We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Start your week here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games. This week, I’m tipping things off with my thoughts on the difference between “possible” and “preferable”, when it comes to the design of in-game economies.
In last week’s Monday Tip-Off, I discussed the rising cost of MyCAREER, comparing the price of upgrading a MyPLAYER in NBA 2K14 to NBA 2K22. Thanks to a few prominent content creators sharing our Tweet promoting the article, it gained some traction on Twitter. I’m grateful for the exposure, as this is an important issue for MyCAREER gamers. I was heartened by the general response to the Tweet, as it seemed to resonate. It appears to have placed a figure on what many people already suspected, and validated frustration with the current approach to Virtual Currency.
Of course, I wasn’t surprised that there were some attempts to justify the increasing cost that I discussed. There were a handful of replies or quote Tweets that simply said “inflation”, pointed out ways of earning VC, argued that the game is good this year, or basically shrugged in acceptance that this is the way of things now. I understand those arguments, but many of them do miss the bigger picture and overall point. It’s clear who read the article and who didn’t, without even going into the Tweet analytics. To that end, this follow-up article will probably likewise go unread by those individuals. Nevertheless, I want to clarify that “possible” and “preferable” aren’t always the same.
A point that I’ve been trying to make on the NLSC Podcast, and in previous articles, is that just because we can do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should have to, or that it’s the ideal solution. To break out a common analogy, if your roof is leaking, then in the short term, it makes sense to put down buckets and towels, and avoid water damage by moving furniture and possessions out of the way. You can do this indefinitely rather than get the roof repaired, and indeed if money is an issue, it may be the stopgap solution longer than you’d like. However, it wouldn’t render the need to repair the roof unnecessary, simply because it’s an alternative solution.
Let’s bring it back to video games. Say that there was a bug in MyCAREER which randomly deleted your face data. This hypothetical bug could be fixed by simply exiting and entering the mode until your scanned or created face appeared again, or by rescanning or recreating it. In other words, technically it would be possible to solve the problem. I would suggest that very few gamers would consider this preferable to everything working properly, or the developers fixing the bug in a patch so that it no longer occurred. Sure, you could argue that a fairly painless solution is available, but ultimately, it’s not something that we should have to do in order to enjoy the game.
That’s admittedly a more objective example, of course. Such a bug would be annoying and undesirable, and since it wouldn’t be an intentional part of the design, it’s harder to argue that the solution is acceptable, even if it’s effective. The approach to and cost of levelling up a MyPLAYER is comparatively more subjective. To a certain extent, whether or not the experience is a fun journey or painful grind comes down to our own preferences and level of tolerance. With that being said, those of us who have criticised the methods and rate of earning VC have reasonable objections, especially given the genre and the way that the situation has changed over the past generation.
Before I get into that, allow me to address the “inflation” argument. That argument might sound smart at first, but is in fact rather myopic. First of all, there’s no need for any inflation. This is a fictional economy that 2K has complete control over! Second, there hasn’t been inflation of the base income in MyCAREER proportionate to the cost of upgrades and cosmetic items, so it’s more a case of jacking up the price than all VC figures being inflated. Furthermore, small cosmetic items such as durags cost upwards of fifteen times a MyPLAYER’s base NBA salary. This is worth noting for the “Paying for stuff is realistic; I thought you wanted realism?” crowd of apologists.
So, let’s talk about the ways we can maximise our VC income. What people said is technically true, because there are several ways to supplement income and never have to buy VC. Once again though, possible is not necessarily preferable. Not everyone likes the idea of running around a virtual city completing quests in a basketball video game. If it’s a virtual basketball experience you’re after, then you may not have any interest in a virtual musical career, or becoming a virtual fashion icon; after all, NBA 2K isn’t a Barbie Dress-Up game, as we’ve been so reliably informed. It’s absolutely worth acknowledging these avenues, but also that they’re not appealing to everyone.
It was also pointed out to me that there are basketball-related quests, such as winning a set number of Playground games. While this is more fitting, it’s still not necessarily desirable to all gamers. Not everyone enjoys Park play, in part because NBA 2K has fostered a toxic online atmosphere. More to the point though, how do you get to play in, let alone win, Park games? You need to pump up your attributes and your Overall Rating, and have the right clothing, which costs VC. So yes, you can get VC from those Park quests, but you also need a ton of VC in the first place to even have the opportunity to accomplish that. I’m sure that you can see the Catch-22 at play here.
Because the prices of upgrades and clothing have increased disproportionately to the base income, and because the methods of earning extra VC are not always appealing – or are based on random chance, as is the case with the Daily Bonus/Spin – it’s fair to say that the approach has alienated some long-time MyCAREER gamers. And yes, it’s indisputably designed in a manner that is intended to frustrate us and prey on our impatience, impulsiveness, and sense of FOMO, in order to get us to spend. I said it in last week’s article, and I’ll say it again now: when recurrent revenue mechanics have been prioritised, our fun and enjoyment hasn’t been. They’re simply not compatible.
