The Decline of Triple-A Publishers

Triple-A, to some it means one of the top level of hockey you can achieve before professional, to some it means being able to get roadside help in the USA; but to gamers, it means massive publishing companies. EA, Activision Blizzard, Microsoft, Bandai, Ubisoft, these are all Triple-A Publishers that have made some great and some truly terrible games in their years of operation. A couple of them, EA and Activision Blizzard specifically, have been in hot water recently over some of their practices. This week I’m going to look at some of these practices and how it will/has lead to the decline of Triple-A Publishers.

LOOT BOXES/CRATES

Let’s start with the elephant in the room, loot boxes. Now for most people who are unfamiliar with what they are I’ll explain.. Loot boxes are digital crates you either earn in game or purchase (for either in game or real world currency) that randomly gift you with different upgrades or cosmetic items for games.

Now, loot boxes in themselves can be harmless if done correctly. It’s still not good practice to have them in games, but there’s a reason for them that I will touch on later. They are meant to provide incentive for continuing to play the game, or to provide some gamers with more unlockable material to acquire. Most of the time they contain solely cosmetic items (the way your game character looks) and nothing to influence play. Apex Legends, Rainbow Six Siege, Fortnite and PUBG (Player Unknown’s BattleGrounds) all use loot boxes the way they are intended, purely cosmetic content that has absolutely ZERO effect on your progression through the game. They do offer the opportunity for you to purchase in game currency using real world dollars to obtain more boxes, but all of these games allow for boxes to be obtained simply through playing the game. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with this style of content delivery. It allows the developers to continue making interesting new skins and material for a game without adding it as a DLC with a new price tag (another practice which is ridiculous that I’ll also touch on later) but I digress… While there are games like those listed above, which use the loot boxes as they are intended, there are many who don’t.

Loot boxes in Star Wars Battlefront II (2017)

One of the big problems that has plagued Star Wars Battlefront II (2017) since its release was the way Dice (the developer, known for the Battlefield franchise) and EA Games (the publisher) handled their loot boxes. When Battlefront II was released it faced massive backlash because of the “Pay to Win” progression system it contained.

Pay to win involves gamers forking over real life money to purchase in game weapons, power ups, XP boosts and various other content to give them an edge over everyone else. Battlefront II (2017) was not the first game to do this, sporting games like the annual NHL, FIFA, and the 2K line of games are notorious for it and Call of Duty has started adopting this practice as well. The main problem that has been raised by mostly parents and some gamers is that this is akin to gambling. Some countries, like Belgium, believe this so much that they have actually outlawed Loot boxes in video games for anyone under the age of 18. 

Here’s the full article from the BBC on the subject.

https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-43906306

Square Enix (of Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider fame), one of the companies that manufacture both console and mobile games, pulled three full mobile games from the market in Belgium to coincide with this new ruling. They didn’t pull them out in anger or frustration, they pulled them in respect of the new law.

How did EA handle this? They delivered a long winded speech that basically amounted to “Belgium’s lawmakers don’t know what they’re talking about”. EA adopted the model of pay to win years ago and have started to lean into it hard. The only issue is that gamers aren’t going for it anymore, which has caused massive problems for the company. When Star Wars Battlefront II released there were several hero characters (mainstays of the franchise), unlockable through either playing games and earning credits or by paying x amount of dollars and unlocking them immediately. Here’s the problem, the amount of time required to unlock the likes of Darth Vader amounted to roughly 1000 wins. 1000 wins. When a game can take up to 45 minutes to play from start to finish that’s an absurd amount of time. Or you could pay $20 to get enough credits to unlock him. Not only can you use the credits to unlock heroes, you could use it to buy Loot boxes that gave you random power ups, which in turn gave you an upper hand on other gamers who didn’t spend the money to buy the crates. Once this became obvious to the gaming community, Battlefront II faced a massive boycott by players until they fixed the issue. Which, to a very small amount of credit, they eventually did but it was too little too late.

PAID DLC (DOWNLOADABLE CONTENT)

Alright, now I’m not that old, I’m only 27 but I remember the good old days of video games. By “good old days” I mean when the game you purchased was finished, not full of bugs and came with ALL the content. Growing up, I remember getting games like Ghost Recon Island Thunder, ATV Offroad Fury, and Halo Combat Evolved, and what’s the one thing all these games had in common? They were finished games! Nowadays Publishers impose strict deadlines on Developers which cause a whole slew of problems. Most notably, the release of incomplete and buggy games. Rather than allowing the Developers more time to make a complete game, they force them to release the unfinished product and patches to fix the bug issues.

