Why Do I Keep Buying Games I Should Be Taking A Stand Against?

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I find myself having the same conversation over and over again. It’s usually a lengthy debate that spins its tires on the same worn treads, but it basically goes like this:

Friend: You bought that game?

Me: Yeah.

Friend: Why would you give them your money after they (insert random shitty business tactic here)?

Me: Because I wanted to have fun playing a game I thought I’d enjoy?

Friend: That’s fine, but you should also forfeit any and all complaining about (insert random shitty business tactic here).

Me: I can’t play a game and still have a critical opinion about its negative aspects? Is it really that black and white?

Any time this comes up, I can’t help but give a defeatist sigh.

It’s worth talking about though, because I feel it represents a lot of the dominant conversations about ‘speaking with your wallet’ online. I mean, hell, I’ve got a website dedicated to sharing the seedy underbelly of AAA game development. That means I stand atop Mount Sinai, telling the masses that these companies – Bungie, Activision, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Sony, etc. – are taking advantage of them, and that they should use the knowledge I impart to make educated decisions the next time they want to buy a game. And yet, I’ve bought games like Shadow of War, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Destiny, No Man’s Sky, and so many others.

Doesn’t that make me a hypocrite? Aren’t I sending the wrong message to these studios? The answers are obvious, so let’s ask a more open question: Why?
I love video games to pieces. I was born in 1982, so I was in on the ground floor. The Atari and its games were easily findable at yard sales, and I got to experience the glory of the Nintendo Entertainment System shortly after it had launched. As a young child, it was easy to build a massive library of games. A large chunk of my collection was acquired through yard sales. The handful of games I couldn’t afford otherwise, I was able to rent through Blockbuster Video. So, I grew up with the ability to play pretty much anything I wanted… which was pretty much everything.

This hobby turned into a passion. When I wasn’t playing games, I was talking about them, reading about them (oh hai, Gamepro!), or watching TV shows inspired by them. Over the years, I’ve developed a great wealth of knowledge, even about the stuff I didn’t own or didn’t particularly care for. Once the internet came to be, I finally had an outlet where I could discuss games and the industry they hail from with likeminded people.

Point 1 – The Community

Growing up, I was clearly spoiled. But more importantly, gaming, for me, has evolved into more than just sitting down and playing the games.

I like to be part of the conversation.

Game launches are a special time. It’s when months, if not years of analytical hype – for better or for worse – comes crashing down. In this respect, it doesn’t really matter how good or bad a game is, because people are going to break it all down with their praise, criticisms, and everything in between. It’s during this release window fervor that the gaming community feels most alive, and I genuinely love being a part of it.

Of course, upon entering these discussions, I realize the pools I’m wading through are far from pure. For example, certain fans have a tendency to praise most anything their beloved studio churns out, or people bash games they’ve never played because the hate train’s pulled into the station. It’s hard to stay away from these reactionary responses, but I also appreciate these opportunities to educate people.

Point 2 – Challenging Widely Accepted Perception

While I use reviews as a rough indicator, I never take them at face value. So, if a game receives universal praise or is shunned entirely, I’m compelled to check it out for myself. We all know that hype and hate trains exist, right? If I had listened to everyone back in 2014, I would have believed Shadow of Mordor was an amazing game… but it wasn’t (not bad, but average). Not for me. On the flip side of the coin, everyone berated The Order: 1886 for being short and too cinematic for its own good, and while it was flawed, it didn’t deserve the hatred that had been dredged from the bowels of the internet (at least, not in my opinion). So yes, I’m always curious to get hands-on with a divisive title so I can see what all the fuss is about.

Point 3 – But at the End of the Day…

This is where the more ‘human’ side of me begins to come out.

I can talk about bad business practices all day, but after all is said and done, I relent because I just want to have fun. With all the bickering over microtransactions and crappy DLC models, it’s easy to forget that video games are still pretty fun to play. Shadow of War may siren to other studios that, ‘hey, you can throw loot boxes into single player games now’, but I still want to play that experience. Same goes for Battlefront II, because I loved the last one and enjoyed the recent beta.

Hypocrite, I know.

But that’s also because I remember that video games were never perfect. People look back on the history of video games with rose colored glasses, saying, “There were never any microtransactions or DLC back in my day!” But if there were ways companies could suck money out of your wallet, they were doing it. Classic arcade games were cool, but you died every 15 seconds because they were designed to vacuum quarters out of your pocket. Gimmicky accessories were released in quick succession, and many of them didn’t work as advertised (as cool as the Power Glove looked, it was a real piece of crap). Nintendo introduced an add-on for the N64 in Japan (which was very short lived and a retro gaming collector’s dream to obtain). Corners were often cut during game development, and at times proved detrimental. And despite what many are lead to believe, games could often cost a bit more than $60.

Get my point?

Things have ALWAYS been shady. If I wanted to draw a strict line in the sand between their bullshit and my money, I wouldn’t have enjoyed a game in the last 30 years.

So for me, fun factor is what I value most. It’s only when crappy business decisions impact my fun in a big way that I begin to have serious problems.

How Does Supporting Games With Bad Business Models Make Me Feel?

Although ‘fun’ is my bottom line, that doesn’t mean I’m turning a blind eye to the practices that have infiltrated the gaming world. I’m well aware of the ‘slippery slope’ and how I’ve contributed to it. I’ll say that I rarely buy season passes, or even cosmetic items for that matter… but deep down inside, I know that’s not the best justification. When I buy even the base product, I’m telling studios I support what they’re doing, not to mention a potential customer for their DLC and microtransactions. Yes, that makes me feel dirty, and yes, I am, at times, disappointed in myself. I don’t like being part of the problem.

So why do I keep riding this merry go round? Well, because these are the choices I’m left with:

I can take a stand and never buy any of these exploitive games, but then I’d be sad I was missing out on the fun.

Or, I can continue to have fun playing the games that come out, but try and spread awareness about the things I see happening in the industry.

Obviously, I’ve chosen the latter.