Speaking of fun, this brings us to another point that was raised in response to our Tweet. It was argued that NBA 2K22 Next Gen is a pleasing improvement, and a lot of people clearly agreed based on Likes and Re-Tweets. Personally, I’d tend to agree with that opinion, too. However, I disagree that it’s a justification for the approach to the game’s recurrent revenue mechanics. No matter how good the game feels on the sticks, the length and enjoyment of the journey in MyCAREER depends on several other factors. These include how long you can stomach being underrated, whether or not you’re playing online, and if you find the other avenues of earning VC to be fun.
As I noted, grinding is possible, but whether the means of doing so are preferable is another story. I made the comparison to NBA 2K14 because despite feeling burned out on the MyCAREER experience, it hooked me in with its progression rate and overall approach. Obviously it’s no longer possible to buy VC in NBA 2K14 anyway, but even if it was, there’d be considerably less pressure to do so. The means of earning additional VC came through gameplay goals, or earning endorsements through strong play. I’ll freely admit that there’s likely an age gap that results in differing preferences here, but I do believe that many people just want to play basketball in MyCAREER.
You can earn VC by completing quests that extend beyond the virtual hardwood, but should you have to? If you don’t want an open world in your sim basketball games, then your answer is undoubtedly no. You can also supplement your VC balance by watching NBA 2KTV and correctly answering questions. It’s viable, but it’s not going to appeal to everyone, either. If you’re playing MyCAREER, you should be making use of the Daily Bonus/Spin as it’s wise to do so, but should you really have to rely on random chance like that? Are the methods of maximising VC to earn enough for the pricier upgrades and items fun and preferable for everyone? Clearly, they are not.
And no, you can’t please everyone all of the time. However, the methods of earning extra VC to justify the higher price tags are about plausible deniability for the pushy recurrent revenue mechanics, not maximising fun and fairness. If they wanted to do that, they’d make the base ratings higher. Clothing would be priced proportionate to base income, so you wouldn’t have the absurd scenario of a pair of shoes costing as much as ten games’ salary. You wouldn’t have to fear creating an underpowered build because starting over means a lot of wasted time and/or money. There’d be far less grinding to be competitive. We’d likely even have proper matchmaking at long last!
Yes, it is possible to earn a stack of VC and never have to buy any. Yes, NBA 2K22 Next Gen is in pretty good shape. We can maximise our VC earnings, but Take-Two is looking to maximise their recurrent revenue. The result is a design that prioritises profits and engagement, dressing up F2P mechanics with flashy busywork. These activities bank on the notion that they make earning VC possible, and thus we’ll accept and even defend it because it’s preferable to paying. And yes, it is preferable to buying bundles of VC, but not by much, and not if you need to make faster progress to play online. In short, it’s preferable to a worse alternative, but far from optimal.
Consider this example of “possible” vs “preferable”. NBA Live 07 introduced three shooting buttons, an approach that lasted all of one year. The Xbox 360 version also suffered from a plethora of mechanical issues. It is possible to adjust to the controls, and to some extent even push through the problems and adjust to the clunkiness of the game. It’s still not a great experience though, and it doesn’t make the approach to controls or the overall gameplay in any way preferable. Even in a stronger release, like NBA 2K22 Next Gen, the viability of adjustment or acceptance doesn’t mitigate the issues to the point of being a minor annoyance; not for all gamers, at any rate.
Unfortunately, many gamers have been conditioned to defend practices that aren’t in their best interests. It leads to responding to criticism of rising costs with rhetoric such as “inflation”, which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There’s no need for inflation, and it’s disproportionate even if you want to call it that. The possibility of grinding doesn’t mean that it results in a preferable gaming experience. Technical improvements mean less when the gameplay is affected by a design that’s pushing you to either spend or endure activities that you find unpalatable in a basketball game. There’s no morality, or cleverness, in defending the greed of a multibillion dollar video game publisher.
I don’t expect anything to change here. I didn’t expect to change anything with last week’s article, either. There’s always an outside chance I suppose, and awareness is never a bad thing. If nothing else, I hope I can validate the frustration that I know many of my fellow gamers have felt, and prove that they’re not imagining things when it comes to the cost of upgrades and clothing in MyCAREER. It is higher, and it’s not a case of understandable inflation, or done in the name of improving the quality of the experience in MyCAREER and its connected modes. It’s a means of generating as much recurrent revenue as possible, cloaked in the guise of “optional” time savers.
Jim Sterling summed up the issue with boosts and time savers in a Tweet: “Make it slow. Make it boring. Make it repetitive.” It’s an effective design strategy, and we’ve seen it in MyCAREER. Again, it relies on the defense of being possible to abstain from, ignoring feasibility, enjoyment, and preference. In all fairness, I can’t say that the means of grinding for VC these days are objectively not fun; your mileage will vary here. It’s undeniable that they’re designed in a way that encourages us to spend though, or alternatively partake in activities that many frustrated gamers subjectively don’t find fun. We know it’s possible, and how. We just don’t find it preferable.