There is, and should be, a huge amount of discussion and debate regarding the exploitative nature of so many practices in modern video games. From gacha and lootboxes to in-app purchases and meaningless cosmetics, right up to the recent idiocy regarding NFTs, both game players and the gaming press need to be holding to account the publishers who will stoop to any low to milk an extra few bucks. But while they’re at it, we might as well take what advantages we can. And perhaps stop so ferociously attacking anyone who does.
I started playing Diablo: Immortal with no expectation of getting anything positive out of it. Activision Blizzard isn’t exactly a company in which one should have high hopes, and I assumed this was going to be simply some sort of ghastly cash-in on the license, immediately haranguing me for my money in order to take part in its gamey loops. It turned out that instead it offered a whole bunch of genuinely fun entertainment without requiring any payment for a significant number of hours, leading Zack and I to have a chat about how much this had surprised us.
What I wasn’t expecting was to then be held accountable for all the ills of modern gaming as a result of this oh-so-obviously Blizzard-funded unmarked advertorial (Activision Blizzard loves Kotaku as we all know, constantly desperate to throw money our way), discovering myself amid a firestorm of acrimony, having sunk so far into corruption as to have had some fun before a game’s finances became predatory.
This whole subject is miserable for anyone in the gaming press who wants to discuss it with any notion of nuance. Like in almost all internet-based discourse, there is only one acceptable view at any time, and any modicum of deviance from it is grotesque heresy that must be screamed at until silenced. Dare to venture a toe off the path of righteousness and you will be harassed and condemned, and most of all, informed about how corrupt you are, in the pay of the publisher, and living proof of every deranged conspiracy theory the frothing responder has collected.
A large part of the issue, when it comes to all these sorts of potentially dubious practices within gaming, is not what a particular game is actually doing, but rather what the current discourse is claiming it is. So it is that you will see anyone daring to mention the fun they’re having in Genshin Impact being swamped by furiously-finger-wagging Twitter Police, while another person wittering on about their recent win in Fifa 22 receives no such attention. Then a week may pass, a louder noise made about one game than the other, and the tide violently turns to crash on the opposite beach.
Which is all to say: so much of the discourse is not actually from people who actually give a shit about the specifics of the subject, but rather those who just like being angry at The State Of Things, said State being dictated by the Thing their favorite YouTuber was most recently spittle-flecked shrieking about.
So it is that when I said to Zack on Tuesday, “Hey, shall we do a VG Chat about Diablo Immortal?” and he replied, “Yeah, sure,” we walked straight into the tornado of Current Discourse. The two of us had independently downloaded the free game to our mobile devices, and then both found ourselves playing a huge amount of it in our spare time. And given we’d both assumed it’d be nickel-and-diming us from the go, we found as we chatted that we shared our surprise at how it hadn’t needed us to fork over a penny. We knew it would eventually. Nothing is really free. But the conclusion we came to was, we’d had so much entertainment so far for free, that we’d walk away from the game happy the moment we hit the paywall.
This, however, isn’t a currently acceptable perspective, because, you know, I read a guy on Twitter saying he saw a streamer mentioning that some guy on YouTube said it would cost $100,000 to fully level up a character. And that’s, like, INSANE! And here’s these two guys on Kotaku (because of course it’s Kotaku, right, that gutter site I’ve stopped reading forever over 17 times now) defending that! They’re there saying, “Hey, it’s fine for Blizzard to force every player of the game to have to pay to win! We think it’s great! Thanks for all the money, Blizzard!” And so on.
What does all this inside-blaseball, self-indulgent blather have to do with the headline of the article? (“Clickbait!”) Quiet you. It’s because this groupthink rage may be something preventing so many people from just having a great time with a free thing, then ditching it when it wants to exploit. Or it may not. I’m not entirely sure.
If you like action-RPGs, perhaps you enjoyed Titan Quest and Torchlight, then maybe a thing you could do is download Diablo: Immortal onto your phone, and then play it until you run out of free stuff to do.
