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Do Publishers really listen to gamers?

Andrew Wilson, chief executive officer of Electronic Arts Inc. (EA), speaks during the company's EA Play event ahead of the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Saturday, June 10, 2017. EA revealed two new titles along with the annual iterations of the company's sports games, as well as unveiling the highly anticipated "Star Wars: Battlefront II" open-world multiplayer gameplay. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In one way or another, it has always been a struggle for fans and publishers to communicate. The gaming industry has followed trends in each generation, to ensure it could earn more money. Sometimes, this was to the benefit of gamers, such as with Titanfall 2 and Halo 5: Guardians having free new maps. More often, it would make things worse for gamers. Such as the rise of loot boxes and microtransactions in games over the past few generations. Gamers have, of course, always pushed back against these trends. But have they ever made a real impact? 

Occasionally, publishers seem to listen. Perhaps as a response to the understandably upset gamers. On the other hand, this could be to simply avoid having a negative image. After all, more gamers would be interested in buying a game with no loot boxes. So do big-name publishers listen to their fans? Or are their ‘consumer-friendly’ moves all in the service of making more profits?



Pretending to listen?

Getting fans on your side is a great way to ensure your game will sell. Though following up on the promises you tell them is another thing. Activision launched Crash Team Racing: Nitro fuelled to generally great reception this year. However, sometime after the initial sales and reviews, microtransactions were added. Essentially using the positive reception to add in consumer-unfriendly features. On the opposite side, some publishers have tried pushing their monetization as far as they can from the onset. Then apologize and remove the features later.

We’ve already seen such an example thanks to Electronic Arts (EA) and Star Wars: Battlefront 2. Before launch, EA made several key promises to players that had issues with the first game. Yet the single-player campaign was considered disappointing. To make matters worse, the game was riddled with microtransactions and pay to win mechanics. The uproar from angry gamers was loud enough that even Disney had to speak with EA. Regarding fears over the damage, it was causing to the Star Wars brand.

Responding to the outrage, EA quickly removed all microtransactions from the game. They focused on adding free content and updates that would appease fans. On the surface, it looks like their ‘consumer-friendly’ changes, were a response to gamers and Disney. However, there is no denying that they profited as a result of these decisions. The positive buzz from free content and microtransaction removal has brought players back. Was EA motivated to make fans happy? Or did making fans happy simply align with their goals of selling more copies. Since publishers will always have profit as their primary goal, I’m inclined to think the latter. Though in cases like this, the end result isn’t so bad for gamers either.


Not listening at all…

On the other end of the spectrum, some publishers are surprisingly honest. For these companies, it’s clear that maximizing profit was the number one goal of a game. In spite of fan backlash. Back in 2017, Bethesda marketed a ‘save player one’ campaign, with comedic videos focused on their dedication to single-player games. Yet the next year, Bethesda revealed multiplayer and mobile games like Fallout 76 and Diablo Immortal.

Fans did not take kindly to this and the poor reception of Fallout 76 stood out for all the wrong reasons. Despite this, Bethesda did not back down on their decisions. At E3 2019, Todd Howard made light of the Fallout 76 criticisms instead of giving an apology. Last month, anticipated updates such as private servers were delayed and replaced with a subscription service. Fallout 1st. In general, the gaming industry is now moving away from invasive microtransactions. However, like Bethesda, other game publishers and developers have also doubled down on their use of such features. This year’s Mortal Kombat 11 was criticized for this too. Its Crypt mode takes took much time to unlock items. Influencing players to spend real money to speed up the process.

Even more recently, NBA 2k’s use of literal casinos in-game has left a lot of gamers fuming. Its use of microtransactions is egregious and publisher 2K Games has shown no signs of removing them. For 2K Games, we can clearly see where the priorities lie. These publishers are fully aware that the amount of players that are turned away by their microtransactions, pales in comparison to the many more who will still buy the game. For this reason, we’ve now seen publishers that are pushing their monetization mechanics as far as possible, knowing that the profits will far outweigh any backlash from gamers.


Recent events ready to change things?

Knowing that happy gamers are profitable gamers is important. With this in mind, consumer-friendly moves are becoming more common. Sony finally opening the doors to cross-platform play is great positive PR (despite how long it took). Meanwhile, developers like CD Projekt Red are garnering trust from their fans. They’ve done this through clear messaging and releasing quality content without fan displeasing monetization. Last month, a statement from the head of Ubisoft Yves Guillemot, was another step in the right direction. He stated that Ubisoft was disappointed by sales of this year’s Tom Clancy’s: Ghost Recon: Breakpoint and Tom Clancy’s: The Division 2. Then announced that future Ubisoft games will be delayed. To ensure they have better quality and diverse gameplay. Undoubtedly, these are changes that players want to hear. Albeit as a result of the poor sales of their recent games.

Similarly, EA also had a recent press release about its quarterly earnings. At one point they go on to mention developing remasters of fan-favorite EA games in the future. EA has been strangely reluctant to remaster their older games this generation. So this is very likely, a decision made to appease fans and earn some guaranteed revenue. Though if we end up getting a remastered Mass Effect trilogy out of it, I won’t complain. In situations like these, we can see that profit is always the goal. In other words, publishers are starting to listen to fans, so long as it generates more money.



We can never know for sure…

On the whole, we may never know the ratio of what motivates publishers. How much of it is governed by profits versus player happiness? Yet we occasionally get glimpses thanks to developers that are willing to speak candidly. Activision’s deal with Sony ensures that the Spec Ops: Survival mode of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare remains exclusive to the PlayStation 4 for one year. On Twitter, Infinity ward narrative director Taylor Kurosaki mentioned: “There are decisions that are above all of our pay grades”. From this, we can gather that publishers like Activision, will have the final say. Decisions will be made to prioritize profits as long as they outweigh any money lost by angering gamers.

So companies most likely won’t ever truly listen. But rather pretend they are listening when the goals of being more consumer-friendly align with their ideas of what will generate the most profit. While that might be disheartening to hear, gaming is a business like any other and gamers causing publishers to become more consumer-friendly will never be a bad thing. Regardless of their real motives.

Chirag Pattni
Psychologist and long time gamer. Has a love-hate relationship with technology and loves all things Japanese.

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