I don’t believe that boycotting games or even particular studios is the answer. Because even though I haven’t bought the game, plenty of other people will. My sale won’t be missed. Casual gamers don’t care to delve into the stuff happening behind the scenes, so they’re going to buy whatever they like anyway.

And I can’t fault them for that. We pay to eat the sausage, not to see it being made, you know?
So, I’m going to keep eating that sausage, pretending that it’s primo meat and not just a bunch of leftover shit being ground into an intestinal shell. But if I notice something’s not right with it, I’m going to raise hell about it. I mean, what am I supposed to do, not eat sausage anymore? That’s effin’ lunacy.
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Opinion-Bytes: Nintendon’t

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In the early light of 2014, Nintendo reported a net-income loss of 10.2 billion yen.  As a result, the company implemented some drastic pay cuts and offered to buy stock back from anyone who wanted to relinquish their shares.  Basically, this was their way of taking blame, admitting shame and performing seppuku. except instead of a sword, they used pens and documents to commit the act.  Of course, gamers everywhere unleashed their torrent of ire, with virtually every post or article being some iteration of ‘this is what Nintendo must do to survive.’  The most popular suggestion?  That Nintendo should drop hardware and become a third party game developer.  I’m not sure Nintendo needs to be THAT extreme, but I can see where people are coming from.  After all, Nintendo have steadily lost third party support since the N64, once believed that nobody cared about multiplayer, and have (mostly) failed to diversify their library with mature content.

But, their public shaming seems to have lead them to an epiphany.  That is, the once branded ‘savior of video games’ came to the realization that they needed to modernize their business for long-term success.  How did they propose to do this?  Well, to start, they expressed interest in a new operating system that would work on each of their platforms, similar to what Apple has done with iOS.  Couple this with President Iwata’s promise to expand Virtual Console support – partially by bringing Nintendo DS games to the eShop – and fans should have plenty to look forward to.  Other highlights include leveraging smart devices to gain new customers, improving upon lackluster marketing, and game character rights being licensed to new partners.  A promising start, for sure, but the very moment Nintendo seemed to convey they understood their missteps, Iwata said this:

“We haven’t been targeting children enough.”

Wuh-oh.  There’s that ire again.  Forcing the monetization of user generated videos on Youtube wasn’t great for their image, either.

Regardless of the things that can be said about Nintendo, though, I think they’ve always deserved at least SOME respect for staying true to the art of video games.  When they release a game, it works.  There’s no day one patch, no DRM laced into the code, nothing.  No, what you grab off the shelf is a game in its final state, which is almost impossible to come by in this industry nowadays.  I was actually talking to Pete Dodd about this earlier in the year, and we more or less agreed that Nintendo was the last bastion for old-school gaming (business practices, at least).  Irony is a cruel mistress however, so as an answer to our naivety, Mario Golf World Tour was released on the 3DS a couple of weeks later.  Flash forward a few weeks more, and Mario Kart 8 power slides into retailers, also with DLC on the horizon.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was extremely disenchanted seeing Nintendo dip into digital add-ons.  Nintendo may have gained some good will with their gravity defying kart game, not to mention a unique digital presentation at E3 2014, but certainly not with me.  I wish I could have been amongst the smiling faces that were gleefully showered with hype, but instead, I was painfully reminded of something that Reggie Fil-Aime said in November of 2011:

“I’ve had this conversation with a number of our key developers, and their mentality is, ‘Reggie, when we sell a game, we want the consumer to feel that they’ve had a complete experience,” he said.  “Now, in addition, if we want to make other things available, great, and we’ll look at that.  But we’re unwilling to sell a piece of a game upfront and, if you will, force a consumer to buy more later.  That’s what they don’t want to do, and I completely agree.  I think the consumer wants to get, for their money, a complete experience, and then we have opportunities to provide more on top of that.”

In short, Nintendo was not interested in the prospect of DLC.  There’s nothing ambiguous in his statement that implies otherwise.  To further cement Nintendo’s position on DLC, Mr. Iwata echoed this sentiment a short time later:

“In terms of that priority, we cannot, and should not, ask our consumers to embrace the situation where they are required to make excessive payments.  Doing such things might be good for short-term profit, but it will not server our mid-term and long-term business developments.”

Eventually, I came to grips with my disenchantment.  “Okay, Mike, it’s as you always say.  Video games are a business first and foremost, and Nintendo?  They see no point in denying themselves the fruits their competitors have been enjoying for years.”  The industry is ALWAYS going to evolve in ways that make us ‘better customers’, so I guess I should have expected Nintendo to buckle at SOME point.  That doesn’t make it right, mind you, but I should have seen it coming.

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Another thing I didn’t see coming?  The astonishing display of consumer complacency.  I mean, just a year before, the Xbox One was rebranded the Xbox One-Eighty despite a slew of POSITIVE changes, so I expected everyone to take Nintendo to task over this.  Consumers are an unpredictable bunch, though, so what did they have to say when Nintendo did an about-face and tossed their most consumer friendly policy in the garbage?  Bupkiss.  In fact, some folks were all too happy to give Nintendo more cash.

Here’s a few random comments I found on Reddit in regards to Mario Kart 8 DLC:

“Fine by me.  The current game as is is great.  Adding more to it would just be awesome.  I mean, if Mario Golf got DLC, why couldn’t this?”

“Any DLC would be awesome!  Let’s have more tracks, more battle arenas, karts/bikes, and customizations.”

Bringing additional content to the table is fine, but was I the only one who felt that Mario Kart was a little… light?  Wasn’t the roster something of a letdown?  Does half the game really have to be remakes of old tracks?  And where did the old school battle arenas go?  To me, Mario Kart doesn’t feel like a ‘complete experience’ without them.  If they make a return in the form of DLC, are people going to praise Nintendo once again, or feel cheated and revolt?

“I’ve already tried shoving money and cards into the Wii U.  Yes, I absolutely want DLC.  Damn the cost.  It’s an investment.”

That… that doesn’t even make sense.  Forgetting the absurd ‘investment’ part, doesn’t this mentality set a dangerous precedent?  Nintendo are just beginning to test DLC modeling and pricing, so why give them the impression that you’re willing to fork over a blank check?

Anyway, Nintendo’s willingness to embrace DLC comes with a ‘good news, bad news’ scenario.  The good news, is that some of their DLC will be free, while the rest seems to be reasonably priced.  The bad news?  Let’s just say it brings us back to Iwata’s comment about not targeting children enough.

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The Amiibos, also unveiled during digi-E3, are coming to retail by the end of the year.  Similar to Skylanders and Disney Infinity, the idea is to buy your favorite Nintendo character figurines (Amiibos), and import them into various games by placing them on an NFC (near field communication) platform.  The Wii-U gamepad has one built in – it’s the rectangle on the left side just below the joystick – so as far as compatibility is concerned, there’s nothing else for stationary console fans to buy.  Of course, Nintendo has only shipped 6.68 million Wii-U’s (as of June), and while that’s a decent number, is it really enough to justify launching an ambitious toy line?

It can be if you grab the attention of 3DS fans.  Nintendo have shipped over 44 million of those units worldwide.  Unfortunately, the 3DS doesn’t have the luxury of having its own NFC device, so what’s to be done?

Come on, this is Nintendo we’re talking about.  Their software may have treated us right over the years, but they’ve had a nasty habit of selling people ‘hardware 1.5’ whenever an opportunity presents itself, and if this isn’t an opportunity, then I don’t know what is.

So, without delay, Nintendo announced the New Nintendo 3DS on August 29th.  That’s not a placeholder name, either.  They actually decided to call this thing the New Nintendo 3DS.  Not the Super Nintendo 3DS or 3DS Turbo… just ‘New Nintendo 3DS’.  Has this company learned nothing from the Wii-U?

Not that it matters, the New 3DS is going to sell like hotcakes.  It has a new analog stick on the right hand side and features additional ZL and ZR shoulder buttons, making this the perfect companion for all your Smash Bros. needs.  Furthermore, it boasts an improved 3D viewing angle, and a powerful CPU which allows for improved graphics and faster download speeds.  If that wasn’t enough to get you frothing at the mouth, there’s going to be a playable port of Xenoblade Chronicles.

The rub – because there’s always a rub – is that future titles, such as Xenoblade, will only be playable on the new handheld.  If you own a 3DS, 3DS XL or the more recent 2DS, you’re out of luck.  And hey, that’s not even the best part:

The New 3DS is equipped with an Amiibo sensor.  Because, you know, the first thing gamers think of when they play is, “I want some trinkets to complete this experience.”

When Nintendo told us they’d be taking measures to adapt and revamp, who thought it would boil down to rolling out a new piece of exclusionary hardware and selling toys?

I’ll give the company one thing, though:  It’s a brilliant strategy.  Consumer friendly or not, they’ll be rolling in dough.  3DS owners will find their urge to upgrade hard to resist.  Hell, I imagine the better 3D viewing angle alone will have people reaching for their wallets.  Serious Smash Bros. competitors will accept nothing less than the New 3DS control scheme, as a flick of the right analog will make pulling off smash and aerial attacks a breeze (this is otherwise done by holding a button and flicking the left stick).  Certain others will likely buy this JUST for the port of Xenoblade.  And of course, children are susceptible to advertising, so as long as Mario, Yoshi and Kirby dance in their commercials, kids will beg for the New 3DS.  Before you know it, the system will be everywhere, children and collectors will buy a bajillion Amiibos, and Nintendo’s cash-flow will be endless.

You could argue they’ll lose business by alienating fans, but financially speaking, I think the only place they’ll go is ‘up’.  Nintendo wants to pry kiddies away from mom’s cell phone – that is, away from the likes of Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies – and back onto a proper handheld, and I think the Amiibo + New 3DS strategy will go a long way to that end.

That said, I’m a consumer advocate first and foremost, and while I understand and can even appreciate what Nintendo are doing from a business perspective, I’m still not on board with what they’re doing.  I hate to say it because I adore their first party offerings (I own a 3DS and Wii-U), but they’re a terrible company.  They’ve never listened to their customers, and it doesn’t look like they’re about to start.  I mean, it isn’t rocket science, is it?  Entice third parties to come back by making hardware that isn’t a chore for them to work with (ditch the gimmicky controllers, Ninty), make multiplayer an integral part of the experience (because Super Mario 3D World would have been amazing with online co-op), and stop confusing consumers with vague marketing and recycled names.  Gamers have shouted this from the mountaintops for years, and all Nintendo have said is, “Whoops, I guess we misread the market.”  I don’t buy that for a second.  Question is, are fun games enough to retain our support, or is it time to take a bow and say, “Sayonara?”

EA Access… To The Future?

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It’s a scene still fresh in the minds of consumers worldwide: Don Mattrick takes the stage. The room goes silent. Xbox One is revealed… and gamers balk.

The internet exploded with such ferocity, I was surprised the amount of virtual ink expelled hadn’t caused the collapse of our planet. But, why all the rage? Well, there were concerns that the new Kinect would double as Microsoft’s tap into our personal lives… which is hilarious when you think about how many people have broadcast themselves doing the horizontal Macarena (via Twitch and Ustream) on the PS4. But that’s neither here nor there. What really burned their asses was the idea that renting, borrowing or trading physical copies of games would become a thing of the past. Yes, Microsoft ignored the writing on the wall, and they paid a pretty hefty price for it. I mean, it isn’t exactly rocket science. Consumers want fair prices, convenience and flexibility. What did Microsoft come to the table with? High prices, convenience for a single market (the United States), and little-to-no flexibility.

But hey, I’m not trying to turn this into a Microsoft bitch-fest. No, all I’m saying is that they could have played a big part in making digital THE attractive next-gen business model, but blew it by opening shop in the middle of a torch and pitchfork store. Furthermore, Microsoft’s failure didn’t just hurt them, but the many publishers that were hoping to reclaim a chunk of the profit that Gamestop – and other retailers that have entered the used game market – have taken from them. So, while it’s clear that consumers don’t want a DRM machine in their living room just yet, that isn’t stopping big names in the industry from continuing to push their all-digital agenda.

