Like Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2 before it (and Portal 2, but let’s forget about that) Counter-Strike: Global Offensive now has items, both dropping in game and buyable from a store. I usually think of myself as objecting less to these things than the average player and as I found out about this update I had two conditions for being alright with it: First, that the skins were visually down to earth. This is not Team Fortress 2. Secondly, that they were purely cosmetic.
Of my criteria, the first is fulfilled in my opinion, but what about the second? Looking at the Steam community page there seem to be two sides of this argument: “The items are only cosmetic!” vs “The items have an in game effect, the game will turn into TF2/CoD (???) and inevitably go F2P!” As always when it comes to forum posts about online games, there’s a lot of angry nonsense, but central to it seems to be a disagreement about what this update actually does. Are the new items purely cosmetic or do they come with in-game differences? Here comes the problem: Yes and no.
Looking at the FAQ released with the update there seems to be a clear answer:
Q: Can I buy items that will affect gameplay and give me an advantage?
A: No. All of the items are purely cosmetic.
Yet with the update everyone has had two other items added to their inventory. These are variant weapons players can equip with different stats in game and with silencers. While all items in the store (and hopefully in the drops system) are cosmetic, not all items in the system are. But everyone gets them and no one has to pay, so there’s no problem, right? Maybe.
This update is really doing two separate things: it’s adding a store for cosmetic items and it’s adding variant weapons to the game. My issue with this is that by doing both of these through the same loadout system the update ties two very different systems with different purposes together. Of course that will have people worried! I’m not saying the game will have non-cosmetic items in the shop, I’m saying Valve is easing nobody’s mind by tying these systems together.
We tend to think of game design as the design of gameplay, but these meta game-systems are just as important. Their presentation says things about how the systems work in game, how they relate to other systems and what is important. The two systems are superficially similar, they both let you replace a default item with something else, only in one case the player can replace visuals and in the other the player can replace mechanics. It’s not hard to see why Valve would use the same system for both. But by complecting those systems , they signal that cosmetic items and variant weapons are related.
Even if Valve has no intention of selling weapons with mechanical changes, their system says they are the same thing. If they want to add variant weapons it should not be done through system for cosmetic items.