In My Absence: Gaming's Changes

Since my Return to Gaming in August of last year, I've slowly learned that in my absence gaming has become... a little bit shit. There are micro-transactions in most of the biggest games and a massive 2017 controversy about so called "loot boxes" tipped over into the mainstream, shining a light on this practice with many seeing it for what I think it is - it's gambling, isn't it?

As far as I can tell, a loot box is something that gives you something back. A reward, of sorts, for completing a level, like a new set of hats or a new set of stripes for a car - given if you win and dished out randomly. The problem comes when you can buy loot box "keys" to open them without playing for them - turning the purchase of the loot boxes a gamble like a fruit machine (as you don't know what you're going to get) and then if there is something you want (in our analogy, the jackpot) you'll keep paying for the privilege. It's insidious and cheeky to lock items behind a pay wall when you've dropped sometimes serious coin on a game, but it's the way the industry has moved. Many games on smartphones are free-to-play (that's a bit of a misnomer to be frank) but then items are paid for to progress your play.

This is just one oddity of coming back into the industry since 2012. The second is the introduction of "Downloadable Content Season Passes". When I played games, additional DLC was just that - additional levels or storylines superfluous to the main arc of the game, and something that was a neat little addition. I bought a few for Mass Effect 2 I'm sure, and it was great getting a bit of a bonus for the game. It reminded me of the PC days in the 1990s of "expansion packs", where I'd buy £20 of content to expand a game. These days big titles can be actively designed with these additions expected to be bought. I am under no illusions that the SIM City and RollerCoaster Tycoon teams didn't plan for their expansion packs (and the literally tens of expansion packs my sister bought for The Sims) but today single player games are crucially short, with multiplayer bolted on as a time-sink. The content that is added is normally stuff that feels like it should have been there from the start, and the bare bones version you shelled £40+ for is an incomplete game. Instead of it being an expansion pack, it feels like a completion pack, adding back what was there in the first place.

The final thing that has made me feel odd since being back is that games are almost always now both digital and physical. In my day games were only physical. You'd go to Game or EB and pick up the physical box and the disc. This is the way I started to buy games for the Switch too - I have both Mario Kart and Super Mario on the wee gamecarts that the Switch uses. But this is a pain - I forgot Mario Kart once and couldn't play it. That's a frustration. The Switch has the eShop, a huge place where you can buy every game (I think) as a download. That's great for convenience, but there are a few draw backs - the prices are always higher to download (discounts are minimal on the eShop) and you can't trade them in. Also, the Switch is a little hamstrung by storage space, and will in the future need a microSD card to allow games to be downloaded.

Time and the industry has moved on. I need to catch up, because if I don't I'm likely to get burned by something everyone else knows about but I'm ignorant to.