It’s probably not nearly as benign as it sounds, but there have been a couple of stories that appear (on the surface) to be positive news. First, Microsoft is reportedly planning to bail on its Xbox Point system. This is good news for those of us that dislike the practice of converting real money into fake money into digital goods (see more here). It seems like they may still do the “wallet” thing, where you put money into a bin now to purchase things later, which has its own issues, but at least we will be able to see the actual, real price of things, rather than having to do on-the-fly currency conversions, which human brains are notoriously bad at. I mean, I’m still not likely to run out and buy a Windows Phone – or even necessarily go out of my way to upgrade to Windows 8 – but when I inevitably buy games on my shiny new Xbox’s digital download service, this should be a slightly-less-exploitative experience! Hooray.
The other bit of news is that EA is supposedly going to be ditching their Online Pass scheme. This is awesome. I’m still not going to rush out and buy a hundred EA titles – there are plenty of other totally legitimate reasons to avoid them – but it is at least one terrible business practice that they are rolling back. Along with their apparent need to TOTALLY CONFIRM, GUYS that you can play The Sims 4 offline, it’s possible that they are at least responding to protestations in ways that end up better for us, as consumers.
And with both Microsoft and Sony doing pre-emptive walkbacks of their always-online system requirements (or, at least, dumping future blame on developers/publishers), I feel like this is a good trend. I’m sure that there will be some other overbearing, stupid DRM and/or anti-consumer news to break us out of this loop, but we might as well enjoy this moment while it lasts. Yes, I’m claiming a (minor) victory – one that will surely come back to bite me in the ass – but we might as well take them where we can.
Actually, it’s not good news. RIFT is apparently going free-to-play this summer. I’m pretty sure that this sucks. I feel like I’ve talked about subscriptions and F2P a lot, in general, but I find it even more frustrating when a) it’s a game that designers have said many times is not going to go F2P, b) has been championed for its subscription -> rapid content updates service model, and c) that I still have 213 days worth of prepaid time for.
I think the last bit is the one that frustrates me the most. It’s not that I’m upset with having given Trion my money – the choice I made to purchase a year’s subscription along with Storm Legion is one that I’m still reasonably happy with (despite not having actively played RIFT very much in the last couple months) – it’s that the thing that I paid for is being swept out from under me. Given that the developers have said that they have been actively investigating F2P conversion for more than a year, it is clear that they made the pay-for-a-year option available knowing full well that some part of that year would probably fall under the F2P umbrella. I don’t know whether I still would have gone for it, or not, but it feels like the negotiation is made in bad faith when one side is holding out on pertinent information (sidenote: Apple does this same sort of thing a lot, by being extremely tight-lipped about product launch schedules. Informed consumers can make decent inferences from past behavior, but lots of people still end up buying a new computer in the week or two prior to product launches.).
Now, Trion is doing that thing where they convert all of the subscriptions into “Patron” accounts – giving them perks like trainer-summoning and extra storage space or whatever – but that is a very different type of service from what those of us who paid for subscriptions were committing to (i.e. access). Trion is also introducing things like purchasable raid gear which sounds like a truckload of landmines. Theoretically, it’s only going to be the not-top-most gear, and only things that are otherwise obtainable in game, but man does this seem like a good way to destroy any sort of reasonable progression structure. Who knows though, I’ve been in a position before where I really wanted a viable catch-up option (say, to join a more progressed guild).
I’m way more worried about the social implications. Will people still be interested in running tiers-behind raids at the end of an expansion, like I was doing, when there are more direct shortcut methods to gear? If I join up with a new guild that happens to be ahead of where my old guild was in progression, will I be expected to drop $40 on a complete set of cash shop gear? Or maybe just $5 here and there to fill in holes when the boss doesn’t drop my shoes for 6 months?
Two other things they are adding are pretty standard cash-shop fare: xp/token boosts and cosmetic items. I’d like to go on record here and now that XP boosts, in particular, are a complete fucking travesty of game design. To me, they indicate that you have failed to build a game that people actually want to play – if people are willing to give you money to not play your game (or to “have” to play it less), then you should probably reevaluate the game systems. And yes, I absolutely realize that for some portion of the population in any given MMO, the “max-level experience” is all that they are really after. In fact, I’ve played with that mindset at various times. But the thing is, if you want to provide end-game-only players an opportunity to ignore the part of the game they aren’t interested in (and think that this is actually a good idea, which I doubt), then why not let them ignore the part of the game they aren’t interested in? Why not just sell them a max-level character, complete with some standard of gear that lets them actually complete whatever tier of content they want? Why even force them to bother with the leveling experience at all?
