Here's a snippet from The Sixth Axis' deeply critical review of NBA 2K18, which gave the game a lowly 3 out of 10: "This is still a great basketball game. The production values are second to none throughout, with the player and commentator models looking fantastic. Just like in previous games the commentary proves again to be the best in any sports title, with real life soundbites from NBA players and coaches."
Here's a bit of IGN's laudatory 8.4 out of 10 review: "NBA 2K18 has also taken a significant step back by bringing microtransactions to a place that feels uncomfortable... it feels like we're being steered toward spending money to avoid an insane amount of hours spent grinding for points."
Going through the rest of the game's reviews yields more or less similar sentiments. NBA 2K18 is by most accounts a wonderful basketball game, but one tainted by an ever-present push to spend more money. The game's Metacritic score is a robust 81 on PlayStation 4, but player reviews are considerably more critical. On Metacritic, more than 500 users have combined to give the game a 1.7 out of 10. Of the nearly 5,000 reviews for the game on Steam, 74% are negative. You don't have to read too many comments to spot a pattern of players angry about how aggressively the game ties its virtual currency to player progression and customization.
Upset players aside, NBA 2K18 has certainly padded Take-Two's coffers in the short term. The game has already sold-in more than six million copies, up 20% over NBA 2K17's launch number. Virtual currency sales are up even more sharply, 57% year-over-year. Take-Two believes it will be the best performing sports game the company has ever made.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Take-Two CEO and chairman Strauss Zelnick about his company's quarterly results, and asked him how he parses these sorts of mixed messages from users. He offered a mixed message of his own in response:
The goal is delight rather than heaps of money, but Take-Two's key metric to determine whether or not it has delighted people is how big its heaps of money are
"We want to delight our consumers, and we are trying to create a perfect balance between what the game has to offer and how consumers feel about it," Zelnick said. "That's our primary goal. Our primary goal is not monetization and engagement. Our primary goal is delight. So we take any feedback incredibly seriously.
"At the end of the day, entertainment is not a must-have item. It's a wanna-have item. And so people's behavior reflected in engagement, unit sales, and ultimately spending, is probably the best barometer of how the title's being received. That said, we are very concerned about delighting consumers and we're very concerned about any feedback we get and are listening carefully."
So the goal is delight rather than heaps of money, but Take-Two's key metric to determine whether or not it has delighted people is how big its heaps of money are. Take-Two listens carefully to all feedback, but consumers' money speaks a lot louder than consumers' voices.
This is an understandable position for a publicly traded company, but it's also slightly surprising for Zelnick to admit to it. It's not just because he's vocally and repeatedly championed the goal of "delighting customers" ever since he took over at Take-Two more than a decade ago; it's also that it was only a few short months ago when he said Take-Two was intentionally erring on the side of undermonetizing its users.
"There is wood to chop because I think we can do more, and we can do more without interfering with our strategy of being the most creative and our ethical approach, which is delighting consumers," Zelnick said at an investors conference. "We're not going to grab the last nickel."
In the same presentation, he also displayed an understanding as to why hyper-aggressive monetization is ultimately a self-defeating tactic.
"Paying too much for something really good, even if you can afford it, just leaves you with a bad feeling. We don't want our consumers to ever feel that way"
Strauss Zelnick, five months ago
"You can't give stuff away for free in perpetuity; there's no business model in that," he said. "But we're not trying to optimise the monetisation of everything we do to the nth degree. If you do that, the consumer knows. They might not even known that they know, but they feel it.
"Think about it anecdotally - when you paid a little too much for something, even if it was something really good, it really irks you. Paying too much for something bad is even worse. Paying too much for something really good, even if you can afford it, just leaves you with a bad feeling. We don't want our consumers to ever feel that way."
That was five short months ago. Today, I guarantee you there are plenty of NBA 2K18 owners who have that exact feeling, who wish the game they paid for was allowing them to enjoy it, rather than constantly promising them they could enjoy it so much more if they had some virtual currency burning a hole in their pockets.
Such aggressive monetization approaches go down a lot better in a free-to-play world, where non-paying players understand and expect a continuous sales pitch while providing fodder for the handful of whales who actually keep the lights on. Keeping them around is mostly a matter of giving them new things to do and strive for; once non-payers are playing the game as a matter of habit, there are few natural prompts for them to reassess why they're playing, whether they're having fun, and if they should just walk away.
But when you need to go back to your player base the next year with another full-priced sports game, that's another purchasing decision they need to make, another moment they have to choose to opt back in to your treadmill. And you're going to have a tougher time convincing people to fork over $60 and abandon whatever progress they built up in last year's game for the privilege of being hounded to spend more, of being at a constant competitive disadvantage to the super-monetized customers you have consciously built your business model around.
If you're going to charge players an entrance fee for your game, let them opt-out of recurrent spending hooks wherever possible
This situation is by no means unique to Take-Two. Virtually every publicly traded publisher is exploring recurring consumer spending schemes, and they'd arguably be negligent not to. But as they experiment with aggressive and/or unproven approaches, they're going to inevitably push things too far from time to time. The key will be how they respond to them, both in the short-term and the long-term.
With NBA 2K18, the short-term response to player grumbling was to lower the virtual currency prices of some player customization items. Let's hope the long-term solution addresses the heart of the problem a little more directly.
For any developer serious about actually wanting to delight players, I would suggest exercising caution around loot boxes, virtual currency, or any recurring spending scheme that gives players the option of paying unlimited amounts of money to enjoy your game. Clearly, there are members of your audience that loathe this model (vocal minority though they may be), and you can accommodate them just as you would other users with preferences, like those who want an Assassin's Creed with no combat, a Super Mario Kart where you can't fall off the Rainbow Road, or a Nier: Automata for which "Very Hard" is an understatement. These are the sort of options that increase delight, if that's really and truly your primary goal.
So if you're going to charge players an entrance fee for your game, let them opt-out of these hooks wherever possible. Let them enjoy a game without being asked to make purchase decisions every five minutes. Let them play their single-player modes offline.
These players torpedoing your review scores likely aren't the ones driving your recurrent consumer spending revenues. They would rather your recurring monetization methods didn't exist. All you need to do is give them an experience where they can pretend that's true.