Play It Forward

Earlier this year, I bought up my distaste with just how ubiquitous the $60 price point has become among physical video game releases in recent years. Seems like the worm is beginning to turn on that front: this past month, Nintendo released Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker at a $40 price point and plans to release the upcoming Kirby and the Rainbow Curse at a similar price point in Japan (which seems to imply that other regions will see similar pricing). Not exactly an overwhelming victory by any means, but it definitely makes me feel confident that this may lead to a sort of revival of the A and AA markets in the form of cheap games that still manage to be worthy of physical releases.

Of course, the more I think about it, simply reviving mid-range development wouldn’t solve all of my problems with modern game development. Bringing back tried and true methods for smaller companies to survive is one thing, but we must also look into new techniques for allowing developers of all sizes to better adapt to today’s gaming marketplace. Like it or not, video games are a business and in order to stay alive, games have to be profitable. However, it’s incredibly cynical to simply consider new forms of monetization as a soulless cash grab. As surprisingly out of character as this may sound coming from someone as pessimistic as me, I like to think of the potential to fix some of the problems I’ve always had with gaming in general.

For one thing, I feel that a lot of games, especially today, have a serious lack of long-term support. Yeah, DLC helps, but that’s got a horrible reputation as it is, especially with regards to $60 games. Making the base games cheaper doesn’t necessarily mitigate this bad reputation. On the other hand, you’ve got cases like Valve’s Team Fortress 2, a strictly multiplayer game, which actually makes more money as a free-to-play game than it ever did when they charged for the base game. By extension, TF2 sees so much support from Valve, it’s practically a whole new game compared to when it was originally released.

There have also been cases where games have small, niche audiences. Games that, under current methods, typically don’t do so well due to their limited fanbases. Of course, considering how passionate fans of cult classic games tend to be, there’s a total waste of potential there. Just look at most indie games financed by crowdfunding services like Kickstarter and Indiegogo: most of them offer tiers that simply amount to a preorder (or lower), but they also try to milk any interested parties for all they’re worth, throwing in countless bonuses like T-shirts, artbooks, soundtrack CDs, even physical copies. Hell, I’m a perfect example of that, there have been many times where I myself have paid in extra on a crowdfunding service, not just to get my hands on any bonuses offer, but to show my support for the product itself. Another thing about crowdfunded games that interest me would have to be the concept of stretch goals: the ability to expand the game’s scope, based not on just how many people fund it, but based on just how much those people are willing to invest into it. Imagine the impact that sort of thing could have on series like Darkstalkers or Zone of the Enders with small, but dedicated fanbases.

As such, despite what many gamers have constantly said ever since the beginning of last gen, traditional “lump sum for ‘complete’ product” pricing doesn’t always appear to be what’s best for every single game out there. Of course, at the risk of sounding like a complete jackass, I can understand why they feel that way. Gamers have been burned before. Hell, I’ve been burned before. We’ve seen companies literally nickle-and-dime a $60 release into a game that could easily balloon to twice or even three times its original price tag with content seemingly cut out of what would’ve been included in the base game just one generation prior. However, just like I don’t think DLC is inherently evil, I also feel that straying from the traditional single-pay model could lead to a better ecosystem for certain games.

Let’s take a look at some examples of alternative forms of monetization. First, I’ll start with one of the most controversial words in video games today: microtransactions. Feel free to send in your hatemail on this one. I mean, sure, when you hear the word “microtransactions”, you think of mobile games slowly bleeding their customers dry or failed experiments in the console space (Dead Space 3, anyone?). Attempts at exploitation like that have definitely left a bad taste in the mouths of hardcore gamers, but I’m not sure that it should put us off the idea entirely.

Case in point: Microsoft’s recent take on Killer Instinct. The base game was a free download, which offered only one playable character (which changes on a regular basis). You could buy individual characters for $5 each (which is about average for DLC characters in fighting games) or pay $20 for a “season” set of 8 characters. There were extras as well, a $40 package gave you the $20 package, all of the costume customization gear and one of the earlier KI games, emulated perfectly from the original arcade version. There was also a $60 “physical” package, which gives you the entire $40 package and some collector’s pins, but the less said about that, the better. Better still, around the time the second season was up for preorder, Microsoft offered a $20 physical copy, which matched the digital package in terms of content, but also added the first of the season 2 characters. Paying for characters, either individually or in packages, is pretty much the definition of microtransactions, and yet the most controversial thing about Killer Instinct 2013 is the fact that it’s an Xbox One exclusive.

So, with this particular example in mind, let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of relying on microtransactions for particular titles, specifically competitive multiplayer games. For one thing, long-term support is pretty much guaranteed as long as the game remains sufficiently popular to warrant more content. There’s also the fact that costs for future content can’t really be folded into the game’s base budget, another recurring trend in the industry that pisses off a lot of gamers.  Finally, there’s what might end up being the most attractive advantage: allowing customers to, more or less, set their own prices when it comes to how much they want to pay for content. So basically, depending on what you want out of a game, you can pay as much or as little as you want. For example, recently I was talking with KI about the potential of the recently-announced Street Fighter V utilizing Killer Instinct 3’s price model and he said that paying just $5 to play as Ryu permanently appealed to him, as that’s the only character he actually uses in Street Fighter games. I, on the other hand, tend to like playing as multiple characters and buying all the alternate costumes in the Street Fighter 4 games, and affording that kind of a package to me for $40 sounds appealing to me. In other words, if it’s properly utilized, microtransactions can attract a wider audience by allowing them to set their own price for whatever content they feel is worth the money.

