As a competitive multiplayer shooter Overwatch is making some serious waves. It’s quite clear that the game is already a success, with an incredible critical, and consumer reception, yet one of the more significant aspects of the experience often seems to evade critique regards the games reward and microtransaction system. While some reviewers have vaguely mentioned issues related to the manner in which Overwatch distributes its rewards, very few have given much time to discuss this issue, or why the problem may extend beyond Overwatch itself if ignored.
Before being able to discuss the negatives of this system, it’s first important to understand how rewards are distributed in Overwatch. Overwatch uses a randomised loot based system where you unlock four items each time you use a loot crate, these loot crates are obtained each time you level up in the game. Leveling up increments in experience per level up until level 25, where it then requires 22,000 per level. On average players earn around 2,500 experience per game, and this thereby requires around 8 games per level up (and in turn, per loot crate) at level 25 and beyond.
Doing a little math if we consider that based on my own averages…
- There’s an average of 54 unlocks per character
- There are 21 characters in the game
- Comprising a total of around 1134 unlockable items in Overwatch
- Levels 1 – 25 require a total of 264,000 experience
- Levels beyond 25 require 22,000 experience each
- Experience is earned at a rate of 2,500 per game (with bonuses)
- Games take an average of around 10 minutes each (with an extra minute for preparation or matchmaking)
With that in mind, we can consider that during your first 25 levels you earn 25 loot boxes within an average of 100 games or 18 hours to acquire, from then on, each loot box will take you around 8 games, or 88 minutes to acquire. If we ignore strong possibility to earn duplicated items, then you are going to need 283 loot boxes to acquire all of those items. At a minimum, this is going to require around three hundred and ninety four hours game time, to unlock all of the different aesthetic items that Overwatch has to offer. I think that for most of us, that’s a long time, and at around 16 days playtime being required, I think it’s safe to say that most players will never unlock everything, or even come close to it.
There is of course an unlockable credit system, where sometimes a loot crate will give you a little bit of currency to spend on any unlockable, but the expensive skins cost 1,000, and with 20 hours game time, I’ve yet to come close to hitting that value – with around 670 credits thus far. Not to mention, that everything you do buy leads to risk of duplication in the future. Whichever way you look at it, you’re not going to be unlocking items you want very quickly in Overwatch, even with this credit system considered. In turn, it’s hard to consider this feature as a saving grace, but its Blizzards way of throwing us a bone, otherwise, without it, you could grind for a theoretical eternity and never unlock that sick looking Genji skin you wanted.
Manipulative Game Design
But why does the game take so long in order to provide these rewards? If we compare it to other mainstream shooters with similar microtransactions like Call of Duty or Plants Vs Zombies Garden Warfare 2 then we can see that this speed of distribution hasn’t been chosen because it’s the ‘most fun’ or entertaining for the consumer. Only receiving an unlock every 8 games doesn’t offer much of a sense of reward. With that in mind, the only logical rationale for this elongated distribution, is that the game has been designed to reward players slowly, in order to validate the microtransactional system that speeds up that process.
This is where the microtranaction’s become an issue. I do not care about the price of the microtransactions, or the overall value for money that they offer, but what we should care about is that it’s quite clear that the game has been designed from the outset. Blizzards have elongated this unlock process in order to encourage this additional payment system as the easiest way to earn rewards, to the point where it is detrimental to the overall experience and sense of reward that is being distributed to non-microtransaction using consumers. It’s a little depressing that I would be unlocking loot crates faster by busking poorly on my local high street than by playing Overwatch, and this ridiculous example only serves to demonstrate how significantly Overatch emphasizes its microtransactional system.
In addition, the faster acquisition of loot crates early on, follows the classic free to play design model where rewards are offered early, then withheld from the player or presented at a much slower rate in order to further encourage the free to play based system. The intent here is to give people a taste of the reward system, but then replace gametime with real cash as the easiest method to acquire the rewards within a reasonable time frame.
It’s a very simple psychological manipulation using behavioural game design to encourage and enhance a free to play styled model, and honestly, it’s a step too far within a title that consumers have already paid £40, or $60 for. If the game were free, or offering an astronomical quantity of other content, then it might be easier to understand, but as it is the free to play model has clearly affected the core games design in a very negative way, and that’s not something that people who have already paid an entry fee should have to deal with.
To use an analogy, within a theme park we tolerate this design. People can buy tickets but then they need to wait in queues for often hours, to ride a single ride. Yet consumers that want to pay even more, can buy a fast-track ticket, which makes those queuing experiences much faster. However, the reason that this is accepted is because this is caused by practical limitation of the experience. 500 people cannot ride the same ride at the same time so the queue duration is an inevitable component of the experience and fast tracking just reduces that (albeit at the expense of those paying less).
In Overwatch we have a different scenario, where the grind is not a built in component, it’s a component of the game that has been intentionally curated in order to validate the existence of the fast track ticket – microtransactional system. If a theme park were designed by Blizzard, the regular queues would force you to wade through 12 inches of custard, just to make the queuing experience take longer, and thereby offer less reward, validating the fast-track tickets. It would be seen as a very clear manipulation of the theme park consumers, just as it is in Blizzards Overwatch.
