Sympathy for the… person who left a negative review on Steam for a game they put 600 hours into. (working title)

Stop me if this sounds like gibberish, but I just had a game of Vermintide 2 on Legend, where a Chaos patrol appeared out of nowhere and got aggro’d, and although we managed to kill ’em and finish the run, our Kruber died and we lost a grim, so despite having 3 tomes, a grim and a loot dice, I only got a General’s Vault and the whole run was a bust ‘cos I didn’t get any reds! If that doesn’t make any sense, don’t worry because I wrote that paragraph to be impenetrable to anyone who isn’t playing Vermintide 2 on high difficulty. It’ll make sense at the end, trust me.

Come with me on a journey of sorts as we explore the mindset of a type of gamer we sometimes find mystifying, someone who’s put an extraordinary amount of time into a game, but has left a negative, or even angry review on the Steam page. We’ve probably all seen that kind of review, perhaps laughed or sneered at the user who left it, and if so, most certainly been baffled by it. Why would someone continue to play a game they openly hated for so long?

Well, I’d like you to first consider microtransactions and lootboxes. Controversies over whether lootboxes count as gambling, discussions about games being manipulative with their playerbase, games that are tuned to stymie a player’s progress so they’ll cave in and open their wallets. It’s enough of an issue that we can consider it a cultural touchstone within gaming. It’s a controvery that shows us the darker, more sinister side of the games industry and lays bare how games can be designed to manipulate us. Even the World Health Organisation recently began classifying “Gaming Disorder” in their International Classification of Diseases.

It is with this context in mind, I want to tell you a little story about my time playing Overwatch. Now I have never spent money on lootboxes, it is something I said I wouldn’t do, and I stuck to my guns on that. But just because I didn’t buy any lootboxes, does not mean that I didn’t feel like the game was manipulating me. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved the gameplay, it is a truly excellent game and I have to give props to it for that.

But when I say that it felt like it was manipulating me, I am not kidding. I may not have handed over any cash for lootboxes, but I sure as hell was driven to acquire them through play. Limited time events when there were exclusive skins were the worst, especially if there was a skin for one of your favourite characters. Like the Snow Owl skin for Ana. I wasn’t just playing because I was enjoying the game; I was playing to level up and earn a lootbox, so I could get a chance at that elusive skin, and pretty soon I noticed myself continuing to play in spite of not enjoying it any more. I was playing compulsively.

I never did get that Snow Owl skin before the event was over, it didn’t drop, nor did I have enough ingame currency to afford it, and that made me feel frustrated and annoyed. I stopped playing after that, because it made me realize that I was playing more out of compulsion than enjoyment. I put a lot of hours into Overwatch, and in the end the game made me resentful of that. So I uninstalled it.

Now, there’s actually a lot of reasons I can think of why someone would have a lot of hours in a game they felt negatively about, such as games that have fundamentally changed or broken something in later updates, but I want to focus on that compulsive gameplay aspect because it’s something I feel I can help people understand the most. So let’s talk about Vermintide 2, shall we?

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it, the core gameplay and the combat is incredible, and immensely satisfying. But that impenetrable first paragraph? Let me break down what it means. There are 5 tiers of loot in the game, with “Red” quality being the highest, which have extremely low drop rates, and unlike other weapon tiers, these are not craftable with the games crafting system. You get lootboxes at the end of every level containing 3 items, and you get different quality of lootboxes depending on what difficulty you’re playing on, and in order to get the best chance at getting the top tier weapons (reds), nothing less than an Emperor’s Vault will do. You can increase your chances of getting better quality lootboxes by collecting Tomes and Grimoires hidden throughout the levels.

That’s what high-level play on Vermintide 2 feels like. Running the same maps over and over, and getting all the Tomes and Grims in order to have the best chance at getting the loot you want for your prefered character. It becomes a numbers game, an unbelievable grind, hoping for that one elusive weapon that won’t drop, while if you’re lucky enough to get any reds at all, the game spits a duplicate at you. I have 3 red longbows for Kerillian, but still no spear.

It’s on this level of play that the cracks really begin to show. It’s been a rather buggy game thus far, and sometimes things will go south for reasons completely out of the player’s control, throwing players into no-win situations, and that feels absolutely rotten. Missing audio cues will have you blindsided by deadly enemies (like an entire Chaos patrol, a dozen of the deadliest enemies in the game) that you didn’t even realize were there, and sometimes, albeit rarely, your player character can suddenly drop dead for no apparent reason. A failed run like that is an infuriating lack of progress.

Now Vermintide doesn’t have monetized lootboxes, they’re all earned through gameplay, but even though it might not be manipulating you to pay microtransactions, it’s a game that still feels encouraging of compulsive play. Have I enjoyed the game? Immensely! But I can’t resolve where playing the game because I enjoyed it stopped, and where playing the game out of compulsion began, it’s something that I feel you can slide into without noticing, and it’s hard to be conscious of.

That said, I think I can pinpoint where the rot set in for me.

At the end of May, the developers added a “content” update that introduced daily quests and challenges which rewards players with lootboxes and cosmetics, something I lamented at the time as adding “chores” to the game. Logging in to do a daily quest in order to get your lootbox can quickly become habit forming, and challenges to unlock a cosmetic item were a box-ticking exercise, it felt manipulative: Keep playing, there’s more loot, keep playing, there’s more cosmetics, keep playing, there’s more achievements. This is something that I believe players and developers alike need to be aware of, that putting systems in a game that rewards addictive play will sooner or later burn those players out, and make them resent the game for the experience.

The Steam user with hundreds or sometimes even thousands of hours sunk into a game leaving a negative review? I can understand that, and sympathise greatly with those players, because I feel that we are still in uncharted territory with knowledge of how games can manipulate players, and with more games that seem to demand more of us, the prospect of more games as “Live Services” that demand more and more of our time? We are going to see more players frustrated, burned out, and feeling resentful of games that they initially enjoyed. And I sympathise, because that was me.

That player with over 600 hours in a game they left a scathingly angry negative review of? That was me. 3 years ago. On the store page of Payday 2. Angry with the addition of microtransactions, frustrated by the constant stream of weapon pack DLC, and burned out by the loot system. I’ve got nowhere near the amount of hours put into Vermintide 2, and I am already conscious of the burn-out that’s set in for me thus far, so I’m probably going to quietly uninstall it and move on before long. I probably won’t be leaving a review this time. But the players with hundreds of hours of play who already have? I sure as hell get it.