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The Unreward System

Videogames are getting worse over time as their value decreases in order to increase the perceived value of videogame monetization. From cosmetics to fully playable content, things have been incrementally removed from the average basic videogame and resold to us at a premium.

It's been a successful endeavor, raking in unbelievable revenue for companies such as Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard, but it's not just the pillaging of a game's value that ensures record-breaking amounts of cash to flow through corporate coffers. The very reason microtransactions are so successful is that they're manipulative - they are woven into games in such ways as to make them consistently enticing.

Some games are made to be interminably grinding and time-consuming, designed to frustrate players into spending cash to speed things up. Some games utilize a "haves and have-nots" dynamic, offering paid access to cosmetic indicators of their status, thus encouraging others to pay for similar accessories out of envy. Yet others adopt the sleazy pay-to-win model, where you can spend cash on tangible advantages against enemies or even other players.

Activision Blizzard quite notoriously patented a method of breeding envy tactics with pay-to-win mechanics to create a monstrous hybrid, where players would see the weaponry another player used to kill them, thus suggesting they'd have won if only they'd bought the same weapon.

Of all these methods, the Unreward System may be among the most successful, present as it is in two of the most popular "live service" games and plenty other games besides. An Unreward System is designed with the exact same goal in mind as other psychological tricks - frustration, exasperation, and financial surrender. As you may have guessed from the name, Unreward Systems are designed to pervert the nature of in-game rewards, undermining player progress and content unlocks in a bid to generate more "recurrent user spending."

Overwatch popularized the Unreward System with its own loot boxes, though it is far from the first and only game to pull such a stunt. Outwardly, a game like Overwatch is supposed to appear generous. The items inside are "just cosmetic" and you get a free loot box for leveling up. However, when you remember that cosmetics are supposed to be a reward for playing a game, not spending extra money on it, and when you realize that the free boxes are supposed to be gateways to that extra spending, you come to understand there's no generosity here, only a shrewdly marketed monetization tactic.

Overwatch's loot boxes are filled to the brim with crap. Useless sprays that you tag on maps and nobody pays attention to. Voiceover lines that don't matter one jot. A large amount of the skins themselves are pretty shit, and they're surrounded by glorified jpgs and mp3s. The good stuff already has a tiny percentage of a chance to appear, but even if all odds were equal, they'd still be super rare due to the sheer amount of garbage that appears alongside them.

Leveling up also takes a considerable amount of time, so free boxes are released on a drip feed for even regular players. The result of this should be quite clear - if you've been grinding for ages to get a new loot box, but you open it to find utter trash inside, your frustration may lead you to buy more for cash, trying to find that dopamine rush of unlocking cool shit - a rush you feel entitled to because you logistically earned it.

Traditionally, videogames have rewarded players for playing, not paying. As EA once famously put it, games provide a sense of "pride and accomplishment" which is personified in the things you've unlocked and proudly wear in-game. So when you feel like you've accomplished a milestone and unlocked something, it's hard not to feel cheated when your reward is a voice line or a picture. Your excitement at hitting a new level is undermined severely when you open a box and find only disappointment inside - common items, things you don't want or, in some games, duplicates of shit you already have.

To say nothing of whether or not any of items are for a character you even play.

And this system is supposed to be disappointing. You're meant to feel cheated, to feel like you deserve more than you've been given. It's the exasperation that game publishers want, because it lowers your guard and makes you susceptible to their offerings. It's certainly how I feel when playing games with Unreward Systems. It's always tempting to buy some premium currency and buy more boxes, because by God I grinded and earned a feelgood moment that didn't arrive!

Apex Legends does the exact same thing. Its own particular ploy is structurally similar to Overwatch's, with a free loot box per level. Cue the exact same scenario, where you mostly accrue garbage and feel teased to the point of anticlimax with each grinding rank increase.

What really makes Apex Legends frustrating for me, as a pretty engrossed Apex player, is just how badly Respawn Entertainment staggers the progression rewards. Once you hit a certain rank, you stop getting a loot box for every level and instead get them every other level. When you're not in line for a loot box, all you get is a handful of almost useless in-game currency. It's a devious plan. Not only do you deal with a "reward system" that leaves you feeling largely unrewarded, you begin to actively miss out on rewards as punishment for progressing. It's easy to see why - the rush you get from leveling up doesn't even have a chance to occur every time you level anymore, you just gain a new rank and are left feeling even more cheated.

There's a reason why you get a loot box for every level gain up to a certain point. There's a reason why they change the rules after hours of play. It's to train you to expect a prize for each milestone hit, so that when you hit a milestone and don't get your prize, you'll be left with a nagging itch, an itch that can only be scratched with a loot box purchase.

Oh, and despite the staggered rewards, the XP needed to reach a new level still keeps increasing.

It's very clever, albeit remarkably scummy. Establish a routine and break it so the victims are caught offguard. Get people expecting something as standard and then take it away from them so they'll pay to get it back... wait a minute, that's exactly what the game industry has been doing to games overall for the past six or so years!

Even Apex Legends' so-called "pity box" is a trick. Pity boxes have been used in games to make their gambling more palatable, promising a high reward with enough openings. In Apex, you're guaranteed a legendary item every 30 boxes. You can't guarantee what the item is, if it's a skin for a gun or character you even like, so the chances of feeling unrewarded are still damn high.

What's more, it only really exists to keep you opening loot boxes and therefore allow the Unreward System to sink its fangs deeper into your neck. If you feel cheated after opening a disappointing loot box every two levels, imagine how you feel if you're let down by something following the opening of 30 goddamn boxes.

Unless you paid for 30 of them and opened them in one go, of course, in which case you've sidestepped the letdown by doing what game companies want you to do in the first place.

P. T. Barnum is the man most commonly associated with the quote "Always leave them wanting more," a quote suggesting that you don't give everything away in one night to keep the audience returning to see the rest. This sense of showmanship has been perverted by the game industry, to the point where you're not left wanting more, you're left wanting what you used to have.

You're simply left wanting for something.

Unreward Systems are, of course, just one way in which videogames attempt to swindle you, and they use many elements of other swindles. They're one of the more subtle cons, however, and appear in genuinely excellent games like Overwatch and Apex Legends, games sometimes praised for their "generous" monetization.

It's that false perception of generosity that allows things like Unreward Systems to operate so effectively, but make no mistake...

... Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard have no intention of ever - EVER - being generous.

They're here to take everything you have.


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