As a communications major, I am fascinated by the constant evolution of mass media. As a veteran of several wars, I have vested interest in how stories of service members and the military industry are portrayed. These two fields find a unique convergence in the medium of video games. At the turn of the 21st century, the information age and the power of the internet has pushed the video game industry to new heights of financial and critical success that rivals older more traditional media industries. One of the intellectual properties that has become a significant part of this era is the video game series known as Ghost Recon, which lets players engage in military combat simulations that focus on strategy and the use of futuristic technology. Ghost Recon: Breakpoint is the latest entry in the series, released in October of 2019 for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 video game consoles, as well as for PC. A controversy developed surrounding the game’s release that involved its use of additional content transactions, its multitude of poor mechanical performance attributes, and consumer dissatisfaction with the scripted narrative. The series as a whole and this most recent turn of events serves as a notable case study in mass media convergence in the modern age.
The article that follows was originally part of an academic thesis, but recent additions to the game along with time taken to reflect on my military service prompted me to revise my research into an essay more suitable for a multimedia news and opinion forum such as Lewton Bus. That said, what I’d like to do is present my findings in two parts. Part 1 will be the more formal/academic history of the franchise that our readers may not be familiar with. I will return in the near future with Part 2, that will detail my personal experiences with the games and how these fictional narratives reflect parts of my real world experiences at war (just as I have done in my Veterans Day war film retrospective series). In the wake of the pandemic, many of us have found ourselves with much time on our hands. Be it video games or editorials, I hope that these essays will help you get through these trying times. Please enjoy!
I. Information Age of Warfare
Media convergence involves the technological merging of content across different media channels, though it also describes a business model that involves consolidating various media holdings, such as cable connections, phone services, television transmissions, and Internet access, under one corporate umbrella.1 One of the more fascinating aspects of the Ghost Recon intellectual property is that its very inception arose as a matter of deliberate media convergence.
Ghost Recon is a subdivision of the Tom Clancy intellectual property license. Tom Clancy (April 12, 1947 – October 1, 2013) was a best-selling American author and novelist who became famous around the world for his exciting fictional stories about espionage, covert military operations, and clandestine geopolitical intrigue.2 Most of his books feature the protagonist Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst who must use his intelligence and occasional brute force in order to deal with threats to both United States national security and to governments around the world. Clancy’s novels originally dealt with Cold War intrigue, but his stories adapted to reflect the conflicts of the late twentieth century and the post 9/11 Global War on terror. Several of his most popular novels such as The Hunt for Red October (1984), Patriot Games (1987), Clear and Present Danger (1989), and The Sum of All Fears (1991) have been made into commercially successful film adaptations.
During his rise to fame, Clancy began development of his own in-house multimedia franchise known as Rainbow Six, based on the fictional exploits of a multinational counter-terrorism force, similar in scope to special forces such as the famous United States Delta Force or Russian Spetsnaz. Clancy’s idea was to develop a series of written novels while simultaneously developing the story for a series of video games featuring the Rainbow Six unit, both of which would be released in 1998.3 Clancy co-founded a video game development company called Red Storm Entertainment that would be in charge of producing the interactive portion of his multimedia concept; the project would end up revolutionizing the modern video game industry. As the Rainbow Six series of novels continued Clancy’s streak of bestselling books, the Rainbow Six game and its sequels became massive successes. The games defined the tactical shooter genre, forcing players to focus more time and effort on planning, stealth, teamwork, and tactics rather than on sheer firepower. This grounded and more realistic play style in which a single bullet could defeat a player was a huge change from other games of the era which focused on frenetic gameplay, superpowered abilities, and outlandish graphics.
As video gaming exploded in popularity in the beginning of the 2000s, Red Storm began development on their next tactical video game IP. An important event during this timeframe was the purchase of Red Storm by the successful video game publisher Ubisoft.4 Now under the Ubisoft banner, the next big Tom Clancy game franchise debuted with Ghost Recon in 2001. Keeping the theme of strategic, methodical, realistic combat, Ghost Recon let players control a squad of soldiers armed with an array of advanced communications equipment and targeting technology such as digital maps, night vision capabilities, and unmanned drones. The technical construction of the games themselves were advanced for their time, with impressive graphics, character animations, and lighting effects, establishing the mystique of the Ghost Recon franchise as a cutting-edge intellectual property. Ghost Recon straddled the line between the tactical realism of the previous Rainbow Six series and outlandish near-future global conflict worst case scenarios fought with theoretical weaponry, making a name for itself in the canon of video game shooters.
