Sunday, March 1, 2015

Money, Money, and More Money

This particular blog entry might sound a bit like a lesson in economics, but bear with me.  I want to explain what, in the game industry, separates the artisans and craftsmen from the con artist and snake oil salesman.  To start with lets break down the sources of video game revenue into three basic categories; content, perks, and resources.

The first is the least offensive of the bunch from a consumer perspective.  Simply put you pay for the thing and then you get the thing.  More purchases might be possible later on because new content has been added in the form of DLC, expansion packs, or direct sequels.  Generally speaking though people don't have a problem with this arrangement so long as the additional content doesn't give the impression that the game is being chopped up and sold piecemeal (day-one DLC or pre-order bonus exclusives are prime examples of the abhorrent side of this practice).  Compare that to indie games like FTL: Advanced Edition or Teleglitch: Die More Edition, which have major updates free of charge despite not being in early access, and it's easy to see why some people might get upset at big publishers.

The second category, perks, is much more of a mixed bag.  Purely cosmetic stuff is fine, but video game developers have an annoying habit of locking powerful/useful items and abilities behind a pay wall.  In a single player experience this isn't necessarily a problem (although it can be...more on that in a second), but in the case of multiplayer this tends to turn into a pay-to-win situation.  More frustrating still is the fact that freebie games like Card Hunter deliberately have difficulty spikes or large amounts of grinding which, in essence, ruins gameplay for the sake of a perceived short term boost in digital sales revenue.  Ironically, purchasing in-game perks can sometimes go in the opposite extreme, make the game uninteresting because it becomes too easy due to an overpowered player.

The third category is by far the worst offender.  At least with the aforementioned content and perks categories there are theoretical limits to how much one can spend.  However, resource driven models of revenue tend to encourage repurchasing the same in-game "currency" for real world money over and over again.  It's a system designed to prey on "whales," a euphemism for fools and the rich.  No matter how one slices it the practice is disgusting (both metaphorically and literally).  Problems with perks and resources have become so endemic in mobile games that the Apple has begun to segregate pay-once-to-play games into a special section of their online app store for customers who have grown sick and tired of micro-transactions.  For me it's a welcoming trend that needs to be more wide spread.

While I'm on the topic, there really should be a condition of service imposed by Kickstarter that forbids developers from using backer money to make micro-transaction spin-offs to what was originally pitched as content based game.  We've seen this bait-and-switch once with the Banner Saga: Factions, and again with the tablet version of Godus.  In both cases the only thing these side projects did was sap time and money away from the development of the main game.  Neither attempt was particularly profitable from a business standpoint either.  It's an unfortunate regression in the game industry that Stoic Studios managed to overcome by delivering on their promised product.  Sadly, it remains to be seen if 22Cans will weather the storm of their own making.

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