Wednesday, April 17, 2019

To The Barricades!

Mailvatar put up a thought-provoking post that covered a range of related issues about how video games are marketed and sold nowadays. I read it while I was in hospital and would have loved to reply to it at the time.

The post touched on any number of topics, most of which have been in regular discussion for years, from microtransactions and payment models to celebrity developers and the current buzz phrase, "Games as a Service". I found it instructive to see all these themes drawn together in a single rant.

I've just finished reading Hadley Freeman's excellent book on 80s movies, Life Moves Pretty Fast, in which Hadley makes a convincing case for things not having improved quite as much (or at all) as you might have imagined. What struck me most, though, was less how little some things have changed than how much others have.

I sometimes dither over whether or not I identify as a gamer but a simple look at the facts suggest I may be in denial. At 60 I am too old to have played video games as a child but I was playing them in late adolescence and I've rarely stopped. What that means has changed so much.

In the 1980s every game was a discrete, complete package. A product. The format varied - cartridge, cassette, disk - but the games themselves were always the same: a single, standalone chunk of entertainment that you played until you finished.

Of course, you could replay your game, as many times as you liked, and some games might even have difficulty modes or alternate paths or endings that allowed some variation, but what you bought was, in essence, no different from a video cassette or a book. You could even line them up on shelves and alphebetize them if you wanted.

This wasn't some antedeluvian paradise. Lots of the games were terrible. A significant proportion of them didn't work properly (or at all). If the game you bought was buggy it was going to stay buggy. There weren't any patches or fixes coming down the pipe. There was no pipe.

Because I am hard-triggered by the word "review" and can't help myself, I slapped a wholly irrelevant comment on yesterday's post on Review Bombing at Time to Loot, in which I may have implied that I am above using reviews to guide my purchasing choices. While it's true that I do revere reviewing as one of the finest of fine arts, I am not about to pretend it doesn't also have a practical function.

I remember spending hours reading reviews and promos for new games for the ZX Spectrum and the Amiga, trying to decide which were worth risking money on. Even with all that research the outcome was often underwhelming at best.

As we passed through the 90s things began to change but slowly. In my own case it was the eve of the milennium before I finally embraced the future. EverQuest was the first video game I ever bought that didn't stay the same.

People talk a lot about how the early MMORPGs were prototypes for social media, how they made talking to strangers on the far side of the world an everday experience, and that's a huge part of why those of who were there, then, hark back to those days with such longing. What's mentioned far less often is the way the games themselves changed, constantly, inexorably, unfathomably.

I could lose hours browsing the EQ Patch Archive on Allakhazam. It's astonishing, not only how much content was added as the game became more successful but how radically the structures and processes of the game were revised, revamped and replaced.

As we've seen with the developer notes on WoW Classic, short of literally starting over with the launch-day code, there's no "Classic" version of any MMORPG. All of them, always, are in a constant state of flux. On any day a single change can radically re-interpret part or all of the game.

We've become all-too familiar with game-breaking patches. They seem to come along once or twice a year for most MMORPGs. Usually it turns out the game doesn't break after all because all games are now self-healing. Or, rather, a bunch of over-stretched developers in some office somewhere get to cancel their dinner dates and text hasty apologies to their families so they can stay late at the office and fix what they broke.

We expect this now. And not just in MMOs. It's partly implied in the FOTM marketing term "Games as a Service". It also means companies large and small can get away with releasing games that don't work.

The thing is, they always could. Back in the 1980s, as I suggested, companies released games that didn't work all the time. It was much the same as studios releasing movies that bombed. Keep doing it and eventually you'd go out of business but everyone could get away with a few stinkers.

Are we better or worse off now? In the old days we'd just write off a crappy game as a bad purchasing decision and move on, out of pocket but mostly unconcerned. Nowadays delivering a video game that disappoints brings death threats, even though there's every likelihood the game will eventually work as advertised.

It's unclear and it gets much less clear when you factor in microtransactions. If we're paying a penalty in upfront useability by buying into the "Games as a Service" model, shouldn't we at least expect the corrections, when they come, to be free? It's one thing to have advertised parts of your game missing at launch; entirely another to include them in paid DLC later.

