Ubisoft announced a truly unique preorder scheme for Unity, this year’s Assassin’s Creed entry. It goes like this – you preorder the game (US only), and, in addition to the single player Chemical Revolution DLC mission and retailer specific stuff, you get to go to Ubisoft’s website to spin a wheel five times a week for loot. This ranges from in-game unlocks, content, games, physical AC swag and merch, and even a shot at a trip to Paris.
That’s right, you pay Ubisoft extra money, and you get the chance to win a prize.
On top of the actual concrete rewards for preordering (the game, DLC, and items), Ubisoft is incentivising prepurchase through the offer of possible prizes for a lucky few.
What does this scheme sound like? I’ll give you a hint – gambling.
You give money to them, and you might get something really good. But you’ll probably get something not so good. You may not even get anything worth the extra cash you pay on a preorder.
That doesn’t sound like a very good deal to me.
Everyone everywhere has been up in arms about this scheme – and rightly so. And I am going to add my voice to that cacophony.
Ubisoft, what you are doing with Assassin’s Creed Unity’s preorder (US only) is terrible.
Where some might think it’s an effort to gamify the purchase process, what it really is is a company attempting to gauge more money out of its userbase for an ephemeral suggestion of maybe something good possibly maybe. It blurs the line between incentivising and gambling to a point that is not just morally ambiguous, but also potentially harmful.
Gambling addiction is a very real societal issue, and introducing gambling practices with real money to a wide audience is highly irresponsible. Yes, many video games have gambling elements to them, but always with virtual goods (the inclusion of which is a different issue altogether). Introducing real money payments – one off or continual – is pretty shady in my view. Especially when this gamification is applied to the process of purchasing a game, instead of within the game itself.
Ubisoft isn’t the only offender. Another borderline incentive issue comes from an unexpected source – PC champions and general nice guys Valve.
Steam’s sales are infamous for generating massive expenditure. So many games, such low prices. And this year’s summer sale was no different. Daily sales, flash sales, and community voting. The difference this year was the twist Valve added in its Summer Adventure metagame. Users were randomly placed into one of five teams, which then went on to accrue points by buying games, collecting trading cards (by buying games, voting, or buying them through the marketplace), or by crafting badges (from trading cards). Each day, the winning team would have thirty members obtain the top three games on their wishlist for free.
While this encourages users to participate in sale voting and card collecting, it also creates another very specific outcome – the card trading market explodes.
Stimulating the trading card market benefits Valve – each sale on the marketplace nets them five per cent. Developers whose games have their cards traded also get ten per cent, but in the case of the Summer Sale trading cards, there is no developer, meaning the sale of Summer Sale cards is pure profit for Valve and Valve alone.
Essentially, Valve is encouraging players to invest in inherently valueless digital items to obtain a miniscule chance to win. And, in the process of this, Valve also collects a tidy fee off the top of every purchase.
I did the maths here – which means it may be wrong but probably isn’t. Steam has about 7.5 million active users. Each one is automatically assigned one of five groups on participation – that’s 1.5 million people per group. Originally, only thirty point-scoring members of the winning team won their top three games. I’ll make a very conservative assumption here that only half of each team’s members score points and go into the draw for the daily prize – that’s 750,000 people. Thirty of those people win. That’s a one in 25,000 chance of winning – per team. The overall chance of any person winning is one in 125,000. Valve did change the rules slightly near the end, with the top three teams winning thirty, twenty, and ten prizes each day. That’s a one in 62,500 chance across all Steam users.
Valve has a lot more positive will than Ubisoft in the gaming community, making the backlash against the less-desirable elements of Valve’s summer sale relatively constructive. It even saw a group of Steam forum members and Redditors attempting to rig Valve’s daily winner system to generate favourable outcomes – specifically to make the results fairer. This group actively gamed the points system – some even spending hundreds of dollars of their own money – to ensure that each colour group won an equal amount of days. Valve attempted to block this action, and partially succeeded, but the fact that a small group within the community rallied against an unfair system shows how disliked manipulative marketing practices are.
Increasing gamification of buying games (and, indeed, any product) is fraught with legal and moral complexities. Incentivising preorders or purchases of cosmetic digital products for a small chance at a possible reward is, well, gambling. I’m not one to tell other people how to spend their money, but the line between responsible corporate behaviour and consumer exploitation here is razor-thin.
In a battle between corporations and consumers, I’ll pick the consumer every damn time. And, to me, Ubisoft and Valve’s behaviour is morally – if not quite legally – reprehensible.