Okay Cerebus operatives, it's renegade dialogue time. Regarding Mass Effect 3, sit down and shut up until you know what you're talking about.
If you've been living under some facebook rock, at issue is Bioware's announcement that they will offer additional pay-to-play DLC content at launch that includes an additional playable character from an alien race... that fans believe makes this extra content essential to the plot. They extrapolate that this is a back door attempt to charge more for the complete game, despite Bioware's insistence that the DLC was developed after the original story was completed. It has been labeled by the internet, with no sense of irony, or, apparently, knowledge of stereotypes exploited by the Simpsons, the "worst ever".
Price point is an increasingly flexible element of gaming. $59.99 is actually an arbitrary number, based on a steady creep upward in price tolerance since the $10 to $15 days of 1987. As a point of reference, back then, a gallon of gas cost 95 cents.
Wars have been fought online about what $59.99 should get you in a triple A title. Price tolerance is possibly the nastiest bit of psy ops in gaming, with companies trying various things to create a healthy profit margin. Sadly, the pattern that has been emerging is that when gamers vote with their pocketbooks, they vote against their own best interests.
Two of the biggest franchises in gaming, Halo and Call of Duty, consistently skimp on campaign, relying on play value coming from a multiplayer experience. Campaigns are money gobblers in game development, because they require writing, level building, and character design, with enough evolution to keep a player interested. Multiplayer, by comparison, requires far less resources: once you've got a stable base, fans will play the same maps over and over, because repetition and map memorization are rewarded. The expense comes in the cost of maintaining servers that handle a ton of traffic early on. Hardware is expensive.
Activision realized that customer loyalty was creating a splintering of the consumer base in Call of Duty: devotees of a particular title were getting left behind when a new installment came out. They also recognized that playing with random people on the internet could get highly annoying. So they came up with the Elite network, which is a super slick way of unifying their product line. It was based on a logical principle that the hardcore fans that want more content will pay a fair price for that content, and the $49.99 yearly subscription fee is definitely fair in comparison to the $150 plus it costs to play WoW for a year.
Gamers, however, freaked, calling Elite a divisive cash-grab. No one had a problem getting screwed on a half-assed campaign title after title, but a fair price for fair service? How dare they! The problem was that it was new, it was logical, and Activision was asking gamers to think, then choose based on a set of fair options, instead of buying based on emotional responses to slick trailers and little hard data.
Elite's been successful, but... not successful enough. It's been plagued by problems related to precisely the issues I mentioned above: expensive hardware. There are seven million registered users on Elite. Only one and a half million are paying for it. It's the reverse of the US taxation model: 21% of the community is paying for freebies for the rest.
The developers of Elite have stated that they were faced with a "Sophie's Choice" with the service: do the right thing from a development standpoint, which meant feedback from the community, or do the right thing from a marketing standpoint, which meant make a huge initial splash that was an out-of-nowhere shot in the dark. They chose to do the honest thing and talk about the subscription option from the start. And it bit them in the ass on the internet.
Are you following this? Because it's not the only example. Let's look at a game that doesn't rank among the... pardon the contextual pun... elites.
Producer Nao Higo of Rocksmith recently took to twitter to combat the opinion by some in the gaming press that Rocksmith was a commercial failure. Rocksmith is a Rock Band-style game played with a real electric guitar, and is scrappy newbie on the thoroughly tarnished music gaming scene. The title was mocked early on for not recognizing that music gaming was 'dead'. Again, Rocksmith's development was based on logic: Guitar Hero sales might be flagging, but sales of actual guitars were steady at about three million units a year. To date, Rocksmith, which was made on a shoestring budget, has generated $40 million in sales, and the game hasn't even launched in Europe and Japan.
Rocksmith was so open and honest with the community that they took questions via Reddit. When I approached him for comment, Higo was completely frank about what he thought worked, what didn't, and what needed to be improved with Rocksmith. In a moment of delicious irony, I was knocked over by the lack of spin.
Despite this, Rocksmith has been declared a flop by a single service: Joystiq. Unfortunately, the video game media is run on a similar shoestring, and most folks working at services aren't trained journalists with an understanding of the industry. Yes, that sales dollars number works out to about a half million units moved. For a triple A title, that would be a problem, but Ubisoft has done well over the years with smaller games aimed at more targeted demographics. The company functions on the simple principle that money in has to be more than money out. The raw numbers aren't the important thing: the important thing is whether or not a title meets the projections a company has set out. This is the point that's getting missed in Rocksmith's comparisons to Rock Band, which had a big development team and massive marketing.
Rocksmith has also been hit by the video game media's shameless tendency to copy and paste stories without checking their accuracy first. Sure, the op-ed piece you're reading now wasn't the first one out of the gate, but there's a price to be paid for checking out information before I write about it. In less than a week, one story reproduced like tribbles, and that's bound to impact pre-orders in markets where the game is yet-to-be-released.
The moral of the story? Openness with the public doesn't save you from the scourge of repeated factual inaccuracies. Logic fails again.
