May 28, 2022

Ominous Sony Patent Hints at the Future of Microtransactions

A bit of rough reading for you this evening – it seems that everybody’s favourite console producer/publisher is looking into some really evil stuff going forwards. We’re talking beyond Bethesda, EA, Activision, and even Nintendo levels of evil and nearing Google levels. You have been warned!

An image showing Sony's patent idea

Microtransactions. I don’t know anyone that likes them but it looks like they’re here to stay. Given the immense production costs of modern AAA titles, publishers are increasingly intent on squeezing games for every penny they’re worth.

Let’s look at God of War. Critics and gamers alike adored it. It also won countless Game of the Year awards. According to Metacritic, it has the highest aggregate score for an original Playstation 4 exclusive. To most people’s eyes, that constitutes a great success.

But what do Sony execs see? Probably a missed opportunity. God of War was widely heralded for eschewing microtransactions and multiplayer fads in favour of exemplary gameplay and storytelling. Despite being a much better game, I bet it didn’t make anywhere near as much money as Fortnite.

So that presents a puzzle to studios and publishers. There’s clearly a huge market for more traditional, story-driven single player games. But how do you keep consumers funnelling cash into them once they’ve paid for the base game?

Sony enters the room

It looks like Sony have come up with a possible solution via a recent patent they filed. Warning: it makes for grim reading. The patent is called an “In-Game Resource Surfacing Platform”.

Essentially, it’s an AI tool that helps players identify in-game resources which could help them overcome a particular obstacle. According to the patent:

“[T]he method provides an operation for selecting a resource that is usable by the player to complete the objective based on the one or more resources utilized by respective other players during said successful attempt of completing the objective”.

Sounds fair enough, right? Well, it’s hard to know what a ‘resource’ is. Could be something you pick up on a quest, like a weapon or piece of armour. However, it could also be something that you pay for with real money.

Perhaps the resource would be earnable in game but locked behind a huge grind. (Alternatively, you could spend a few quid on it.)

So what we’re really looking at is a Siri-like AI who would pop up when you’re banging your head against a particular brick wall of a boss and ask for help.

The language-processing software could run through a list of solutions, according to the patent:

“The in-game resource may be downloadable content (DLC), add-ons, upgrades, items, tips, strategy, communal data, etc. However, the user is not necessarily aware that such a resource exists.”

As such, the software would follow the tried-and-tested microtransaction formula of preying on poor impulse management. Get stuck on a boss, ask for help and press a button to get past it in exchange for your hard-earned cash. Well, it certainly sounds predatory to me.

What next?

Another concern is if publishers start to further encourage unreasonable grinds in games, like those found in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Nobody wants to perform the same repetitive task hour after hour. That’s what work’s for. Games are supposed to be fun, aren’t they?

Many gamers and commentators are concerned by this patent. They have every right to be. CNN’s Thomas Bardwell argues that:

“Player-specific data could usher in an age of personally targeted microtransactions much in the same way that online marketing has become increasingly aimed at the individual based on browsing habits.”

Sony themselves have stated that this is only one possible option they’re exploring. Considering how customer-unfriendly it is, you’d hope it won’t come to fruition. However, it should serve as a timely reminder that gaming publisher behemoths don’t have your best interests at heart.

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