Then, as Mailvatar asks, there's the question of the damage the whole concept of microtransactions makes to immersion, satisfaction and potential. Even if the pricing is reasonable, is it really still

"actively working against any potential a game has to be great. How are we supposed to be immersed, to feel like we’re having an adventure, when big red price tags are slapped right in our faces every five seconds? When we can’t look cool unless we swipe our credit cards some more? When we can’t pick up stuff because we haven’t bought enough inventory space?"
Once again, to no-one's surprise, I'm ambivalent. You see, I already had this issue long before any of us had ever heard or used the term "microtransaction".

In my first two or three years of MMORPG gaming I was one of the most militant of hardliners concerning "immersion". I strongly believed that all loot should only drop from monsters, be crafted by the person who was going to use it, or, in limited circumstances, come from an NPC.

To my way of thinking, trading between players was tantamount to cheating. Even trading between your own characters (twinking) was cheating. I did it, of course. Everyone did. But I kept very quiet about it. It was shameful.

Over time all those militant tendencies buckled under the assault of actually enjoying myself. Turns out getting stuff you want is fun, however you get it. Who knew?

Consequently, by the time we got to cash shops and microtransactions, I didn't much care any more. I still have issues over fair and reasonable pricing but only the same ones I have over any product or service. If they made every single item and ability in the game available via the Cash Shop in most MMORPGs I play I wouldn't object. My days of caring deeply about either immersion or exclusivity are far behind me.

What concerns Mailvatar about all of this is the damage it does, not to the games as they are, but the games as they could be: their potential. I think this is a good point.

It's becoming very plain that games that launch at or close to the best they could be (Apex Legends probably being the standout recent example) are the exception. Most developers seem content to get something out the door as soon as possible, pick up some valuable income on the back of it and worry about the future when it gets here.

Is that sustainable? Probably. Seems to be. Yes, there are backlashes and review bombings and campaigns but worldwide revenues from gaming continue to rise and rise. Individual studios and companies may go under but the industry itself continues to trend upwards.

Naithin, commenting on Mailvatar's post, concludes "I also think it important that we speak up when things tip too far in favour of the commercial" to which Mailvatar replies "basically the one and only ‘message’, if you will, that I tried to get across". I agree.

As Ferris Bueller told us back in the 80s, life does indeed move pretty fast. There's often not too much we can do to stop it, either. Wishing away changes like microtransactions or Free to Play or Games as a Service is going to be about as effective as wishing ever is. The universe does not have our backs on this one.

Doesn't mean we have to like it, though. Or pretend we do. All the changes that have happened over the last few decades incorporate course corrections caused by outrage, protest and complaint. You might think things are bad now; imagine how much worse they could be if everyone had just kept their heads down.

Protest goes in and out fashion. Right now it seems to be on an uptick. Video games aren't global warming or the alt-right (although...) but they're not nothing either. Business practices affect much more than the products themselves; they touch the culture.

Over time, choices matter. Boycotts rarely work but social trends do. If certain ways of doing things acquire negative associations that negativity transfers to sales and profits and that's when change happens.

I'm definitely not suggesting I'd avoid playing a new MMORPG that looked really good just because it came with dodgy business practices but I am saying that, if offered the choice, I'd plump instead for one produced by a developer who appeared to have higher standards. Even if the game itself wasn't quite as sparkly.

Put that on a banner!


  1. I'll be honest, if a new MMORPG came out that really, really looked to be my perfect cup of tea I'd be hard pressed to resist, even if there were some dodgy aspects to it. I am but a human.

    But I'm disgusted enough and have been burned enough by now that I've become much more cautious, patient and unyielding than I was a couple of years ago. And as you said, protest isn't necessarily futile.

    We (gamers, and yes, I totally consider you to be one of us ;-) ) obviously won't - and don't have to - agree on each and every game, business practice or ethical dilemma. As long as we stand as one when the industry has clearly gone too far we have the power to change things though, and I sincerely hope we'll do so whenever it's necessary.

  2. P.S. I applaud that you staged such a fitting screenshot for the occasion. :-)

    1. I'm so glad you noticed. It took me quite a while, partly because EQ2's day/night cycle is so extreme that shots taken at night are unuseable. It's astonishing how many barricades there are in EQ2, as well. I never really thought about it before but they're everywhere.

    2. Hehe, I never thought about it either. The only ones I can actually think of right now are the ones in Great Divide, to the north of Thurgadin Harbor.

      But yeah, the longer I think about it, the more come to mind. Fascinating! :-)


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide