It’s becoming a harder fact to ignore how monetization affects game design, mainly in a negative way. This has been a gradual process but it’s really becomes quite ridiculous with some games having in excess of £1,000 of microtransactions. It’s quite frightening how some of these monetization practices are illegal or highly regulated in the ‘real world’ but somehow legal online. Children unfortunately are exposed to excessive monetization in a lot of their free and popular games. This article is also going to show some good examples of monetization as well to keep a sense of objectivity and to show there are somewhat ethical ways to do this.
How Monetization Affects Game Design – Pre Internet Era
8 Bit Era
This is the period between the late 70s and early to mid 80s, Arcades were the height of gaming at this time. Games were designed to be difficult because if you ran out of lives you could put more money in to continue. Considering though the arcade cabinets cost between $2000 and $4000 with some being up to $20000 it makes sense. This was also the dawn of console gaming with the traditional pay for the game and it’s yours forever model. The hard difficulty was retained in the console releases, this tradition carried on into the 16 bit era. Arcade difficulty is definitely an example of how monetization affects game design, even back in the early days.
16 Bit Era
The Mega Drive (Genesis), TurboGrfx16 and SNES were able to deliver very respectable console ports of arcade classics. This includes games like Street Fighter 2, Altered Beast and Golden Axe, arcade hits at the time. Microcomputers were beginning to make their mark at this time though, 16 bit microcomputers being able to compete with consoles. In the case of the Amiga and Atari ST specifically this was due to them having arcade inspired hardware. This was also the era when expansions began to appear, Oh No More Lemmings was the first one I ever owned. These expansions were cheaper than the original game but required the original game disk to play. Once hard drives became standard on home computers expansions really took off. I wouldn’t say monetization affects game design for the original games. Although the success of the game would be the determining factor if an expansion was developed.
32 Bit Era
This is the era of the PlayStation, N64 and Sega Saturn as well as countless failed consoles. It is also the time when Atari bowed out of the console market, truly the end of an era. Consoles were now profitable and powerful enough to be their own market, not a side-hustle to the arcades. CDs were also the media of choice (unless your name was Nintendo) which was a double edged sword. This means piracy which was pretty rampant, especially for the PlayStation but ironically ended up making it more popular. The IBM PC compatible had pretty much won the microcomputer war by the later half of the 90s. Internet was still quite niche on home PCs, Ultima Online being the first subscription based game. MMOs by nature are designed to waste as much time as possible, I can’t think of a better example of how monetization affects game design! This genre was really the first to break out of the pay once and (if successful) expansion a year later model.
How Monetization Affects Game Design – Early Internet Era
Dreamcast and 56k/ISDN
Sega’s final console, the Dreamcast was incredibly forward thinking. It still relied on optical media and didn’t have a hard drive, using memory cards like the previous generation. The Dreamcast had a 56k modem included with the console allowing anyone to connect it to a phone line to go online. There was a basic browser and there were also free and paid downloads but they had to fit on the limited memory card. The PC continued to gain in popularity with most pre-built PCs coming with a 56k modem as standard. Internet pricing was also coming down at this time making it more accessible for the general public. Due to limitations of bandwidth downloadable content tended to be fan made mods or maps. Game patches existed but they tended to be tiny as it took around an hour to download 20MB on dialup. Anything larger usually came on cover disks for Magazines like PC Format or PC Gamer.
The Xbox, Xbox Live and Early ADSL
Microsoft really knocked it out of the park with the original Xbox’s online capabilities. It came fitted with a standard ethernet port which allowed broadband connectivity out of the box. They also were the first console manufacturer to have online functionality as a core feature of their games. A subscription model was chosen for the online component which remains in place to this day. Xbox Live was also where Microsoft began to experiment with downloadable content (DLC), both paid and free. Microsoft also have the dubious honour of hosting the first paid DLC for 2002’s Mech Assault. These were still small in size and scope because many people had slow connections. Nintendo and Sony also experimented but they didn’t properly commit until the next generation.
How Monetization Affects Game Design – Early Broadband Era
Seventh Generation Consoles and Faster ADSL
This is really the era where monetization really took over gaming. All three console offerings (Wii, 360 and PS3) came with networking from the start. Larger local storage was also a standard feature. The budget Xbox 360 Arcade had to use memory cards but it was the exception. Nintendo offered online for free with Microsoft and Sony having subscription based services. Developers struggled to design DLC to begin with but as the generation matured so did monetization. There were cosmetic, unlock and content DLCs available as well as introducing season passes. There was also an unfortunate habit of planned game features being stripped out as ‘day 1 dlc’. A particularly unpopular tactic that Japanese developer Capcom was notorious for. Some of the DLC for Street Fighter X Tekken was actually stored on the game disk, only unlockable via microtransactions. This is an example of how monetization is negatively affecting game design, unfortunately this sometimes still happens today.
Mobile gaming has been one of the most influential platforms for gaming to ever exist. So many of the predatory monetization strategies were developed on this platform. They use purposely confusing premium currencies (sometimes multiple) to make it harder to realise how much things cost. Premium currency also tends to be sold in set amounts. These amounts are purposely slightly less than whatever you want to buy, designed to make you spend more. Mobile games are created by design to frustrate you into paying money to skip waiting or for other advantages. This type of design shows how monetization affects game design, not just on mobile but on all platforms. Things like loot boxes spread from free-to-play/mobile games to full priced AAA games as execs caught on.