Paid DLC serves four main purposes, firstly to install bug fixes with patches, secondly to distribute content that SHOULD HAVE been included in the initial game release, thirdly to keep gamers interested and lastly to keep money coming in while the next game is created. Mostly though, they serve to milk gamers for more money on a single game.

Most games nowadays go for $79.99 +tax which amounts to $90. Then you have the option to buy a “season pass” to get the first year’s DLC for free, normally these passes cost another $40 on top of the game price. We’re now up to $130 for a single game for one year. If you don’t buy the season pass then each DLC for year one is normally $20 anyways, so you’re not saving any money. After the first year of the game, a new DLC patch will be released which will also cost an additional $40, we are now up to $170 for one game. Then another DLC will be released midway through year 2 also totaling $40 and now we are at $210 for a single game. This also goes hand in hand with Publishers locking content behind these DLC walls to force players to buy the content to continue being able to enjoy the full game.

Destiny 2 Content showing pay to win model and locking DLC content behind pay to play barrier

The Destiny franchise was extremely bad for this practice and caused a lot of players to lose interest rather quickly. Some developers like 343 (known for Halo) have openly stated that all DLC will be free and no content will be locked behind pay to play walls. They did, however, include Loot boxes but that’s the price you pay for free DLC.

Paid DLC is akin to going to Subway and paying full price for what you thought was a full sub. Then having the employee tell you it’s an additional $2 per topping and $3 for any one condiment.

MICROTRANSACTIONS

Microtransactions (MTX) are small digital content packs that players can purchase with real world currency for in game content. They are similar to Loot boxes but in this instance you know exactly what you are getting. MTX is most common in free to play games like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and pretty much every single mobile game. MTX exist to allow Developers and Publishers to help recoup some of the cost for making the game free to play. This sounds acceptable right? Well if they follow the earlier example of cosmetic content only, it’s not that big of an issue, but most of these games don’t follow that. Similar to loot boxes they allow players the ability to purchase in game boosters and power ups to help them win against other people. Every time a game is advertised as “Free to Play” it is nearly 99.99% guaranteed that it will involve MTX in some fashion.

Microtransactions in Forza

Now there are quite a few games that adopt both of these practices, both the cosmetic only and actual pay to win, and there’s only one reason for it, to make the Publishers money. EA in particular uses both systems without mercy. There was a time when EA made good games and cared more about the content of the games than the money they brought in. It’s sad to say that the days of EA not being a money hungry trash bin of a Publisher are long gone.

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

Basically this all means that Publishers are losing money at a steady rate and are trying to find ways to trick gamers into continuing to spend money on their crappy unfinished and buggy games. A notable YouTube channel I follow is Upper Echelon Gaming, he creates videos explaining this exact thing. One of the videos where he discusses this is below:

What he explains in this and several other videos is that for large Triple-A Publishers, their shares are dropping at an alarming rate. This doesn’t bode well for anyone, Developers, Publishers or gamers in the long run. Publishers will continue to tighten their grip on a failing practice and in the effort destroy the limited autonomy they give the developers as is.

I’m not a business or economics major, but even I can tell that within the next 2 years we will be seeing some Triple-A Publishers in serious jeopardy of declaring bankruptcy, and the thing is that they have nobody to blame but themselves. Some Developers are starting to see this trend and are fighting back against the large greedy Publishing companies. Developers like CD Projekt Red (famous for the Witcher games) have never partnered with a massive Publisher and it 100% shows in their content. They make massive engaging games, they actually listen to the players and give them what they want instead of what will make them a quick buck. Recently, Bungie (known for Halo) has split from Activision Blizzard and put the future of the Destiny franchise back solely in the hands of Bungie. Not only did they split, but now Activision Blizzard is under investigation because of a lawsuit launched by their investors. Not only are they in hot water over fraud allegations following the dissolution of their partnership with Bungie, but they also laid off nearly 800 employees most of which are game developers and support staff. This all flies in the face of them hiring a new CFO, Dennis Durkin, and paying him a handsome $15 million signing bonus… after they laid off 800 staff.

Basically, what I’m saying is that because of the ridiculous practices most Triple-A Publishers are using, they’re all going to disappear within 2-6 years. Developers will once again be responsible for creating, marketing and distributing their own material and maybe then we can get back to the way gaming used to be.

See you next week!

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