… Old Habits, Die Hard

Die Hard

This is Agent Johnson. No, no, the other one…

So, A Good Day to Die Hard.

I’ve long been a big believer that the video game industry and the Hollywood machine follow a parallel path. Both markets are at the very core about entertainment and artistic expression, even when the means to go about that are not inherently artistic in their values. For all the talk of Avatar being “art”, it is still mostly a blend of live action and CGI animation designed not merely to be seem as an artistic addition to the market, but primarily about making money. For that, unfortunately, is one of those sad truths about the entertainment world in this modern age; the financial side has been focused on as budgets and what talent actually costs rises through inflation and the devaluing of currency in a modern world. With investors demanding bigger returns on their money, it’s no good just to make money; you have to make LOTS of money, often twice what something costs to make, not just because the investors want it because they expect unhealthy amounts of interest to be paid back on their financial ‘donations’, but because the future of something depends on its ability to generate money. If something breaks even, it’s not enough – you cannot justify to investors, banks and men in suits and ties that the next instalment might do better if your previous one hasn’t been extremely profitable.

The latest cynical cycle in the Die Hard franchise unfortunately exemplifies this point quite clearly in the movie sphere. It was submitted to the BBFC here in the UK and given a provisional 15 certificate, which you’d expect from this series. However, between that provisional rating and the rating of the final theatre-cut, things were trimmed and toned down. Language was vastly reduced, as was the violence and gore. By the time we got it on our cinema screens, it has gone from a 15 to a 12-A rating, and that is not because the BBFC asked or demanded cuts; it is because the distributors in this case pushed for the lower age rating to arguably increase its audience. The logic therefore is that the more people you can get to see your movie, the better, and to hell with the public perception.

Now, I don’t want to linger too long on the movie side of it – nor do I want to get caught up in the discussion of whether A Good Day to Die Hard is any good (there are devastatingly detailed criticisms and reviews at the likes of iMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, some comments to which cannot be re-uttered), but I do want to note that they are already looking at the DVD/Blu-Ray release, and putting back into that all the content that was cut for the movie. In effect, the conclusion is pretty damning; the home experience is being touted more and more as the complete experience, and it isn’t just Die Hard – we’ve seen this happen more and more with movies promising “Uncut” home versions, when the truth is sadly that they themselves made those cuts to give you, the buyer, more of an incentive to buy the DVD. With the theatre experience more and more pushing 3D in the absence of any other real progression, it’s not much of a leap to suggest that the home audience is being prioritised for content over the theatre experience. Die Hard has made a lot of money; but its audience hasn’t been as happy as it once was, and thanks to Box Office Mojo, adjusted for inflation, it’s not even taken the sort of money it could have.

Rather, I want to get to this idea of the ‘long game’, and the business contradiction that it implies.

Dead Space 3. Sales are down on Dead Space 2. Coincidence?

Dead Space 3. Sales are down on Dead Space 2. Coincidence?

We all know that like movies, Video Game success is judged on its “Box Office Window”, that being the first six to eight weeks of its release. Indeed, this is important because it implies to the investors and the CEO’s and those fudgi… I mean, managing the books (did I get away with that?) as to what the market wants and is prepared to pay the full Recommended Retail Price for. Because that justifies many of their costs; depending on the cut that is taken, it’s millions of pounds and dollars of revenue and whilst it is new, relevant and fresh, it can be priced at the most you can get away with, meaning that everyone on the supply and development chain gets their piece of the action. It’s an important part of the cycle of a game, but ultimately it is not the only part of it. After that window, we have the “Long Game”, which is often categorised by price cuts and the inevitable “Game of the Year”, “Enhanced” or “Complete” editions.

You might think this is because as a game gets older, it needs to have its price cut to stay relevant, but the thing is this; the advent of digital services, as PS+ and Steam have demonstrated, is that many older games can not only exist but thrive years after their release dates. Indeed, once hard to find titles like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Tomba! and Ys are doing very well for themselves some years after they should have faded, indeed, with Vagrant Story and other titles like Dark Messiah also continuing to sell and lend their influence on the market, one might be led to concede that it is the long-game which offers the most profitability in these dark times with a longer, more sustained sales path than ever before. Where once games were shuttered in production when they reached the end of their profitable lifespan, the digital sphere has created a brand new and more interesting playground for titles that perhaps aren’t at their peak any more.

The other problem is for the Long Game to work, more and more it is the original release that suffers.  In the movie world, you can somewhat add value but for the gaming world, content can be cut or added in for a profit; often meaning those who invest in the game at retail for a cost of £40 can end up spending just as much again on additions and extra content, whereas those who play the “Long Game” and wait a few months for their copy can get a complete, unhindered version of the same thing for at least half of the cost – often less than the game cost originally. This means that in financially tightened times, people are looking at what they have in their pockets and looking at the market and they may end up thinking, with some validity, that their money is better kept in the bank for a few months so they can wait for the “Complete” version down the road, which will cost them less money.

The industry likes to often cite piracy as a reason for lost sales but more and more it isn’t that people are pirating anything at all – rather, that they are waiting for the better version. The need for a game may be strong, but the need to save some money here and there is stronger still and you cannot ask someone to justify £35 of DLC content for a game that itself costs £35. That’s just a little mean. When some months down the line a repackaged version can be on sale for £29.99 with all the content included, someone somewhere must be asking the question – why would you buy a game brand new on the market? Unless of course you’re like me and have a gaming blog and therefore don’t have much of a choice in the matter (Although that said, I’m also cutting down on my spend with rental services for some titles you can just see will be terrible!), most people are better served by waiting. The superior versions come later, and are better value for money.

