hacking minigame (sadly marred by a few questionable design decisions in the game) and the best conversation mechanic I have ever played with. Fallout 3 also had a hand in proving that skill points in these non-combat aspects of an RPG are completely arbitrary. In the game, it was impossible to even make an attempt to pick a lock unless the player had a high enough Lockpicking skill to do so. This makes even less sense upon realization that these higher level locks are genuinely tougher to pick. It is more logical either make the game more difficult, or a have a skill that governs what locks the player can pick. Having both is excessive. Though I understand that many would be wary of introducing player skill as an element of play, since it has the potential to leave some players out due to a lack of it, this is why modern games have adjustable difficulty as a way to equilize the imbalance between skilled and unskilled players. In the end, it is a design choice to be made by the creators of the game. I just believe it is worth thinking about this decision when going forward, since some games simply have no use for these mechanics.

The other common trope used in RPGs that I will be going over is the concept of vendor trash. By vendor trash, I mean items the take up inventory space, yet only serve the purpose of being sold to merchants for money. I can understand why developers do this even today. It makes no sense for the player to kill a wolf and have it drop five gold coins. To facilitate immersion, they would instead have a wolf drop a pelt that the player can then sell to vendors to make money. Though this concept is immersive and makes sense for a world, it is not exactly fun for the player to have to carry around tons of loot that takes up valuable inventory space which could be used to carry more useful items like weapons, armor, medical supplies and food. While I am a fan of forcing players to make meaningful choices, it is hardly meaningful to force players to choose between picking up a new sword or picking up a gold ingot that can be sold for money used to purchase a new sword.

In my opinion, vendor trash still has a place in RPGs, but it should be handled differently. Since vendor trash is effectively just gold waiting to be cashed out, it should be in a separate category and take up no space. While some may argue that it is not immersive to carry all sorts of vendor trash and not have it weigh the player down, I would argue contrary to that. When a designer forces the player to interact too much with the underlying systems of a game world, they start to lose their immersion. Thus, it is important to balance ease of use with simulation, which is far easier said than done. Also, by that logic, it would be unimmersive to allow the player to store tens of thousands of gold coins in their inventory without taking up space.

It is also possible to use vendor trash in other ways. For example, in Final Fantasy XII, which has the unlimited inventory space that many JRPGs do (as an interesting side note), did away with random animals dropping gold coins when they die (as an abstraction of taking their pelts) in favor of vendor trash. What they also did was introduce a new type of good in the vaious shops called Bazaar Goods. How it worked was that when the player sold cetain combinations of vendor trash to dealers, it would unlock certain items and item packs in the Bazaar. The game explained that selling vendor trash to various stores introduced these component items into the economy, allowing people to use those items in the construction of new ones to be put up for sale. This was an interesting way of making seemingly useless items have more purpose beyond just being gold in item form. After all, people would start making items with the goods that adventurers would gather and sell. Designers should put more thought into systems like this because RPG players will usually end up interacting with the economy very often. It is worth it to make this experience as painless, yet interesting, as possible.

To be fair, both of these mechanics were in place well before RPGs existed in video game form. Old RPGs, both from the West and from the East, take inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop games in that vein and are, as such, deeply entreched in the way people think about RPGs. Back then, they had use as a gameplay abstraction to otherwise realistic events. While a healthy respect for tradition is always a valuable thing to have, I feel like it is necessary to analyze old ways of thinking to see if they are still necessary in the modern era. When technology and game design evolve, some of the old ways of thinking no long apply. In the cases I outlined above, both mechanics still have merit in modern games, but they may need to be tweaked a little in order to make them more palatable. Though I am sure there are other examples of outdated mechanics presisting longer than they should have, I cannot think of any more that need discussion. Nonetheless, it is important to do an analysis like this if we want to improve this medium as a whole.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

#37: Mass Effect 3: The Problem With its Multiplayer Microtransactions

By now, people are well aware of the many failings of the third Mass Effect game: It had Day 1, On-Disc DLC that seemed far too integrated with the game to be anything but an obvious cash grab, most of the game failed to acknowledge the player's choices from previous games and made them feel irrelevent, and the ending was a failure in more ways than one. However, there is one area of Mass Effect 3 that people tend to ignore, the cooperative multiplayer. I am not here to talk ill of the multiplayer mode in its entirety. In fact, I enjoyed my brief time with the mode. They used the core mechanics of the game in a very clever way to produce an enjoyable and coheasive experience. However, I have one big gripe with the cooperative mode. That would be its use of microtransactions and how they affect the overall experience.

Theoretically, I am not against the concept of microtransactions. It is fine for developers to charge for unlock codes to things players can get by just playing the game normally. From a business standpoint, it makes sense and is a good way to increase the income generated by the game. It also allows players with less free time to compete with players who play constantly by using money to gain the rewards normally obtained through gaining experience. Both parties, the creators and the consumers, stand to benefit from offering this option. Considering the state of the AAA industry, it makes sense for a publisher to try to make as much money as they can off an investment while maintaining the good will of the fanbase, and this is one of the best ways to do that.

It is not the fact that Mass Effect 3 had microtransactions that bothered me. What bothered me is the fact that they allowed microtransactions to negatively affect the design of how the game progresses in another obvious attempt and jarring cash grab. Allow me to explain. The way progression in Mass Effect 3's cooperative mode works is that the when the player finishes a match, they gain experience towards the class they played as for that match as well as in-game credits which can be used to purchase weapons, characters, upgrades, and items. Here is where things get interesting. It is impossible to directly purchase the these items. Instead, the player must purchase packs which have a random chance of dropping the item wanted. As icing on the cake, the player does not need to use in-game credits to make these purchases. If they do not wish to go through match after match to build up credit to buy packs, they can always use real world money to purchase them. I can only assume that the reason they chose to handle microtransactions in this manner is to maximize profits. However, handling it in this manner ruined the player experience in a few ways.

The biggest way this ruins the experience is that it can potentially negate any advantage one might gain through microtransactions. The draw of using microtransactions, at least on the player's end of the bargain, is that it allows a player to earn rewards for a small fee that would require time on their part to unlock normally. It is paying for expedience. This is lessened through the use of packs. The developer cannot guarentee that someone paying via microtransactions will receive the item they wish to buy, which defeats the purpose of having the option. (Again, from the consumer standpoint, not the standpoint of the publisher, whose goal is to make money.) Rather than give customers a guarenteed payoff for spending hard-earned money on the game, they give them the chance to waste their money by purchasing packs without getting anything of value out of it. The only reason I can see to use this model is to capitalize on people's inability to gauge purcahses and hope that they spend tons of money on the store before realizing exactly how much they spent. While part of me thinks that this is sheer genius on the part of EA, the other part sees nothing but a slimy and unrewarding business model surrounding an otherwise enjoyable game mode.

The other reason this negatively impacts the cooperative mode is the fact that it completely randomizes the reward system. A big problem with the system Mass Effect 3 has in place is that there is no way to reduce the pool from which you draw items from. The same list of items can drop from all of the packs in the game. The only difference between packs is the likelihood of obtaining rare items. Many players have bought hundreds of packs and only obtained a few items in the same category of equipment they will actually use. Countless stories on the internet exist where a player who mainly uses Generic Weapon Type X gets nothing but Type Y from the packs they are buying. This results in being unable to upgrade their equipment to more powerful weapons for several experience levels worth of matches, meaning that they are farther behind than other players who have been favored by the random number gods. When designing this system, they should have taken into account how it could and would affect the overall progression of the players of this cooperative mode.

