Open calls for boycotts.
Organized campaigns to downgrade the game’s rating through one-star reviews.
Exhortations to demand refunds from Apple and Google Play for money spent.
Entire clans announcing they’ll sit out the game as a protest measure.
A petition for class action.
Images like this everywhere you look.
Welcome to the War Robots player community, late September edition. What the hell is going on?
Yesterday Pixonic unveiled the Component system for Android, finally answering the question of how much the Dash bots were going to cost. As it turns out, the pricetag more than doubled the previous record-holder, the $100 Butch. The Inquisitor tripled it.
It didn’t go over well. Today I want to try and take a frank and impartial look at how we got here, what it means, and how we can avoid coming here again while still balancing player desire and company strategy.
So let’s just get it out of the way- the new gear is almost prohibitively expensive for the 99%. I’ve defended spending valuable entertainment dollars on War Robots before with the argument that looking at it as “just a mobile game” is a poor approach. Rather, it may be fairer to look at the rate of return on your expenditure. Many won’t blink at dropping ten bucks on a movie ticket for two hours of entertainment, but scoff at paying ten bucks for 30 days of Premium for a game they spend considerably more time on.
That’s not to say that anyone is “wrong” for not spending their own money- farbeit for me to tell anyone how to enjoy the fruits of their labors- but it’s important to make the point that entertainment is entertainment, and spending money on it is a reasonable thing to do.
So how can we justify prices upwards of $300 for an Inquisitor… or $200 for a Dash?
Well, let me ask you this… why do they need justifying to begin with?
Games that use rosters of characters certainly have unclean hands when it comes to fostering an obsessive, hoarder mentality. Pokemon exhorted us to boundless “completionism,” with the cry of “gotta catch ’em all!”
So what if you never actually played with Magicarp… either your collection was complete, or it wasn’t. Now for the most part if you’re durdling around on your GameBoy chasing digital pixels to fill your digital pixel collection, your only real investment is time.
But it didn’t take long for game designers to figure out that they could tap into that completionist mindset to artificially inflate game depth. Take a twenty-hour game, add in a couple of unnecessary characters that unlock with lengthy side-quests, and suddenly you’ve padded your way to a thirty-hour game. Some games, like Chrono Cross, had infamously large casts of characters. You didn’t need them to win, but…didn’t you want to see what they did?
The advent of the microtransaction in gaming inevitably brought chocolate and peanut butter together. We see this now in games like Dungeon Boss and League of Legends, “freemium” games that give you a small stable of playable characters to learn the game with, and a vast roster of unlockable ones that must be earned through a variable combination of grinding, luck, and/or real money (RM).
In single-player games, balance is much less of a consideration. Who is going to complain that one character is overpowered compared to the “baseline power norm?” The MOBs? Dungeon bosses? NPC’s having to deal with a large influx of treasure disrupting their local economies?
By the same token, in games with a player-versus-player (PVP) element live and die on finding competitive balance. If one character is overpowered compared to the others, then players will gravitate towards that player in preference to any others. This is called “warping the meta,” and it is very unhealthy. The games will be filled with either the overpowered character, or narrow, niche builds of other characters focused entirely on countering the overpowered one.
The “rock-paper-scissors” model may be somewhat cliche, but it surely must go down as a “best practice” model for the industry. The ultimate goal is to have a reasonably balanced diversity, so that players are allowed to compete both with the resources they possess, as well as the ones they might aspire to own.
For the first three years of its life, War Robots seems to have struggled a bit with this question. To be fair, the early days of any game are often untested waters, and it’s unlikely that the developers could see the recent transformation of the game in some crystal ball. Rather, these are existential questions Pixonic is asking in the wake of the game’s success. Some might call the answers they arrived at a “betrayal,” but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Now that we’ve set the table, let’s ask the obvious question: what is Pixonic up to?
It wasn’t all that long ago that folks rather dourly remarked on the ubiquity of the Griffin. While supporters could trumpet that it was a sign of game health that the most-played bot was a Silver one, others longed for a bit more variety and less predictability on the battlefield.
From personal experience, it always added a little spice to my matches when I encountered something rare. A quad-Trebuchet Butch, for instance, wasn’t quite a unicorn, but you could be forgiven for occasionally mistaking the two. The Wild Bunch were the first bots to be released that had a high bar for ownership- you couldn’t just fork over a box of Gold like you could with the Britbots. That made them comparatively uncommon, and exciting to see “in the wild.”
And while a credible case could be made that their perceived lack of quality was a contributing factor in their scarcity, the fact that they became more common on the battlefield once they became easier to acquire supports a more nuanced narrative.
