The comedy of errors that is Marvel’s Avengers, the big-budget bet from Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics, has a hot new chapter unfolding right now: the addition of in-game DLC that offers paid boosts to character experience, allowing you to level up and access higher-end content more quickly.
This sort of thing is par for the course for games like this - but what sets Avengers apart is that the developers promised they’d never do this.
“We’ve also committed that content purchasable with real money in Marvel’s Avengers will be aesthetic-only additions, which will ensure we can keep the game fresh for years to come,” reads a year-old post on the official Avengers site. This wasn’t the only time this claim was made, either - this talking point about the game’s non-cosmetic content all being free was hammered at in interview after interview; and I remember it being a key talking point of my very first hands-on, around a year before the game’s release. It was even key at the game's E3 reveal - they stood up on stage and made that promise to cheers from the crowd.
To be clear, Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics aren’t breaking all of their promises. Future DLC characters will still be free. In fact, I'm sure they'd argue that boosts aren't 'added content' at all, and therefore their words still ring true. But what has changed is that for the first time, a non-cosmetic option will be available for sale.
You can imagine what happened next. The game’s reddit is ablaze with fury from fans who feel lied to. One sums it up with a screengrab of the emaciated Tony Stark’s showdown with Steve Rogers from the opening scenes of Avengers Endgame: “No trust. Liar.”
At the same time, it’s difficult to not have seen this coming. It’s plain that Avengers wasn’t the success Square Enix wanted it to be, and there’s clearly an incentive to aggressively chase any money that can be clawed back from this expensive project. The game’s arrival in Game Pass also heralded a catapulting upwards of the likelihood of this sort of thing happening: by making the game ‘free’ (sort of), Square Enix has an opportunity to nickel-and-dime people who find themselves getting into it. The free DLC pledge has closed off one option for that, which would be to charge for new characters and story content. Even though they're arguably lavish enough add-ons that the developers could try charging for, that ship has probably sailed. Of the promises to break, XP boosts are certainly the lesser of the two evils.
But then you look a little closer and things begin to look darker. Back in March, the baffling decision was made to make Avengers more grindy, slowing the rate of leveling up by increasing the required XP in order to… er… well, I’m still not sure what the logic was. Officially it was to smooth out the pacing of levels gained - but unofficially, I suspect it was a band aid to cover up post-game content problems. In the light of this announcement it looks darker still, however.
I understand that the age of cheat codes is pretty much gone. Why put something like that in as a secret when you can sell shortcut DLC? And on a service game such as this, I even see the useful purpose of such things. The price tag is a discouragement to try to ensure everybody doesn’t just jump to a powered-up mega-character, but it means if you’re just hopping into Avengers on Game Pass, quite like it, and want to join seasoned friends in the post-game… there’s a shortcut you can take, at a cost. It’s the same in Final Fantasy 14, another Square Enix game, which lets people buy boosters to skip content and get to the raids and other juicy stuff with new characters. It’s not quite pay-to-win, as there’s no competitive element. Still, it leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, but in the hell year 2021 where mobile games are doing way worse predatory shit, I can accept that. I can go along with it.
What worries me is when games are constructed in such a way that they’re built to force your hand - to gently nudge you towards buying that boost, that cheat. It’s the balance that matters - if your game balance is such that coughing up is more desirable than just playing the intended progression, assuming you have the time to, something has gone horribly wrong. And for Marvel’s Avengers, the optics of that March update and this month’s addition of XP boosts is undeniably a bad look. That’s where this stuff gets shady.
If you make the grind artificially harder and then a little time later start selling boosts to alleviate and speed up the grind, you can’t be surprised when people connect those dots and call it slimy. It's also a top-tier PR fumbling of the ball - all that good publicity and social media buzz from Avengers hitting game pass is now being drowned out by fan anger. Nice one, decision-makers.
Game Pass has sent the Avengers player base soaring -- but Square Enix should now be hoping that decisions like this don’t drive off those new players before they even get started.