Now, I have come down very harshly on the microtransaction system included in Mass Effect 3. However, I do believe it could have worked. There are alternatives the team at Bioware could have used to include microtransactions while preventing, or at least alleviating, the progression problem that belies the current method of inducing them. The first of my proposals involves scrapping the trading card game-like system we have now in favor of one of direct purchases using either in-game credits or cash. In this system, every weapon, character, and item is unlockable from the start. Each of them will be assigned a price in both cash and real world credits. To unlock an item, the player will need to either save up the credits through playing matches or by outright purchasing them with money. Upgrading weapons would also cost credits or money. Since we are no longer using random draw and are allowing people to pick out and save up for items, the prices would need to be elevated in order to compensate. I would advocate this system because it would place player progression more in their own control. This way, they do not feel like they are not getting anything out of playing the game or spending money because they know exactly what they are saving up for or buying. There is complete transparacy and no one will come out angry or disappointed. While I personally consider this to be the ideal, I can see why a publisher might not like it. It does reduce the ammount of money they can earn through microtransactions and it reduces the Skinner Box style enjoyment a player might feel when buying packs.

With that in mind, I have another proposal. My next plan would be to shamelessly rip off the microtransaction/drop system for a very successful free-to-play game: Team Fortress 2. I am sure the vast majority of the ones reading this are already familiar with the system in place with Team Fortress 2, though I will do my best to explain it for those who are not familiar with it. In Team Fortress 2, the player is allowed to equip items that have positive and/or negative effects on the player character. These items are available for sale from the in-game store for real-world currency. However, players do not have to spend money to obtain these items. It is possible, through playing the game, to obtain these items through random item drops. They occur semi-randomly in the game and often enough that the player will obtain them at a steady rate. The positive of this system is that it keeps the Skinner Box manipulation of players, giving them the satisfaction of getting great items after enough tries, yet allows players who do not like this style of play to purchase the items they want directly. This provides an outlet for those who dislike random number generators while maintaining the option to just keep playing for a chance at getting the item. I would advocate more frequent drops then Team Fortress 2 has when going this route, as their drop rates are a little low for my tastes and doing so would make drop hunting less annoying. However, as an option in general, this style is very appealing.

But let us once again assume that EA is not sold on that style of handling microtransactions. Let us go further in our assumption by saying that they are insistant on using the trading card game-like booster pack system that takes both in-game credits and real world currency. It is possible to make a few minor tweaks to the system already in place in order to improve it. The biggest problem with the system is how it can give the player a really long run of bad luck by giving them weapons they have no desire to use. This is caused by the fact that every pack purchased draws from the collective pool of every item in the cooperative mode while only affecting the spawn rates of rarer items. What we can do to make this less luck-based is to divide packs into different categories. It should be possible to split up the weapons between packs so that there are dedicated packs for SMGs, Assasult Rifles, Sniper Rifles, Shotguns, and Pistols. Doing this gives the player the ability to control the general type of the items dropped while maintaining the random element inherent in the system. It is similarly possible to do this with new characters by giving them a dedicated pack. Of course prices for these packs would need to be adjusted. If they wanted to, they could still have the option to buy those packs that can contain anything, but they would need to be cheap to encourage that pack's purcahse over others. By giving players a slight control over drops (by affecting which type of item drops), the possibility that the player is negatively impacted by random draw is minimized, if not outright eliminated. It also preserves the Skinner Box that can encourage players to continuously play the game or spend money on it.

This addition to the Mass Effect franchise, the cooperative mode, is a fun extra added to the game. It has all of the ingredients of a good time. To me, it is good verging on being great. The mode was marred, however, by the way it handled microtransactions. They could have been done well and served as more than just another cheap attempt to make more money. (Though that would have always been a motive, there is no avoiding it.) It could have added to the accessibility of the game, but it has to be done in a more intelligent way. The system in place with Mass Effect 3 feels sloppily done and hamfisted into the mode, giving players the impression that they are being exploited by corporate. Since it seems like free-to-play is becoming a bigger part of the industry, it will be even more important going forward to master the inclusion of microtransactions and their affect on the game. Hopefully, developers and publishers alike can learn from this game's failures and move forward.