So it’s time to be a little bit controversial. Hooray!

I fell in love with internet gaming communities way back when I made my first online friends through gaming newsgroups back in the late nineties. These functioned very similarly to how reddit does now, only without the fancy voting and user profiles and such: basically communities of knowledge and mutual support focused around a particular game, series or genre. Given that it’s also deeply embedded in my personality type to want people’s approval as much as their company, I’ve always been the sort to value having a good ‘image’ in Internet communities.

That’s why, for me at least, this is a controversial post – because I know there are people who will disagree with it for good reasons, and who in doing so may feel they wish to judge me for my viewpoint. I really don’t like being judged. But I’m going to write it anyway, and partly because I think it’s an increasingly pertinent question.

Some background: I read an article on Eurogamer today about microtransactions in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which is a single player game (that, I should point out, I don’t presently own. I did enjoy DXHR, though!). Apparently one of the pre-order bonuses was single-use consumables which give things like skill points or ammo, only the single-use part really meant ‘single-use’ – that is to say, you use them once on one save and they’re gone forever. The good news, though, is that you can buy more of them any time you want – provided you’re willing to cough up the real-world cash.

Or you could just earn them in-game normally.

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DXMD, sometime last week.

I understand games publishers wanting to make money. Games development, especially at the triple-A end of the genre, is almost inconceivably expensive, complex and risky. For all the things we criticise AAA games for, as a gamer and a consumer I’d still be sad if they stopped being made. I’m not against paying for extra content in principle and I’d certainly be all for anything which could drive down the barrier to entry for any given game (though I’m not sure if DLC, season passes, microtransactions etc has any positive effect on initial purchase price – I suspect it doesn’t). I’d also generally rather have a buy-to-play game with convenience-based microtransactions than a free-to-play game which is constantly looking for ways to inconvenience me if I don’t cough up some hard cash – and then wants me to keep paying over and over again as long as possible.

The reason I bring this up is because the PC has historically tended to be a more or less open platform characterised by freedom and possibility, and PC games have likewise tended to be more or less open to having their inner workings opened up and modified by their users. And I think this is a truly wonderful thing that should be encouraged. I especially love it when developers encourage modding communities and allow mods to be freely developed and distributed even alongside their own paid DLC. Games exist primarily for fun[1], and just as children in a playground will change the rules of a game to make it suit them better, so one of the great things about PC games is that it’s historically been possible to do the same.

It’s about personalisation. A game as-shipped may be quite fun to play, but perhaps if I just tinker with this setting and that stat, or if I change this mechanic slightly, then I’ll enjoy it more[2]. Over the years I’ve naturally been inclined to do this with the games I’ve liked most, or come closest to liking. I added a new cluster of planets to the original Escape Velocity themed around my best friends at the time, with new spaceships and missions and a storyline to play through. In EV:Nova I instead tweaked existing features of the game to better suit what I wanted from it, taking out a few things I felt were irritating and adding in a few things I liked.

One of the things I often used to do when I started a new game in EVN was to buy a freighter and do a specific trade run that always produced a high return. I’d do this until I’d made several hundreds of millions of credits, then set out into the rest of the game not having to worry about what I spent my money on. Eventually I decided that, while having cash was fun, grinding the trade route was not. So I produced a small mission plug-in that simulated the player going off and spending several months running the trade route – without having to actually do it. I still felt like I was earning my credits in a legitimate way, so I could continue to enjoy the story without feeling like I was cheating. But, basically, I was giving myself millions of credits at the start of the game.

I didn’t always use the plug-in, mind you. Sometimes I preferred not having all the cash.

Likewise in Dishonoured, I never really liked the mechanic whereby only one blink’s worth of your mana would recharge. I’m a sort of fussy perfectionist hoarder by nature, and I would blink, wait for recharge, blink, wait for recharge – and never use the powers that cost more mana than would recharge in one go. On the rare occasion that I did, I’d then backtrack through the level to find the earliest mana potion that I hadn’t been able to pick up and use it to refill my supply, in case I needed the mana potions from further on in the level later on.

Fun, no? Well, no. After finishing the game once on the highest difficulty I modded it so that the entire mana bar regenerated, but it did so much more slowly. The result was that I could use even very expensive powers relatively freely, at the cost of having to develop a ‘rhythm’ of power use – bursts of power use would have be followed by long periods of vulnerability as my mana recharged. If I desperately needed to use more powers I could chug a mana potion. For whatever reason, just knowing that my mana would eventually recharge prevented me from going out of my way to hoard potions, and made the game much more fun. Now I could blink several times in a row and feel really fluid and fast, then sneak around a bit while the mana recharged passively.