But the failure of logic to govern buying patterns - something the US housing market found out the hard way - was the overwhelming success of the Left 4 Dead franchise. Parts 1 and 2 put together don't equal the average campaign. Valve cleverly called each level in L4D a campaign, even though it was, really, just a level with five chapters in it. As a point of comparison, Halo 3 contained 10 levels with multiple chapters per level. Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 combined contained only nine. However, both games were presented as complete titles at full Triple A price, and gamers gobbled them up, gorged on DLC, and shouted down anyone who complained that the short time between the original and the sequel undermined the principle that Valve built their rep on: robust, prolonged support for a mod community. The shorter campaign offering was supposed to be offset with community support, like Counterstrike. That model started to slip with Team Fortress 2, but it was obliterated in L4D. There's a simple reason for this: mod communities don't make money.
However, there was no mass outcry. Valve's reputation over the years, and PC gamers' heroin-addiction-like reliance on Steam, let the company coast on to bilk consumers for millions of unearned dollars, and gamers everywhere said thank you.
Hey, I don't begrudge Valve for making money. I also don't begrudge them for having a shrewd finger on the pulse of the industry, even if it's approaching a choke hold.
I used to be pretty pissed at Valve myself, and my hatred was spurred by that scorned-lover type feeling of betrayal that hardcores experience: yes, I stop in for booty calls with Portal, but I just can't build a committed relationship with a company who doesn't want the same things out of life that I do. When I buy a game, I want a minimum of 18 hours of play time BEFORE replay value kicks in. Those are my standards. It's not you, Valve. It's me.
But maybe I'm old fashioned. Why? Well, I'm watching possibly the biggest logic failure in recent gaming news unfold before my eyes. This one went all the way to Forbes online: the epic brouhaha surrounding Mass Effect 3.
The idea in the Forbes article, that gamers are ultimately responsible when they're duped into becoming victims of the money vampires, is something I can get behind: we're nerds, and everyone from the film industry, to comic books, to, yes, video game companies, knows how to manipulate us. We're habit-oriented, numbers obsessed, and we're not nearly as smart as we need to believe we are... which all means that we're easily led around by the nose. Sorry, welcome to my own personal voyage of self-discovery.
What I can't support is Forbes' implication that there is any trickery whatsoever in what EA/Bioware is doing.
My first issue with this assertion is that Bioware has never before given gamers any reason to believe they will not get well-beyond-standard value for their money with one of their single-player RPG titles. Mass Effect is a known commodity, and it's known for rich story, interesting characters, fully cinematic dialogue options, and lonnnnng campaigns. The first Mass Effect was about 20 - 30 hours for a complete play through. The second seems to average 40 - 50. I know that I personally spent longer, because I'm an uber-geek and loved scanning planets for resources.
My second issue is that Bioware has used this tactic before with the Dragon Age Origins Collectors Edition. Shale was a character yanked from the original "completed" game because she broke the game. Due to a delay, they had time to put Shale, and all her squishing-of-filthy-pigeons goodness back in as DLC, and there was much rejoicing, even though the version of the game that included her cost more. A standalone download of "The Stone Prisoner" cost $15, more than the ME3 $10 "From Ashes" DLC is going to cost.
This has all happened before, gamers. And in that case, Bioware admitted it, so there's no reason to believe they're lying now when they say that the alien-of-spoilery-doom was an afterthought. Great reporting, Forbes magazine: you missed that fact.
Fact!? Argh! Don't you dare get in the way of my gamer outrage! Logic. EWWWWW! It's gross! Next you're going to tell me that an extra ten bucks is nothing compared to previous gaming industry tactics of forcing the purchase of an entirely new console to finish a trilogy! (Kratos, I'm looking at you.)
This is a logical (Ewwwww!) question of value for money, and assessing the track record of the company in question. But as I've laid out, a lack of knowledge of genre history by the media, and the frequently bemoaned tendency for gamers to spaz out like exploding puss monsters, is causing us, as a community, to punish honesty and reward half-assed development backed by slick marketing.
This is a critical issue in this point of the evolution of games. Next-gen consoles and raised expectations mean that games are increasingly more expensive to make, and the risk to a development studio is huge... and hugely misunderstood. Right from the pitch, a game studio must make a strong case that the market will reward the risks they're taking, and if gamers want big experiences at a fair price, they have to show companies that those experiences make money.
But consumers have made it clear, in their buying patterns, that they would rather be forced to buy less game for the same price because of the psychology of it being the same price. Even the option of paying more has a huge negative impact, which causes the money guys to balk at anything that reeks of creative ambition. Studios will be forced to settle for less, because that's what the market will embrace... don't tell me we've forgotten the perfect 10 reviews that Halo 3 received from fans before the game was even out.
Right now the video game industry is unique in how open and honest it is with both its media and its consumers. Unfortunately, the most successful companies are the least forthcoming. If we want developers to keep listening to us, we need to start listening to them, and we need to start talking more, and screaming less. If we don't start appreciating this unique media relationship, studios are going to start slamming their doors, and the relationship between fans and the industry is going to become more like film and television, and those companies believe we're stupid, and only want crap.
Unfortunately, according to our buying patterns, they're right. Mass Effect 3's DLC isn't in the same galaxy as the sleaziest things the gaming industry has done to suck money out of our pockets. We just can't recognize an informed consumer choice, because we're all victims of downloadable Stockholm Syndrome.