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Why microtransaction haters should — and shouldn’t — worry about Activision’s DLC patent

An idea for influencing in-game purchases points to a concerning trend

call of duty supply drop Raven Software/Activision

A patent filed by Activision in 2015 — and approved just this week — is adding to mounting concerns from players around the increasing presence of microtransactions in big-budget multiplayer games. And with a name like “System and method for driving microtransactions in multiplayer video games” and details on how to influence buyers through the matchmaking process, it’s no surprise that the patent is further fueling the firestorm.

The system, as described in the filing, would match up “junior players” with more experienced ones, who own items that the system determined are “of potential interest” to the juniors. This discrepancy is intended to encourage the lesser players to then purchase those items in an effort to stand a better chance alongside their teammates.

“When a player makes a game-related purchase, the microtransaction engine may encourage future purchases by matching the player ... in a gameplay session that will utilize the game-related purchase,” the patent filing reads. “Doing so may enhance a level of enjoyment by the player for the game-related purchase, which may encourage future purchases. For example, if the player purchased a particular weapon, the microtransaction engine may match the player in a gameplay session in which the particular weapon is highly effective, giving the player an impression that the particular weapon was a good purchase.”

Activision’s proposed, patented method is essentially a manipulation tactic: Players would be blindly thrown into unbalanced teams for the purpose of tacitly promoting sales of additional content. Although these documents were drawn up back in 2015, they engender fear in today’s players, who are growing more and more exhausted by the pervasiveness of additional purchases promoted inside of $60 retail games, and the new ways in which publishers are trying to sell us on them.

While there are reasons to worry about Activision’s patent and what it could portend for the near future of paid, in-game content, it’s also important to keep in mind that a patent is just that: a patent.

Why Activision’s matchmaking-infused take on microtransactions gives us pause

One of the bigger conversations this fall surrounds paid add-on content for full-priced games, and how publishers are figuring out new ways to peddle them to players. Critics called out NBA 2K18 for enticing players to spend real world cash on virtual currency by charging high in-game prices for items both cosmetic and otherwise. Middle-earth: Shadow of War’s credits don’t roll until players reach the so-called “bonus ending,” which can takes hours upon hours of grinding ... or the purchase of an experience boost that chops that time in half. Star Wars Battlefront 2 isn’t even out yet, but beta testers decried its random loot drops of upgrades and other progression-related items.

No one has ever liked microtransactions, but there are right ways and wrong ways to handle them. Limiting them to cosmetics that can be easily obtained with currency acquired through regular gameplay? Not an issue, generally. Hiking up prices so that earning coveted loot becomes a struggle unto itself? That’s where players are fed up.

As one of the biggest publishers in the industry, Activision is no stranger to the upsell. The Call of Duty games have supply drops, which randomly distribute cosmetic items to players. The company also released Destiny 2, one of the biggest games of the season, last month. While Destiny 2 isn’t “pay-to-win,” it does introduce the loot box-esque bright engram item. (Bungie community manager David “DeeJ” Dague confirmed on Twitter that Destiny 2 doesn’t use the patented system, however.)

That all of these games are high-profile and have launched (or are launching) just weeks apart from each other helps to underline how ingrained a feature microtransactions have become. It’s particularly common with AAA franchises from well-known companies, especially as budgets continue to balloon and the lifespans of games and consoles lengthen. There’s a lot of talk now about games as a service; selling a game at full price is no longer the publisher’s primary motive, it seems, but step one of a plan to continue profiting off a project.

So if Activision wants to do that by purposefully skewing our enjoyment of a game toward the amount of money we’ve spent on items, that’s not going to sit well with players who already feel like they’ve been cashed out far too much.

But publishers file patents all the time

Importantly, Activision hasn’t used this system in the two years since applying for a patent. An Activision spokesperson told Glixel, which originally reported on the patent approval, that the patent was merely “exploratory,” and was worked on “independently from our game studios.”

“It has not been implemented in-game,” a spokesperson said.

It’s understandable why early reports on the patent worked readers into a fury, especially now. And the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office can be a good place to see where a company’s ideas are headed. But publishers and developers want to protect whatever research they’ve conducted or concepts they’re seriously exploring as quickly and as often as possible, lest a competitor with a similar idea beats them to it. It’s just a generally good business practice — but not one that necessarily suggests the business is looking to actually use it.

At the same time, companies are at liberty to use their inventions whenever they want. Activision isn’t messing with our match-ups yet, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t in the future.

We’ve reached out to the publisher about any current intention to implement the patented system, perhaps in other upcoming games like November’s Call of Duty: WWII. We’ll update accordingly.

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