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.


Aldowyn said...

Basically, the article boils down to this: The multiplayer component is well done, but broken by the inability to control progress. Here are some options. Learn to design, idiots :P

Personally I'm in favor of the types of packs method. I DO like the tier system, where you can get commons from starter packs, at least 1 rare from veteran packs, and so on, for larger amounts of money. It's just that it causes a tendency of what you play being influenced by what you get, instead of the other way around like it should be.

newdarkcloud said...

The thing with that is, loosely controlling what you get and tiered packs don't have to be mutually exclusive. It's entirely possible to meld the system I discuss in the third option with their original system. It would obviously result in a lot of different packs (which might be a problem), but it would be a nice marriage of affecting drop rates and the overall pool.

This would obviously need an adjustment in terms of the prices and it might require the inclusion of more equipment, but I think it could work.

Aldowyn said...

Yep totally agree. I thought about mentioning that, in fact.

Although you would end up with... at least 15 different weapon packs (5 weapons 3 tiers each). Possibly being too complicated for it's own good.

newdarkcloud said...

You could get by with two tiers (a regular one and one where super-rares are more likely to drop), but that still does lead to potential overcomplication.

Ugh. This is what happens when you put Yu-Gi-Oh in my Mass Effect. Things can end up stupid or overcomplicated.

SougoXIII said...

Ahhh Yu-Gi-Oh... That brings back many fond memories.