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Game On: Is government to blame for the predatory monetization of Overwatch 2?

Overwatch 2 was released on Oct. 4 for Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. The cooperative story mode that was advertised in 2018 will follow at a later date.  (Activision-Blizzard Inc.)
Overwatch 2 was released on Oct. 4 for Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. The cooperative story mode that was advertised in 2018 will follow at a later date. (Activision-Blizzard Inc.)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

Overwatch 2 formally launched on Oct. 4, and while the game is as fun as ever, absolutely nothing about it necessitates or even constitutes a sequel. All Blizzard did was introduce a fresh monetization scheme, add three new heroes, a couple of new maps and a new game mode. They migrated everything from the original into the sequel and shut down the old servers – a real slap to the face of everyone who bought the original.

Overwatch 2 is free, but as any online gamer will tell you, free-to-play is no charity. It’s simply a way to grab a larger number of players before subjecting them to predatory monetization tactics. Take Apex Legends for example – only six legends are playable at first out of 23 total. Being locked out of nearly three-quarters of the roster puts newbies at a significant disadvantage.

You can unlock each legend slowly – very slowly – by simply playing the game. Or you can drop about $7.50 per legend to get them instantly. Overwatch 2 has now followed in EA’s footsteps – of the 35 total heroes, only 15 are usable when you first launch the game. This is a far cry from Overwatch 1, where every character was always playable.

Overwatch 2 uses the battle pass system that Fortnite pioneered several years ago, wherein gamers play to complete challenges to progress along a track of 100 or so levels. Some of the items you unlock along the way are free – others require subscribing to each season’s battle pass, which typically costs anywhere from $10-$20, depending on the game.

The game’s newest hero, Kiriko, isn’t unlocked until level 55 for free players. Meanwhile, those who plunked down $20 for the battle pass get her instantly. While she is balanced alongside the rest of the roster, there are occasions where playing Kiriko might be more advantageous than picking, say, Mercy – thus creating a subtle play-to-win environment.

In terms of cosmetics, the lootboxes of the original game – which each contained four cosmetic items – are gone entirely. Gamers could buy lootboxes with real-life cash if they wanted to, but by default they’d earn one for every level-up. Players could also earn them through endorsement levels and by participating in seasonal events.

It’s extremely likely that Blizzard removed lootboxes to avoid legal trouble the same way Rocket League did in 2019. To give a quick crash course on lootbox laws, China kicked things off in 2016 by requiring video games to disclose not just what all could be contained in them, but also what the probability was for each unlock. For instance, getting a legendary item in an Overwatch lootbox was revealed to be a 1/27 chance.

In 2018, the Netherlands banned lootboxes in the case that the items inside could be traded between players, determining that the prizes essentially had market value. Belgium banned lootboxes entirely that same year. Government officials in the U.S. and U.K. have been considering following suit.

Rather than working overtime to implement different features in different countries, many developers have elected to shift away from lootboxes entirely in favor of the battlepass system, which is arguably worse in some ways. The likes of Overwatch and Rocket League are an interesting case study in the unintended consequences of well-intended government regulation.

The only consolation here is that cosmetic items are completely unnecessary. As with many other hobbies, there’s an erroneous assumption that being blinged-out equates prestige. It’s a concept that’s been hammered into us over millennia – the more elaborate the military uniform, the more you should be intimidated.

But let’s be honest – you don’t need a spoiler on your car to be the king of the drift track. It’s perfectly acceptable to demolish people in Overwatch, Fortnite, Rocket League – whatever game you please – with default skins equipped. It might even be advantageous to do so, because people do judge based on appearances, and opponents might underestimate you.

But that sentiment falls apart when publishers are locking characters, weapons and other gameplay-altering items behind paywalls. There’s only one reason for it: more money. It’s a shame to watch an increasing number of otherwise-great games implement such schemes.

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