I Miss Couch Co-op


I grew up with games like Halo 3, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, and Star Wars Battlefront. I would spend entire nights with my friends eating junk food and playing games together on the couch. I loved being able to hang out with my friends and family and all get to play a game together on the same screen. I have played hours of Little Big Planet, Towerfall, and Rock Band with my family. This new generation of consoles has seen a departure from local multiplayer, and a complete focus on online multiplayer, and I think it’s a shame.

Some of my favorite memories from my teens were of playing Zombies in Halo 3 and battling for the sniper roost on the Rust map of Modern Warfare 2. It was great to get together in person, lock ourselves in a basement and stay up all night eating pizza and gaming. As I’ve grown older, I still enjoy getting together with my friends and gaming all night occasionally, but now if we want to play together, each person has to bring their own PS4 and screen. While still fun, it’s inconvenient and a lot more work. It also loses a little sense of intimacy, it feels more like we’re playing next to each other and not together.

Don’t get me wrong. I love online multiplayer too. I have lots of friends who now live all over the country, and it’s fantastic to be able to get on discord and play with my friends all over the country. I’ve also met several great people in Overwatch and Fortnite chat that I enjoy playing with. I also understand that local multiplayer isn’t important to many people because they don’t have friends locally or they don’t have the time to organize a larger get together. It’s just easier to play with everyone online. I do understand this, but I also think that there is something more that you can get by having in person contact, drinking and eating together. It’s, at least, important to me.

Ideally, games would have both local and online multiplayer. All of the games I mentioned before have that feature. I could play Battlefront with my friends or online, or the single player. I want every player to be able to play the way that they want. It’s such a shame that Halo, once the pinnacle of local multiplayer, has abandoned it entirely. I know that this is more of a personal nostalgic complaint, and that this isn’t an issue for everyone, but I do care about it and that’s enough for me.

Loot Boxes: Gambling or Nah?


Similarly to the Battlefront 2 situation, the subject of the ethics of loot boxes has been discussed a lot lately. Are they gambling, should you be able to buy them with money, what contents should they contain, what kind of games should be allowed to have them, etc. My view on this is mixed.

Simple Answer? Yes, loot boxes are gambling. You are expending a resource for the chance to gain something of greater personal value. Some people argue that in cases where you can earn loot boxes without buying them invalidates the gambling argument. I disagree. I think that time is also a valuable resource. “Time is money” as the saying goes. If I spend time grinding a game to earn loot boxes or the credits to purchase loot boxes, I am taking time out of other activities to earn the chance to gain something I want. I am gambling time for in game items.

Recently the ESRB ruled that loot boxes are not gambling because you are guaranteed something, even if it’s not what you want, unlike a slot machine where you may come away with nothing. I also think this is a bad argument because if you take it to its logical conclusion, I could create a slot machine that guarantees at least a penny every time you insert a token and place them in locations where gambling is illegal. This is obviously ridiculous.

I also want to briefly mention some similarities between something like a slot machine and a loot box. Every loot box system I have seen is colorful, has exciting sound effects, shiny color coding, etc. You press the button, the box shakes for a moment then explodes into a pile of loot. Often, they don’t even show you what you have immediately until you click on each item to reveal it. When you pull a lever on a slot machine, it plays exciting sound effects as the moving parts spin and flash. They reveal one by one so the anticipation builds with each revelation. Each of these elements come together to trigger dopamine centers and can easily be addicting.

If you agree with me so far, what is the solution? Should randomized reward systems be outlawed in games? Personally, I don’t think that is necessarily the only solution. I think the real problem is that most people don’t see loot boxes as gambling and so don’t know what they’re getting into with them. At the least, any game that has a system like this should declare it on the cover inside the ESRB rating. For example: T for Teen, Violence, Language, Gambling. Then people should be aware of what they are getting. Especially parents who might not want their kids to be engaging in a gambling system.

Some argue that because people can get addicted and self destructive, the system should not be allowed in any game. I can understand this, but I also believe in personal responsibility. As long as an individual knows what they are getting, they should be trusted to make their own decisions. Developers shouldn’t have to treat every member of their audience like a child that needs protecting.

The next question is whether players should be able purchase loot boxes with money or just through in-game actions. This also ties into the question of the loot box contents. In my opinion, purchasable loot boxes can only contain cosmetic items without becoming pay-to-win. If loot boxes can only be earned through in game actions, then it is tolerable that they contain gameplay-altering items, though I, personally, believe that gameplay advantages should only be awarded based on merit and nothing else. I have said before that gaming should be the ultimate meritocracy where every player enters equal and only skill can give you victory.

I think that an important thing to consider when looking at microtransactions in games is why a game might include them. I will use three games to illustrate my view of this: Overwatch, Battlefront 2, and Fortnite Battle Royale.

Fortnite BR is free to play, doesn’t contain advertisements, and all new content that has been added has been free. In late October, Epic Games added a microtransaction system where you purchase V-bucks and use V-bucks to purchase cosmetics. At the moment, this is the only way the game can make money. While it is true that this system is not a loot box system, but instead paying money for currency to buy items directly. It should also be noted that you can earn V-bucks by grinding in the paid PvE mode Save the World, but most players only have the free Battle Royale mode.  I think this system is fine because the microtransactions can only lead to cosmetic items and I believe that developers should be able to profit from games they make.

