Thursday 18 March 2010

Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today

Bioshock 2 received it’s first downloadable content recently, and some gamers were a bit miffed to discover that all they were actually downloading was a small file that unlocks content already on the game disc. I don’t really see how this is different, except in timing, to “launch day DLC” which seems to be becoming more common, such as in recent Bioware titles; in both cases obviously there’s content that *could* have been part of the game itself, but has been split out as DLC to make a bit more money or reduce the appeal of second hand sales (or both). That the “content” itself is already on the main game disc does rub it in slightly, but it’s hardly news that games companies are out to make money. While flipping through old computer magazines I’d found a feature in PC Zone from 1993 looking at game expansions, data disks, and “deluxe versions”, the DLC of their day, which ranged from being worthwhile and involving extensions to rushed-out cash-ins.

Without getting too mired in a socio-economic debate on the nature of capitalism and the benefits of running a games company as an anarcho-syndicalist commune with a rotating executive officer whose decisions are ratified at a special biweekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of downloadable content but by a two-thirds majority in the case of expansions and sequels, I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that there’s an inherent tension between the desire of a games developer to offer the most magnificent, involving and splendid experience possible to humanity, and the desire of a publisher/executive to roll around in a swimming pool filled with dollar bills and five pound notes rubbing them all over those Special Places. Any time I think it might be slightly harsh to characterise CEOs as moustache-twiddling villains who’d put Mr Burns to shame, you can pretty much rely on that zany funster Bobby Kotick to come out with a line like “of course I want to make a new game peripheral that sucks the marrow out of your very bones and pipes it to a massive central vat from where we can sell it to a dog food company, muahahahahaha! Ha! Ho!”

(The KiaSA Legal Team wish to make it perfectly clear that this is a purely hypothetical statement which Mr Kotick has definitely not made.)


(We’re pretty sure he’s thinking it, though.)

As blockbuster games become more and more complex, requiring larger teams, it’s inevitable that the companies making them also grow, necessitating the business structures around them. The indie scene at least provides something of a counterpoint, with options like XBLA and Flash games offering avenues for smaller teams down to the archetypal “bedroom coder”. For MMOGs, though, the inherent need for infrastructure makes life a bit more difficult; World of Goo was largely created in San Francisco coffee shops on free WiFi, and I’m not sure MMOG players would be appreciative of a server downtime message like “Shop owner a bit cross about us taking up a table all day, the game will be unavailable until we order another couple of lattes and some muffins.”

An obvious example of the tension of profit vs player experience in MMOGs is “free to play” games with cash shops; the publisher wants to make lots of lovely money by selling stuff from the cash shop, so they tell the developer to encourage players to buy items. Make the player travel vast distances, with faster mounts or teleportation options available for cash; make it take forever to gain levels, with XP-boost potions available for cash; make the freely available armour look like a couple of dustbin lids strapped together with the entrails of a boar, with the nice looking stuff available for cash. For this reason, some gamers are vehemently opposed to MMOGs with cash shops, and I can certainly see their point, but as I blogged about with the whole Allods business I don’t think it’s a reason to dismiss all free to play games out of hand. If market forces are working, the pressure to screw every last penny from the player should be counteracted by what players are willing to pay, it’s not like MMOGs are a fundamental requirement for day-to-day life after all, and competitors seeing an opportunity to offer a superior or cheaper product.

What I find slightly puzzling is that some people who are dead-set opposed to free-to-play/cash shop games embrace and indeed champion a game with an initial box purchase and flat rate monthly subscription, as if somehow the Evil Money Grabbing Publisher of a F2P game becomes a benevolent altruist striving for nothing more than the absolute happiness of every player if you give ’em ten quid a month. To keep the money coming in you need to keep the player subscribed, and as per Nick Yee’s classic Virtual Skinner Box essay it’s not too hard to see that in terms of Operant Conditioning rather than Happy Experience Lovely Games For Everyone. With Fun Bobby Kotick in charge, I’m sure he’d fire a few people at Blizzard and introduce a cash shop in WoW if he thought it would make more money, but with a 50% operating margin there’s really no need. They’re still in it for the money, though it might not be quite so obvious in the design.

The payment model can influence elements of a game to a greater or lesser extent, at the end of the day it’s the game itself that matters, whether you like it enough to want to play and potentially pay. Is Grindfest Online a better game when you pay £10 per month to play and have to kill 10,000 Gribblings to level up, or where you can play for free, need to kill 100,000 Gribblings to level up, but you can pay £1 for a potion for a 10x XP boost that lasts for three days? As per my previous post, in defence of cash shops I call Dungeons & Dragons Online Unlimited, m’lud. This might be something of a special case, not having been designed as a free to play game from the beginning, but I’m still finding it really well pitched, having desirable but not essential items available in the shop to balance making Turbine enough money to be worthwhile, but costing me less than the $15/month it would be for a subscription as I dip in and out, generally playing once a week. Mixed price models, especially when including a subscription to effectively apply an upper limit to costs, can be a good thing. Rage against greed and bad design by all means, but only a lunatic would dismiss cash shops out of hand and demand to pay a greater subscription as the only way of getting a better game.

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