And, as a more casual player, still working through the available questing content, why would I be happy about getting some XP boosts that make me miss out on cool quests and exploration time that much faster? If I don’t have a group waiting for me, then all I have to look forward to is tooling around town waiting for an instance queue – and I’m not especially keen to get to that place faster than intended. Same thing if I am leveling up with a friend. If one of us happens to get XP boosts, and the other doesn’t, then all it does is break our ability to play at the same level. Sure, I can “just not use them”, but then I’m actively throwing away part of what my money is paying for.
I just… really, really hate XP boosting items. If you want people to experience a leveling curve and area storylines and things like that, it seems important to understand approximately how quickly a character will move through a zone. Blizzard got this completely wrong when they introduced heirlooms and refer-a-friend bonuses, and they made it so very much worse when they redid all the leveling zones in Cataclysm. Even when doing my best to avoid rest experience, I couldn’t finish an area without quests going grey on me. And, again, I could just not care about that (and tried not to), but that doesn’t meant that it isn’t completely terrible tuning.
And quickly, on cosmetic items. I’m typically glad when there are more cosmetic items available. I love customizing characters and giving them personality. I even just like collecting bags full of weird robes or hats to show off for 5 minutes and then put away. MMOs typically offer a lot of opportunity to collect things – and, more importantly, show them off a bit. So sticking the vast majority of “cool” items behind a pay wall is sort of getting old. Hopefully, they’ll end up similar to the costume items in Defiance – where the models aren’t unique, but the colors are – but I think that will be hard with the (totally awesome) dying mechanics in RIFT.
Apparently, the answer is “no.” Everything these days has to be in “points” or “gems” or some other ecosystem-specific currency. And most of them are set up to have an awkward exchange rate. (The Psychology of Games has done several interesting articles on this, the most relevant is here.) Every time I have to buy in to one of these things, it just frustrates me more and more – especially now that I know that the science backs up my gut instinct distaste for them.
I happened across this, specifically, over the weekend, when I finally caved on buying the Borderlands 2 Season Pass (which is its own annoyance, upon which I will expand later), and figured, “Okay, these guys have made a couple of really fun games. They’ve also made a bunch of fun DLC, and I will give them the benefit of the doubt and pre-pay for whatever they have in the works.” So, fine, whatever. Here’s my $30. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. I’m playing BL2 on the Xbox, so there’s no direct way to send my money to Gearbox. I have to buy it using Microsoft Points – 2400, to be specific. Okay, that’s fine, I’ve made the decision to buy it, so let’s make this happen. Oh, what’s that? I only have 220 points in my account? Better add some! I know that I want to spend $30, so let’s add $30 worth of points to the account and then spend them.
OH RIGHT, you can’t. You can only buy them in certain pre-defined amounts (400/$5, 800/$10, 1600/$20, 4000/$50, 6000/$75). So now I have to go through two separate purchases to get the amount I want, adding to the annoyance overhead for an already-annoying purchase. There’s no discount for buying in bulk (and there probably shouldn’t be since it would make things even more confusing for consumers) and there’s no ability to just buy however many points you want. So now I still have 220 points in my Xbox balance (which translates to how much, again? Turns out it’s $2.75.) And there’s no good way to spend those points on things that I want, because most of the Xbox live games are $10/800 points, or DLC is some round multiplier of $5/400 points. I can’t just add in the extra $2.25 to the system, so now I’m either going to have to find random Rock Band tracks or buy some avatar toys that I don’t really care about. Or have wasted my money. And that sucks.
Okay, but that’s all old news…
What set this particular train of thought off, today, is an email I got from Sony about Planetside 2. I never played the first game, but I do have some friends who seem to have really enjoyed it. And, while my (very short) experience with it at PAX left me kind of confused, I’m certainly interested in some giant space marine shootouts, so I signed up for the beta/news a few weeks ago. This particular email’s subject was something along the lines of “Get Access to the PlanetSide 2 Beta Now!”, and so I thought maybe I’d been accepted (beta invites seem to be going around). And, well, it turns out that it was actually another one of the “give us cash now, you totally won’t regret it! … oh yeah, and beta access” schemes. This time, it was “Buy $40 worth of STATION CASH, and we’ll let you play this game!” The PlanetSide 2 website is unclear about whether the game costs any money or not (I had to dig around to find out that it is, in fact, F2P, although it was fairly obvious from that email), and in fact has the same offer prominently linked. Although, the wording on the page is, specifically, buy now, get beta access.
Look, I get that developers want to encourage people to give them money as early in the cycle as possible (although I’m not really sure this is in anyone’s best interest, since it just pushes the timing on the next round of “payyyyyyy meeeeeee” forward), but it seems fairly dishonest – or at least misleading – to ask people to “Buy” a game that is very specifically going to be Free. It also sucks that that money is then locked into the Sony Online ecosystem which may or may not have any other games that you’re interested in. I guess if you’re one of the remaining EQ2 players, you can get some in-game stuff if PlanetSide ends up not doing it for you? I’m not sure.
