Monday, February 22, 2016

Low Endurance

Even though we’re less than two months into 2016, I’ve already noticed a troubling trend. The staying power of recently released games doesn’t justify their price tags. Now I know the ratio of dollars-to-hours-of-gameplay is a poor argument to make, but in my mind the real issue is a lack of content. Granted, the term “content” is a bit nebulous since padding out a video game with too many fetch quests, too much backtracking, and a lot of grind can be just as bad as not having enough for the player to do. So, in a sense I should clarify the term a bit. Perhaps if it is used to refer to interesting things for the player to experience, it might hold a more useful meaning. Unfortunately, there’s still a snag when it comes to defining “interesting” since that too is fairly subjective. I’ve heard people claim they got more enjoyment out of the three and a half hour long indie darling Firewatch than the one-hundred plus hours to be had in the Witcher 3. I get why some people might feel that way (or even the opposite), but my gut tells me that’s not all there is to it.

Media coverage is more important to the financial success of a video game now more than ever, and yet long games (particularly RPGs) rarely receive much attention. The fundamental reason for this stems from the importance of day-one reviews and media outlets not wanting to make the necessary time investment. In the amount of time it takes to cover Final Fantasy from beginning to end a media outlet reviewer could have finished and written up articles (or video scripts) for half-a-dozen other titles from the more popular action/adventure genre. Even more lucrative from a writing fodder perspective are Walking Simulators. Rarely more than a few hours in length, these fail-state-free games give wannabe journalist plenty of material to work with once they start typing up their thoughts. Youtubers often find themselves in a similar situation since those all important view counts tend to drop off the longer a series goes on for. Sometimes it’s because the novelty of the game wears off. Other times it’s simply because the channel host has been drained of their enthusiasm for the game. Either way, short and punchy draws the biggest audience…and that’s not necessarily bad. People who play games are, on the whole, getting older which tends to equate to ever larger commitments to work and family eating into their free time. In some ways it sucks, but that’s just a fact of life. The real problem, as I see it, goes back to what I was saying earlier about price.

Actually, the more I think about it the more the shadow of this problem existed well before this year. Titles like Destiny and Star Wars: Battlefront were essentially early access in that the respective developers of each game had extensive plans for post-launch support in the form of DLC and patch updates. The thing is early access usually means that the game is going to start cheap and stay the same price or grow incrementally more expensive as it approaches version 1.0, but these titles were being sold at high prices from the start. The same is also true for some smaller 2016 releases like Tharsis, Street Fighter V and Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, all of which were obviously still in need of major work, but nevertheless were sold like they were complete products. Other titles include Oxenfree which felt purposefully overpriced by producers who knew full well that there’s a segment of the gaming population that will pay any price for the hot new Steam release just to get in on the zeitgeist. On a side note where the heck is the second act of Firewatch? The story gap in the middle of that game is so big I’ve seen conspiracy theories floating around the net claiming that the developers plan on updating it later on...and don't even get me started on the missing last "episode" of GALAK-Z.

Anyway, this does seem to be the hot new business strategy in the video game industry. Hook in a bunch of early adopters with pre-order hype and incentives then placate their inevitable ire at the game being incomplete with promises of polish and content down the road. After that, entice the more wary with token sales (or discounts which apply only to the main game and not DLC). Lastly, offer up the entire product as one package when any further work on the game is no longer economically viable….although a particularly good seller might warrant an HD remake down the road. I have a feeling some would argue that these are just standard business practices while others would call it an outright scam. Here’s my two cents – buyer beware.

I’ll leave it at that.

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