Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gamers: Senseless consumers.

A few years ago, game development/publishing companies finally realised just how gullible gamers are as consumers. Since then, they have been having a field day and are steadily ratcheting up the exploitation of their consumer base. Like politicians who keep getting away with outrageous offences, they tentatively try even more egregious breaches of taste or trust to see if they can away with that too.
The exploitation du jour is DLC or downloadable content. This may have started out as a means of continuing to support a game with new content without going so far as to release a fully fledged expansion or sequel. The cynic in me doubts this noble intent and I suspect the trajectory of this tool was established at the outset.  Like all new means of exploiting consumers, it is tested out with a reasonable seeming introduction only to graduate to less and less fair-minded forms over time. In some cases, game companies do use this mechanism to simply improve their product without expecting to be paid. Such examples are rare enough and are likely to get rarer. Very quickly, game developers realised that they could simple take a game they were developing, chop out a block or two of the content and then just offer this content as DLC. Why have a customer pay for a product once when they are foolish enough to pay for it many times. I should stress here that the idea of DLC is conceptually sound. It could be used as a valid mechanism for releasing additional content, even for a price. The system breaks down because gamers are the worst kind of consumers. Even if they are aware they are being ripped off, they will buy the product anyway. Fanboyism and a strange kind of ADHD are all too common in the gaming community.  Even when companies are cynical enough to release DLC on the same day as the primary product, gamers don’t seem to notice. There is even such a thing now as on-disc DLC. This content that is release on day one that comes on the disc you just bought that you have to pay to unlock. It would be akin to buying an album but some of the songs can’t be played without logging into some website and paying for them...again.  Games that used to run into the tens or even hundreds of hours of game play are now routinely released with just a tiny fraction of that.  Games used to come with masses of content, a key selling point, where now they are released with a barebones core but plenty of room for DLC! The only real power that consumers have is voting with their purchases. Gamers seem not to be able to not buy bad products. It seems sometimes that terrible games are like methadone to gamers who really wanted a fix of what the game could have been but will settle for a poor second rate attempt just to take the edge off.  It is only fair to note that some increases in the cost of games is to expected these days as the price of game production has been steadily increasing.

The people who suffer the most for this inability in the gaming community to punish those games companies that most abuse their customers is, of course, the gamers themselves. The games they play are becoming more and more restrictive in their content. They cost more while delivering less and are now routinely sold in a nearly non-functional state.  To a non gamer, the condition in which games have been released for sale would be beyond belief. Show-stopping bugs still present when games go on sale while the software company responsible works on “patches” (actually just finishes making the product) to fix the problems. The first time a company release a game in so disgraceful a condition should be last time that company releases anything. As crazy as it may seem, release day patches are fast become common. Imagine if other industries operated this way. You buy your new i-phone only to discover that the screen doesn’t function. No problem, apple will release a patch in a week or two that will take care of that problem. Your phone calls random numbers instead of the one you entered? Just give it a week or two and apple will fix that right up for you. Your brand new car cut out when you turn left? Watch this space for a patch soon!
Gamers don’t seem to understand that, to a fair extent, the consumers of a product set the rules. Consider the “Eve Online” game offered by CCP games. This is a game where you pilot space craft around a large universe of star systems. Your character advances in the game by selecting skills that your character will learn. These skills take a certain amount of time to learn and without them your use of ships, weapons, space craft components etc is restricted.  It can take years (real years) to learn more advanced skills. CCP employed a wonderfully underhanded tactic to get games to buy multiple copies (accounts) of the game. Players having three or more copies of the exact same game is not uncommon on Eve. They managed this by including a very simple restriction. Skills can be learned while you are offline (a necessity if players are to ever advance much at all). While you can have multiple characters, only one of them can be training at any given time. If you want try playing as a different character (something ubiquitous in online RPGs) you must essentially put your primary one on hold. This is not a problem when you character can advanced to the maxim level (or equivalent) in a few weeks or so but becomes a real problem when character investment is measured in years.
I won’t even get started on the daylight robbery that is “microtransactions”.  Sufficed to say that while they initially seemed harmless, they are now a mechanism by which each and every element of content can be individually charges for. Where once games where praised or condemned on their content, which all came for the initial price of the game, they now give you just enough to get started and expect you to pay for every piece of content thereafter.  Some gamers with more money than sense can spend hundreds of dollar on a single game.  Where will it end? Who knows. Perhaps the game producers will go one bridge too far and gamers will finally start demanding better but I won’t hold my breath.

The above is just the tip of the iceberg.

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