August 1, 2008

One Thousand Little Cuts

It might be a while before anyone can put together a story about what sunk Flagship Studios. Too bad that piracy didn't sink them, otherwise the metaphor would be complete. Probably safe to say that Hellgate: London's pricing system engendered some hostility in potential players and contributed to the game's downfall. Hellgate took the microtransaction to nightmarish extremes: the establishment of a full-on caste system, allocating some significant perks to the upper class.

Western developers have a hard time presenting microtransactions as a thrilling addition to a stand-alone game. Microtransactions have the stigma of in-game advertising and the fiction-breaking dissonance of achievements, but none of the acceptance or ubiquity of the latter. I don't know how successful microtransactions need to be for developers to turn a profit, but the perception of the hardcore gamer is still against it. Microtransactions are usually introduced not with a flourish but a small whisper about how this gives the player "more options."

Why has this been so hard? Gamers get suspicious when extra fees are required of them, and more so when they see that the natural lifespan of the game in question is being artificially prolonged to sell some trivial cosmetic adjustments. There's also the fear, however, that developers will privatize features that we would consider either necessary to the experience or just good game design.

The only alternative is that the microtransaction means nothing. When we evaluate Hellgate or Battlefield Heroes, we see a good microtransaction model in that type of game as that of a store which sells things we could never want or never need. That gets the seal of approval.

We can react pretty strongly to the whole concept. There's a lot of talk about how developers can institute tough moral choices in games, but nothing stings as much as paying two dollars of actual money to stare at a gold-plated flak jacket and soak in the knowledge that you are never ever getting that money back. This is an irreversible action in a medium of virtual consequences. In buying a video game, we are paying for an experience, and each microtransaction is not an experience but an augmentation, one of dubious worth, and each augmentation is one more costly nick, one more superfluous tuck, and altogether are one thousand little cuts that bleed away the player's appetite for ephemeral luxuries.

Developers and publishers are betting that gamers will still want access to microtransactions even if they have no intention of buying them. The mere existence of microtransactions should work as an incentive to players. If they could only choose one version of the game, why wouldn't they choose the one that had the option? Even if they thought they were never going to use it?

These companies want to get the microtransaction to where DLC is today; where that dichotomy of choice is actually happening. DLC also acts as an alluring bonus feature even if the content in question is lame. That's Microsoft's approach with Grand Theft Auto IV's mythical downloadable episodes, and the recent announcement that Fallout 3's DLC would be exclusive to the Xbox 360 and PC. Microsoft hopes that the simple idea of expanded content is enough to entice multi-platform gamers away from the PS3. Gamers recognised this and freaked out at the news, not that it takes much to enrage Fallout fans (or Sony fans [or video game fans]).

Gamers might make that platform jump even though such additional content has historically been questionable. Once Bethesda got past horse armour in Oblivion, admittedly, the content-to-price ratio radically improved, but it was still all about getting a shiny new equipment. The experience never compared to the game proper because it was a microtransaction dressed up as a perfunctory quest. It's either that or an unnecessary addendum like Mass Effect's slight Bring Down the Sky, which let fans of that game desperately continue their experience, however diminished, by hitting the snooze button.

Are game revenues in such bad shape that these measures are necessary? Any gamer familiar with DLC or microtransactions knows enough not to care about them. The experience they offer is small or absent. What about the subject, then, so excites gamers? What keeps it in the public consciousness? It's just business. But for some reason, we care about that.


qrter said...

Little bit off-topic, but also defiantly on-old-topic - there's a Mirror's Edge 'preview comic' thing, written by the game's writer, Rhianna Pratchett - who actually is The Daughter Of.

You can see scans of the comic here:

Don't worry, it's as badly written as the Mirror's Edge trailer!

Duncan said...

They chose a comfortable life...

I chose the Mirror's Edge.


qrter said...

I especially enjoyed "500 feet in the air.. that's our office.. our playground..".

"Are game revenues in such bad shape that these measures are necessary? Any gamer familiar with DLC or microtransactions knows enough not to care about them. The experience they offer is small or absent. What about the subject, then, so excites gamers? What keeps it in the public consciousness?"

In regard to your last question - I'd say the publishers are what keep it in the public consciousness, they just won't shut up about DLC and those damn fiddly transactions!

I think these are generally heady times for consumers, money-for-gameswise. People see games growing ever shorter while the price stays the same, then something like Portal pops up which seems the perfect length and charging $20 seems okay (and if it doesn't, just get it as part of the Orange Box, then it suddenly seems like it's almost given away), then episodic content gets thrown at gamers, differing wildly in length and quality (just like 'real' games!), but then something like Episode 2 in the HL2 series seems okay at $15 again, because it's Half-Life you know!?? (although are episodes that come out every 18 months really episodic?), then Penny Arcade's episodic game comes out and seems overcharged at $15.. etc, etc, etc.

Throw in some microtransactions and most gamers don't know where they are.

You're right, we shouldn't care about them. But DLC also plays into that psychological thing of worrying you're "missing something".

These are torturous times for the poor gamer!

qrter said...

Forgot to mention this - I think they talked about microtransactions two weeks ago on the Games For Windows podcast, how some publisher mentioned they had 2% of the people who bought Some Game buying their DLC and how that was actually a really good, profitable outcome.

Which would explain why publishers keep going on about DLC.

(Sorry for the vagueness, I should really relisten to the podcast, I just can't be bothered at the moment.. ha.)

Savid Daunders said...

It's all about disposable income - despite all the complaining about how much games cost, people will still pay. Yes, I'm a bit annoyed that my 360 games cost $10 more than if I were to buy then for the PC, but that's the price I pay for convenience.

But going back to your microtransaction topic, I think your post title (ostensibly referring to Flagship's demise) is really the key here. Players are MORE than willing to take a few paper cuts here and there (i.e. pay a modest sum over and over) to get some extra stuff. "It's just a few extra dollars" they justify to themselves. Rinse, repeat, and before they know it they've spent a good deal than they would have otherwise.

As far as Flagship goes, well, Hellgate just wasn't all that great. It was hailed as Diablo's spiritual successor, yet it didn't have 1/2 the polish that Diablo had, it looked somewhat generic and generally bland, and yes, the pricing scheme turned people off. Overpromising + Underdelivering = Outta Business. Simple as that.