Now I understand that the loot system is secondary to the core gameplay (unlike the rides in a theme park) and that regardless of the loot they have all players will experience the gameplay in the same way. However at the same time the loot systems in these games are supposed to incentivize recurrent play and reward players for their gametime beyond the moment to moment gameplay, and Overwatch just doesn’t offer enough of these rewards to justify requiring 16 days of my time to unlock everything.
The Counter Argument
The counter argument that tends to feature typically highlights Blizzards intent to provide Overwatch with free maps, and fair enough, it’s pleasant that the community is going to be supported long-term. However, how is it that games like Garden Warfare and Uncharted 4 manage to support their game with free maps and modes, without featuring a manipulative microtransaction system? The idea that Blizzard are doing consumers a favour by providing free maps and that we should just suffer the reward distribution because of it, is a little ludicrous. It’s in Blizzards interest to provide additional content if they want to the community and audience for microtransactions to sustain and grow, the microtransactions in the other games mentioned, manage to support the production of new content without feeling as though they harm the core experience for non-microtransaction using players, and it’s hard to see why Overwatch couldn’t achieve the same.
Another argument tends to focus on the games design, whereby because the game doesn’t require you to progress to unlocking new weapons and gameplay relevent features – as games like Call of Duty do. This line of argument therefore proposes to justify the excessively elongated reward system because the game doesn’t feature gameplay unlockables. This is harder to understand, as far as I’m aware, good design and not manipulating your consumers with a grind inducing reward system aren’t mutually exclusive experiences. Its in Blizzards interests to make a good game and the the fact that the core gameplay and their systems are remarkably well designed doesn’t somehow excuse the reward system.
Setting a new standard
The way the games core reward system has been shaped by the presence of microtransactions is a problem and a very effort to manipulate of the consumer into spending more. Perhaps more of an issue is the fact that very few critics have taken the time to emphasize this, and even less have allowed this element to have any significant influence on the games overall reception, which I feel this type of manipulation should. Overwatch is an absolutely huge game in its marketing, in its player base, and in its critical reception. The game is without a doubt a success regardless of anything else at this point. Alongside the fact that it comes from a very highly regarded game developer, the games reception is effectively setting the new standard, defining what critics and consumers are willing to accept, and serving as a framework for other developers looking to produce games in a similar space.
If a huge title like Overwatch, popularises this style of microtransaction based model without receiving appropriate critique regarding how the design of this reward system is negative for the core experience, then it could be argued that this has will have an obvious cascading effect on how future titles with these systems are received. When Rainbow Six Siege released – a game that undoubtedly has more content than Overwatch when co-operative modes are also considered – it was oft criticized for its arbitrary microtransactional model. Perhaps Overwatch escapes some of this by theoretically allowing everything to be unlocked for free (Siege does not) but at the same time, at least on Siege you can unlock what you want with your reputation, or with the microtransaction system, on Overwatch irrespective of whether you input real money or gametime, you’re stuck with a randomised system that feels more appropriate to a casino than a video game.
It’s this random element, coupled with the sloth of progression, that ensures that it both takes a long time to earn your rewards on Overwatch, and those rewards you do earn, may not be what you want. Having spent 20 hours with Overwatch’s full release, I have unlocked only one finishing pose, two skins, and handful of sprays that I have actually wanted, for any of the characters I play. Of course, dependent on your luck, and the number of characters you play as, you might have different odds but you’re very unlikely to have an all together better time with the system overall. Additionally, due to its completely random nature, there will also be countless players that fail to unlock anything they want within a reasonable amount of time.
Uncharted 4 actually offered something similar in its multiplayer recently – which most critics seemly didn’t bother to play, or chose to ignore when reviewing the game. However in Uncharted 4, the loot based system treats the non-paying user quite a bit better than Overwatch does. You can log in every day and complete your challenges, earning between six and eight loot boxes by doing so – equivalent to what you would earn with 8 – 11 hours gametime in Overwatch. Not to mention, those loot distributions in Uncharted 4 aren’t split across 21 characters, allowing you to use any taunt or cosmetic item you unlock for the character you play, and the loot table isn’t stuffed with relatively arbitrary items like skins and small voice lines in order to lengthen the process and make earning the rewards you actually want, even less likely.
It’s not the microtansactions in Overwatch that we should take issue with, I can appreciate the fact that game development costs are continually escalating and its within reason to want to seek means of getting additional cash out of the consumer in order to mediate those costs. However, with that in mind there are a myriad of models that work well enough that they don’t feel as though they’re trying to nickle and dime the consumer, Overwatch crosses that line and its a blemish on an what is otherwise, a rather remarkable competitive first person shooter.
Ultimately having a system of reward that allows you to customize and tweak your characters that is accessible for everyone has become a standard of today’s competitive multiplayer game, and if critics have and consumers choose to ignore Blizzards alteration of that standard, that serves as a green light for every big game publisher to offer the same. Overwatch’s design is detrimental to the consumer experience, and to ignore that is potentially harmful to the way we experience the industry as a whole.