The Paradox DICE

What makes a game great?

Be it a board game or a videogame, one thing that always seems to be the mark of a good game is replay-ability. If it’s something that you often find yourself wanting to play, then chances are that it’s pretty good.

An update to a game I play made me think about what makes a game great. I discovered that the update addressed my major problem with the game and that the core game had been improved to far better than it was at launch.

That game was Stellaris, developed by Paradox Interactive. The update was the 2.0 patch, which reconfigured almost every mechanic in the game, which in my opinion, improved the game immensely. I bought the game near when it was launched, and a series of patches and two downloadable content (DLC) packs I bought fixed my major complaint.

Once you finished exploring your immediate area around your starting planet, the wonder of exploring the galaxy wore off, and the game started to feel empty until the late game, where you would start trying to conquer the galaxy.

Now, gamers have a love-hate relationship with Paradox’s DLC.

There are two reasons.

First, Paradox releases all their DLC alongside major patches, which means that it’s hard to figure out what is part of the free patch and what is part of the paid DLC. Spoiler alert, the cooler stuff is in the paid DLC, and it always sucks to get your hopes up and then realize that you’re going to have to pony up to get what you want.

Second, most DLC has 4 or 5 minor or moderate changes to the game. Typically, I would value each DLC at around $2.50-5.00. So, of course, Paradox charges anywhere from $10-20.

There’s a game that goes on. The early adopters buy it at full price, then leave a review “not recommending” the DLC, but saying that it’s really good, but you should wait on a sale.

Paradox, on their part, holds sales around 4 times a year which puts the DLC closer to where most people value it. Still, if you want to get all of the content, even if  you buy it on sale, you’ll still probably end up spending 2-3 times as much on DLC as you did on the base game.

The upside is that the DLC sales pay for the continual updating, refreshing, and improvement of the game. Even if you only own the base game, you still benefit from the free parts of every patch.

This is a great example of the vision for the game aligning with the payment model.

Paradox seems to want to improve their games for as long as possible, so they finance that by regularly releasing DLC.

Consequently, many gamers rack up hundreds or thousands of hours in Paradox titles. They’re updated enough that there’s always something new to do, and, if you don’t get the game near release, there’s a huge backlog of stuff you’ve never done that you can do before needing any DLC at all.

Again, the vision is supported by the payment model.

And then there’s EA.

Their games seem to put the payment model before the vision.

I have two prime examples. The first is SimCity, released in 2013. In a stark departure from previous games in the series, this version was envisioned as an online-only, multiplayer experience, which failed almost immediately when the servers became overloaded at launch, which meant that a majority of people who had paid money for the game couldn’t play it all.

They later fixed their servers and duct-taped on a single player mode, but it wasn’t very satisfying. It was hard to build self-sustaining cities in single player, due to the overall idea that cities would be working together in multiplayer. The land size was limited and only one DLC was ever released, leaving the game feeling very repetitive.

What they did doesn’t make much sense, unless you think that maybe there was more planned DLC, and the online-only nature of the game was a gimmick to force people to adopt it more readily. Consequently, the game just died. I have no desire to go back and play more.

And then, there’s the great Battlefront II fiasco of 2017.

You’ve probably heard about the fact that DICE, the EA-owned studio that developed the game removed loot boxes from the game after community outcry. Players could not get stronger within the game without buying lootboxes, which could be bought by using currency earned in-game or by paying real money. People who wanted to spend more money on the game would have a huge advantage in game over those who didn’t.

If that sounds unfair, it’s because it is.

But, it’s also another example of the payment model coming before the gameplay.

To be fair, the lootboxes were absent in the first Battlefront, which relied on paid DLC for continuing revenue. The problem with that was that having paid DLC meant that some players had access to some maps and modes, and others didn’t, and queue times got long as a result. The DLC is free in Battlefront II, but the game has lost its biggest source of continuing revenue. It’s a mess.

If EA wants to right the ship, they need to stop putting the payment model first. Design the best game you can, then figure out how you’re going to pay for it.

That’s not something that’s going to feel good in the modern, corporate, game-design world, but it works.

Just take a look at League of Legends. The game is free. It makes money when you buy things that change the look of various things in the game, but not the gameplay. The company only makes money if it makes cool add-ons that people want to buy.

And this model works. The game is free-to-play, and yet, the game grossed more than 2 billion dollars in 2017.

Take a minute to think about that, EA.