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 licence, 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 advertorial (Activision Blizzard loves Kotaku as we all know, constantly desperate to throw money our way), discovering myself amid a firestorm of acrimony, having stooped so low 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 favourite 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 $US100,000 ($138,820) 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 anything 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 $US100,000 ($138,820) (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 Path Of Exile 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 $US10 ($14) 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.