Alchemy Gone Wrong

(or, “Ewww, you got your business model all over my games!”)

 

                I want you to come with me on a visual journey. We, together, are going to envision a chaotic laboratory where an old alchemist perfects his recipes. Now just close your eyes and try to picture it….

Okay, don’t close your eyes. Just imagine the old alchemist, his leathery and stained fingers rubbing the several days’ worth of stubble growth on his chin as he concocts several potent mixtures of differing importance. Each ingredient must be added in the right order and in the right amount. Upon the tables in his laboratory there are ingredients and chemicals strewn about in no methodical fashion; everything in the Alchemist’s life is chaos, except for what goes into the potions he creates. No potion is ever perfect, he knows, only more potent than the others. Perfection is not attainable, only better quality.

                In a way, dear readers, couldn’t the description of the Alchemist be applied to the way pretty much anything is created? If you put too much seasoning on something it can ruin what could have otherwise been a delicious meal, and if you tell her 200 times a day how pretty she is it’s going to go from sweet to annoying really fast. On the flipside, if you don’t season the food enough it can taste bland and if you don’t tell her how you feel she will eventually deem you emotionally unavailable before breaking up with you.

                Video games have balances, too. Everything from having too many complicated graphics options to having too many cutscenes can ruin the experience of the game itself. There are endless conflicts in each game about the implementation of different aspects and features, but today we are going to talk about one aspect of gaming in particular: The Business Model. Some of you may have never heard of this, while some of you might feel it is a good term to throw out there.

“Hey, I love the business model this game company has. It suits my needs while not totally draining my wallet!”

“Dead Space 3 comes out with HOW many purchasable DLC’s on day one of its launch? That is one crappy business model.”

                I first saw it in cell phone games, and it spread like wildfire. Gamers were given the option to play the game the way it was meant to be, or buy all the best gear/powerups/gold and finish the game in a fraction of the time it would have taken otherwise. Bloons Tower Defense 5 is a fantastic tower defense game, but I can’t tell you how many times I was tempted to buy a crapton of in-game currency with my real-life currency. You didn’t need it to play, and you could beat the entire thing without spending a penny outside of the cost for the game itself. It just took longer. Nowadays, a lot of games are close to impossible without spending a few dollars on what I call "helper content".

                Apply that same “business model” to an MMO. There’s an item store in-game that offers you to spend *real* money in exchange for in-game currency to buy all of the fancy items. You decline, because the game told you on the website, in the forums and during the tutorial that it was not required for you to spend *real* money in order to be functional and/or competitive in this MMO. Feeling pretty penny-wise, you set off on your first quest to earn XP and gold the “old-fashioned way”. You even recruit a couple of other low-level characters to join you in your quest, and can’t help but notice that a few are wearing gear that was not available to you during character creation. Upon inquiry, your cohorts tell you that the gear is fantastic for the low level, and there’s even one purchasable item that lets you teleport to your destination instead of running there.  The teammates you thought were going to follow you to hell and back all disappear in flashes of light. As you trudge slowly through the gameworld alone, your team chatbox is quite lively.

“Nice kill, bro!”

“Good thing we can teleport, walking would have taken forever!”

“I thought we had another teammate, is he AFK or something?”

                The scenario you have just read is happening right now. The person who experiences this now feels even more compelled to buy the “optional in-game items” that are by NO means required. Some of us play video games to satisfy the perfectionist within ourselves, and these bastards are making trophies and other stuff we can’t get or achieve without paying money!

“It’s only $1.99, dude, just get it and be better off.”

                Sure, NOW it’s only two bucks. In a few months, when the expansion comes out, there will be something else worth buying that’s two bucks more. And two more dollars a few months after that. Not to mention all the purely cosmetic character customization options that you can only get by buying them. By nickel and diming you to death, in a single year they can get WAY more than 60 dollars or a subscription fee…but no worries, fellow gamers, this product is entirely FREE to play.