II. Digital Battlefield
Several successful games were made in the Ghost Recon series, but its popularity began to wane with the prominence of the Call of Duty video game franchise. Originally a military shooter game set in World War II, Call of Duty met record breaking success with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007. This game featured real-world military aesthetics similar to Ghost Recon, but its gameplay moved at an incredibly faster pace. The game received critical acclaim for its airtight mechanics and a story that mirrored modern Hollywood blockbuster productions. As time went on, the games would enlist actors and celebrities to do both in-game motion capture performances and advertising; Sam Worthington, Kevin Spacey, and even the highly controversial military personality Oliver North became part of the series and its increasingly escalating production budget. On the technical side, customers bought the games in droves because of its multiplayer capabilities that allowed gamers from all around the world to challenge each other in simulated combat. Video game console manufacturers had been steadily developing network play for many years, and Modern Warfare arrived at the perfect time in which the technology functionally caught up with the capabilities of desktop computers, contributing to the game’s massive mainstream pop cultural success.5
Years later, Ubisoft would give the Ghost Recon franchise a massive overhaul with the title Ghost Recon: Wildlands in 2017. Whereas the Call of Duty franchise gained dominance in the military shooter game market, Ubisoft had its own massive success with the Assassin’s Creed video game series. These games featured unprecedented large-scale open world maps and stealth-based close quarters combat in an ongoing narrative that would eventually span the breadth of the recorded history of human civilization, from Ancient Egypt to the American Revolution and beyond. Ubisoft decided to combine the modern technological warfare elements Ghost Recon was known for with its tried & true open world design and development infrastructure. Set in Bolivia, Wildlands set players on a mission to eradicate a dangerous drug cartel. In keeping with Tom Clancy’s body of work based on real world conflicts, Wildlands reflected the ongoing overt and clandestine military efforts to combat international drug trafficking and narcoterrorism in Latin America; the issue had captured the popular consciousness of the time with fictional works such as the film Sicario (2015), the television show Narcos (2015-2017) and the capture of the real-life notorious cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Ghost Recon: Wildlands was met with positive reviews and commendable sales figures, being the highest grossing retail game in the US and the UK that year and being one of the fastest selling entries in the franchise’s history.
One of the more unusual aspects of Ghost Recon: Wildlands’ development and marketing in this overhaul was the use of trademark military apparel. During the game’s development in 2016, the successful military clothing and apparel company 5.11 Tactical published a press release announcing a partnership with Ubisoft and the Ghost Recon brand.6 5.11 specializes in purpose-built tactical gear for military, law enforcement, and firearm enthusiasts, available to the general civilian consumer market. The press release reads in part:
The brand partnership breaks new ground in connecting the worlds of gaming and real-life tactical, as 5.11 gears up the Special Ops teams in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, just as it does every day for active-duty operators. Products slated to be featured in the game are load-bearing equipment such as the 5.11 TacTec Plate Carrier, RUSH backpacks and Apex™ tactical pants designed to carry everything you need to master your mission.
As the post 9/11 Global War on Terror continued into the 2010s, the American populace became increasingly familiar with military signifiers through the cycle of generations serving in the military and the prevalence of war stories in film, television, and interactive entertainment. Images of special forces personnel wearing non-standard civilian clothing and custom-tailored military gear enamored the public, leading to a cultural trend that became known as “tacticool”, a portmanteau to describe apparel with tactical functionality and fashionable form.7 Ubisoft and the Ghost Recon brand sought to capitalize on this trend to separate themselves from their competitors, and their venture was a resounding success.
III. Loot & Shoot
Ubisoft and the Tom Clancy brand had also released a new tactical military simulation franchise in 2016 called The Division, an online-only action role-playing video game; players could team up and accomplish objectives for in-game rewards such as weapons, gadgets, and apparel for character customization. The Division’s game-reward loop was part of the popular gaming mechanic/sub-genre known as the “looter shooter” where a virtually infinite cycle of rewards encouraged consistent play time from online gamers. First person shooter game franchises such as Destiny, Borderlands, and Overwatch became immensely popular thanks to these mechanics, and Ubisoft quickly got in on the action through its Tom Clancy military games.
Although popular, one of the biggest problems with the current era of looter shooter games are what is known as microtransactions. The term itself describes a broad number of mechanics, but in general a microtransaction is anything you pay extra for in a video game outside of the initial purchase. Many games in the modern era have what are known as downloadable content or “DLC”, software updates available for purchase that add things such as new game levels or items. It works similarly to what PC games referred to as expansion packs in previous eras of gaming, except now the content no longer needs physical disks to load. The issue with microtransactions that sets it apart from normal DLC is the method of paying real world currency for in-game currency or items bit by bit. Buying so called “loot boxes” that include items and abilities that affect gameplay lead to a state known as “pay to win”, where only through buying items that give you an advantage in-game could you hope to advance in the completion of the game or be competitive with other online players. Some consumer advocates and game journalists have even researched and reported on dangers of microtransactions as a form of gambling, noting that there are already real-world cases in which the dependence on microtransactions have yielded symptoms in some players like that of gambling addiction.8
IV. Breaking Point
All these commercial, technological, cultural, and behavioral issues came to bear with the release of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint in 2019. This latest iteration takes place within a large open world game map on a fictional island in the South Pacific known as Auroa, where a group of former special forces soldiers have gone rogue and taken control of a massive industrial complex. Taking scientists and the local population hostage, the rogue troop intends to use the facilities to build deadly automated attack drones in a bid for world domination. The player takes control of a customizable soldier sent to put an end to the dangerous insurrection. The game boasts a large cast of voice performance/motion capture actors; notable among them is the inclusion of actor Jon Bernthal as Colonel Walker, the game’s primary antagonist. Bernthal is famous for such roles as The Punisher in the titular Netflix series from Marvel Comics, as well as several roles in military action films. Although the political intrigue and outlandish drama are in line with Tom Clancy’s oeuvre, fighting against automated robot drones begins to strain the tonal balance of his work from conjectural futurism into outright science fiction.
