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6 Groundbreaking Ways Video Games Are Screwing Players

Virtual items are big business. Some people laugh at the idea of spending money for a bunch of numbers with no intrinsic value, which is weird, because money is a bunch of numbers with no intrinsic value. It's just that in the real world we need a medium to convert doing data entry into eating ramen, and in the virtual world we need to kill lich kings with flaming swords to forget about the first half of this sentence.

Blizzard
This guy got more hours out of more people than every other supervisor in existence.

You can't claim that physical existence confers real value in a world with The Big Bang Theory bobbleheads. The resulting virtual item sales are pure profit for the video game developers. When your manufacturing process is copy-paste, it's even easier than printing money, because the latter involves spending on raw materials like paper. The problem is in how hard developers chase this money. It's the easiest way to make money while ruining something enjoyable since King Midas tried eating chocolate coins. And some developers have found amazing ways to screw over their players.

#6. Dark Orbit -- Every Auction Bid Is Deducted

Dark Orbit is a 2D space combat game where you click on enemies, and that's the only gameplay element there is. Your only tactical consideration is whether you want to explode your enemies or not, and if you don't, you stop playing. Bowling has more tactical depth. Hell, bowling video games have more tactical depth, because at least they have options other than "click on pin to knock it down."

Bigpoint Games
It's exactly as exciting as this looks, as long as you remember that this is a frozen image that will never move.

Like all "free-to-play" games, you can swap real money for pretend money, which makes building a Trojan horse parking space look like a good investment. You really, really don't "need" this money to buy more equipment to blow up bigger enemies -- we've already seen how they directly sold the ability to win for $1,300 -- and until recently the game's auction system was the ultimate scam. Say you bid 2 million credits on a sweet Vengeance starship. You don't get it. You bid 5 million and get the high bid, but then someone outbids you. You can't see how much they bid so you try 10 million, but that's not enough, so you give up and just lost 17 million credits.

Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images
A better investment, and actually less expensive. Really.

Every bid in the auction house was immediately removed from your credit balance, even if you didn't get the item. Even if you didn't get the high bid. The system made it possible to spend 100 million credits on nothing, or on an auction where you're the only bidder. You're alone in the dark throwing your time and money into an infinite void in the hope of beating other people you'll never know, making the shop a terribly accurate metaphor for the rest of the game.

Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty
Another accurate metaphor.

This system was recently removed, triggering a backlash from the players (which is proof that online gamers will complain about any change). If a video game developer removed tumors from players, they'd whine about nerfing their loss in weight and access to radiation powers.

#5. RuneScape -- Roulette Beats Playing

RuneScape is the world's largest free-to-play MMORPG, where "free to play" means "choosing between spending $5 or five hours on simulated chores." RuneScape is a better psychological control system than the Matrix and has worse physical effects on the users. Last year they introduced a new level of mind control in the Squeal of Fortune.

Jagex Games Studio
When you can use a name that terrible without being slapped, you have established total dominance over your subjects.

If your game can be improved by roulette, your game sucks. Roulette is less excitement than setting money on fire, and you get less value for your money because warmth is useful. It's how people say "I want to spend money without being involved in the outcome." All roulette should be Russian so we improve the species faster.

Barry Austin/Photodisc/Getty Images
"I would rather directly hand money to someone richer than myself than gain any experience from it."

Players get a free spin every day, but spins can't be saved -- the player has to log in daily. It's a more obvious behavior control mechanism than fitting someone with a bit and harness, and it's less fun for everyone involved. They get more spins for becoming a paid player, more again with a gold membership package, and more again for taking part in chosen game activities each week. When you have to bribe players into trying new game modes with gambling, they're not game modes, they're errands. The wheel is more levels of insane mind control than obeying the voice of a talking rat with electrodes in its skull.

Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images
"At least I'm not paying a subscription to be here."

Monsters in the real game drop spin tickets when defeated. So even if you're actually playing, slaughtering revenant orcs with a Promethium maul, they'll drop gambling tickets to remind you that even the developers think a slot machine is more fun. Players can directly buy tickets for the squeal, actively gambling real money on maybe getting pretend items for a game they'd apparently rather spend money on than play. It not only works, it works so well that Jagex had to institute limits on how many tickets anyone could buy during the week. Obviously they don't want anyone going crazy with it, which is why players are limited to a sensible $500 a week on goblin raffles.

#4. Star Trek Online -- Lock Box Keys

The lock box is a master-crafted psychological landmine. The game rewards you with a mysterious locked box, but you need to buy a key to get what's inside ... which means you're really buying the item, with a side order of "duh" and the added advantage of not knowing what you're paying for. It's the Jedi mind trick in icon form, a little graphic saying "You have already bought this incredible item. Now go to the shop and pay for it." The most recent offender was Star Trek Online.

Cryptic Studios
We all remember how the Federation was founded on greed and capitalism, right?

Most key buyers unlock one copy of an item they already have seven times, learn their lesson, and get on with the game. Lock boxes are the scratch cards of virtual warfare. Most players hate lock boxes, but hating is free, while the few people who like them spend lots of money, so screw everyone else while the system caters to the rich. And welcome to capitalism! A Starfleet officer asking for your credit card information is how you ruin immersion and a bold future utopia simultaneously.

Cryptic Studios
"Captain, shields are down, main power is offline, and our credit limit has been reached!"

They're unregulated gambling, simulated slot machines that aren't required to tell you the odds or ever pay out. Worse, the appeal of the lock box is a small chance of getting a rare and powerful item without earning it. Which means the best case scenario of this money sink is breaking the game.

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