Activision’s New Patent Hints at Gaming’s Dark Future

In many ways, digital gaming changed the industry for the better. It meant greater access to titles, removed the need to research games before entering a store, and provided new ways to ensure popular games could be progressively expanded upon through downloadable content.

But it also changed gaming for the worse. Buggy releases, unreasonable pricing (why should digital ever cost more than physical versions?), and content completed at launch but locked behind paywalls are a new norm that gamers have begrudgingly accepted.

Ask a gamer what the worst element of the modern industry is though, and they’re likely to answer “microtransactions” – small, in-game purchases made with real money. Some only provide cosmetic changes to a player’s character, but increasingly, many reward players with a competitive edge.

Microtransactions have proved successful – in 2016, they made up a quarter of digital revenue in the PC marketplace alone – but have been the focus of vocal criticism since their inception from gamers and researchers alike. Not because they of their tendency to make competitive gaming unfair, but because of how closely the system emulates gambling.

The scientific community call it Variable Rate Reinforcement: that exciting, and often addictive dopamine rush that results from an uncertain outcome. It’s what keeps gamblers pulling the lever on the pokies, and gamers buying in-game loot in the hope of picking up a rare item.

While the ESRB – the regulatory board that oversees classification in the US – has rejected the comparison, it’s clear that microtransactions are having a negative impact on the community. And if a newly-won patent from publishers Activision is a sign of what gamers can expect in the future, that impact is set to only worsen.

In 2015, the company (which made $3.6 billion from in-game purchases last year) filed a patent for a system designed to drive microtransaction purchases in multiplayer games.

The abstract reads: “A system and method is provided that drives microtransactions in multiplayer video games. The system may include a microtransaction arrange matches to influence game-related purchases. For instance, the system may match a more expert/marquee player with a junior player to encourage the junior player to make game-related purchases of items possessed/used by the marquee player. A junior player may wish to emulate the marquee player by obtaining weapons or other items used by the marquee player”.

In short, Activision wants to rig matchmaking so that inexperienced gamers are coerced into purchasing in-game items in order to be competitive.

Once the targeted player purchases this item, the matchmaking is rigged again so that they are given an advantage that makes the item seem like a worthy purchase.

Activision claims the system is designed to create satisfying gameplay, but ask any gamer, and they’ll tell you that the value of such games comes from crafting skills by playing against similarly levelled players, and rising through the ranks. The opposite of what this system is designed to accommodate.

It’s not the most unethical patent to come out of the industry since the boom in digital gaming, but that’s why it’s concerning so many gamers. Such a system marks a logical progression for a company that has so readily demonstrated that it cares more about an easy buck than the potential damage its methods have on the community.

While it’s worth noting that many patents are never acted upon, and that Activision have announced that this patent was an “exploratory” idea from an independent R&D team and has not yet been implemented, it’s bound to have an impact on Activision’s sale figures, if only, unfortunately, for a little while.

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