And herein lies the nub of the issue; in order to sustain a long-term model, the short-term Box Office window is being compromised. And in spite of this, more emphasis is placed upon that Box Office window now than ever before. Initial sales matter to the bottom line more than ever before, in spite of the abuse of that window. And both markets are doing it; Die Hard is an example of a movie cut to offer more content to its DVD sales, but at the expense of its movie audience who are very disappointed by how timid it ends up. Dead Space 3, for all it does right, is exactly the sort of game where you can see come October is repackaged with all the content at a reduced price. This is always going to leave those who bought the game brand new and paid for the DLC content addition asking themselves why it is that the people who aren’t investing sooner are the ones getting the better deal.

Both industries need to take a step back and really examine how the market lies at this moment in time; because for all the cheap excuses and blame-game that invariably ends up being pinned on piracy and second-hand sales, both sides may find themselves looking out on a landscape that it has itself created; a place where people aren’t given any incentive or bonus for seeing a movie at a cinema, or buying a game brand new. Where more and more we see later, complete editions for less money. Where digital is ensuring that many of the strongest and most inventive games of yesteryear are still being sold, still making money and still competing against games of the moment. The world around them continues to move on, merely avoiding the messy pitch which has been left behind by two huge industries who have put money ahead of everything else that matters; consumer loyalty, market forces, competition and rivalry, the push into more digital-minded services and their own Public Relations failings. That both sides continue to lie on Piracy and Second-hand sales as a crutch is not surprising; it’s the only way both sides can get away with continuing their push into exploiting the market more. It justifies their goals, but in the real world? It doesn’t work.

People are using their common sense and waiting. These are games – luxury products. Most people will not die by waiting a few months for a game to get cheaper, or for waiting for a GOTY Edition. Indeed, it is to their advantage. The market has given an incentive to those who wait; good things will come to those who wait, and those who impatiently buy in early are the ones who will pay through the nose for their content. And when companies like EA state that their new game – in this case Dead Space 3 – has lost 26% of sales compared to the last one, you have to ask – whose fault is that? If you give consumers a better deal by asking them to wait, they will wait. If you want people to buy in early, if you want people to buy the latest and greatest titles, then something has to be done to give them something that justifies that early investment.

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Aliens: Colonial Marines is terrible. But they at least gave pre-order bonuses.

It feels weird then that I can remember Alan Wake, and its code on its release which gave you access to the first few DLC expansions. It was a way of saying, “Thanks for buying our game. We’re very appreciative, and to show how much we appreciate you, here is a code you can redeem to get the first few content additions for our game free of charge.” Now you have EA and Capcom and their ilk releasing a new game and constantly reminding you, “We have a store by the way with lots of lovely goodies you can buy to make your game even better! Go on, it’s only a couple of quid per addition! You won’t miss it!”. Except of course we now see Capcom constantly updating Street Fighter 4 with new versions, and EA’s predictable GOTY edition of Dead Space 3 likely planned for a cynical Halloween release (even though it’s not really a horror game any more). How did it all go so wrong? How did we end up with DLC gouging those who buy the game brand new, and not those buying the complete edition months later?

And despite all of this, the bottom line is that the Box Office Window still matters, it still means something even when it is being parasitically drained in the name of making more money later. Making money is an old habit for these companies and it’s not that which bothers me at all; they are allowed to make money and that is fine. It’s how they make that money that should raise the alarm bells, and by shafting those who go to see Die Hard at the cinema in lieu of those who buy the DVD later can only serve to weaken the box office window, surely? If people believe they will get a better deal by waiting, why go and see a new movie at the cinema? Why buy a brand new game? There’s no reason. There’s no incentive for them to do it. They are making a sensible choice; by paying out once, and once only, for the better version.

Both industries have put money ahead of everything else. And whatever they blame, the reality is the buck stops with them. They have created this world, this landscape, this market. This is their own doing, and consumers are just invariably doing what consumers do best; looking at the trends, and realising that they can save money. Money that both industries want, but consumers are not letting them have because they are willing more and more to wait. This will skew the initial Box Office window, no doubt about that. It will be up to the industry then to decide what matters more; it’s long-game, or its box-office window. It cannot somehow use both as a gauge for success. Because one invariably has to lose for them; one will not cover its costs. When it’s about money, the side making the most money wins.

And it’s not that people aren’t willing to spend their money; Halo 4 is a great example of a game with a frankly mammoth budget that, whilst it wasn’t perfect, managed to make all its money back very, very quickly. Microsoft’s behemoth made $220 million on its first day; for a game that cost roughly $100 million, that’s an incredible return. People can spend their money. And smaller companies and developers can make it; FROM Software were making a profit on Dark Souls after I believe half a million copies were shifted. So please don’t think I’m getting all doom and gloom about the entire market; there are obvious examples of it not only doing well but thriving in these hardened times. There are shoots of green amidst the dreary grey and brown; and we must not forget that they deserve every bit as much attention as the big tanks trying to run them over.

But you see Capcom release the new Ghostbusters iOS title that is all about paying to play. You see EA complain about losing sales and blaming everyone but themselves. You see a rubbish game like Aliens: Colonial Marines sell huge units, because people were given pre-order and day-one bonuses to make them want to buy it.

This really isn’t rocket science. It’s business.

And business seems to be the one thing many of these businesses have forgotten to do…

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