From the start, one of the biggest issues with the game was its massive number of technical bugs and gameplay mechanics errors. Some game journalists noted that even the fundamental movements such as taking cover or navigating items was “farcically clunky”.9 Other reviews noted game breaking errors such as guns that wouldn’t fire or glitches in completed objectives that forced players to restart their progress.10 The resulting product was a far cry from the technological excellence that the Ghost Recon brand had been known for.
More significantly, here was a large outcry from gamers about the massive amount of microtransactions built into the game. In keeping with the looter shooter concept, all the in-game items have tiered levels, from 1 all the way through 250. These levels indicate the effectiveness of a weapon against certain enemies in the game, as well as other aspects of utility such as accuracy, handling, and speed. The character the player creates has a similar tiered ranking level, indicating their overall capability and prowess. Ideally, it would be up to the player to play through the game and earn experience points with which to upgrade the tiered level of their character and equipment. However, upon the release of Breakpoint, Ubisoft had put virtually every type of weapon, gadget, consumable item, vehicle, apparel item, and even experience booster for sale in their Ubisoft microtransaction store. The fear of the game being “pay to win” had essentially come true, such that players could have a massive advantage over other online gamers by simply buying access to it. Soon after the outcry, Ubisoft quickly rescinded these microtransactions, but the damage to their reputation had already been done.
During their recent quarterly sales report, Ubisoft had advised investors to expect “a sharp downward revision in the revenues expected from Ghost Recon Breakpoint” as a result of its poor reception and commercial performance after its launch day debacle.11 Whereas Ubisoft had hoped to continue the momentum of their recent successes like Wildlands, they were now faced with having to extensively revise their game development outlook for the next decade. In the end, marketing and name recognition alone could not compensate for a poorly made game and the defiance of consumer demand and expectations.
Focusing on an absurd amount of microtransactions and cosmetic items from popular clothing brands to the detriment of refined gameplay mechanics and systems was a serious blow to Ubisoft of their own doing. What was once an innovative franchise born out of a stroke of genius in the art of media convergence is now an historic example of how things can go wrong when media convergence for its own sake becomes the goal. Tom Clancy is no longer with us, though his legacy and works remain in the hands of his estate and artists entrusted with his creations. It remains to be seen if others will be able to live up to and progress the media convergence phenomenon he envisioned.
- Campbell, Richard, et al. Media & Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.
- Bosman, Julie (October 2, 2013). “Tom Clancy, Best-Selling Novelist of Military Thrillers, Died at 66“. New York Times. 2 Oct 2013.
- “Red Storm Entertainment, Inc.” Hoover’s Company Profiles, 2016.
- “Red Storm Acquired by UbiSoft”. IGN.com. 29 Aug 2000.
- “Call of Duty(R) 4: Modern Warfare (TM) Ranks #1 Title in Units Worldwide for Calendar 2007”. Activision. 25 Jan 2008.
- “Tactical Gear Innovator, 5.11, Forms Powerful Brand Partnership With Gaming Giant, Ubisoft”. PRNewswire.com. 06 Jul 2016
- Nodell, Kevin. “From the Punisher to 50 Cent, How the War on Terror Made Tactical Gear Stylish”. Playboy.com. 15 Aug 2018
- Gravelle, Cody. “Video Game Monetization Has Become Predatory”. ScreenRant.com. 02 Jul 2019.
- Ghost Recon Breakpoint Review — Quantity over Quality in a Broken World; PC, PS4 (Version Tested), XBox One Early Missions in Ubisoft’s Latest Ghost Recon Open World Shooter Seem Impossible, and It Barely Gets Better from There.” The Guardian (London, England), 10 Oct 2019.
- Gault, Matthew. “Ghost Recon Breakpoint Is Just Too Frustrating to Love”. Time.com. 11 Oct 2019
- Tassi, Paul, “’Ghost Recon Breakpoint’ Removes Its Worst Microtransactions For Launch Day (For Now)”. Forbes.com. 04 Oct 2019.