With the release of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Ubisoft has caused the ongoing discussion surrounding microtransactions to flare up once again. The game’s extensive shop is filled with all-manner of extra purchases for players to splurge on, but the most enticing are those located in the “Time Saver” section. For $10, players can vastly increase their experience gains and skip much of the game’s grind. This is what’s got some gamers up and arms; some tearing into the game and others adamantly defending it.
The defense’s argument is clear: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a fun game that should be judged on its gameplay rather than the presence of microtransactions. The criticism they’re fighting against has become a bit muddled in the discourse, so let’s clear that up right now. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s gameplay cannot be separated from its microtransactions, because said microtransactions have a tangible impact upon it whether one engages with them or not. They exist and that alone is enough to negatively affect everyone’s experience. This is why any conversation about the gameplay loop must take microtransactions into account.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: it’s absolutely possible to play and enjoy Assassin’s Creed Odyssey without engaging with its microtransactions. Some players might not even think about them at all. There are also plenty of players who enjoy doing side content before progressing the story, as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey all but forces one to do. That, however, is not going to be the case for everyone. Many do notice the microtransactions; many do feel like they have to buy the boosters in order to play the way they want to, and many do give in and buy them even if they think that shouldn’t have to. This is a problem, but not the main one. The main issue with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is that this is done by design.
Like Assassin’s Creed Origins before it, Odyssey’s core gameplay loops revolves around leveling up one’s character. All progression is based around one’s level, so much so that one cannot progress the story until they’ve leveled-up enough. This wasn’t seen as a problem in Origins because the only way to level up was to play the game, but that’s not the case in Odyssey. Now, players have the option of spending an additional $10 on top of whatever they’ve already paid in order to skip most of the grind; in other words, they can pay to skip the game’s core loop.
Ubisoft and their defenders argue that this option is here in the name of “player choice,” something those who don’t have time for the grind can buy in order to play through the game unhindered. This argument has a major flaw though as it begs the question of who it was that implemented a system one would be willing to pay money to skip, and for that matter why an Assassin’s Creed game needs to have a grind at all.
Assassin’s Creed is supposedly a series about exploring various places in history and rubbing elbows with notable historical figures. It’s supposedly a game in which one plays as a stealthy assassin who kills quickly, makes a clean getaway and goes onto either kill again or discover the secrets of their environment. Every pre-Origins Assassin’s Creed game has this, and both Origins and Odyssey still have the exploration part of the game. Combat has become more important, but otherwise these are functionally the same games they’ve always been. So where exactly does the grind fit in? How exactly does it serve these aspects of the game? The answer is that it doesn’t.
Leveling up in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey works in a manner similar to games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Players must increase their level in order to equip higher-level gear, take on higher-level missions and engage higher-level enemies. Taken in isolation, it’s fine. Whereas such systems were always present the aforementioned game series, however, it’s a completely new addition to Assassin’s Creed and it’s one that actively undermines the experience by road-blocking progress and powering-down the player character.
In previous games, one could go through the story and side missions at their own pace, taking out enemies through careful stealth or quick direct engagements. In Origins and Odyssey, however, one can only continue the story so long as they’re at the correct level and instant assassinations only work if one is a higher level than a given enemy. This system isn’t about “player choice” at all. In fact, one could say that players have even less choice now than they’ve ever had before. In short, this is an artificial grind loop inserted into games that do not need it, but Ubisoft went ahead built the game around it anyway.
Everything tied to the grind could be awarded in other ways. Equipment could all be tied to specific missions; so could skills. If the developer wanted players to have a certain skill before advancing the story, they could tie it to a single mission and have the player do that first. The same goes for gear. Instead of having stats, gear could just have a perk or two tied to combat and it could then be left up to the player to decide if they want any of it or not; just like in previous Assassin’s Creed games. Such a system can’t be easily monetized, though, so instead we get this unnecessary grind loop so detrimental to the experience that its reduction marks a noticeable improvement. Ubisoft knows this, of course. They’re the ones who designed it this way.
Many critics on YouTube and elsewhere have come under fire recently for applying terms like “predatory” and “exploitative” to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. It’s harsh language to be sure, but not inaccurate. This is a game with a grind annoying and superfluous enough that its publisher is offering players a means to mostly skip it. What’s more, Ubisoft is confident that players will be willing to pay for that privilege. That $10 price tag is not an insignificant amount of money when compared to the overall price of the game, yet this company is perfectly comfortable charging it on top of the $60, $80 or $110 the player already paid just to play the game. One doesn’t charge an extra $10 for something if they’re not reasonably sure their players won’t be annoyed enough to pay it. Sounds exploitative, doesn’t it? And no, they don’t need to be doing this either.
Development costs have gone up over the years, no one is denying this, but that doesn’t mean publishers haven’t been finding new ways to profit heavily from their products. The traditional $60 price tag has been nothing more than a basic entry fee for a long time now, with the complete experiences getting offered through various “special” editions and season passes. On top of this, many games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey now feature product placement, something that publishers charge advertisers for by the way. Big budget “triple-A” games like Odyssey easily make their money back and then some; the only reason Ubisoft designed the game this way and is nickel and diming their consumer with microtransactions is because gamers let them get away with it. This is beside the point, though.
When judging the merits of titles like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey as games, their microtransactions cannot simply be extracted from the experience and ignored. They are an intrinsic part of the game’s design, the entire reason for its grindy gameplay loop. If a game’s combat is bad, then that should be reflected in review, right? If so, then shouldn’t another detrimental system, an unnecessary one at that, also warrant criticism? And shouldn’t that criticism be all the harsher if the game’s publisher is charging a premium price for the ability to reduce that system’s negative effects? Yes, yes it should.
Microtransactions don’t exist in a bubble; they have a tangible effect on how the games employing them are designed and therefore must be taken into critical account. To do otherwise is to turn a blind eye to a real and potentially problematic aspect of any game.