Smith: Protesting Video Game Greed

Video game companies are putting aside ethics to increase the bottom line. Photo courtesy of Publicdomainpictures.net

Amid the national anthem protests sweeping the country, a much smaller, one-man protest lit up the video game world.

A protest against greedy publishers that ram micro-transactions down the throat of consumers.

I touched on the subject last week while discussing “Destiny 2,” but that was before publisher 2K Games tried to influence a game site’s review of their recent basketball game “NBA 2K18.” This blatant attempt at review manipulation isn’t new to video game journalism, but it hasn’t cropped up for over a decade.

Not until 2K took issue with what they considered a “protest” review by gaming website “The Sixth Axis.” The review written by game critic Aran Suddi rated “NBA 2K18” a 3 out of 10 — an extreme outlier from it’s Metacritic score of 88 out of 100.

It wasn’t the game play or graphics that turned Suddi off. By all accounts, “NBA 2K18” is stellar looking game that plays beautifully, and Suddi agrees with that assessment.

It was the micro-transactions he couldn’t stand. A holdover from mobile games, micro-transactions are tiny purchases (a buck or two) that net the player certain kinds of in-game loot, characters, experience points, ect. Just another way to portion off content so consumers can spend more money on a game they’ve already payed $60 for.

“NBA 2K18” has managed to make the practice even more despicable by tying it to game progression. One of the key features of the game is a career mode where you build your own player, and the only way to improve the player’s stats is through the game’s virtual currency.

You can earn this currency by winning basketball games, which is fairly standard for a sports game. Problem is, you’ll need to play about 200 games just to bring your character up to a respectable level.

Of you can buy those stats with real money. If “NBA 2K18” were free-to-play, that wouldn’t be a problem. But the basic edition of “NBA 2K18″ already costs $60. Or you can buy the deluxe mega version with loads of prepaid virtual currency for $150.

A protest review

Despite overwhelmingly positive reviews, most gaming critics have panned the overly invasive micro-transactions in “NBA 2K18.” But since they were reviewing the game on it’s own merits, that dissatisfaction didn’t have an impact on their scores.

Suddi considered the economy so overbearing it inhibited his enjoyment of the game, and he scored it appropriately. But he also noted his review was a protest, and that’s when publisher 2K Games got involved. They didn’t directly threaten the site. They asked very nicely if Suddi would “reconsider” his score.

Kind of like if Tony Soprano came over to your house and said “This is a nice place you have here. Hope nothing bad happens to it.”

The Sixth Axis removed the review from their site for a day, specifically because the reviewer said his score was a protest. The review was re-posted 24 hours later with the same score, but with the word “protest” taken out.

As much as the situation rankles my journalistic integrity bone, I understand why 2K Games would be upset. It’s a video game critic’s job to rate a product so the consumer can make an informed choice. Politics shouldn’t play a role.

Unless those politics affect the game, which seems to be the case here. 2K Games lost the ethical right to complain the minute their greed trumped the quality of their product.

The big cash grab

Like most publishers, 2K Games is well-versed in the art of complaining and double speak. They call “micro-transactions” a player choice. They say the video game market is more volatile than ever, noting their millions of dollars in production costs won’t be recouped unless they charge a little extra.

Too bad. If they can’t make money in the video game market, there’s always the movie industry. Hollywood spent the summer belly-aching about streaming TV stealing their audiences, then the Stephen King movie “It” became the highest-grossing rated-“R” horror movie in history.

Turns out the problem was the crap movie season. Quality will always trump advertising, and “It” was a surprisingly good film.

2K Games has been pulling these shenanigans for a while. The progression system for their pro wrestling game “WWE 2K17” is more broken than their basketball game, tied to experience points that can be gained through real cash. I paid nearly $100 for the complete “WWE 2K17″package last year, and the game was still a horrible slog. I’m never making that mistake again.

It saddens me to see this trend spreading to television. I don’t give a whit about CBS programming, but I wanted badly to see “Star Trek: Discovery.” The show caters to a demographic outside of CBS norms, so the channel put it behind the paywall of their online subscription service. Most of the general public won’t plunk down extra cash for a single show, but Trekkies certainly will.

Many Trekkies are gamers, and the video game industry has slowly indoctrinated us to pay a little bit more for what we really want. Pop culture media is our passion, and cynical executives have twisted our eagerness into a kind of nerd subsidy. No matter the price, we’re usually willing to pay.

I blow as much money as any other geek. As soon as I saw the first episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” on TV (the first episode was free), I jumped on my computer and signed up for the subscription service. The critic in me scoffed at the idea of bowing to the TV monolith, but I couldn’t help myself.

Drawing the line between being a critic and being a fan is tough. If video game publishers were a bit more ethical, it’s a line the common consumer wouldn’t have to worry about.

Will Smith is a reporter for The Hawk Eye, a GateHouse Media Company in Burlington, Iowa. His column is printed each week in the Sunday edition of The Hawk Eye.