                Remember Mario 64? That game was HUGE, and there was always so much to do! Imagine if you noticed a painting by the front door of the castle that you had never seen before, and upon trying to jump into it a toadstool(which, I’m sorry, to me still translates to frogcrap) informs you that if you connect to the internet and pay to download this new area you can enter the painting. A little note at the bottom informs you that it’s not required to beat the game, but you can get the Mario 64 version of the Tanooki suit if you beat the new area. What a load of crap, right? Who wouldn't want a Tanooki suit? That’s essentially what they do when they offer ELEVEN bits of DLC upon Dead Space 3’s release. And get this: One of the DLC’s is free. That’s right, EA is sooo nice to let you have one of those eleven for free, so you have to go to the DLC page and see the other ten. Grab all that DLC, and that’s $51 dollars that EA probably isn’t contractually obligated to share with distributors and retailers.

                Games like League of Legends have purchasable Riot Points that you would normally earn in-game by leveling up or it would be graciously gifted by the devs. What if the next Call of Duty game offered players the opportunity to buy XP? Why run those multiplayer servers for such a long time and not make a single dime outside of the initial game purchase? If you were to ask me, I would answer “because that is good business for the customer, and it will bring more customers. Also, BF3 isn’t doing it. “

A more shrewd, callous business man might think differently, and test the waters with something like that Elite Subscription they offered with MW3. Oh yes, kiddies, that wasn’t done out of the kindness of their hearts. Expect your favorite shooters to start getting some biz-model all up in it.

      RPG’s seem to be the hardest hit right now, with special items/classes/characters only available through DLC and in-game purchases. To make it fair the company has to(see:should) make the new item/class/character somewhat balanced with the rest of the game, but to that end I ask WHY it wasn’t part of the game to begin with? An RPG is one of those experiences that tries to allow for multiple playstyles and character builds, so game companies are offering a profitable replayability by providing extra classes, races or items through purchasable DLC or in-game purchases. Not only will the perfectionists feel compelled to buy it all up, but people who liked the game and know it will be a long time before a sequel will also want to stay in whatever experience the game provided for them. 

     I always challenge people to not only complain about something, but to suggest a solution for the problem alongside their concerns. In this case, I will provide my own suggestions:

 

Give us the game, the entire game and all of the content you have completed upon release. I'm paying $60 for a game, and dammit I want everything you got. I wouldn't buy a combo meal from McDonald's if they charged me extra for salt on the fries or ketchup on the burger. They will always give me a complete burger, with salted or seasoned fries, and a decent-size drink because they couldn't get away with anything else.

That being said, if some people want MORE food they can pay to make the combo a large. But it's more of the same, or more food in a quicker amount of time. If people want to buy in-game currency instead of earning it, let them. As long as I can earn the same things they can buy with that in-game currency without paying more, I am okay with that. Eventually I can have the exact same thing. I don't like the idea, but if there was going to be a business model that I had to choose it would be that one because it doesn't impede the miserly gamer from experiencing the same content.

Bethesda games come out with legitimate Content-based DLC's, which are legitimate expansions of the original game experience and developed after the original release. This, along with their user support of bug-fixing and game-balancing patches, makes for an excellent business model. They provide a complete game, and then they release optional expansions that are completely separate experiences. It is true that they add extra types of armor, weapons and enemies into the expansions, but all of that was truely developed AFTER the initial game release or a decision was made to hold it until the expansion to make it more marketable. It's not perfect, but it's not screwing over the gamer as much as the other games/companies are. Hell, STARCRAFT came out with an expansion offering new missions and units. No one complained about that, as a matter of fact I remember being pretty stoked to ply Brood Wars.

     Remember when extra costumes and/or special items had to be earned by completing some difficult challenge presented by the game? No longer, said Batman: Arkham City! To get the coolest costumes you must pay extra.

