Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Destiny Goes Free-To-Play?

Today some interesting news was posted on the Destiny subreddit. A screenshot is shown on the USA PSN store displaying purchasable level boosters for each class. Is this just one more of many steps in what will be a slow evolution into the free-to-play model?

Seems as though we need to add Bungie to the list of developers who like to throw the middle finger up their community by doing a U-turn on micro-transaction policies. Hah, not exactly - but that's basically how the Internet is probably feeling right now. Bungie picked their words very carefully in October when the addition of micro-transactions was a talking point as there was never an absolute statement denying the eventual implementation of a level boost even though data miners found evidence of this in the game's files.

I was looking on PSN only yesterday at Destiny - and it was on sale, with the Taken King Legendary Edition sitting at a price of £24.75. This has jumped back up to full price today; strange since a simultaneous price drop may have cushioned the blow of the inevitable Internet outrage, since new players could have potentially jumped to the same level as experienced players whilst paying around £50 anyway. 

Looking at Destiny's first year it resembled a fairly standard AAA release in terms of it's pricing structure (relatively speaking). It had two, fairly expensive expansions which arguably added a decent amount of content and in some people's opinions made it into a full and complete experience. The Taken King was the next big update which again, fleshed out the game with extra content and in it's current state is regarded to be quite different compared to when it released. 

Destiny was always going to be an interesting talking point, because although popular and as a shooter - mechanically brilliant, it was an anomaly of sorts. It combines aspects of a dungeon-crawler with skill-based gun-play and in some ways it's core design resembles that of Borderlands mated with traditional MMO elements. This is also reflected in how light the narrative is, although it is based on rich lore which is accessible outside of the game - a design element seen in the Souls games among others. These are not negative points, because ultimately Destiny is focused purely on the enjoyable gun-play, and whilst there is grind and repetition - Bungie's shooter is by no means let down because of this - if you as the consumer enjoy... well shooting things. 

Since The Taken King's release on the 15th September (UK) it has seen dramatic changes. The digital RRP was £54.99 which included the previous expansions and base game, along with new content. It worked out to be cheaper to re-buy this version than to buy expansions separately - something which irritated the experienced player-base who thought that they were being punished for their loyalty. Confusing pricing structures for games is extremely anti-consumer and does little more than fuel our distrust in developers and publishers. It also creates a backlash when you go against your words and add micro-transactions when you 'suggested' that you wouldn't. I mean, the very fact that you have to make a point about saying you won't add micro-transactions just goes to show that you, as the developer or publisher, have identified that we, as the consumer, do not like free-to-play design interfering with the enjoyment of a game we spent a LOT of our hard-earned money on. However let me reiterate that Bungie were very careful with their words so as to not land themselves in a clear-cut 'we went against our word' scenario.

Around mid-October, in a way, Bungie gave us an insight into the potential free-to-play future of Destiny by adding in real-money purchases of in-game currency in order to buy cosmetic items and emotes. Now I actually don't have a problem with this, as Destiny is an online-only experience and requires constant funding to keep it's servers afloat (although in Bungie/Activision's case, I don't think they are struggling in that department). I play Elite: Dangerous and it also sells paint-jobs for space ships which are definitely optional (especially since you play in first-person and hardly ever even see your ship during normal gameplay), it's not exactly viable to base your budget for the next year of content on the income generated from these extras, but they do give you some insights, and allow for continuous development resulting in a better product and more content. Paying for cosmetic items post-release isn't exactly a new thing anyway, we only tend to dislike it when content is released on day one. Like any project, budgets change and unforeseen circumstances can result in more or less work, time and money needed for completion. However, in a creative industry where the staffing and development costs vary wildly despite the standard set of product pricing tiers - finished content should be bundled into the final product. Even if potentially some player 'skins' were created as a result of work done outside of the initial budget - just bundle them into the game for Christ's sake. Day one DLC is absolute nonsense. This isn't relevant to the main point of this article, but I felt that it needed saying.

As well as announcing their plans for adding micro-transactions, Bungie also announced that they would be shifting away from the large expansion pack business model, which apparently was not sustainable, and instead focusing on giving players frequent and free content updates in small packages (one of which is the currently running Sparrow racing event). Around the same time, some players dug into the game's files and discovered evidence of 'boosters' that would generally affect player progression, including level boosters. Luke Smith, the Creative Director was very specific in saying that Bungie weren't planning on selling certain boosters. There were fears that, despite Bungie's reassurance, more free-to-play elements would sneak their way into the game bit-by-bit. It seems that he chose his words carefully, and no lie was told - however this level boost is at it's core very much in the same ball-park. 

The 'optional micro-transaction' is a fallacy when it's embedded into the game mechanics, pacing and progression. The game has been designed and balanced pre, or post-release with this business model in mind and therefore is tainted. I am not against this in a free game because a zero-cost price tag is almost a disclaimer in itself - nothing comes for free, so be prepared to pay extra for features, levels, cosmetic items or whatever. Experience and level boosters have no place in a full price £50/$60 title and they are not optional - the very essence of the game is designed with you paying extra money in mind, and so whether you pay or not - you are being affected regardless.

If you find yourself defending Bungie, or any other company for that matter for adding FTP elements into a full-price game (or in Destiny's case, a pretty damn expensive product overall) because these types of micro-transactions are optional or they don't affect you because you already have a high level character - then you are part of the problem. You are saying it's OK, and setting an anti-consumer precedence which will affect you sooner or later. 

It's a shame that Destiny couldn't prove itself as a solid full-price title, supported at the most by it's cosmetic micro-transactions. In a way, Bungie are saying that their base game content up to level 25 just isn't worth playing... In fact it's even worse then that. After paying £50 for the base game on release, if you want to avoid playing through that expensive content you can now pay us MORE to skip it? It's absolute nonsense. You know what would make it OK? If Destiny was entirely free-to-play and whilst I don't think it will be - Destiny 2 might fit more snugly into that category when it eventually gets released. I wouldn't be surprised if you had to buy character slots and pay for sub-classes, as well as the cosmetic elements. Who knows, perhaps they will return to the almost archaic, subscription based business model. I feel like the groundwork has been made with their first grand experiment, and in a way they could probably do whatever they want with the next game.

This is fresh news, and the UK PSN store does not display these boosters as of yet... Some people have suggested it's a fake, and that the image is photo-shopped. In any case I think the prospect of the free-to-play evolution of Destiny and full-price games like is worth discussing. I don't know about you but I have a huge urge to play a long, single player narrative shooter. I miss those. -oP

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