Enter Electronic Arts, a company that’s come under fire within the last year for launching the oh, so broken Battlefield 4, not to mention the money hungry – and review score manipulating – Dungeon Keeper. Of course, the average consumer has already forgotten about such things. At this point, it’s ancient history. Water under the bridge. People have been conditioned to accept the business models that allow pay-to-play and even buggy content to thrive with little-to-no consequence, so what happens when another new business model rolls out? There are some that either love it or loathe it, but by and large, there’s a passive ‘take it or leave it’ attitude that permeates the gaming community, or at least a sizable chunk of it. All too often I’ve seen legitimate concerns waved off with such justifications as, “This is the future, so get with the times.” Or the classic, “That’s just the way things are, man.” People certainly have the right to care as little or as much as they want, so I’m not going to go off the deep end, suggesting they take time out of their busy lives to become industry activists. Instead, I implore each and every one of you to, at the very least, pay close attention to EA’s latest venture…

…And its name? EA Access.

It’s a subscription based model on the Xbox One that begins by offering consumers a ‘choice’. For $4.99 a month or $30 a year, you’ll be granted access to the EA Vault. Games contained within are yours to download and play for the length of your membership, which is a fantastic deal provided you don’t already own the four titles provided at launch (Madden 25, Fifa 14, Battlefield 4 and Peggle 2). There will be additional titles added in the future, of course, and once they’re placed in the EA Vault, that’s where they’ll stay for the program’s duration. Additional benefits include a 10% discount on all EA digital content – meaning games and DLC – as well as the ability to play upcoming titles five days before their official release (albeit for a limited time).

As it currently stands, EA Access is a smart idea that acts a win-win for almost everyone. I mean, to have access to an entire library of AAA titles for only $30 a year, delivered straight to your console? With discounts on games and DLC, to boot? Does it get more consumer friendly than that? Let’s see: Fair prices? Check. Convenience? Check. Flexibility? Check. Furthermore, it makes the prospect of PS Now pale in comparison. Sony said they intentionally shied away from EA Access because it was a ‘bad value’, but who are they kidding? This IS value, and I think people are going to sign up in droves to take as much advantage of it as they can.

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From a business standpoint, one might ask how EA are able to take games that are roughly a year old – because no, you’ll never receive the latest and greatest right out of the gate, because that wouldn’t make much sense – and throw them in a single package for such a cheap price. You’d expect they’d lose money, right? Well, fact of the matter is that because of Gamestop and various other retailers – hell, even Wal-Mart has joined the used game brigade – titles that have been out for nearly a year are virtually worthless, at least for the publisher. Most people are likely going to visit Gamestop and save some money by purchasing a used copy, and publishers like Electronic Arts never see a dime of that. So, basically, this program acts as the perfect lure to pull people away from the temptation of secondhand game shops. Why pay $20 for a single title when you can have access to an entire library for just a little more? Seems like an easy decision to me.

So yes, there’s many positives about EA Access. As it stands right now, gamers win, the publisher wins, and everyone’s happy. So, why do I have such a hard time being happy for ‘everyone’?

The short and simple answer is history. Looking back at the last couple generations of gaming, there’s an obvious domino effect. One idea always leads to another. What’s ‘well enough’ is almost never left alone.
Although it wasn’t the first console to offer DLC, Xbox was probably the most notable to do so. Why? Because while third parties were offering digital content for free, Microsoft published games sold their content for a nominal fee. Fast forward a bit, and along comes the Xbox 360. A great console, for sure, but thanks to the success of paid DLC on the OG Xbox, it was designed with microtransactions and DLC in mind. To start, they locked multiplayer behind a pay wall. Yes, if you wanted to play online, you had to pony up some dough for an Xbox Live Gold membership. Most, if not all publishers, joined the ‘charging for DLC’ party as well… but what if you didn’t feel comfortable using your credit card on the internet? Microsoft countered such concern with a ‘points as currency’ system, so all you had to do was hit up your local retailer for pre-loaded Xbox Live cards.

Sony had also ‘evolved’ over the last generation of gaming. Seeing the potential in digital revenue, they introduced the Playstation Store alongside the PS3. Fortunately, they were smart enough to keep multiplayer access free of any pay wall. Sony were undoubtedly envious of all the profit Microsoft reaped with Xbox Live Gold however, so they eventually decided to get in on the action… and POOF. Just like that, Playstation Plus was born. Sony didn’t want to echo what Microsoft were doing to a ‘T’, so instead, they tried to entice people with features and content. PS+ allowed demos and updates to download automatically, and granted access to content such as betas, storage in the cloud, full retail trials (timed demos) and ‘free’ games. Skip ahead to the launch of the PS4, and Sony have finally succumbed to locking multiplayer behind a PS+ membership.

In short, competition may keep the ball rolling, but not always for the best. Multiplayer, once free, became a critical tool for monetization. Digital content began as something small, but individual pieces were inevitably thrown into packs, and those packs are now bundled and pre-sold as season passes.

There are certainly exceptions to ‘the rule’, but the patterns are clear: We’re paying more money for the same amount of content, and throwing cash at services that never should have been behind a pay wall in the first place. That’s what businesses do, though… make money. If they want to KEEP making money, they have to mold us into ‘better customers’. And what’s the best method for that? The long con. They chip away at us little by little so we KEEP saying to ourselves, “Huh, that’s interesting. Well, that’s just the way it is, I suppose…”

And that’s why I’m concerned about EA Access. Sure, it’s a great deal today, but what about tomorrow? What are we giving up for the sake of a bargain? Can this really be good for gamers in the long run?

Doubtful.

I can’t predict the future, but I know this much: When a company reveals a great new business model – which EA Access seems to be – the rest will come running. Over the next 7 or 8 years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Activision, Ubisoft and various others produce something similar. They’ll do everything in their power to convince people they have the best value, so things could get messy in a hurry.

How about a boost in XP? There goes balanced multiplayer. Exclusive DLC for subscribers? Great, even more content behind a pay wall. Exclusive access to games before they’re released?

Oh, wait… EA Access has already done that.

Looking even further ahead, I suspect this will allow consumers to be more comfortable with the prospect of an all-digital future. The implication here is that the next generation of consoles will likely be the very DRM machines we fought so vehemently against back in 2013.

Or not. Who knows?

EA Access could turn out to be a rare flower amongst a sea of decay, a step the company hopes will grant them a bit of good will with gamers worldwide. As I said, I can’t predict the future, and I don’t expect everyone who reads this editorial to agree with my predictions. That said, our money is what ultimately speaks to the publishing companies of the world. If you appreciate EA Access for what it is today, tell EA you support it by signing up… just consider what it could mean to the industry overall if this program turns out to be a huge success.

Opinion-Bytes: More for Moore, Less for Us

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Recently, Peter Moore had a chat with computerandvideogames.com, and had some, uh, ‘interesting’ things to say. For those unfamiliar with the name, he’s the Chief Operating Officer of Electronic Arts. They’re one of the largest publishers in the industry, but they’re often criticized for placing more importance on money than a great final product, and rightfully so. As much as I hate to sound like a broken record, Battlefield 4’s botched launch is a perfect example of this. Hell, it STILL has kinks to be worked out, up to and including the single player campaign’s save file corruption issue.

Anyhoo, the article begins on a seemingly harmless note: EA’s COO believes that traditional gamers will take longer to convince that new innovations will be beneficial.

It’s a fair enough point on the surface, but this amounts to little more than PR speak. What Peter Moore is saying ever so delicately, is that the industry is fine and that the gaming community has something of a perception issue. The man genuinely believes our issues stem from mythical pairs of nostalgia goggles, enchanted with liberal amounts of anger and hatred (obviously). Of course, that’s the purpose of PR banter, isn’t it? To provide a sprinkle of truth and ignore the elephant in the room? To lull the less informed into an altered state of reality?

To be fair, there’s a pretty nasty vocal minority out there, but is this unique to the world of gaming? Of course not. Thanks to the anonymity of the internet, the meek finally have an outlet where they can puff their chests out and spew their negativity. Unfortunately, their words carry a bit more weight than most because they’re the loudest, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair to throw a blanket over the gaming community as a whole. Most of us are rational and – gasps, imagine this! – can actually think for ourselves!

I’m 31 years old, so I’ve used rotary dial phones, pagers, cameras that use actual film, and remember what life was like without the internet. I’ve always been one to embrace new technology, but over the last five years or so I’ve found myself actually resisting (some) new technological fads. Is this because I’m older and feeling a bit overwhelmed by all this newfangled technology? Perhaps, but after taking self-inventory, I came back to the realization that I have reasons for liking the things I like, and why I couldn’t care less for the things I don’t.

For example, I’m not big on tablets. I’m just not. When I’m out and about, I have no need to play games or movies, and if I need to connect to the internet, my iPhone is quite capable of the task. For me, there’s simply no value in a tablet. When I DO have time for such activities, I’m usually hovering around my PC or home entertainment center.

On the flip side of the coin, I do love me some black and white e-readers. Thanks to my Kindle Paperwhite, I don’t think I could ever go back to paper and ink. I mean, most books – be it paperback or hardcover – are a pain in the ass to hold, at least in bed. Not my Kindle, though. Also, the backlight is easy on my eyes in a dark room, and I no longer have to disturb my wife with the bedside lamp. Best of all, having all my books on a single device means there’s no clutter to worry about.

I also shied away from motion sensing technology such as the Kinect. It’s a fine concept, sure, but there was nothing about it that made me leap out of my chair to proclaim, “I must own this! I don’t know how I’ve lived without it!” No, not even the ability to shout “FUS RO DAH!” in Skryim made me so much as flinch. Even the Xbox One’s Kinect – while closer to the mark – failed to make itself relevant. The PS4 camera is even less useful, unless you have children at home that want to kick those little robots around.

MooreNoLikey

So, yes, I’ve been a little resistant to things that have come along in recent years, but there’s a single word I can use to explain why: Practicality. Hell, I’d imagine that’s why so many of you might have been resistant to this, that or the other thing. So, when Peter Moore tries to label us as keyboard trolls in the most diplomatic way possible, I’m not only going to call him out on it, but I’ll lay waste to his reasoning and expose the agenda he’s REALLY attempting to push.

So alright, let’s break this down:

“I think we’re going into almost a golden age of gaming, where it doesn’t matter where you are, at any time, any place, any price point, any amount of time, there’s a game available to you,” Moore said. “And our job as a company is to provide those game experiences. And then on our big franchises, tie them all together.”

Alright. So far, so good.

“I think the challenge sometimes is that the growth of gaming… there’s a core that doesn’t quite feel comfortable with that. Your readers, the industry in particular. I don’t get frustrated, but I scratch my head at times and say, ‘Look. These are different times.’”

Well, there it is… the beginning of Peter Moore’s Bullshit Stew. He makes it sound like there’s a faction of gamers out there that just want to sit in their caves, beat their chests and play Bubble Bobble from now until the end of time. Let’s be clear, though – Peter more isn’t talking about resistance to the technological advances in gaming:

“And different times usually evoke different business models.”

Aaaaand there it is. While he’s selling us a story about gamers being afraid of innovation, the reality is that gamers just really hate being screwed over. Apparently, we’re supposed to LOVE paying more money for less content, paying full price for games that don’t work at launch, and enjoy EA’s library of extortionate ‘free to play’ titles (I’m looking at you, Dungeon Keeper).

But wait, there’s more!!!

“Different consumers come in. They’ve got different expectations. And we can either ignore them or embrace them, and at EA, we’ve chosen to embrace them.”

