Years ago, you would buy a game for an agreed upon amount of money, and that was the end of the transaction. Then, horse armor happened. Paid downloadable content (or “microtransactions”) has only gotten more popular in the games industry since then, culminating in the current raft of free-to-play and heavily monetized “premium” games. The now-common “loot boxes” might not be the ultimate form of microtransactions. Activision has been granted a patent for a system for encouraging in-game purchases that sounds positively game-breaking.
The patent, titled “system and method for driving microtransactions in multiplayer video games,” was filed in 2015, but has only recently been granted. It’s basically a way to reward players who buy content and subtly punish those who don’t via the game’s built-in matchmaking algorithms.
Let’s say you haven’t been buying content in a shooter that stresses the importance of loot crates. According to this patent, a game could be designed to put you in matches with higher-level players or those who have been buying content. Thus, you get crushed and think, “I should buy some upgrades.”
Activision also proposes several ways a game could incentivize players who have just paid for an upgrade. The first part is just the flip-side of the above scenario. When you buy content, you might be matched with lower-level players, who you could soundly stomp. Alternatively, after getting an upgrade, the game could place you in a match where that particular weapon or item was highly effective. This all reinforces the satisfaction you get from buying the upgrade, making it more likely you’ll buy more in the future.
Destiny has been criticized for relying heavily on microtransactions.
Some less-distressing features of the patent also call for tracking player purchases and attaching that data to profiles. For example, if you never buy certain types of items, the game could begin crafting a more enticing set of offers that might get you to buy more content. It’s essentially automated marketing driven by player choices.
The result of all this could be more money in a game developer’s pockets, but a great deal more frustration for players who just want to play a game without being nickel and dimed constantly. Activision has released a statement confirming none of the features of this patent have been implemented in its games. It’s all theoretical for now, but you can bet gamers will be watching for this sort of behavior and calling developers out for any appearance of impropriety.
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