An obvious objection to this mod is that it lets you use the more powerful powers more frequently, as well as to blink several times in a row without worrying so much about how much mana it’s costing. But I have two responses to this:

  • First of all, Dishonored is not a difficult game. It very quickly becomes a full-on empowerment fantasy. The question is not whether you can win, but how you would like to win – how cool and badass would you like to feel, how merciful or vengeful would you like your victory to be?
  • Secondly, the game has enough sources of mana regen scattered around that you could pretty much spam your way through your best powers all level and still have full mana at the end. Again, it’s simply not a difficult game. For me, the mod was as much about catering to my obsessive personality as actually having a full mana bar.

I’ve modded lots more games in my life, usually only for my own purposes, and usually because they’ve been games that I’ve liked enough to want to spend more time on, but not enough to want to play in their imperfect state. A bit like the princess and the pea: for me, modding is about removing that pea, or as many peas as I can. And yes, I realise that in this analogy I am a princess.

Plenty of folks, I’m sure, find the peas invigorating, challenging, stimulating. I don’t. I’m getting older. I have a wife now, a job. I still have chronic fatigue, which means I don’t have much energy. Having CFS taught me to manage my own energy, to be smart and wise about how I what little I have. In a way, that’s how I see modding – a way to be more efficient and effective in my play, in a life where I simply don’t have unlimited time and energy to deal with the ‘peas’.

peas
Some peas, this morning.

Already it’s possible to look at modding as cheating – if it’s making the game suit you better, maybe it’s making it easier too. And that’s cheating, right? Here I’ve always defended myself by dropping in comments like “after beating the game on the hardest difficulty…” If you were paying attention that means I don’t need it to be easier, right? I’m l33t. I’m hardcore. I downed no-keepers Yogg Saron pre-nerf! I soloed platinum with a volus sentinel and a phaeston[3]! Et cetera.

I think in general, though, we’re used to ‘mods’ being seen as legitimate gameplay changers which preserve the core satisfaction you get from playing a game, whereas cheats are shortcuts to an end which may not actually be satisfying. It may be fun the first time you turn on godmode and kill all the things, but it’s kind of like eating a sugary sweet: it won’t be very satisfying in the long-run, and probably not too memorable either.

And so this brings me almost back to DX:MD and its microtransactions. I just downloaded a ‘sampler’ PDF from the internet that I wanted to print a single copy of. To my astonishment, it asked me for a password – even though I was able to view it on the screen. Of course, being the lifelong PC user that I am, I immediately stripped out the protection and printed it anyway before realising I was probably breaking some kind of license agreement I’d never seen or agreed to. This would be my reaction to a game that wants me to pay extra money to make it better suit my preferences: I’d roll my eyes and think “I bet if I just whipped out a hex editor…”

Is that wrong?

No, seriously: is it wrong? I’m genuinely asking.

For me, coming from a PC background, things like DRM and inbuilt monetisation just seem utterly bonkers. Perhaps for a certain class of user, though, it’s adding value – perhaps if modding is something you’ve never been interested in, it’s actually really convenient to be able to click a button and get a few extra praxis kits. The ‘whale’ is a well-document phenomenon when it comes to F2P and MT games: a few users with high disposable income (one hopes) who happily spend large amounts of money on things like horse armor, praxis kits and Premium Spectre Packs.

Oops – I may have tipped my hand on that last one.

So, um, one thing I’ve not talked about yet is multiplayer. What about modding or cheating when it could affect other players?

I played World of Warcraft for several years as a raid and guild leader. A huge part of the enjoyment of the game was meeting the challenge of gearing up our players and developing strategies to beat raid bosses. We were competing on more or less the same playing field as every other one of WoW’s 12 million or so other players. Beating a boss felt significant – unless it happened right after a hotfix or a nerf. Then it just felt like it didn’t mean so much.

Or, at least, that’s how it was at first. Gradually I think I began to wish the game was balanced around my group of players rather than 12 million players worldwide. Gradually I lost patience with having to grind my way through quests on alts, or earn valor points or hero tokens or kill 15 kobolds or whatever so that I could do the thing I really wanted. At first I enjoyed those things, then I tolerated them. When I eventually stopped playing because of burnout, I was even sick of learning new raid bosses. It just felt like jumping through more and more arbitrary hoops.

