Microtransactions and Internet Hate Mobs: Life Lessons from Payday 2

I think I learned a valuable lesson about human psychology today. And it all began with writing a negative review for a game that happened to be in the process of being bombarded with negative reviews at the time. Let me explain.

Payday 2 is a dumb game where you shoot a lot, dressed up to pretend it’s something a little more elaborate and intelligent than a horde shooter. In between other scholarly gaming pursuits it’s often been my go-to game for when I don’t want to think, blowing off steam immediately after work or other such times. Flawed and rough as a beta, since the beta, it’s a game I’ve always recommended with several caveats, having to pre-warn people about its many flaws and poor design choices that somehow didn’t turn me away preemptively. In short, it’s a guilty pleasure.

Overkill, the development team behind Payday 2 has never struck me as particularly professional. With a great many PR failures over the past few years, and a general theme of apparent dishonesty, deserved or not, it’s failed to drum up a lot of company loyalty from me despite my enjoyment of their game. Prior to release, the store page of Payday 2 advertised several features that have either failed to manifest two years later (safehouse customization), or have proven to be a stretch of the truth (the number of unique heists available). The game has always had an unfinished feel to it, and the situation hasn’t been helped by frequent, dubiously valuable DLC releases, many of which are just a few new guns that may or may not be useful. By this point, the game’s DLC content adds up to more than triple the actual game’s original $30 price tag.

But this isn’t a post about Overkill’s poor DLC policy, nor its awkward communication with its consumer base and controversial promotional methods, or so on. Up until just yesterday, my interest had mostly faded from playing the game again and it was hardly on my mind. It was a mindless time-killer and it wasn’t worth analyzing the bad choices the developers made when I didn’t care about the game anymore. Then I happened upon a new feature announcement, one that can be summed up in a single word that strikes revulsion into the stomachs of gamers everywhere: microtransactions.

Microtransactions have arguably replaced DLC and pre-order bonuses as the new deadliest sin of game design. Many games treat it as a sign of corruption spreading from the mobile game sector, a manifestation of the crawling shadow overtaking the industry as a whole. I’m of the personal opinion that they are at no point ever a positive addition to any game. Trying to justify them as “unnecessary for the full experience” or just for gamers who don’t have as much time on their hands is nonsense, and even if they are not at all needed to experience the best a game has to offer, their mere presence taints my impression as a whole.

That said, some implementations of microtransactions are better than others. As far as I can tell, there are three levels of microtransaction hell. The least offensive are the cosmetic purchases added to games that allow a level of player customization beyond the usual options. I’m not a fan of this as I’m a nut for character customization, but if the game is free to play, I can forgive this, as it’s not breaking the actual game balance. No one gets ahead by paying, and everything you need to play the game effectively is at your fingertips without your wallet getting involved. Path of Exile is one of the best implementations of a player-friendly free-to-play model I’ve ever seen, offering the entirety of the game for free without any available options to make yourself more powerful by shelling out.

The second stage is paying for convenience, whether it’s paying for extra resources that you would have to grind for otherwise, or paying to bypass certain inconveniences the game puts in front of you, such as a limited inventory size. For some people this is acceptable, but in my books this prevents a game from being considered a “real” game. Whether or not these purchases are considered necessary to play the game comfortably, they corrupt every moment spent with it as the player wonders if, perhaps, they might be having more fun, more quickly should they spend a few dollars. While these kinds of purchases might be acceptable for some players, and in some cases are implemented harmlessly so as to be easily ignored, they will always be a black spot on an experience I might otherwise enjoy. See Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer or Dead Space 3 for the easily-ignored variety that nonetheless reduce the warmth of my recommendation, and Warframe for a game designed to be intentionally tedious so as to encourage spending.

The third, darkest level of micro-hell is paying directly for upgrades. When your in-game power is directly dependant on your spending on extra content, and when powerful weapons/upgrades/vehicles/units/whatever can only be acquired through real money, the line has officially been crossed. Frequently derided as “pay to win”, this is enough for me to ignore a game completely despite its appeal and should never be something that’s encouraged. It’s not acceptable, not even in a free-to-play game, and any game which implements a straight money equals power system of payment is trash, no matter how good it is. That’s how strongly I feel about this.

