Say what you like about the Assassin’s Creed franchise: it’s certainly not afraid to re-invent itself time after time. Technically this is what makes Assassin’s Creed so unique, and how it’s managed to capture so much attention with every new instalment. With every new game the player has the chance to explore a new historical playground. Yet despite us stopping at more historical time periods than the Magic School Bus, most people agreed it was a franchise desperately in need of rejuvenation. The regular annual releases were put on hold, and Ubisoft went away to think about what they could do to make Assassin’s Creed exciting again. They came back with Assassin’s Creed: Origins, taking the story back to its roots while also introducing much more RPG-focused gameplay, complete with levels, XP, and stats.
Now we have Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, taking us around ancient Greece with either a male or female protagonist. Ubisoft seems to be pushing this as some sort of ground-breaking moment, perhaps as a means to make amends for when they said female characters are too much effort to build. Hang on, haven’t there already been three AC games when you play as a woman? Assassin’s Creed: China, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and Assassin’s Creed: Liberation? Why was this such a big deal when it was announced? I’m sure that someone can explain it to me…
Anyway, that’s the history lesson over. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Odyssey has microtransactions in it. Like any games with microtransactions in it, questions have to be asked: the big one, namely, is why? In a single player game such as Assassin’s Creed (and indeed all games, but especially single player) the impetus is to make progress with the use of the games mechanics to overcome the obstacles that the game presents, and this progress should be rewarded with benefits. These rewards should be given to the player when they’ve used their knowledge and understanding of the mechanics to their best. This is the point of video games. Narrative can be used to enhance this feeling of progression; seeing how your character establishes themselves in the world is rewarding when coupled with how you can squash the enemies that were giving you so much grief 5 or 6 levels ago.
Microtransactions are a massive spanner in the works in this rewards system. Why would you play the game to reap the rewards that it might give you for playing the game, when you can just shell out another bit of money and get it right away? Of course, if you continue to play the game then there lies a huge amount of doubt as to whether you’ll be rewarded for playing the game in the same way as you would be for paying that extra fee. There’s a paywall in front of in-game content and you don’t know how much of the game is only behind it; the only way to find out is open your wallet again, bearing in mind that you may have already paid £50 for this game (or more if you bought a special edition).
This is broadly speaking about microtransactions, so let’s talk about Odyssey’s specific microtransactional issue. The one that has received the most attention and criticism is the “time saver”, such an XP booster that you can buy for an extra $10 which doubles the XP you get throughout the game. Given that Odyssey is clocking for most people at 50+ hours, it’s undoubtable that it has a lot of content and there’s a lot to play through. There’s no option to just play the story missions either, as story missions are only accessible once the player has reached a certain level. Therefore, what is the motivation behind giving people the option to play the game faster? Ubisoft perhaps see themselves as catering to all markets, but it reeks of deliberately making levelling up a chore, and the XP boost is the only relief that the player has from grinding to level up. If people are paying to play the game less, it might be worth considering that the game is not ultimately worth playing.
An Ubisoft rep has made a statement regarding these microtransactions:
“Time-savers, such as the Permanent XP Boost, are 100% optional for players who want to supercharge their progression, and were not considered in any of the economy or difficulty balancing of the game. Players have the ability to change the difficulty setting at any time in the Main Menu Options to find the right level of challenge for them.”
This seems eerily similar to the “optional” microtransactions that plagued Shadow of War, which is since been removed by Warner Bros after they admitted that it undermined the Nemesis system. You know: the whole reason anyone played Shadow of War or Shadow of Mordor in the first place! Ubisoft justification of microtransactions as time-savers is flimsy at best.
These microtransactions don’t seem to have gained much attention from people who have bought the game; in fact there seem to be a good amount of people defending the games microtransactions with a flippant, half-hearted, and dismissive “what did you expect” attitude. The collective outrage that was seen with games such as Battlefront II is absent. This may be down to the euphemistic marketing of these “time-savers”; their intention may seem like it’s aiding the player, but it’s covering up the flaws of a game intentionally designed to waste time.
It’s ironic that Spider-Man, a single player focused game with absolutely zero microtransactions, is the quickest selling game in Sony’s history. With this, it also has one of the highest Platinum Trophy completion rates on PS4. It also has an XP system; maybe Insomniac can teach Ubisoft a thing or two about how to build an XP system that you don’t have to pay extra for to suddenly becoming rewarding.