Join the GI Daily here to receive the latest news in your inbox.
Overall, reviews of Diablo 4 have been very positive. People enjoy the graphics, the narrative, and the gameplay, and there is a strong sense that the franchise is back on track following the poorly thought-out (at least in the eyes of seasoned fans) Diablo Immortal mobile game.
The neighbourhood is largely pleased, the reviews are positive, but there seems to be only one kink in the works. This is evidenced by the existence of a single tab in the game’s menus called “Shop,” where you can find a selection of cosmetic items (armour, installs, and the like) that the game is more than eager to sell you for between $10 and $20 each. There are some gorgeous, well-designed items there, but without forking over the
This decision reflects the developers’ desire to free their minds from the hassle of managing the prices and availability of items within the game.
That hasn’t stopped the situation from contributing to the general impression that the store’s prices are a sneaky addition to the game that nobody was given a chance to check out before making a purchase.
While I don’t think this is an attempt at subtlety (after all, we’ve known for a long time that a cosmetics shop will be included in the game), I do think it reflects the creators’ desire to shift their focus away from the mechanics of in-game currency and pricing.
It’s not as if they couldn’t have given customers this information if they wanted to; they could have easily created a PDF with images, descriptions, and prices before the store went live. When it comes to including an industrial element like this in their games, designers often feel trapped.
Even if an in-game store selling only cosmetic items meets most players’ requirements and addresses most of the concerns they initially had about the adoption of F2P-style service designs, players still vocally dislike them, calling them names like “greedy” and “rip-off,” despite the fact that these stores are apparently commercially successful enough to eliminate worries of any such reaction.
You can understand why developers would prefer to stay quiet on the subject, especially a company like Blizzard that has been criticised for its in-game deal systems in Diablo 3 and, more recently, for similarly pricey gamer skins in Overwatch 2.
Those who decided to add this store—at these prices—could not have done so without knowing how a chorus of consumers and industry experts would respond. Blizzard, of all companies, knew it would be criticised for including in-game purchases, especially for premium items.
Just this once, I’d love to hear a designer come out and give a rousing defence of the company’s choice in logo.
Diablo 4 offers a variety of things that date back to heated arguments about video games, like genuine, in-game horse armour. It’s not like the developers are making any special effort to avoid having their product category criticised. Perhaps they had accepted this response as inevitable, but they made it clear that they saw no reason to highlight it.
It’s too bad, because for once, I’d love to hear an outspoken designer defend the aesthetic choices made by the organisation they work for. This model is quickly becoming the standard for a wide variety of games, with many successful game developers including a virtual cosmetics store with price points in the $10–$20 range as a central component of their business plan.
Many popular games do this, like Fortnite (which has one of the largest merchandise stores, where buying all the skins would cost tens of thousands of dollars) and Call of Duty and Destiny and, of course, Overwatch and now Diablo. We have actually reached this point with little appropriate conversation, argument, or defence of the choices which led us here, despite the fact that charging people a reasonable piece of modification for a cosmetic product has actually ended up being extremely typical. This is because of the negative response to practically any type of in-game deal design.
This design deserves defence because it is the least difficult option readily available; while it will never make people happy to see a character skin cost over $20 (a third the cost of the video game itself! ), it should at least mollify them to understand that every other course computer game monetisation might have decreased was far, far even worse.
When compared to other methods, such as locking down playable content behind paywalls, selling in-game cosmetics for real money, or the con artists’ current favourite, cryptocurrency-based “play to win” schemes, offering cosmetics only, albeit at a price, is much less intrusive.
Most developers have embraced the idea that players should be able to enjoy the entire game without ever paying for any in-game purchase (not all, however; Blizzard may have stumbled by locking new hero characters behind its premium Battle Pass in Overwatch 2), but players who do choose to purchase optional cosmetics end up paying a premium.
Compared to other methods, offering only cosmetic products, even at a premium price, is much more subtle.
Most of the outrage that this causes centres on what many players consider as an unfair premium for a skin compared to the price of a full game. When you consider that the same amount of money can buy you a premium indie video game (or an older AAA title) in its entirety, or net you a number of months of Game Pass, the price of a cosmetic product for a video game begins to look rather insane.
In a market economy, prices are determined by what customers are willing to pay, not by what would be economically optimal given the cost of production. Even though the service design teams are plagiarising one other’s work, the prices for these games are not comparable; nor did some mad computing executive pick an absurdly high price point while raving in a conference room.
This price convergence occurred because, after extensive testing, this proved to be the point at which profits from cosmetic products would maximise; this is the point at which the demand curve and the cost curve would intersect.
That’s to be expected, since it makes sense that more expensive cosmetics will increase demand rather than decrease it. There are a lot of people who don’t like the costs, and they say that if the products were cheaper, more people would buy them, and the game would generate more money. Because not everyone uses them or is willing to pay for them, cosmetics retain some of their value through scarcity.
Possessing a cosmetic item that is otherwise uncommon gives you an advantage over other players because it makes your character stand out from the crowd. If the price were reduced so that more people could afford the cosmetic, it would become accessible to more people, but it would lose some of its allure because it would no longer be seen as a luxury item. When it comes to skins and other cosmetics, you might rapidly learn that lowering product prices does not increase demand but rather decreases it because these items are luxury goods, not necessities.
This reminds me of why I want a designer to grab the bull by the horns and argue persuasively for this design. Business design is not some newfangled idea concocted by “greedy” designers planning to buy a mansion with the proceeds from selling Fortnite skins; rather, it is based on long-term industrial information and screening.
To the contrary, it’s the most effective strategy we’ve found so far for monetizing video games in a way that’s both profitable and doesn’t negatively impact the experience for players who choose not to pay for more content. The economics of developing and marketing video games have actually never ever been tougher; therefore, the capacity to generate additional earnings after launch is a crucial aspect of the business model.
Even if we choose to ignore or even actively dislike cosmetic whales, we must admit that the design is functional, causes minimal harm, and has successfully kept the market away from much less consumer-friendly alternatives.
Despite the current economic climate, video games have never been more reasonably priced (when adjusted for inflation, video games are still less expensive today than at any point in the 1990s or 2000s). However, the cost of development, and of meeting gamers’ rising expectations, has never been higher.
The fantasy that games would be fine and dandy if they were priced at $60 and never made a cent thereafter has to be deflated, and so must the discussion about business models. Inflation-adjusted, a PlayStation 1 or PlayStation 2 game would cost about $100 now, while a Super Nintendo Entertainment System game would cost about $120 to $140. That doesn’t even take into account the prohibitive rise in development costs, let alone the avalanche of high-quality content and assets, full voice acting, an orchestral score, and dramatic sequences that players have come to expect from AAA games.
Customers and the industry alike have little interest in paying $100 (much less $120) for a video game. Assuming that’s the case, isn’t it great that the game’s creators can offset some of those costs by catering to the small subset of players willing to spend more for access to more elaborate virtual clothing options? We do not need to like the presence of cosmetic whales, but we can at least value that the design works, does little damage, and has actually kept the market far from far less consumer-friendly options to its really genuine monetary problem.
Add to favorites
Subscribe to the GI Daily and have the most important stories sent to your inbox every day.