So, that brings me back to Payday 2. This is a game with all the feeling of a stage-two microtransaction game, given it’s extremely slow and tedious unlock rate and huge emphasis on repetitive grinding, but until yesterday they never actually went so far as to include in-game purchases beyond the aforementioned mediocre weapon dlc. These alternate weapon choices, for the most part, were never necessary to play the game at a high level and were mostly considered optional even by the best players, with a few exceptions. Then along came weapon skins. Weapon skins which can only be acquired through purchasing an expendable item with real money to open the safe containing them. Weapon skins which offer stat boosts to the weapons they are applied to. Stat boosts to weapons which, conveniently, have all been “rebalanced” (nerfed) on the same day as this new feature’s introduction. Well then.

Ignoring first the embarrassingly juvenile gunwank that is dressing up guns with tiger stripes or flames or whatever, this is pretty much the lowest of the low. It might even be the fourth circle of microtransaction hell. Paid skins are dumb, but acceptable, and for a different kind of gamer than me. That they were implemented into a game whose developers have previously promised they will not introduce microtransactions into the game is a pretty major slight, but the game’s getting old. So far, still forgivable, if stupid. Paid skins in a game that’s already bloated with overpriced DLC? Pretty shitty, but okay, I can just ignore them. Except that I can’t, because giving these skins stat bonuses, no matter how minor, means that I will always be using an inferior version of a weapon until I submit to spending real cash on stupid fucking gun paint.

So, naturally, like any mature gamer totally in control of his emotional impulses I wrote a long-winded negative review for the game that pointed out its other negative traits in addition to the new system. I had been honestly meaning to write a review for the game for a long time, but had been stuck considering whether I could still mark it positive with all the bad things it had going for it. This new update made my decision much easier, so it was time. As I said earlier, I didn’t even really care about the game anymore, and just wrote a review so that I could wash my hands of it, so to speak. As someone who writes a lot of reviews, it isn’t unusual for me to make another one.

But then something magical happened. I’m an obsessive post-checker to see if anything I publish has been given likes, votes, or comments, and feel validated when people click thumbs up on anything I write. So when I saw all those upvotes, all those glorious numbers increasing, all those people agreeing with my reactionary opinion, it really did something for me. As of right now, that negative review is my highest-rated review on Steam out of the dozens I’ve written, and I even received a handful of new friend requests shortly after posting it. Just by openly hating on something that a lot of people were presently also hating on, I was rewarded with a sense of support, community, and consensus. It felt good.

I think I understand internet hate mobs now.

Negativity is a powerful force in the human brain, one that easily overpowers positivity unless we really try. It’s much easier to dismiss something as absolute garbage rather than analyze its strengths and flaws. Simply put, black and white is easier than gray. So it’s easy to see how hatedoms form, how negative feedback grows into a solid and sustaining movement that people gain a sense of identity for belonging to. Think of popular-but-crappy things of recent years, like say 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight, and you’ve probably met someone who’s actually gone out of their way to let you know they don’t like them and hate that they even exist with any degree of success, as if their opinion makes any difference. It helps them define who they are, even though it’s a pretty weak way of defining someone.

Remember, I didn’t even care about this game anymore. It was out of my mind. I used to enjoy it, but had grown bored of it and uninstalled it months ago. So why even bother caring about it again? I wanted to make a comment on its flaws and warn off new players from getting sucked in and squeezed for money, but in the process, I unintentionally invited some attention on myself. Positive attention. For a brief moment, just by bashing a game that had done something really stupid, I was part of a community. I was powerful. And though I still didn’t care about the game, I liked the feeling hating on it gave me. It’s an easy temptation to keep kicking something when it’s down if other people keep patting you on the back for it, even when you’re not sure why you’re kicking anymore.

But I won’t be saying anything more about Payday 2. It’s a dumb, shameless game that just got much worse, and you shouldn’t buy it. That’s that. But posting a bad review for it did provide me a valuable bit of insight into the mind of people who seem to hate things for a living, so for that I guess I have to be grateful.

-OV

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