So if a diversity of bots on the battlefield is something Pixonic would like to foster, how would they go about doing this? Well, there are two ways that come to mind. The first is through abundance, a model we touched upon above. League of Legends is probably as close to “something for everyone” as you can get with over 130 playable champions. And while some might be more popular in the competitive metagame than others, you never quite know what you’ll be running up against.
But War Robots has only a fraction of that number, and even then the early design decision to adopt a stratified structure of Light–Medium–Heavy rather than balancing all bots against a common standard means that a substantial chunk of your offerings become obsolete at later levels of play. When was the last time anyone encountered a Level 12 Destrier?
When was the first time?
This is why Griffins accounted for between 20-25% of the meta. They were comparatively easy to acquire and were endgame viable. In that sense, they were a point in the favor of “free to play” over “pay to win,” which we’ll come to shortly.
So if “abundance” is out, then what if we go the other direction and embrace scarcity? In this model, you simply make some playable characters harder to acquire than others, preserving a sense of novelty and variety while giving players goals to work towards over time. This is the model employed by Dungeon Boss, where you have some exotic characters that can be very difficult to farm or win from a Portal (basically, the Dungeon Boss version of a War Robots chest).
Dungeon Boss actually goes one step further in this direction when you take into account how characters are leveled up. In War Robots, the mechanism is the most common ingame currency, Silver. From top to bottom, all weapons and bots use the plata to empower the plomo.
Not so in Dungeon Boss. Each character has their own “tokens.” Save up enough tokens, and you can unlock the character. Want to level him/her/it? You need more of their tokens. This allows them to make some characters very prestigious, even exclusive, not unlike some of the rarest mounts in World of Warcraft. Rare characters aren’t just for performance, but pull double duty as status symbols. A Kia will get you across town just as well as a Bentley, but there’s a reason one is many times more expensive than the other and it’s not just down to component quality.
What are the risks of the scarcity model? The largest is getting the balance wrong, both in power level and appeal. The developers of Star Wars: Galaxies famously all but destroyed their game with their attempt to retain scarcity of the one class most players wanted to play, the Jedi. That was an appeal error, but a power level imbalance can be every bit as terminal.
As noted above, in a PVP game an overpowered character will compel the playerbase to gravitate towards that character (or its foil) if they want to remain competitive.
You cannot understate that- a feeling of “competitive fairness” is crucial in a PVP game. Nobody wants to feel like they’re the proletariat chum being used to feed the patrician whales. To some degree, Andrew Lewis’s famous maxim comes to mind here. Regardless of their spending level, players want to feel that the battlefield treats every player without fear or favor. Is that reasonable? Should free-to-pay players expect the same treatment as those who actually fund the company and keep the lights on? Isn’t that sentiment, to use a four-letter word en vogue in American politics right now, kind of socialist? From each according to their ability, to each according to their need?
The answer is, it’s essential to success.
A few years ago I bought a comic and game store off of the prior owner, a gentleman who was the epitome of the hostile hobby-store stereotype. If you went in and bought something, you were fine- at least for a little while. Heaven forbid you came in and didn’t purchase anything, or- worse- just hung out for a spell.
When my wife and I bought the store, our first ceremonial action was to remove the odious “two hour limit” sign in the open gaming area. Instead, we made it known that folks who wanted to game were welcome to use it as long as they liked, and whether or not they bought anything was their own business. We didn’t care about the size of your wallet, but the character of your person.
Almost overnight, the store went from sounding like a bank to sounding like a market square. Our customers learned they could always expect something to be going on in the store, and frequented much more often. And yes…spent more money, too. The lesson was clear: even people who don’t add to the cash register still add to the atmosphere- and the atmosphere adds to the cash register.
“Do well by doing good” became our store’s motto, and remained that way until we sold it two years on after finding we were expecting our fourth child, Ruari. #noragrets
To bring this back to War Robots, is Pixonic looking to do well by doing good? The perception in the community seems an unambiguous no. But why is that?
As we round second on today’s piece, if we were to boil it down there are two factors at play here: perception and expectation.
Rationally speaking, a $300 Inquisitor bot should offend no-one. A business has the right to set whatever prices it feels it wants for a commodity, just as consumers have the equal right to buy or walk away. Don’t want the new $100,000 Ford pickup truck? Test-drive something else.
Yet that’s not what’s happening here. The playerbase is up in arms with outrage and vitriol. This is a “cash grab” by a company that no longer values the players that made the game a success in the first place. A betrayal. A sign of a game circling the drain in decline, as its feckless custodian looks to wring every last nickel out of it.
Let’s examine the possible factors that led to yet another public relations debacle for Pixonic. Please note that these don’t necessarily represent my personal opinion, but rather at attempt to see the issue from different angles.