Cheating or modding was never an option for me in World of Warcraft, but sometimes I wonder how it would have affected my experience of the game if it had been possible (and permissible) to truly modify it. And I think the answer is that the nature of WoW meant that, for the way I was playing the game, there’s very little I could have changed and still enjoyed it.

One thing I could have changed and been happy with, however, was gold – the game’s currency.

And this is a really controversial one because a lot of enjoyment is derived from a game’s economy, and lots of real-world harm is done by certain gold farming methods (usually involving hacking the accounts of innocent players).

Towards the end of the game, once I’d earned all my gear, I’d built up my skills, and I was playing for the enjoyment of being good at the game – I think I’d have loved to have just had infinite cash to blow on nice looking gear, respecs, crafting skills, and doing crazy stuff with friends. I think it’d have kept me playing a bit longer. But I also know if everyone had infinite cash, the world (of Warcraft) would’ve been a very different place. Like it or not, gold was one way for people to have status.

This is where it gets really complicated – we’re getting into sociology and economics here, and I have to hold up my hands and admit I can’t say anything else intelligent about it. But it does bring me on, at long last, to my final point.

 

Three years ago my favourite game was Mass Effect 3’s cooperative multiplayer. I had many good friends who I’d play with often, but I also enjoyed dropping into random games with strangers. It was great fun. As in many MP games, you start off with very few characters, items and weapons unlocked, and as you play you earn credits which you can use to buy packs (similar to card game booster packs) containing random cards – commons, uncommons, rares, ultra rares – which slowly build up your inventory and, thus, your power.

Very, very slowly.

I was a good enough player that I didn’t have to do any ‘farming’ to unlock most of the ‘rare’ cards to maximum level (just so we’re clear, that was another casual marker of how I don’t need to cheat[4]). I very quickly maxed out my manifest of rares, and was able to save up enough credits that each time new content was added I’d max out those rares too.

Packs also gave you consumable equipment which gave moderate boosts to character power. On the higher difficulties it was expected that you would use these consumables, and you earned enough credits to be able to more or less replace them at a higher rate than you used them. The only issue was that, because the packs were random, you didn’t have a great chance to getting the consumables you actually wanted (e.g. you might collect 50 buffs for your assault rifle and none for your shotgun).

There were plenty of problems with ME3 multiplayer too. I won't tell you how long it took me to get a Javelin 10 through the game's horrendous random unlock system.
A Premium Spectre Pack, three and a bit years ago. That black card with the N7 artwork is a cherished Ultra Rare unlock. The X means it’s finally maxed out and you can stop worrying about it.

As with Dishonored’s mana potions, I was pretty disciplined (obsessive) about not wasting my consumables.

When I stopped playing ME3 MP I’d played somewhere in the region of 500 hours, and although I’d unlocked all the rares, many of the ultra-rares still eluded me. I also had a good stockpile of consumables waiting to use, including the precious ‘Reset Powers’ card, which lets you respec your character so that you can try a different allocation of skill points.

When I started playing again a few weeks ago, I looked at that 500 hours figure, I looked at how many URs I still hadn’t unlocked, and I looked at all the characters I wanted to try new builds on. I looked at my stockpile of Shotgun Rail Amp IIIs. And, honestly, I thought:

Fuck this.

I’m not going to waste my time grinding out credits to buy Premium Spectre Packs (at a rate of roughly 1.5 games per PSP) to have a 7% chance of upgrading one of my ultra rares one level, while carefully rationing my use of the weapons I actually like playing with.

So I opened up an editor and I gave myself roughly eleventy-billion credits. Then I used an AutoHotKey script to automate the buying of several hundred PSPs (a process that, in itself, is ridiculously time-consuming and painstaking).

After a few overnight runs of the macro I had maxed out my ultra rares and refreshed my stocks of consumables.

Then I sat down and just enjoyed playing the game. Apart from being really rusty, I played no differently to before. I used consumables the same way. I equipped the same weapons and equipment. But now I wasn’t worrying about whether I should be stockpiling more rail amps, or saving the reset powers card, or accumulating credits to try and get my Particle Rifle from rank 9 to rank 10.

A long time ago BioWare stopped banning ‘cheaters’ from ME3MP. As a result there’s now a relatively thriving MP mod community which is semi-consensual, as in, sometimes you drop into a modded game when you didn’t want one but mostly the modders seem to organise themselves and stay separate, and very few of the mods could be considered ‘cheats’ in the barefaced way I gave myself more credits. At any rate, there’s no risk to me from ‘cheating’ in this way except my own credibility.