Of COURSE he’s chosen to embrace them! They’ve allowed his company to make money hand over fist! And just so there’s no confusion – When he says ‘different consumers come in’, he’s referring to the younger crowd or people who are new to the gaming scene in general. ‘Different expectations’ is code for hoping the less informed have ZERO expectation. After all, that’s the demographic that has the highest probability of being taken for a ride… but what about the vast majority that speak out against the ‘less for more’ business model?
Well, Mr. Moore goes on to state that the game industry can’t go down the same troubled path as the music biz, and if they hope to survive, the industry should come together on these practices in a unified front.

And…

“I don’t think anybody has to like it,” Moore said. “I think that’s where it goes. It’s like me: I get grumpy about some things, but if the river of progress is flowing and I’m trying to paddle my canoe in the opposite direction, then eventually I’m just going to lose out. From the perspective of what needs to happen in this industry, we need to embrace the fact that billions of people are playing games now.”

I mean, it doesn’t get any more transparent than this, folks. Not that you need it, but allow me to indulge in a translation for that last doozy of a quote:

“There’s billions of people out there playing video games. What, are we not SUPPOSED to do everything in our power to separate them from their money? Yeah, our customers will complain about being nickel-and-dimed, but if the industry as a whole follows the same game plan, they’ll learn to deal with it… I mean, they’ll have to. They’ll have no other choice.”

And that’s why Mr. Moore’s comments have drawn so much negative feedback. We, the gaming community, aren’t stupid. We know when we’re being conditioned to accept the industry’s self-serving business models. And don’t get me wrong… I know the industry is, first and foremost, a business. The goal of any business is to make money, and I’m pretty sure nobody has a problem with that. No, the ‘core gamer’ has a problem with HOW they’ve chosen to acquire it. Companies like EA are forcing their abhorrent policies on us until we relent. They’re hearing the discontent that’s shouted today, sure, but they’re counting on our voice growing quieter by the day, until we’ve had enough and decide to accept things ‘because that’s the way they are’.

That’s not to say I’m against all DLC or micro transactions, because I’m not. There’s a lot of great DLC that’s been introduced over the years, such as Far Cry 3’s Blood Dragon or Outlast’s Whistleblower. Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare features micro transactions, but because in-game currency is earned quick enough through standard gameplay, I never felt like there was a paywall block.

What I AM saying, is that each and every one of you should scrutinize digital content before committing your hard earned money to it. Look at reviews, message boards, and talk to your friends. Think about what it means when you open your wallet and tell a publisher, “I guess I’m cool with paying more money to fill out game that didn’t feel complete at the $60 price point.” Then, and ONLY then, will the likes of Peter Moore get the hint.

Never underestimate the voice of the gaming community. If we were able to make Microsoft change virtually every anti-consumer policy the Xbox One was to originally offer, I’m positive there’s much more we could accomplish.

Never settle for complacency.

Opinion-Bytes: Gamestop, Just… Stop

Gamestop Stop

My first article focused on the disintegration of video game preservation, so you’re probably going to huck some tomatoes at me after making my confession:

I used to work at Gamestop.

It was a brief part-time stint to earn some extra cash, and boy, did it sound like a great idea at the time. Still, I was there long enough to get the ‘full picture’. That is to say, I understand what it’s like to have customers breathe fire because I pushed pre-orders and discount membership cards. There were also plenty of times I shattered the dreams of those who hoped their old games would net them a generous amount of credit. Was I trying to screw these people over? Of course not. The company WANTED me to greet the customer, have a conversation, and barrage them with a slew of questions. It was bananas. The script went a little something like this:

“Are there any upcoming games you’d like to pre-order? Do you have any games you’d like to trade in for credit towards that pre-order? Are you a Power-Up Rewards member? No? Would you like to sign up for it? It only costs (price)! You’ll get 10% more for trade-ins, and even save 10% on used games! Not only that, but you’ll get a subscription to GameInformer magazine! It’s quite a deal. Also, did you know that we now take trade-ins on mp3 players, tablets and e-readers?”

That’s the spiel you got no matter which Gamestop you’d visit, verbatim. Even over the phone they’d attempt to claim your first born in exchange for a Halo Reach pre-order.

Pricing

Okay, maybe that’s taking it too far. Call me crazy, but I don’t think Gamestop is evil. They’re a business first and foremost, and their goal is to make as much money as possible. That said, they’re still shady as fuck, and I’m going to tell you why. Focusing on their inclination to go above and beyond the call of obnoxiousness, here’s some personal perspective to kick things off:

Once upon a time, I was an assistant manager for KB Toys, and their business model consisted of the same sort of nonsense:

Draw customers into the store and greet them. Talk to them as they peruse your stock. Provide some suggestions and upsell a few toys that corporate wants you to push. Pester them at the register to see if they want gift cards, gift wrap and batteries.

Basically, never leave the customer alone. Keep the pressure on until they give you their money or walk away in disgust. This approach works more often than you’d like to think, but what’s the long term effect? The customer will avoid your store like the plague, of course. People don’t want to be shaken by the ankles to have their lunch money stolen, you know? When people feel pressured, their loyalty will dissipate and then whammo… the customer is gone.

Want to know where KB Toys is now? Bankrupt. Gone. Finished. Finito. And why? Because corporate goons were so busy scrambling for money, they forgot that the most essential part of customer service is… well, customer service. I mean, how hard is it to figure out? Be kind and courteous, and be accessible for when the customer needs you. It’s really that simple. The morale of employees will remain high, and customer loyalty will increase.

For a moment there, I almost forgot I wasn’t talking about Gamestop. It sounds an awful lot like them though, doesn’t it? Trust me, like KB Toys, they don’t care about you or what you need. Instead, they’re more like Wile E. Coyote with an oversized magnet (ACME, of course), attempting to suck the fillings from your teeth before you have a chance to escape. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that corporate leaves the store level employees little choice but to badger you, lest they be punished with less hours to run their shop efficiently. Yes, corporate is more than willing to let you wait in line, all because your local Gamestop didn’t make the pre-order quota last week. Who does that hurt in the end? That’s right: You, the consumer.

