Sunday, November 26, 2017

Moneygrabbing business practices in modern videogames

A couple of decades ago the video game business was rather simple: A game developer offers a complete full-size video game on physical media, you buy one copy of that physical media, and that's it. You have the full game; you play it; you are happy. At most there could be some patches to fix bugs, which you could download and apply. (After technology became advanced enough, the game could automatically patch itself! No longer did you need to go to the developer's website and download an .exe file and run it manually to patch the game. Yeehaw!)

Then digital purchasing and distribution of games became viable. While purchasing games on a physical media is still alive and well to this day, it has become less and less relevant over the years due to the convenience of simply purchasing the game online and have it playable as soon as your rig can download it. What's better, the digital version is oftentimes cheaper than the physical copy (or, at the very least, downloadable versions are on significant sale a lot more often than the physical copies at physical stores.)

Of course online digital distribution of games made it much more feasible to add additional content to the game afterwards. Back when the internet was the privilege of the very few, and download speeds were abysmal and horrendously expensive, additional content for video games wasn't very feasible. Today, when the average household has download bandwidths that would have made even governments jealous in the early 90's, and costs nothing additional to download anything you want, additional content for video games is just limited by the imagination of the developers.

Some additional content was made freely available to owners of the game, like a kind of PR thing, to perhaps boost the sales of the game itself. Many such content was sold for a reasonable price. Often this DLC was, for example, additional playable content for the game, such as extra levels or missions. Perhaps even a full sequel story to the game. Sometimes it would be more cosmetic in nature.

Anyway, the basic timeline was: Game is published, some months/years later the developer makes additional content for the game, which users can purchase and download, if they wanted. This additional content was purely optional, and only added something extra to the game.

Some years ago this trend changed. Many people don't remember it anymore, but at one point some game companies caused a lot of controversy and criticism by engaging in a then-abhorrent practice: Day 1 DLC.

In other words, no longer was the game sold as a whole packet, and DLC only developed and distributed afterwards, as purely additional content for a successful game. Now the contents of the game was split into parts from the very moment of publication. Additional DLC content was made and sold from the very start. This, at the time, made absolutely no sense, seemed like nothing more than a money-grabbing scheme (especially if this was done for a full-priced triple-A game), and caused a lot of controversy and criticism. After all, it was deemed that the game was being sold incomplete, without all the content, often at full price, and to get all of the content, you would need to pay extra. It felt almost as if the developers were holding part of the content "ransom" for extra money.

Nowadays this has become normal, normalized, and not many even remember the controversy anymore. Unfortunately Day 1 DLC has become so normal that people don't even pay any attention to it anymore.

And of course from Day 1 DLC it's a very easy jump to the absolute pinnacle of anti-consumerism: Mictrotransactions.

Microtransactions originate from, and were invented for mobile games. When Apple made the touch-screen-display smartphone ubiquitous, and opened it for developers to create any apps and games, and all other smartphone brands followed suit, and coupled with ever-increasing speeds and screen resolutions cellphones became viable gaming platforms, a very curious phenomenon surfaced: While in all other gaming platforms games were priced between something like $10 to $60, on the iPhone, and later Android phones, a game had to be priced at about $2 or less, or else it was deemed way too expensive. In the first years many companies tried to sell full-priced, or "half-priced" (in the 20-30 dollar range) games, with little success. These attempts were quickly abandoned after a couple of years.

This phenomenon became only worse over the years, with companies trying to out-compete each other in how cheap their games were. Of course the logical extreme was to distribute the games for free. No charge. Just download and play. But of course companies still needed to make money somehow, so they, and Apple, developed the notion of "free to play" games with microtransactions, so called "freemium" games: Rather than buy the game and that's it, like you do in the "big" platforms, you instead get the game for free, but you can buy things within the game, using real money. For example, there may be some form of virtual currency used in the game (that can be used for various things in the game), and this virtual currency can be either earned very slowly by playing, or by buying it from the store using real money.

In the best case scenarios you could just play the game normally, ignoring the microtransactions. If you wanted things more easily, you could spend real money to purchase the in-game stuff, but you wouldn't have to. In the worst case scenarios, in the greediest of cases, the game is almost unplayable without spending money on microtransactions (there have been several very infamous cases of this.)

Everybody hates microtransactions and "freemium" games, yet they are absolutely ubiquitous in mobile platforms. So much so that it's essentially hopeless to try to actually sell a game for money there, no matter how little it might be. The traditional "fair" system of "purchase a full game once" just doesn't work. And this model is completely ubiquitous in mobile platforms because it works: Even if 99% of people hates the business model, it's enough for that 1% to get hooked into microtransactions for it to be highly profitable. (And I suspect that 1% figure I just invented is probably way, way too low. Probably a much higher percentage of users get hooked.) The problem is aggravated by the fact that almost nobody is ready to actually purchase full games for mobile platforms anymore, because they have been accustomed to everything being downloadable for free. (Yes, even that 99% that hates "freemium" games isn't actually ready to purchase games outright. Which makes it kind of hypocritical, but whatever.)

Anyway, after this really long-winged sidetrack, to the actual point I was trying to make: Unfortunately game companies are trying to introduce these same microtransactions into the "big" gaming platforms (ie. PC and desktop consoles). But usually not in the form of "freemium" games. In the worst case scenarios some completely full-priced games ($60+) will have microtransactions in them. Not just DLC, but actual microtransactions (as in eg, purchasing virtual in-game currency with real money). After all, if it works on mobile platforms, why wouldn't it work on the PC and consoles?

There are already some actual "freemium" games for the big gaming platforms. You can download and play them for free, and in some cases you don't even have to purchase anything in-game, but you have the option to, if you want. Some of these games aren't actually bad, and can actually be quite fair and non-obnoxious in their sales tactics. Of course some bad apples also exist.

But it gets really shady and obnoxious when a commercial game, especially if full-priced, uses microtransactions. You already paid full price for the game, and now you are expected to spend even more money on it?

Fortunately, so far, this is still a rarity, and absolutely hated by most gamers and critics. Let's hope it doesn't become more prevalent. And let's really, really hope it doesn't become as ubiquitous as with mobile platforms.

As long as people keep purchasing video games in the normal way, it probably won't happen. Let's hope that lasts.

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