Immortal will throw the most hilariously stupid number of different screens at you, page after page after book after scroll of numbers to watch tick up, then eventually satisfyingly click on to “win” a bunch more numbers going up on another screen. That monkey-get-peanut reward scheme is the entirely pointless motivating factor between its levels of killing squillions of enemies—pointless because, unlike so much of mobile gaming, the actual levels of killing squillions of enemies are good enough to be motivation themselves. There are huge storylines, epic battles, instant team-ups with strangers, bounties, challenges... Then at a certain point, it’ll push its luck and ask for cash, and you can say, “Thanks, byeeee!”
And the same can be true of the wonderful Gems Of War, or, yes I’ll dare say it, Genshin Impact. Yes, it’s not true of so very many nasty little mobile games, and indeed nasty giant AAA sports games. Ones that act like the cartoon drug dealer, hanging around outside the school saying the first pill’s free. Others that weave an entire social life around you and then suddenly lock the clubhouse door and charge for the key. They suck, and it’s your and our job to call them out.
But some of them...don’t suck? For a while, at least.
I want to add a few massive caveats here. So often games like these can overlap heavily with gambling, and like gambling, I believe it is the responsibility of the provider to ensure their product does not take advantage of those susceptible to gambling addiction.
I would, personally, want to see this extended far beyond the current enormous spending limits some have in place, and see it as a regulated industry that is simply not allowed to accept over a certain amount of money from an individual in a specific time. I’m certain there are others who would strongly disagree with this, who would see such measures as an infringement of civil liberties, and we can have that discussion.
Equally, I feel very uncomfortable about many of these games’ profitability being based around the expectation of whales—those who will spend vast sums on a specific game, the ones who’ll spend that $100,000 (or whatever it might be) to see their Diablo character wearing the spikiest outfit. Part of me wants to dismiss such people as idiots, but another, better, wiser part of me is aware of the array of mental health conditions and personality types who are more prone to such extravagance, and detests the idea of such people being taken advantage of.
Honestly, if it were announced tomorrow that new strict laws were being put in place that would effectively make the current gacha/pay-to-win models unsustainable, I’d lose no sleep. It’d be nice to know such exploitation was gone.
But this brings me back to my original point: this is a very nuanced topic. If Blizzard really has designed Immortal to allow someone to spend that much money paying to have the best PvP opportunities, I find that grotesque. I would dearly love to sit down with the people who chose that, who allowed it to be that way, and hear them try to justify it. It’s shitty, and they should be better people. At the same time, no one needs to do it. No one needs to be the best at PvP in a mobile ARPG, especially when they could just buy Grim Dawn up front and go do the same there, far better.
So within this miasma, in the gaps between the extremes, there are most of us, who can take advantage of Blizzard’s making many hours of a really fun game be completely free. I would obviously far, far prefer they made the game cost $10 up front, or whatever, and then left me alone to enjoy it. But that’s not how things are. So why not exploit the freeness and walk away at the moment of paying?
Is my argument here endorsing a corrupt system, and in fact encouraging it? Is it an argument that accepts the suffering of a few for the entertainment of the majority? Yeah, it might be. I worry about all this. I might be really wrong about this. Or I might be—and this is where things get radical—a bit wrong.
A screaming tornado of hate won’t help anyone in such situations. Or indeed in any other situations, since we’re here. It’s complicated.
Updated: 06/10/22, 10.15 a.m. ET:
Here are some of the good arguments against the above article made so far. I’ll keep updating as more arrive.
I get your point, but there’s also the issue that lots of people go into these games never intending to spend money and then at some point they start to spend money (like me. I spent money on Dragalia Lost and KOF AS. Not a lot, but still, I caved, y’know?).
Lets not forget these games do those constant nags for you to spend money because they work. People want to have fun and be strong and do cool stuff in games, and when the game keeps dangling that shiny carrot every 5 minutes, people will give in.
