A couple of recent Division 2 community flare-ups have illustrated the challenges of modern video game publishing (and purchasing), as Ubisoft slices and dices its upcoming game into numerous special editions and expansions while still trying to make players feel like they’re getting a great deal.
Last Tuesday, Ubisoft announced that their March 2019 cover shooter The Division 2 was available for pre-order and gave fans six different versions of the game to choose from. Those versions ranged from the $60 standard edition to the $250 Phoenix Shield Collector’s Edition, complete with articulated figurine, steel game case and a map of the game’s Washington, D.C. setting.
Shortly after the various editions were made available, fans spotted some odd things in the fine print. The first one concerns Ubisoft’s previous announcement that all of The Division 2’s expansions would be free for all players. That’s still the case, but there now appears to be a way to pay to access them earlier. Second, the three most expensive of the six editions on sale include an enticing in-game perk: players who pay up will get an expanded item stash, which will let them store more items than players who buy the lesser, cheaper editions of the game.
Ubisoft had made a big deal about the post-release expansions for The Division 2 being free, which made it confusing that it would now offer earlier access to those expansions in exchange for money.
Until recently, major third-party publishers selling major games that have major post-release content plans have charged for the added content. Activision charged fans for Destiny expansions. EA charged fans for the map and mode expansions for 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront. And Ubisoft charged for expansions to the original Division, which added things like a procedurally-generated “underground” mode an intense survival variation of the game.
Some players complained that those types of paid expansions split the player base, making it harder to coordinate and play with each other since everyone isn’t guaranteed to own the same stuff. This is a problem for players but can also backfire on publishers if the game they keep trying to sell expansions for has a disaffected, dwindling player base. We’ve recently seen a drift away from that approach and toward free post-release expansions, with EA at the forefront, pledging to give all Battlefront II and Titanfall 2 post-release content away for free. Ubisoft pledged to do something similar with The Division 2, and even shifted in that direction toward the end of the first Division’s lifespan. The most exciting late-cycle update for that game added new modes and expanded the game’s map, and it was free for everyone.
Ubisoft is still saying that The Division 2’s episodic expansions will be free, but those who buy the game’s Year One Pass will get access to them—or to parts of them (it’s confusing)—a week early. The standard edition without the pass sells for $60. The Gold Edition that contains the pass goes for $100. Given that The Division contains both cooperative player vs. environment (PvE) and competitive player vs. player (PvP) game types, fans started wondering on Twitter, message boards and Reddit just how that week of advance access might imbalance the competitive parts of the game. It started to seem as though, if players wanted a fair experience during those first few weeks, Ubisoft was actually requiring players to pay for the expansions it had previously promised would be free. Not so, the developers say.
“We know there is a competitive aspect to the game,” Division 2 community developer Yannick Banchereau said in a Thursday “State of the Game” stream about the game. “We are not looking at the early access to be a way for people to build their character early.” He said that early admission players would be pushed toward the story parts of the expansion and seemingly have aspects that give them a competitive advantage cut off. “When it comes to everything that is competitive—items, PVP—these are things we’re going to be looking at very carefully in terms of what is available during the early access,” he said. The game’s new eight-player raids would not be part of the early access offering at all.
The expanded stash issue was contentious as well. The original Division launched with an item stash that could fit 70 pieces of guns and armor. Hardcore players in these types of games tend to accumulate a lot of saved up loot, and are loath to part with it due to inventory shortfalls. (My Destiny playing colleagues inform me this is a constant problem in that game, as well.) After a lot of fan demand, The Division’s stash space was later expanded to 150 slots. The idea that, for the Division 2, you would have to pay at least $120 for the game’s Ultimate edition to get the biggest possible stash seemed odd and galling. In an informative and otherwise cool-headed video on the topic, YouTuber Skillup called the offer “straight-up shit.”
The stash offer has turned into one of those quintessential pre-release flashpoints, where the stakes of the issue are vaguely defined and its impact on the finished game is impossible to know. It seems to offer the best version of a thing that is important to the game’s most hardcore players, but the developers can’t or won’t say precisely how much better the expanded stash will be, citing the need to still figure out the right balance. In fact, they’re now going out of their way to convince upset players that getting the expanded stash, which is part of a bonus in these deluxe editions called the Elite Agent Pack, isn’t necessary.
“We know how important stash size is, and we’ve been through a lot of conversations and improvements in the Division 1 regarding stash size,” Banchereau said in the State of the Game stream. “Where we wanted to reassure you is the fact that we want to have enough stash size for everybody so that you don’t need to buy that Elite Agent Pack to be able to store all your items. This one is just a bonus for the people who really want to horde and collect everything, but the comfortable basis for us is going to be what is available to everyone. We are not looking at diminishing the amount of stash size available just to push people into buying that pack.” Despite this, it is very hard to ascertain exactly how the default stash size can be sufficient while Ubisoft continues to offer a way to pay to expand it.
In comments to Skillup and during the livestream, the people making The Division 2 say they can’t even say how big the various stash sizes will be, citing the need to continue to balance the in-development game.
Big-game marketing is confusing. It’s salesmanship, and salesmanship is by its nature manipulative. It may well turn out that neither of these things were worth getting upset about; early expansion access may not upset the PvP balance, and extra stash size might turn out to be unnecessary.
Ubisoft and other publishers love to make things complicated, love to tempt players with an upsell and perpetually risk infuriating those who look at all these multiple editions and fine print caveats and wonder if they’re getting a bad deal. As more games shift to a supposedly free post-release model, more publishers are likely to try to make money through less obvious ways than selling expansions. It’s a bramble, and players should do their best to pay attention to those thorny details.