Pixonic has been seduced by the dark side
I tend to operate under the assumption of good faith as a default, but Pixonic has increasingly treated its players like a commodity more than a community. The much-vaunted promise of increased transparency hasn’t really materialized in any meaningful way. Instead, Pixonic has doubled-down on a lot of the problems the community has expressed to them already.
Not only that, but the game’s biggest continuing discontent- the matchmaker- has shown little progress since the community roundtable back in April when community representatives and opinion leaders laid their grievances bare. And now we’re being asked to spend hundreds of dollars on a single in-app item?
It’s difficult to downgrade from a felony to a misdemeanor here, because the War Robots community has been tirelessly vocal about their opinions nearly anywhere Pixonic would care to look. Sure some parts of the community can get a little toxic, but the pinpointed problems show a remarkable consistency. Following the last (and to-date only) community roundtable event, the benefit of the doubt must be off the table. This isn’t accidental, inadvertent, or unintended.
It’s strategy. Pixonic knows exactly what it’s doing, and it’s up to each player to decide whether or not this brave new value proposition continues to be worth it in a world filled with limitless other options for our entertainment dollar.
The Dash Bots appear to be overpowered
I mentioned previously that rationally speaking, whatever pricetag Pixonic puts on an optional ingame item shouldn’t impact players one way or the other. Either they buy it or they don’t. But there’s an exception to that: note the word “optional.”
War Robots is a competitive game by its design. There is no “PVE” mode, story mode, or anything else that allows players to play the game without running up against other players. Additionally, there is no finite endgame, no final credits. To crib a line off of Warhammer 40K, in the grim dark future of War Robots, there is only war.
That means that items that offer significant competitive advantage above and beyond the norm maybe aren’t so “optional” after all. Not many relish the challenge of stepping into the ring with one arm tied behind their back. It’s all well and good to say that people “should just enjoy what they have,” but we don’t live in the world of “shoulds.” If a game is felt to be unfair, people don’t want to play, and you’ll see this exact scenario play out on schoolchildren’s playgrounds all across the world.
When you extend a significant competitive advantage to players with bigger wallets, those without that level of disposable income are going to be disenfranchised. And when those disenfranchised players have themselves invested significant sums of time and/or treasure into the game, don’t expect the divorce to be amicable.
Finally, having overpowered Dashes sends two clear signals to the community. First, that all of the feedback warning of their power level on the test server was discounted or disregarded. This wasn’t a problem we didn’t see coming. Second, that this will shape the future trajectory of the game. If the Dashes have tilted the scale in favor of “pay to win,” there’s no reason to think the Inquisitor isn’t going to be more of the same.
Pixonic’s Rollout Strategy is a Self-Inflicted Wound
Even the most ardent supporter of Pixonic will be hard-pressed to deny that there has been abundant room for improvement with regards to their rollout strategies. From the Wild Bunch to the new matchmaker to now, the company has lurched from one bungle to the next. Maybe the current crisis would be a smoldering fire instead of a raging one if the playerbase hadn’t been given reason to feel increasingly marginalized. Pixonic has made a bed of nails for itself, and now must lie in it.
It didn’t have to be like this, of course. I actually love the Components idea, and think it’s an idea whose time has come. I noted earlier than Dungeon Boss used this model, and it was great fun progressing closer and closer to a new hero unlock. There’s no good reason that- conceptually- this couldn’t have worked for War Robots.
In fact, we’re used to it! Most players are well-accustomed to grinding Gold for anything from hangar slots to Lancelots. Components are really nothing more than an evolutionary step of the same animal. Another move towards the right in the Civilization tech tree.
So if it’s not the concept, it’s the execution. Allow me to present a different rollout strategy for Components.
First, knowing what I’ve got in the developmental pipeline, I flip the release order to prioritize the Inquisitor over the Dash bots. This has nothing to do with the bots themselves, but rather than the Inquisitor is a one-off and the Dashes are triplets.
Second, knowing that a fundamental overhaul of the release system is going to cause some anxiety (this isn’t hindsight, it’s entirely predictable), I lay out the plan well in advance to the community. Not only that, but I position the Inquisitor to be a sort of “loss leader.” People are okay with a Lancelot for fifty bucks? Okay, the Inquisitor is fifty bucks’ worth of Components. New system, familiar pricing structure.
In addition, I make it known that the Dashes are coming, they’ll be for Components– and that the price will be higher than $50. I’m not saying my method would part the heavens and cue Ave Maria, spawning mass drum circles with acoustic guitars, but… I think it would have made the process significantly less contentious.