But this isn’t the stuff I’m calling out as shady. It’s a bad way to do business, sure, but not shady. So why did I ‘go there’ at the beginning of the article?

Well, because they intentionally mislead and overcharge their customers whenever the opportunity arises. Xenoblade Chronicles was an incredibly rare title for the Wii, but back in 2013, Gamestop had plenty to go around. Where did the boom in their stock come from? They had “sourced a limited number of copies” to carry in their stores and online. Translation? They cut a deal to have new copies printed exclusively for Gamestop, but here’s the rub: While this limited production made Xenoblade much easier to find, they still wanted you to think it was rare so you’d shell out $90 for a copy. Yep, they gutted brand new copies, slapped a ‘Used’ sticker on ‘em, and jacked the price so you’d think you were buying the genuine article. A similar thing happened with the Metroid Prime Trilogy, and additional titles are planned for the future. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with increasing supply to meet demand, but keeping your customers in the dark so you can extort them? Mental.

In more recent months, Gamestop took advantage of the PS4 Camera shortage by silently raising the price $10 above MSRP. You know… just because.

While I’m on the topic of ‘value’, how do you feel about pre-order bonuses? Nearly every AAA title has them nowadays: “Pre-order with us to get exclusive in-game content!” Of course, they neglect mentioning this content was meant to be yours all along. But because Gamestop cuts deals with publishers to carve content out, the final product is gimped so they can fill those precious pre-order quotas. Worse yet, various other companies have followed suit (Best Buy and Target the most notable in the US).

When they aren’t pushing pre-orders, they’re accepting trade-ins. Some people see this as a godsend, but trade-ins are a bad proposition for everyone… except Gamestop, of course. You can buy a game on day 1, trade it in on day 3, and only get $30 credit for it… and they’ll turn around and sell it for $55. And by the way, if you’re one of those people that are willing to buy a used game for $55, you’re saying that “Saving $5 is more important than paying the folks that made this game.” I know, I know – Sometimes you HAVE to buy used, but you should ALWAYS try to send your money where credit’s due.

9BB5653A-0C4D-E3E6-DDEFEDD879BB332A

There’s a reason why devs and publishers are pushing digital sales, DLC and microtransactions. Just sayin’.

And did you ever wonder why digital games – for consoles, at least – cost the same as their physical counterparts? I know this sounds like conspiracy level shit here, but yet again the answer is Gamestop. Basically, they know that digital games are going to cut into their bottom line, and substantially at that. After all, when all of your potential customers have the choice to spend $60 for a disc or $45 for a download, a bunch are going to choose the cheaper option (not me, but I touched on that in my previous article). Because Gamestop won’t see a cut from PSN or Xbox Live sales, they exercise the only leverage they have left – They refuse to carry the games that won’t have digital and physical price parity on day 1. When a gaming chain has enough power to bully the publishers, that’s a BIG problem.

Dare I even mention the fact that when there’s only two copies left/in-stock, they’ve already taken the liberty of opening the game for you? Hell, in some cases, they’ve even played it for you! How about the fact that sometimes their used pricing is – I shit you not – actually more than a new copy? The list goes on, but you get the point. When you get right down to it, Gamestop doesn’t know how to treat their customers, they’re responsible for microtransactions, and are a major reason for digital content remaining so high in price.

…And now they want to wade into the pools of game development.

Instead of merely paying the devs/publishers a chunk of coin to carve out a weapon skin in exchange for your pre-order, they want to be involved in the creation of ‘significant DLC’ that would be exclusive to the Gamestop brand. The retail giant has already gone on record to say they won’t affect the creative process in any way, shape or form… but how can they know that? When a game is being developed with a launch window in mind, and you give the publishers/devs a hefty payday to divert some of their resources to design content exclusively for you… how can that NOT affect the creative process? Granted, it’s a little too early to proclaim doom and gloom on the horizon, but can there really be any good that comes of this? At all?

Gamestop, just… stop.

Opinion-Bytes: …When It’s DONE

BF4Incomplete

What’s your idea of an optimal gaming experience?

Granted, this is a dangerous question. It often propels what’s meant to be a thoughtful discussion into heated debates about graphics and gameplay mechanics. One thing that people tend to overlook in these ‘debates’ however, is a far more basic necessity. First and foremost, a game has to work. Having grown up in the glam-tastic 80’s, I remember what it was like to grab a cartridge, jam it in a console, push the power button and play for hours on end. I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I never encountered an issue – after all, blowing in NES cartridges was practically a staple of my childhood – but my paranoia fueled brain had never been sick with concerns over game breaking bugs. When I bought a game, it worked. No fuss, no muss.

But today? We have to endure the rigmarole of firmware updates. As most of you are well aware, most games require a day one update to – and these are just a few examples – correct issues we never would have noticed in the first place, enable multiplayer support, or hammer out game breaking bugs. Furthermore, if consumers manage to stumble upon something in the post-launch window, developers are conveniently able to address those concerns through another patch. It’s nice to know that if a bug manages to squeak through quality control, I can (supposedly) rest assured that developers will be working ‘round the clock until I’m able to experience their game the way they intended. Of course, because nothing is sacred when money is involved, this once consumer friendly feature is now little more than a shadow of its former self.

What does this mean for us as consumers, exactly? It means that publishers are taking advantage of what they’ve perceived as consumer complacency. Now, once a game is deemed ‘good enough’ by the powers that be, it’s whisked away in its unfinished state to a pressing plant. The discs are then packaged, shipped, and held in stock rooms until release. All the while, developers continue to work on ensuring their product is 100% in time for launch.

I think most of us would agree that actions speak louder than words, so what’s the logical conclusion here? Simple – Publishers couldn’t care less if you’re spending your hard earned money on an incomplete product. They believe that as long as they have everything fixed in time for launch, most of the gaming community won’t even care… and to be fair, it’s not like we’ve proven them wrong. Despite the outcry from message board crusaders, there aren’t many people actually speaking with their wallet. How can we expect publishers to listen to our concerns while we’re still throwing money at them?

