Activision’s Call of Duty Black Ops 4 is the company’s most successful launch in the series so far. Pre-order sales went through the roof when Blackout was announced, and the game’s sales to date have also reportedly been good. When Activision and Treyarch Studios announced the game, they made it clear that microtransactions for the game would arrive later. This gave the game a bit of a breather from the regular backlash that other titles have seen with their launches tied in with microtransactions, and launch reviews were pretty good. However, those microtransactions have been launched on PS4 and will soon be coming to other platforms in the coming weeks, and a lot of players aren’t happy with the changes.
First, a disclaimer. I haven’t played Black Ops 4, and I haven’t bought a Call of Duty game for almost a decade now. Like many people discussing the changes, I’m not involved with the regular COD community that buys new entries into the franchise every other year. Not owning the game shouldn’t dissuade any discussion into what’s happening over at Activision, just like it shouldn’t have stopped discussion about loot boxes, aggressive monetisation, and excessive grinds in Star Wars Battlefront 2 or Destiny 2. Personally, I don’t believe these things should belong in a game that you pay a premium price for.
The changes that Activision instituted over the past few weeks have fleshed out the final vision for Black Ops 4, and players are getting to know what their money has bought them. One of the new changes is the ability to buy COD Points, the game’s digital currency that is used to purchase cosmetics, Tiers, and Special Orders. COD Points are purchasable with real money, and can be bought via the game store of the respective platform that it’s played on, like the PlayStation or Xbox online stores.
Much like Fortnite, Black Ops 4 has Tiers, which are basically character levels with a catchy name. Tiers will affect what kind of items you unlock from the Black Market, and you level up through these by simply playing the game – the more hours you’re actively playing, the faster you’ll progress. That means you’ll have to play near-constantly to level up within the time limit for that season, and this incentivises players to draw out already lengthy matches in modes like Blackout to increase their Tier progress at the end of the match. Star Wars Battlefront 2 similarly used to rely on time-based progression as a method of levelling up players, but this often led to players AKF-ing matches just to progress when they were at work or school.
Tier purchases are also always promoted clearly in the game’s menu. While navigating left or right through Tiers that you haven’t unlocked, you can press square in the PS4 version of the game to buy Tiers up to and including the selected Tier. It makes sense that Activision would make this easy for players to do, because making it more difficult to purchase Tiers would run counter to their design goals. Still, two button presses purchases the next Tier. It’s fairly easy to do this by accident.
Moving to higher Tiers will change the kind of contraband you can earn or purchase on the Black Market, especially rare weapon variants. Along with that are Special Orders, which is a new addition to the series. Special orders are like a “kit” of sorts that includes a number of rare items, and one or more outfits and outfit items to add to your collection. You spend CP to order these unlocks, and then you have to complete the challenges given to you in a certain time period to earn these items. It’s an interesting change from buy-the-thing-and-unlock-it-immediately, and it means that every player, even those at Tier 200, still need to git gud to earn these items. Special Orders rotate out once a week, and once you’ve purchased one, you can take your time to complete it within that window.
There are also loot boxes by a different name called Reserves. In Call of Duty World War 2, Supply Drops were loot crates that included randomised items. In Black Ops 4, Reserves offer you one random item of any rarity, and can result in players earning duplicates of items they’ve already unlocked. Reserves aren’t purchasable with COD Points or real money, but are instead unlocked when you reach the next Tier. It’s not exactly the loot box mechanism that we’ve come to recognise, but it’s quite close.
While it’s absolutely not required to pay to progress through the ranks, COD Points do make the grind a lot easier. The Black Ops 4 subreddit has a number of threads discussing the grind for players who don’t want to pay to progress to Tier 200, and it works out to a 250-hour grind to reach level 200. Or, as you can see from ChaniZA’s screenshots, it’ll cost her R1,266 to skip the 100-ish hour-long grind ahead of her. Participating in community challenges can earn you XP boosts to make that a bit shorter.
Normally such a system wouldn’t be that bad. There’s a serious grind enticing players to pay their way to completion, but it’s an optional component. Skilled players could make up for that in their regular play time anyway. Somewhere along the way maybe you unlock a sense of pride and accomplishment. But the reason why this is a problematic system is because there’s a time limit to get to level 200. What happens after that? There isn’t a clear answer. Perhaps player levels get reset and there are new challenges and rewards, maybe there’s even special content for 2019 that hasn’t been announced yet.
For the players, this gives them some incentive to keep playing the game to earn new unlocks and collect outfit pieces to complete their collection (because you currently can’t mix and match items from outfit to truly customise your character), but for Activision this benefits them financially. Recurrent player spending is Activision’s long-term business strategy now, and Black Ops 4 is the first game to embrace that new direction fully. There’s also the possibility that in the future Activision will instead offer more Tiers instead of resetting progression.
This new direction hasn’t gone down well with a large part of the COD community. Reddit threads discussing the game’s monetisation strategies and the grind pop up every day on the Black Ops 4 subreddit. I’ve listed a few of the threads below and you can check them out to see for yourself how the community is reacting to the changes. The overall atmosphere, however, is mostly positive. Players are just happy to have a new COD game, it seems.