     Readers, beware: A lot of games are basically psychologically-based mindfuck moneygrabs that appeal to the completionist in all of us. Ever played a game that wasn't hard at all, but had a good animation style and always dangled the carrot of success in front of you? Not even relying on skill, you try and grind to get that in-game currency or whatever and eventually break down and pay for it. When all is said and done, you didn't gain anything and you didn't learn anything. You just cut down on the amount of time it would have taken to beat the game, which didn't even challenge you in the least bit and thus provided a unmemorable and worthless gaming experience. The only thing that kind of game represents is an unjustifiable conscious choice to waste both your time and money for no gain whatsoever. Do not play these games, unless you hate money.

Let's play devil's advocate, here, and tell a story:

     Steven Spielberg entered the Universal Studios lot wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase. The guard for the lot figured he was an executive for the studio and let him in without question. Inside the briefcase were a ton of movie ideas written down on lined paper, and a Snickers bar. This was Steve's first movie pitch ever, and he didn't even have an appointment. We know that Spielberg is now a rich and successful movie maker, but he started off not having a lot of money. He had great ideas, though, and so he had to convince people with money to provide funding for his movies. The only reason those people would do that is if they were convinced they could turn a profit, so a few of Steve's ideas got modified by the studio in order to further guarantee the investors that they weren't spending money without making any.

     Are video games any different? No. Big studios with lots of money try to only put out games that guarantee them the most amount of money. Remember the big studio-driven advertising feud between Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3? Most gamers didn't care, but the companies took a note from Goody's and BC headache powder rivalry and created a conflict that wasn't even there in order to get more exposure to the populace. Multiplayer gets put in games that don't need it because it might appeal to a larger fanbase and create more sales revenue. LOCAL MULTIPLAYER with just two friends sitting in a living room almost seems like a thing of the past sometimes, because by forcing online multiplayer you guarantee a sale to each player. When you have a group of four friends, it doesn't take long to figure out who is the best at a game. When you have a multiplayer playerbase of millions, if you take a few days off from the game you can quickly lose the ranking that you were so proud of. On the other hand, if you play for an hour longer every night you may be able to covet an even higher ranking.

    My point is that video game companies force the developers into adding certain features to a game to ensure higher sales, often times at the expense of the game's quality. The in-game purchases and heinous amounts of downloadable content are part of this money machine, and despite my complaints during this entire piece I am here to tell you that THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. If that's how they want to spend their money in hopes of making some, let them. It's THEIR money, just like if you want to spend money on WoW gold or whatever I have no beef with you. I offer this caveat, however: As gamers, we should be focusing on improving the products that come to us by not settling for this crap they are giving us. We should let game companies know that their tactics are not hidden from us; we typed "black sheep wall"* and now see the entire scope of what their strategy against us is! We should praise the releases of games like The Walking Dead and X-Com. We should be showing the companies what history should have already taught them: Quality will always win, not perfection. Kingdoms of Amalur wasn't perfect, but it was quality. Deus Ex wasn't perfect, but it was damn quality. Darksiders, which I am sad to say probably won't be seeing another sequel, was more than a clone of Devil May Cry; It was a quality game. Don't ruin Black Ops II or the Call of Duty franchise by trying to sneak little profit-gaining measures on your customers, just keep working on the reputation of quality that you have gained over the years and your loyal followers will remain while you grow your empire! Developers like Obsidian and BioWare shouldn't have all their creative capabilities undermined by the greedy little schemes of big game companies like EA. And as gamers, we should refuse to pay into what they believe will bring them profit at the expense of our damn quality games!

I feel like there should be a contextually appropriate version of Mel Gibson's BraveHeart speech here. Instead, not at all because I am lazy, I want you to imagine it IS here like you imagined the alchemist. You DID imagine the alchemist, right? RIGHT!?!?!?

 




*It's a Starcraft joke, if you got it then you get extra points. If you want more points, the only way to get them is to send money to my paypal account. The most points wins bragging rights. And...GO!

 

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