I’m not sure that “just play until you can’t progress without $$$” is the best plan, since it puts people in the position where they might then be compelled to spend money.
Many people can do what the article describes, play the fun free parts of the game and then walk once they start asking for money. A smaller percentage will chip in a few bucks. And then the rare “whales” will throw absurd amounts of money at the game. That’s been the business model for these games for years. Everyone starts with the “novel” strategy you describe here. But understand that there will be some people who fail, and spend far more than is reasonable on the game, and that you (by writing this article) are helping to facilitate that.
The title is actively encouraging people to take the first hit for free and risk getting sucked in though. Like you see the problem but you’re still flippant about steering people into harm’s way. I understand where you’re coming from—I played the game and didn’t spend anything either. And if I wrote about games professionally, I suppose it would be convenient to discuss what I enjoyed about the game. But I think people should be discouraged from participating in these predatory systems despite knowing I’m not susceptible to them, because other people clearly are.
That’s still endorsing it though, as the non-paying players who are just ‘having fun’ still end up supporting the whale model. See, the free players end up serving as something for the whales to compare themselves to. They spend god knows how much and come away thinking “Gee, my gear is so much better than like 90% of the playerbase.”
Casinos and lotteries are regulated out the wazoo, with very strict rules regarding things like payouts, age restrictions, and informing the playerbase about the odds. Does Diablo Immortal have all of that?
Look, if you’re going to pull the double standard card here then basically Immortal needs to jump through all the same hoops as a sports betting app like Caesar’s Playbook. Oh, and it would need to outright be labeled as a gambling game.
I can see what you’re getting at, and it is a nuanced take, but the fact is the game is set up to get you hooked and then start paying money. That might come after 45 minutes, an hour, three hours- but the longer you play the more invested you will be, and the more invested you are the more likely you are to spend, and then you hit the sunk cost issue.
The game is hostile towards you. You aren’t a customer, you’re a mark.
Casinos give you free drinks if you’re at the tables, does that mean you can exploit them to get pissed cheaply? Perhaps, but most people wind up spending more than they intended, and some end up losing a whole lot.
If you’re someone who can walk in and walk out; great, fill your boots. Over the whole group of people who play though, it’s a net negative, and you being able to resist a dark design pattern doesn’t make up for all the people who can’t.
The real thing that buries DI is that the game largely plays itself- there’s no exploration or decisions, it’s just run in a straight line to collect numbers. It’s a less interesting retread of what’s come before. It’d be terrible to get invested in something so uninventive and dull.
Yes, people could stand to be more civil. As always, self control on the internet is in short supply.
That said, I don’t think that writing an article that drives players to download Blizzard’s newest blood-sucking app is the “exploit” you’re suggesting it is. More people playing it (for free or otherwise) is what Blizzard wants. Blizzard already knows the majority of people are going to spend a dime on it. They aren’t Coke, for whom the majority of their revenue is people buying an odd can of soda here or there throughout the year. They want whales (i.e. people with addictive personalities and low self control). Blizzard design’s their games and sales models around hooking whales, and the more people try the game the more will get hooked into it.
I don’t think you’re on Blizzards payroll. I think you’re willing to look the other way on — or at least downplay — what has been allowed to become a nightmarishly mundane yet still grotesquely exploitative model of monetization because the game is kind of fun for a phone game.
That take misses the point entirely. Most people agree The Witcher 3 was a great game, but if every time you booted it up your PC ejected a swarm of mosquitoes then I don’t think the quality of the game really matters anymore. People might not be so receptive to the opinion that “it really is a pretty good game if you just ignore the mosquitoes bites! And hey, if you get real good at swatting them, the mosquitoes don’t even get you!”
For those looking to avoid some of these patterns, there’s a site that calls them out. It’s not an exhaustive list of games, but it’s a start.