Also, at what point do we realize that we are no longer paying for beta access, but instead just paying for incomplete games with the promise that they’ll be “finished” later on? Isn’t the “beta for cash!” scheme the same exact thing as what has always happened on launch day? You give a company your money, get your game key, log in and see a mostly working product. The only difference is that the changes are happening faster, and you might have a character reset. Why not just call it an early release and get it over with?
Overall, it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I’ve been avoiding participating in them as much as possible.
And now for something completely different:
There’s a forum post here that is making the rounds today, about how Blizzard has been adding character-specific watermarks to screenshots since (at least) 2008 – around the time of the Activision merger. The watermark apparently includes encoded but not encrypted information about character name, account name, computer hardware, and IP address of the server. And obviously, this is not something that users are made aware of. I’ve been told that several other games (GW2, SWTOR, etc) have done this – at least during their alpha and beta stages.
Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not sure whether that forum post is credible or not. I’m not even really sure it matters. What matters to me is the fact that I can easily find it plausible, and I think that’s indicative of something larger. Aside from companies playing fast and loose with personally-identifiable information (again), this points to the overwhelming feeling coming out of gaming companies that the consumer is their #1 enemy.
If left to their own devices…
What will the kids get up to, when the parents are out of the house? That seems to be the driving motivation in a lot of decisions these days. Ubisoft’s stance on DRM has finally softened a little, but you can tell reading the articles that they aren’t happy about it. Afterall, it was less than a month ago that they were complaining about a 95% piracy rate on their games. EA has pioneered the “Online Pass” (locking used – and even late – purchasers of their game out of multiplayer features unless they pay $10 per game directly to EA), as well as the “haha you can’t join a class-action suit against us” EULA language that seems to be popping up everywhere these days.
A large part of the push towards F2P games (MMO conversions and what felt like 1/2 – 2/3 of the games at PAX this year) seems to be aimed at getting literally every dollar possible from consumers because, “Hey, we’re only asking for a dollar or two!” Too bad they’re asking every five minutes – or worse yet, constantly with the glowing store button prominently displayed and unhidable on the interface. More and more DLC seems to be almost punitive in its application – Day 1 paid DLC (or handily included with the purchase of a new copy!) is some of the worst, but so are DLCs that you must have in order to play on servers (Gears of War 3 has this, now, I believe).
We, as consumers don’t seem to be trusted to purchase a game on its merits anymore, and I find that to be a really hard pill to swallow. We’re constantly asked to pre-pay for beta access – especially prevalent in the MMO world – or we’re teased with access to “some more fun stuff” behind a paywall of one sort or another. And if we do find a game that just lets us buy it and play it, then there is some usually some other bullshit to overcome. Whether that’s installing a third-party downloader/launcher tool, having to constantly have an internet connection to play a game, not having LAN support, not being able to play with my friends that picked the wrong system to buy it on, or whatever the hell other hoops are designed to make sure that, yes, I fucking paid for this game. And the absolute worst part? If I wanted to, I’d still be able to have an unlocked, playable copy of most of these games in about 30 minutes – just by doing a little bit of web searching and dodging some sketchy internet shit.
What happened to the demo?
I ask again, what happened to the concept of a demo? Xbox Live Arcade still has this – in fact, I think it’s a mandatory part of being able to show up there. It’s great! I can download a game, mess around with it for half an hour or whatever, and then there’s a handy little button that says, “Did you like this? Why don’t you give the developers some money and play some more?!” And, as often as not, I do.
I’m not afraid of giving developers money. In fact, I love it. I happily support indie devs, things like the Humble Bundle, I buy more iOS games than I should, the Steam sales are the bane of my wallet, and I also buy AAA titles on release day (I’m looking at you, Borderlands 2). My gaming budget is fairly large, and I’m happy to give money to people. I just want to give money to games that I actually like. Or people that have ideas that I support.
And that’s the thing about demos. You can play a game for a little bit and say, “Hey, this is cool and innovative!” and then throw $10 or $20 at a game. Or in some cases, like Dragon Age 2, you can play the demo and say “Hey, this game plays differently from the first one. Do I like that?” The answer for me was “yes” – although, much to the chagrin of my wife, I have still not yet finished the playthrough, it’s not because of the combat system. There are a few games that I’ve turned down after playing the demo, too. But that’s okay. If a game isn’t working for me, why should I be locked in to having paid $60 to find that out?
I recognize that people work really, really hard on games. And as much as I love to play them, that’s a big part of why I’ve avoided trying to crack into that industry. I want to reward those people that work on producing the things that I love. I just want the relationship to be a two-way street. And often times, I feel like the game-makers (or producers or publishers) care more about my credit card details and personal information than they do about me.