In fairness, Pixonic has improved at expectation management (compare this piece I wrote back in April to what we’ve seen since). All the same, with a community approaching open revolt, Pixonic will have some hard questions to ask itself.
Players Feel Entitled
Like the “Pix is Evil” factor, no fair assessment could be made that didn’t examine this. A common axiom in the Magic: the Gathering community states that if Wizards of the Coast started putting twenty-dollar bills into their booster packs, players would complain about how they were folded.
There is a significant difference between the following two statements:
Statement A: Dash bots should be cheaper because currently they are unhealthy for the game (competitive imbalance, pay-to-win, etc).
Statement B: Dash bots should be cheaper because I want one.
The number of outraged players proclaiming Statement A but actually motivated by Statement B is impossible to guess, but I can say with certainty that it’s a nonzero number.
A substantially nonzero number.
Indicators of Statement B motivations include the following loaded words:
- “Cash grab”
- [expletives redacted]
You get the idea.
Pixonic is a business that caters to a large spectrum of consumers, from the rich “whales” to those who “refuse to spend a nickel on a phone game.” Crafting an exclusive experience for those with the means to pay for it is hardly a sin. Players are not entitled to play any bot they want, just because they want it. Of course, this presumes relative competitive balance.
That said, the jump from the $100 Butch to the $350 Inquisitor is strikingly large. Like a frog in a pot of water on the stove, incremental increases would have gone unnoticed (or at least proven less divisive).
So how do we recover from this?
Well, there’s no putting the genie back into the bottle, and so-called solutions like “make the new bots the same price as the old bots” are probably unrealistic. Pixonic is well within its rights to monetize the game, but for the sake of its continued success they do need to consider a course corrective.
First, they should recalibrate their valuations. It might well be that $340 or so is the real-money price that will keep the Inquisitor bot a rarity and a status symbol, and the player community will need to adjust to that. But being open and transparent about why they pegged the bot at that dollar amount will certainly help provide some understanding to the players. When people don’t have explanations for things, they speculate. And too often, they assume the worst.
For instance, consider this:
“While most bots are widely available through purchase or play, we also want to have a certain scarcity to some bots that makes them exciting to win or acquire. Most bots we develop won’t fall into this category- but some will. While our goal is that these bots do not provide any undue competitive advantage, we want them to be attractive and provide a different War Robots experience. It’s important to note that other future releases will not necessarily be as exclusive, and players of all levels will have the opportunity to enjoy what the game has to offer.”
I mean, it’s all corporate-speak sure, but it’s also clear, open, and fair. Components also should be available at a grind rate that doesn’t require a thousand hours of play just to unlock one new bot.
Second, if Pixonic is sincere about their stated intentions for dialing in the Dash bots’ power level, they need to satisfy the community that their power level is where it should be. Pixonic has earned deserved plaudits for some time about the F2P-friendliness of the game, and a pay-to-win perception is probably not what they’re after. Then again, Clash of Clans wears that tag almost proudly, and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm.
Third, Pixonic should recognize that some sort of bridge would go a long way towards at least sugar-coating what will remain a bitter pill. If Pixonic wants to shift the game’s fundamental paradigm to Component collection, that’s perfectly fine, but clearly they either underestimated the detrimental impact on the community from the transition they settled on, or they didn’t care.
There’s naught to be done in the latter case, but in the former, one wise move to try and reestablish some goodwill would be to immediately convert the now-redundant Workshop Points (WSP) over to Components on a 1:1 basis. Yes, this does mean that folks with a dusty pile of 10,000 WSP or more in the back storage room will immediately be able to cash in for a Dash or Inquisitor making them perhaps a little less rare than intended, but it splits the difference and is a very small price to pay.
Fourth, as for the community, for our part there needs to be a little more maturity in some quarters. War Robots is a game, not an entitlement program. Not every player gets to swing the +5 Vorpal Sword, stare into the Eye of Vecna, or ride around on Tiamat. Nor should they. As long as they don’t break the balance of the game, rare and exclusive bots are not the problem.
In addition, the Custom Match mode offers a tremendous opportunity to take ownership of your own War Robots experience. Find a group of friends to meet up with, and it won’t matter if a Dash bot cost a million dollars. By maximizing the role of this game mode in your play time, you minimize the impact of a lot of the game’s pressures, systems, and models.
And fifth, Pixonic should devote some effort into looking at alternative revenue streams, mainly cosmetics. Yes, they’ve voiced some reservations, but by mixing in another stream rather than replacing the current one, they can redistribute some of the fiscal pressure around different groups of players.
In my time with the game I have never seen the community this intent on actualizing their anger around an ingame issue. Here’s to hoping some steps are taken soon to remedy. There’s no reason we can’t have it both ways.
Thanks for reading.