Friday, February 8, 2013

Macro Transactions

I remember going to the Disney Land amusement park in California about two decades ago and thinking it was strange that the video arcade near Space Mountain required everyone to pump quarters into the machines to play.  Didn't everyone in this arcade already pay a lot of money to get into Disney Land?  Therefore the games should be free, right?  Wishful thinking from a naive boy, I suppose.  Disney, at least during Eisner's reign, was driven by maximizing profits above all else.  It nearly ruined the company, which leaves me convinced that obsessing over short term profits has a destructively high cost down the road.

What am I getting at here?  Well, looking at the direction micro-transactions are going, I can't say the situation between companies like EA now, and Disney then, are all that different.  As Jim Sterling put it, "pay-to-play has become pay-to-pay."  It's a system driven by unrestrained greed.  Now, I know there's someone out there that's going to drag up the old argument  "So what?  EA is a business and businesses got to make money."  Well...sure, but such an excuse could be used to rationalize pretty much any abusive practice.  "Got to dump these toxic chemicals directly in the river 'cause it's too expensive to dispose of  them properly," or  "Minimum wage is too high so it's time to exploit child labor markets in third world countries."  Plus, I have to ask what steps do these companies take to keep their accounts in the black?  FYI, executives giving themselves multi-million dollar bonuses at the end of every year isn't the best way to ensure a financial healthy corporation.

All this is trivial though compared to the real harm that's being done to the game industry.  The true crime on display here is the degradation of the craft.  Yes, developers need to turn a profit otherwise they can't eat.  No, that doesn't mean that they should custom tailor their game to adhere to some "successful" business model.  I put success in quotes because it's a fallacy to assume that if something works once, it's guaranteed to work again (I'm looking at you World of Warcraft copycats).  Consumers aren't dumb.  Okay...some of them are, but generalizing everyone who plays video games like that is simply stereotyping and egregiously wrong.  Sooner or later all but the most clueless learn to spot PR bullshit, over hyped trailers, broken DRM schemes and paid DLC that consists of stuff once called cheat codes or new-game-plus (you trophies, except they're actually useful).  Its gotten so bad I'm not sure a new generation of hardware is going to turn around general feelings of disillusionment.  

That said, I don't think there will be a crash like in 1983-1984.  Rather we're more likely to see a much slower grinding down of the industry.  38 Studios, THQ and Junction Point are just some of the most recent casualties.  I also suspect that if current trends continue in a few years indie games (not so bad) and Skylanders (not so good) will be all that's left.   How did it come to this?  Well, the only thing I can say is maybe that kid in Disney Land wasn't so naive after all.

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