How “cosmetic” DLC became “pay to win” camouflage in some online shooters

When it comes to in-game DLC and microtransactions, developers and players often take pains to draw a bright line between purely “cosmetic” DLC—which lets users pay optional money to change their in-game appearance—and DLC that impacts competitive gameplay stats—raising the specter of the dreaded “pay-to-win” upgrade. Recently, though, purchasable outfits in some high-profile shooters have ended up giving players a distinct in-game advantage, blurring the line between cosmetic and pay-to-win items.

The latest example of this problem comes from Call of Duty: Warzone. Last year, players who purchased the Season 5 premium battle pass and reached Tier 100 in the game could earn access to an all-black “Rook” skin for the character Roze.

As you can see in the images above, that skin covers the player from head to toe in skintight black fabric, even including black facepaint around the eyes. It’s a striking “black ops” look in isolation, but during a game, it can make a player nearly invisible when they’re hiding in the abundant dark corners in many maps.

Some players have called attention to the skin’s overwhelming popularity in the game, including a $250,000 Twitch Rivals tournament in January that featured teams full of black-clad Rozes (and featured its own separate cheating controversy). Others have been highlighting the skin’s low visibility in videos for months. Some have even taken to tagging the black-clad players with spray paint pre-match, ensuring that they’ll at least be highly visible until their first in-game death.

“The Roze skin is ruining Warzone,” popular streamer Jack “CouRage” Dunlop tweeted last month. “It should 100% be removed from the game. It’s impossible to see players in shadows.”

Learning from history

Last week, months after the skin was first introduced, Warzone developer Raven Software finally publicly addressed the complaints, promising that a vague “adjustment to Roze” will be “coming soon.” While many have been calling for the complete removal of the skin, some expect the developer will simply adjust it to make players more visible rather than completely taking away an in-game item players have paid for.

Raven could have likely avoided this entire problem if it had paid a bit more attention to recent Fortnite history, though. Back in 2019, that game’s toy-army-man-styled “Plastic Patroller” skin let players blend in seamlessly with certain green parts of the map, causing gameplay problems until Epic tweaked its appearance months later.

Fortnite‘s "Plastic Patroller" skin had to be tweaked to make players more visible in grass and other greenery.” src=”” width=”640″ height=”398″ srcset=” 2x”>
Enlarge / Fortnite‘s “Plastic Patroller” skin had to be tweaked to make players more visible in grass and other greenery.

More recently, in January, an all-black variation of the Season 4 “Superhero” skin let players easily hide in the shadows. While that problem could be mitigated with tweaked visual settings on PC, console players were stuck facing near-invisible opponents hiding in shadowy corners on the map until Epic modified the skin’s visibility options in a February update.

Other shooter developers have also struggled with balancing their games’ visual and lighting effects with the practicalities of opponent visibility. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive introduced a “Boost Player Contrast” settings option last June and edited some maps to “create local contrast so that characters stand out from the background.” Back in 2017, Ubisoft similarly updated the lighting model in Rainbow Six: Siege, in response to complaints about oversaturated areas creating limited contrast and visibility.

Finding the right balance between a strong visual style and an easy-to-read, playable game has always been a challenge for game makers. In the age of DLC microtransactions, though, one thing is becoming clear: when it comes to competitive online shooters, the difference between a cosmetic item and a piece of gameplay-ruining camouflage can be a very fine line if a developer isn’t careful.

Listing image by Reddit / caribou_drew