Battlefront 2 is more complicated at the moment since the future of their microtransaction system is uncertain. Currently it is not enabled, so players can only get loot boxes through in game actions. This was not originally true. Previously players could purchase crystals which can be spent for loot boxes. Furthermore, loot boxes in Battlefront 2 contain not just cosmetics, but also gameplay-affecting items. The system, as it was before, was not tolerable. Since players could purchase loot boxes with money which contain gameplay progression items, it was a pay-to-win system on top of a fully priced AAA game.

Overwatch is one of my favorite games, so I will try to be as objective as possible. Overwatch is $60 on Console and $40 on PC. The game includes a loot box system that you can either earn in game or by buying them with money. The boxes only contain cosmetic items but some consider having a microtransaction system in a pay-to-play AAA game is unnecessary and greedy. I can understand that, but since the Overwatch devs are consistently adding content every few months which is free for everyone. I would prefer cosmetic loot boxes that people spend money on to paying for new maps and heroes. Ultimately, I am fine with this system as long as Blizzard continues to support the game.

My thoughts boil down to pay-to-win is never acceptable, but cosmetic purchases are tolerable in games that are either free or are continually supported without paid dlc.

The Battlefront Situation


Everyone has been talking about the Battlefront 2 drama and I thought I would share my two cents on the issue. For the sake of transparency, I haven’t played the game, so I won’t be speaking about the details of the gameplay, just the business practices and ethics.

When I was growing up, I was a huge Star Wars fan. I love the movies, yes even the prequels, and Star Wars Battlefront and its sequel were my some of my favorite games. I would play for hours at my friend’s house. I was following the possibility for Battlefront 3 for years and was extremely disappointed when the project was canceled.

Years later when EA bought the rights to Star Wars Battlefront and announced the 2015 reboot, I was excited. When it came out, I felt a little let down. It felt lackluster and unfinished. I was disappointed that they removed the prequel content entirely, had almost no single player and the game generally just felt more like a re-skinned Call of Duty game than a Star Wars game. I only ended up playing a few hours before returning to games I enjoyed more.

Initially the marketing for Battlefront 2 had me hopeful. Space battles, original canon single player campaign, prequel content. It was everything I had wanted in the first game. I was planning on buying the game until I saw some beta reviews/gameplay. The game itself, looked like a lot of fun, but I also saw loot boxes, microtransactions, and a very concerning pay-to-win model.

Lootboxes are tolerable if they either contain only cosmetics or they can only be gained through in-game actions. If you can use money to purchase any kind of bonus that affects gameplay, or even the chance of a bonus, the game becomes pay-to-win. I see people trying to defend the game’s loot crate system by saying that you earn crates in game frequently and that the loot crates you can purchase only have minor star cards, so the difference is negligible and therefor not pay-to-win. I disagree. My logic is this: if two players of equal skill and the same loadout meet on the battlefield, one player purchased a loot crate with a 2% damage reduction star card and the other hasn’t. The player with the star card will win. This makes it pay-to-win.

Video games should be the ultimate meritocracy. The only thing to give you an advantage over others is your skill. Being able to buy advantages with real world money, gives those with more disposable income an edge they didn’t earn. More than this, however; I have seen the progression system in the game. You have different classes, each class has a level and star card slots. You don’t have access to all of the slots for each class. These are unlocked as you level up that class. You level up each class with contents of loot crates. So even though the contents of loot boxes don’t contain star cards that give you an instant, significant advantage, they do allow you to level up your classes quicker and equip more star cards than someone who would not buy crates. I also want to quickly mention that anyone who preordered the Deluxe Edition of the game received some amount of rare star cards, which is another case of some players paying extra money for advantages.

The other major issue that has been circulating is the amount of grinding involved in unlocking heroes, and other content. Originally, it took something in the neighborhood of 40 hours of grinding to unlock one of the top tier heroes, Darth Vader, for example. EA/Dice has since decreased the cost of these heroes by 75% to something more reasonable. This is good, but apparently they also decreased the currency you receive from campaign rewards by the same amount. So you also earn these credits slower, even though the hero is cheaper. Regardless, since you could purchase the currency with real world money, some players will have Darth Vader on day 1 and some will not. To be fair, I don’t know if Darth Vader is significantly more powerful than the other heroes, but I don’t think it matters. It is gameplay content that some people have an unequal advantage to attaining. As an aside, and this is a subject worthy of being talked about on its own, I don’t think that necessary or even encouraged grinding is ever a good thing to have in a game. If players cannot experience the full content without grinding, then there is a problem.

The last thing I want to mention here is the recent (yesterday as of this post) announcement by the devs that they are turning off all in-purchases. This sounded excellent. Had we finally been heard? Did big bad EA finally cave in to the demands of their audience? Well no. Hidden in the middle of the post was a line that said that the ability to purchase currency will be re-enabled at a later date. So basically, they are turning off microtransactions temporarily. The cynic in me sees this as a ploy to get those who were angry and canceled their preorders and decided not to buy the game, to change their minds and enjoy the positive press of doing the right thing, then as soon as the refund period is over, and they have all the money from preorders and such, they will re-enable microtransactions and nothing will have changed.

Is it possible that things will change for the better? Absolutely. But until it is confirmed that players can no longer purchase in-game advantages, I will not buy this game. I refuse to support companies that utilize anti-consumer and anti-gamer business practices, even if their games are ultimately very enjoyable. We need to stop this trend here, before it takes hold and becomes a normal practice.