That’s not to say that there aren’t disadvantages with this system. After all, as I said, the entire concept of microtransactions in general has been tainted due to misuse of the concept. So saying that any game makes use of that system immediately sends up red flags when it comes to a majority of core and hardcore gamers (myself included). The damage has been done and that’s probably why more successful games that utilize similar systems don’t refer to their pricing models by that name. There’s also incredible potential for abuse: if you limit certain options behind paywalls, there is a chance that certain more expensive items can be more powerful than others which leads to what is commonly referred to as “pay-to-win”. I’ve also heard the argument that if a game is constantly getting new content, it can never be considered truly “complete”, another point of contention with core gamers. One last disadvantage stems from late adopters: they may have to spend large amounts of money in one lump sum in order to catch-up with those who purchased the game early in its lifespan. On the other hand, if the game’s developer and publisher were to release discounted package deals for earlier content, this could easily be mitigated, though at the chagrin of said early adopters.

Splitting a game into multiple “episodes” is another alternate form of game monetization that has seen moderate success, specifically with single-player titles. The idea behind this one is that the main campaign is split into multiple parts and released and developed on a standardized schedule (though this may not always come to pass). The idea is that this allows developers to release a full-scale game without a strict deadline for delivering the full game’s content. Publishers get paid smaller amounts multiple times, while consumers can elect to buy each individual part of the game or try the first and purchase the rest based on whether they liked the first episode or not.

A good example of how to handle episodic titles is the majority of Telltale Games’ body of work. They typically work in the point-and-click adventure genre and have embraced episodic games to an amazing degree. Usually, a typical TTG title is split into five episode “seasons”, though this isn’t always the case. Of course, it isn’t exactly a perfect system: you can only buy games episodically on consoles. On PC, all you can do is pre-order the entire season, which seems like a load of crap, especially if you don’t end up liking the first episode. On the other hand, buying the entire package on consoles is a bit of a hassle, because they only list the individual episodes.

Most of the advantages with episodic titles fall on the side of the developers. Most importantly, with proper scheduling, this allows them more time on development, leading to an overall superior product. Even more important is the fact that it allows for scalability of the game’s scope. So if the game ends up being more popular (and profitable) than originally expected, they can increase its length without any major hiccups. Conversely, if the game ends up being a bomb, the game can be significantly scaled back, saving money and resources for another, potentially more successful title. In cases where individual episodes can be bought, it allows customers to try out the game without committing to paying full price, thus allowing sort of a “paid demo” scenario.

Coincidentally, the disadvantages of this pay model seem to fall more on the consumer side of things. For one thing, a successful title isn’t guaranteed a satisfying conclusion. Remember Half-Life 2?  Dropping a game before it’s even complete is far worse than any canceled sequel in terms of cliffhangers. There’s also the fact that despite the potential of getting some content early, some gamers may be impatient about receiving the final product and possibly even lose interest. One last problem is the potential for a lack of continuity between episodes as development marches on. It’s not exactly impossible that gameplay could possibly be refined during a game’s development cycle, leading its first and final episodes to feel like two entirely different games. This would probably be less jarring for people who played the game as it developed, but for those who pick it up as a complete package sometime after its completion, earlier installments lacking specific features that came into play later in development could make the entire package look sloppy.

A final option is one that, to be honest, I’m not really familiar with: games as a service. I generally tend to think of these as subscription models. Basically, pay to play. Not exactly a perfect system, mind you, but it does seem to allow for long-term support as long as the game’s subscriber base remains profitable (how long has World of Warcraft been at it?). On the other hand, once support ends, the game itself becomes essentially worthless. Not just in the sense that it won’t receive any new updates, but rather, most times the game itself ceases to exist. With regards to subscription model games, an off-line only version would almost certainly be useless and technically, since customers only pay for previous months of gameplay, there wouldn’t be any sort of refund. While it’s probably the best idea when it comes to extending support for games, the end result is typically nothing more than an empty shell.

Now, please realize that this was all more a thought experiment than an active cry for reducing the amount of “complete” single releases. Frankly, I love getting the entire game the first time around myself. That’s why I usually wait for “Game of the Year” editions when it comes to things like that. There are some cases, however, where I’d be completely fine with alternative pay methods if they would further develop games that would benefit from it. After all, who doesn’t want a game they already love to be bigger (and hopefully better)? Last month, Mario Kart 8 recently saw the release of the first of its 2 announced DLC packages, which on its own effectively increases the game’s size by 25%. By the time the second batch comes out in May, the game will be one and a half times its original size and it just cost me an extra $12. I don’t know about everyone reading this, but personally? I think that’s something to keep in mind with future games, especially those relying on multiplayer elements.

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