How Monetization Affects Game Design – Modern Era
Games as a Service
As eluded to earlier the mobile game explosion had ripples throughout the gaming sphere. Originally everyone and their Mother wanted their own MMO after the unexpected success of World of Warcraft. This focus then shifted onto live services, online focused games with regular free updates and are supported for years. The server and development costs are recovered from microtransactions such as loot boxes or skins. While some games like GTA Online offer all the updates for free, others like Destiny 2 also charge for expansions. Season passes are also a staple of many of these games, usually saving you money compared to buying the DLC separately. Some single player games even have these mechanics baked in, the last three Assassin’s Creed games for example. The most egregious way monetization affects game design is when they create a problem, then sell you the solution.
Free-to-Play games have a similar business model to Games as a Service. The big difference is they rely entirely on microtransactions to make money. They share many of the monetization strategies of mobile games, both bad and good. Free-to-Play games tend to either be built from the ground up or are a failed premium product. MMOs are especially susceptible to fail and be forced into a free-to-play model. EA’s Star Wars the Old Republic is a posterchild for that outcome, being released buggy and borderline unplayable. Bioware then took almost a year to fix all the bugs (without any new meaningful content), all the time while haemorrhaging players. They were then forced into a hybrid free-to-play model. You were heavily restricted from end-game content unless you were subscribed and subscribers got free premium currency. It was widely regarded as one of the worst free-to-play models but has improved somewhat since 2012.
NFTs and Crypto Currency
The most insidious example of how monetization affects game design is the idea of ‘play to earn’. Ubisoft have jumped straight into this by bolting NFTs onto Ghost Recon Breakpoint, we wrote this article discussing NFTs in gaming. There have also been several attempts at having games that mine crypto while you play. It’s mainly the usual (and notoriously greedy) companies that have expressed interest in NFTs and blockchain. Namely EA, Ubisoft, Activision and Square-Enix, fortunately the backlash to any NFT announcement is making them think twice.
Examples of How Monetization Affects Game Design
Positive Example of How Monetization Affects Game Design (multiplayer) – Warframe
This is a free-to-play live service game which shares the same basic ideas as Destiny. In fact a few years after release it was being touted as the better Destiny experience! Monetization is done through a premium currency (platinum), players can trade platinum for items with other players. This means a player never needs to spend real money to buy platinum and encourages players to interact. There are still purchasable items from the in-game shop but you can usually get a better deal from another player, depending on the item. The only random chance loot boxes (relics) are only available through play and they’re unlocked through play as well. Digital Extremes did experiment with loot boxes but removed them shortly after seeing a few players spending excessively. I can’t think of a better example of how monetization affects game design, especially in such a positive and arguably moral way.
Positive Example of How Monetization Affects Game Design (single player) – Blasphemous
This is a single player game, if Dark Souls and Castlevania had a baby it would be Blasphemous! There are no advantage microtransactions to buy and all the DLC was provided for free. The only microtransactions available are for a digital art book, comic, skin and the soundtrack. None of these are required to fully enjoy the game and the art book and comic give extra value with lore, enhancing the story. I bought the game soon after launch in 2019 and it got over a year of free updates to make the game match the developers vision. I can’t express how much good will this gave both developer and publisher, I’m almost certainly pre-ordering the recently announced sequel as a result! While some games show monetization affects game design negatively, Blasphemous shows how it can instead enhance the experience.
Negative Example of How Monetization Affects Game Design (multiplayer) – GTA Online
GTA Online has possibly the most horrible form of monetization. It provides ‘free’ updates but puts a massive paywall in the way with excessive pricing while selling the in-game currency on ‘shark cards’. Using the Doomsday Heists as an example just to buy the cheapest bunker to even get access to these new heists will set you back $1.25 million (£12). You could earn this in game but you would have to complete the final heist, perfectly on hard and you’ll get roughly $200,000. This means you’d need to do it 7 times just to access that content. The Pacific Standard heist takes roughly an hour to set up and the final mission is 30 – 45 minutes, not exactly quick. Additionally you lose money every time you’re hit once you’ve looted the bank so it’ll be more like 10 – 12 heists to earn enough. There is no better example of how monetization affects game design negatively than this, especially considering other expenses (ammo, food and armour).
Negative Example of How Monetization Affects Game Design (single player) – Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is awful, it creates problems through it’s game design and sells you the solutions. A single player game shouldn’t need an XP boost but Ubisoft decided that quantity of quests made up for a lack of quality. There’s no denying monetization affects game design for Ubisoft’s single player games and unfortunately this has started to spread to other publishers. The worst part about AC Odyssey is that you get the shop thrust at you (during the tutorial) within your first 30 mins of playing! There are enough quests to level but a lot of the side quests are low quality and seem to be based on the same few templates. Romance options as well seem pretty uninspired, do a few missions and they’ll invite you to the bedroom… not exactly riveting stuff! Ubisoft though have been called out for all their games feeling similar. I think a lot of this has to do with games designed with monetization first. This is a pretty bad example of how monetization affects game design, especially considering it’s a single player game!
How Monetization Affects Game Design – Conclusion
There is no denying monetization affects game design in both positive and negative ways. Part of why monetization has become so predatory is because of investor expectation of exponential growth. Unfortunately just like with streaming (and other industries) there is an upper limit and we are quickly approaching it. It’s got to the point manipulative psychological tactics such as FOMO (fear of missing out) are being used to drive growth. This unfortunately means monetization affects game design, being built from the ground up around different ways to monetize you. Fortunately Governments are starting to react with increasing speed, especially in relation to games aimed at children. Let’s just hope these new laws will cover emerging monetization strategies.