I’ve played a lot of Overwatch over the last few years. I was big into it when it was first released and have been playing it on and off ever since. Just recently though, playing it has made me nostalgic for a time when things were different. You see, I spent my early years with the original Playstation and the PlayStation 2, and games back then took a radically different approach to in-game skins and cosmetics.
Just so that we’re all clear – when I talk about skins and cosmetics, I mean unlockable costumes as well as other things, like hats or weapon skins. Anything that allows for a personal touch. Overwatch, Team Fortress 2, Apex Legends, and so on have all these things in abundance, but I feel there has been a distinct shift in attitudes since my childhood. So what’s changed?
In a nutshell, cosmetics in games have gone from being part of the fun, a reward for the dedicated or the skillful, to being totally auxiliary. They’re now just something developers throw in on the side to generate additional revenue. We’ve reached a point where even the words themselves, “skins” and “cosmetics” have started to take on negative connotations, linked indelibly in the minds of gamers to sinister attempts on behalf of a publisher to bleed their audience of every last penny.
I’m sure at some point you’ve heard a given game’s microtransactions defended as “just cosmetics”, which I suppose is fair enough. However, doesn’t that speak to the fact that we have forgotten why these things are in games in the first place? It’s a shame that so many people now view them as totally irrelevant, or worse, a scam.
I remember playing games like Spider-Man The Movie, the old Ratchet and Clanks, or even Resident Evil 2, where new cosmetic items were held back as a special reward. Unlocking them was a real rush in those days. Maybe my tiny child brain was just more easily impressed back in the day, but I don’t think that quite rings true.
I really do miss that era. I still enjoy unlocking new costumes, which is why it’s such a shame the only way to get them today is to grind like mad, or cough up the cash. That’s not just because I’m cheap, but because older games often put their unlockables behind something fun and elaborate. Just look at Resident Evil 2, where you had to find and kill t-virus-infected Brad Vickers (S.T.A.R.S’ pilot) and use the key you found on his body to open a special locker, wherein lay all manner of exciting new fashion statements.
Those days are behind us though, and in-game cosmetics have, for the most part, become little more than extras there if you feel like spending a couple of quid on for a new look. Leon’s biker jacket from Resident Evil 2 filled me with pride every time I lay eyes upon it. I can’t say the same for any of the various bits and bobs I’ve bought from in-game catalogues over the years. It does no good to dwell on the past though, and if this must be the way of things, so be it. That being said, there are right ways, and wrong ways to go about the modern approach.
Take Overwatch 2. As I said, I’ve been a fan of the franchise at large for a while now, and I, just like millions of others have grown to really love some of the characters. In that spirit, I enjoy unlocking new costumes for my favourite heroes (Winston and Orisa, if anyone’s interested), but the way the game handles its cosmetics takes all the fun out of that. You can’t earn a skin for a specific hero by playing particularly well with them, and you can’t even get one just for putting in a huge number of hours.
By far the fastest way to get a particular skin is to pay for it, which you have to do by first purchasing a premium currency called “Overwatch Coins” – a major annoyance I won’t go into here – then using that to buy whatever it is you want. If you don’t pay up, the coins trickle in at a miserable rate. We’re talking 60 coins a week and skins that can cost 1500, which comes to around $16, for one skin.
This sucks all the joy out of acquiring new skins. Sure, there are skins you can earn for free by leveling up the battlepass, but they are always basically just palette swaps, and might not even be for characters you play. It’s that disconnect between how I play and what I’m rewarded with that really bugs me.
What makes this all the more tragic is that (actually quite superb) games like Hunt: Showdown exist, and have (by comparison) a perfectly reasonable approach to in-game cosmetics. Hunt also uses a premium currency, but you can earn it just by playing the game, you’re rewarded for playing well, plus you actually earn a decent amount overall. I have managed to get my hands on specific legendary hunters I wanted, and a variety of cool weapon skins without paying a penny, and if I was going to spend money, I would much rather spend it on Hunt, just because it feels fair.
Granted, Hunt isn’t a free-to-play game, but not having an upfront cost isn’t an excuse to treat your playerbase without respect. EA’s Battlefront II also let you earn skins with its currency, credits. They didn’t drop at an ideal rate at first, but at least you had a chance to focus on what you wanted after they removed the atrocious lootboxes. There are better options for how to do this, it’s a question of if publishers and developers will embrace this retro mentality.
I still have a quiet hope that we’ll see a return to the old ways, but if not, I’ll settle for games that try to keep things fair. On the other hand, I do think it’s important that we don’t forget about how the games of yesteryear made us feel. I genuinely think it’s a shame that “cosmetics” has become a dirty word, because they were a big part of my childhood growing up as a gamer. Still, who knows what the future will bring? It’s probably time I take off the rose-tinted specs and start thinking about what’s in store down the road.
Next: Will Free-To-Play Ever Die?