I know what some of you might be saying. “It’s a digital future anyway, so who cares if there’s a day one update? All that matters is that the game works.” Of course, the caveat is that not every game actually works at the time of launch. There shouldn’t be any precedent that allows publishers to kick a game out the door for competitive reasons rather than logical ones, because when they do, they’re basically gambling with our money.

And trust me, you’ve probably been affected by the stuff I’m talking about already, and multiple times at that.

We don’t have to look too far back to see what can happen when a game’s release is the product of a deadline. Yeah, you know where this is going – Battlefield 4. Single player campaign saves were corrupting, network issues were rampant, and while the experience has drastically improved ever since, people are STILL reporting problems to this day. Is there any question that this game wasn’t ready, and that the parties involved weren’t aware of that? It’s unacceptable by every stretch of the imagination, but what’s worse is how they’ve been tripping over themselves in the media as a result of their irresponsibility.

Some months ago, DICE had stated on the official ‘Battlelog’ that, “Resolving the launch issues is our #1 priority. In fact, we are so serious that we have the entire team working to stabilize the game and we will not move on to other projects until we are sure that Battlefield 4 meets – and exceeds – your expectations. It is the right thing to do.” Technically, the ‘right thing’ would have been to stop selling DLC and pull the game from shelves until it was fixed, but I digress.

Fast forward to February, and EA’s chief creative officer Rich Hilleman – in an interview with Nathan Grayson of Rock, Paper, Scissors – sang an entirely different tune. “Battlefield 4 has been an exceedingly successful product on both consoles and PC. From a sales perspective, from a gameplay perspective.” He went on with, “I don’t think most of my customers are willing to say – ‘it’s a bad product, I wish I didn’t buy it.’ That’s not the conversation we’re having now.” I don’t know about the vast majority, but I’ve had that conversation… with LOTS of people. “We did things wrong. We know that. We’re gonna fix those things. We’re gonna try to be smart about what customers want in the future.”

There’s so much wrong with his response, my head’s still spinning. I mean, money aside, how can BF4 be spun as an ‘exceedingly successful product’? Regardless of where you stand today, I think it’s fair to say it had one of the worst launches in recent memory. And as far as ‘trying’ to appease the community… well, allow me to counter that quote with another – “There is no try. Only do.” People just want their games to work. It doesn’t get any less complicated than that.

Broken Game

Another way this ‘patch it later’ attitude has affected the community, was with the entire next-gen console lineup. The Wii-U required a firmware update to activate most of its key features, while the PS4 and Xbox One were loaded to the brim with promise – Promise you’ll have this feature, promise you’ll have that feature… that is, as long as you’re willing to spend $400 to $500 up front. The PS4 and Xbox One – despite the fantastic gaming experience they provide – clearly weren’t ready to be released. So, why were they? Well, if you recall what happened last time, Microsoft had a yearlong advantage over Sony, and I don’t think either party was willing to risk a similar disparity this time around. So, once the consoles were in a playable state, they were kicked out the door. The end result? Well, PS4 owners are dealing with broken Share functionality to this day, and despite how far the Xbox One has come, it’s still paying the price for its lackluster reveal in 2013. I don’t want to spin near hyperbole here, but the early adopters have essentially paid for the privilege of beta testing next-gen consoles.

But that’s peanuts compared to what this means for us over the long term. To put it bluntly, I think we’re witnessing the death of video game preservation as we know it, and that scares me. I know, I know – Some of you have a tendency to play a game and trade it in just as fast. I’ve been there, done that… and have almost always regretted it. I wish I still had my NES, SNES, Genesis, N64, and the list goes on. But you know what? I could go to my local retro gaming shop today and buy these consoles with their respective games. Once I get it all home and set it up, all I’d have to do is grab a cartridge, jam it in a console, push the power button and play for hours on end. Unfortunately, that convenience simply won’t be possible with the games of today.

Batman: Arkham Origins was released with a bug that would cause save file corruption. Skyrim – much like any other title from Bethesda – suffered from broken quests, texture down-scaling, and massive load times after extended play. The Fable franchise also had its share of frustrating glitches and broken quests. Hell, even The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword had a bug that made game progression impossible. These are just a few notable titles off the top of my head, but a Google search of ‘game breaking bugs’ will reveal much, much more.

Of course, most of these issues were later resolved with updates, but here’s the rub – What happens when we decide to revisit these games in 20-30 years? I mean, the content on the discs themselves is incomplete, so when we inevitably come across a game or immersion breaking bug, we’re going to be screwed. After all, the servers for our console(s) of choice won’t be around forever, and when they disappear, so will the opportunity to acquire a much needed patch. Worse yet, if you have a console that needs to be reformatted, you can kiss all the functionality that came after day one goodbye.

This is why we need to fight to ensure that developers and publishers refuse to release a game until it’s ready, because otherwise, we’re just spending full price today for a wasted investment tomorrow. Technology may have brought us to a point where games can be more fulfilling than feature length films, but when we can’t even trust that a product is ready at the time of release, it’s clear the industry has lost sight of pretty much everything. Strip all the variables away, and gaming is just as valid a form of entertainment as music or film. Could you imagine if a couple of songs on an album had been cut off, only to later find an apology in the booklet that says, “Sorry, we couldn’t finish the songs as we intended because we couldn’t meet the deadline. Here’s a digital code to redeem the completed tracks in two weeks.” What if you went to the movies and saw a similar message from the director on a title card in place of what should have been the final moments of the film? Would you stand for it? Of course not.

Because of the ever changing nature of technology in general, it’s easy to rationalize anti-consumer policies by saying: “That’s just the way things are.” But the gaming community proved a year ago that nothing is ever ‘just the way it is’, because we pretty much forced Microsoft – and Sony, even if you’re not aware of that – to change their stance on DRM. The more you complain and the more you refuse to spend money on products that don’t deserve it, the more we can make things happen.