Games Don’t Need Paid Cheat Codes
Why “pay to skip” represents an illusion of choice
Capcom’s Devil May Cry 5 is poised to join a growing list of major AAA games that enable players to pay real money to speed through the game more quickly (in this case, purchasable in-game resources are the vehicle). The justification in most of these cases seems to be that developers want to give players “freedom of choice” — but this claim is dubious at best, and outright anti-player at worst.
Boost for cash
Cheat codes have been around for almost as long as games themselves. By the time the late ’80s/early ’90s rolled around, gamers had a plethora of options available to uncover “hidden” cheats in games (vis-a-vis devices like the Konami Code and the Game Genie).
In the last decade or so, we started to see a new evolution of player “cheats” — developers began to offer options for players to skip through entire levels in games. In World of Warcraft, for example, the developers added an option for players to instantly boost their character to level 90 (and now, level 110). Given that the game had been evolving for years — and the developers wanted newcomers to be able to jump into the latest content — such systems made a lot of sense and allowed the community to continue growing. Developers have continued to provide options like this in games, especially with the growth of games-as-a-service. Purchasing levels, unlocking cheats to make the game easier to play, and outright skipping content by paying money have become much more common.
Options for everyone
Games that contain collectable resources have provided fertile ground for the addition of microtransactions. Titles like Call of Duty, Destiny, and NBA 2K19 are examples of games that allow players to earn in-game currency simply through playing — however, players can use real money to acquire these currencies faster.
These are also games that all feature a multiplayer component — there is arguably a greater incentive for players to purchase in-game currencies in order to gain access to specific items (even if they are purely cosmetic) before other players. After all, showing off your cool gear to others is always a pretty strong incentive.
Having said that, a game like Devil May Cry 5 is fundamentally single-player in nature. And in this case, Capcom is offering players the ability to artificially speed through the game’s natural progression curve by spending real money.
When asked about this, game director Hideaki Itsuno said the following:
“With giving people the ability to purchase Red Orbs, it’s something we want to give people as an option. If they want to save time and just want to get all the stuff at once, those people can do that.”
As mentioned at the outset, the idea of providing players with an option to save time is a common defence whenever developers implement systems like this. On the surface, it’s easy to think that a developers are simply motivated by good intentions; unfortunately, even a cursory analysis should pretty quickly disabuse you of this notion.
Geared against gamers
Implementing the ability for players to spend real money to “make a game easier” or quicker is akin to a super villain poisoning a town only to sell the cure back to its citizens.
The point of good game design is surely to create a satisfying progression curve that doesn’t throw up artificial roadblocks for players, thus motivating them to pay money to push through.
Further examples come to mind. Many players have complained that the UFC and NBA franchises essentially start their characters out to be artificially weak in order to make microtransactions seem appealing; the idea being that the game itself feels unreasonably difficult or frustrating without purchasing specific bonuses with real money.
Games like For Honor, Battlefront 2, and Shadow of War are also examples of games that are intentionally “slowed down” (or feature severely limited progression) in order to incentivize the player to spend money in order to advance.
It’s worth noting that this conversation is happening in a difficult context; the use of loot boxes and microtransactions continue to be viewed negatively by gamers, especially “core gamers”. There are plenty of consumers who refuse to purchase games that include loot boxes and/or microtransactions no matter how balanced or reasonable they may seem.
Thanks to more tech-savvy consumers, it’s become much easier to data mine games to figure out just how much of the content is being steered by microtransactions.
Poisoning the well in the ways described above might seem like an easy way for developers to shoot themselves in their collective feet. That said, there is one specific exception that is worth mentioning here if only because it’s something that defenders of in-game cheats/skips may raise in response.
The Nintendo difference
For years now, Nintendo has been allowing players to skip through parts of their games. Many of their major franchises now include either a specific item (which might appear after the player dies a certain number of times), or a specific character that offers a kind of “easy mode” to soften any bumps the player may encounter.
It may be tempting to equate Nintendo’s design decisions here with the use of paid cheats/skips but there are a few big differences.
For one, these games are not explicitly designed around these skip options — that is, using these options isn’t necessarily mandatory in order to complete the game. Skilled players may never see these systems appear in a Mario game (I’ve only seen the option come up once in Super Mario Galaxy 2, for example).
The second and more obvious point is that it’s free to use. The player can make use of these skips as much or as little as they want without the game actively rewarding or punishing them for doing so.
Achieving real balance
Whenever I see a game trying to get away with selling cheats to the player, I can’t help but seeing a developer giving up on trying to properly balance the experience.
As a developer, you shouldn’t need to “give the player options” — especially when that involves offering a pathway for the player to spend real money to overcome intentionally-designed pain points/flaws. That these rough patches exist is obvious proof that the developer knows what these problems are, and more importantly, that they are quite happy to steer the player directly into them for commercial reasons.