You see, I used to do guides and make videos on the official forums. I was something of an authority. People respected me and listened to me.

I liked this very much because that’s the sort of person I am.

Now I feel like I’ve put my personal enjoyment of the game above my reputation, and – well, that’s actually a bit scary.

I don’t think I’m harming anyone by what I’ve done. It gives me a slight advantage, sure – but it’s the same advantage I manually ground out for 500 hours when I had the time and energy to do that. And the game is co-operative. You’re working with other players, not against them. If I wanted to top the scoreboard and be a boss, I already had umpteen different really powerful kits I could play really well, with maxed out weapons and plenty of consumables. I didn’t need the Particle Rifle 10 to be good. I didn’t need to have 150 Shotgun Rail Amps to succeed in Platinum.

I just took out what, for me, was a pea.

(Other peas I took out include separating the infamous omni-button out into its different functions, but I did that back when I originally played and I don’t think it was considered cheating.)

The final complication is that those packs – like the Premium Spectre Packs, which I bought about a gazillion of – can be bought with real world money instead of in-game credits. Yup. I even did this a few times when I first started playing to try and give myself a boost. I quickly realised that the randomness of the pack’s contents made buying them in small numbers useless, and the real money cost for even a single pack wasn’t even close to commensurate to its actual value to me as a player. A PSP costs around $3. Each has a 7% chance of unlocking an ultra rare. The game has around 20 ultra-rare weapons and a few characters. To unlock all the game’s ultra rares to level 10 would cost $3 * 20 weapons * 10 ranks * 7% chance = $8500 dollars, ish?

(I used to be good at maths.)

I had maybe 30 or so UR weapon ranks to unlock when I returned to MP, so that’s – um – $3 * 30 * 7% chance = $1300 or so?

Alternatively a PSP costs 99,000 credits, and you can earn around 80,000 for a successful gold-difficulty match which might take about 20 minutes. Platinum takes a little longer (maybe 30m on average) but earns more like 150k. So to do the same with credits:

30 ultra rare ranks * 7% chance * 99,000 credits / 150,000 credits * 30 minutes = 140 hours.

Right? I really did used to be good at maths. I wrote spreadsheets and everything.

So I cheated BioWare out of $1300, or myself out of playing around 150 hours of platinum. Just so that I could then go and use what I’d ‘earned’ to go play more games.

I’m not sure I’ll ever play another 150 hours of Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, but I know I’ll enjoy the hours I’m playing now a lot more not worrying about my virtual money.

Did I cheat? Yeah, let’s call it cheating. Does it mean anything that I cheated? Probably not. I took out the peas. I’ve not got anything to prove to anyone, least of all myself, and I would never have paid real money for any more packs anyway.

Will people judge me for it? (You can see which questions matter the most to me.) Well, I suppose some people will.

Was it wrong?

That – I just really can’t bring myself to say yes to. As I see it, the PC platform gives us unprecedented freedom to shape our own environments and experiences. Once we’ve matured enough to learn what we want from an experience, I think we should totally be free to go ahead and modify it to suit us better. Even once you factor in other people (in multiplayer games) and monetisation (through things like microtransactions for consumables in a single player game) – I dunno. I just feel this, right here, my computer – this is my free space. This is one thing I can really control, really play with on my own terms. Surely that’s not wrong?

Footnotes:

[1] I know games can engage us in many different sorts of experience and result in many different kinds of emotional responses – including fear, worry, excitement, joy, wonder, frustration and so forth – but I characterise them as ‘fun’ not just because it’s an obvious thing to say but because I think, at least for those of us who aren’t pro gamers, there’s a fundamental qualitative difference between playing a game – whether it’s Dark Souls or Candy Crush Saga – and engaging in work.

[2] Again as per the above footnote I use ‘enjoy’ in the sense of maximising the quality of my desired experience, whether that is joy or fear or whatever else.

[3] This one I actually haven’t done, nor will I attempt, because – oh boy, tedium. (And because it’d be really hard and I’m not sure if I could do it.)

[4] I mean seriously, I was generally good enough to ‘carry’ most games on my own if I ended up in a team that was otherwise overwhelmed. It’s so easy to feel entitled, isn’t it? I’m almost singlehandedly earning these three players 60,000 credits! Why should I have to grind away at unlocks like everyone else? (And why should they have to struggle through content that’s too difficult without at very least the equipment that would make it easier?)

 

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