The Ignored Crack; A Little Essay

Yes, it’s time for another round of “Kami States The Bleeding Obvious!”

 

I have no qualms with microtransactions as a business model.

That may seem an odd way to kick off a criticism of the market, but it’s not. Because the first thing you need to understand is that microtransactions are not, in themselves, a problem. There are plenty of intelligently-made games that do a perfectly brisk and fair trade in this sphere and to undermine their work because of the sheer greed of a group of desperately out-of-touch executives desperately chasing their end of year bonuses would do them a terrible disservice. They provide you a game, free of charge, and they hope/expect that players will pony up a little money to support their cause, because ultimately there is nothing WRONG with a developer wanting to make a living from their work. Anyone who disagrees with that is a spoilt little brat who needs a clip around the ear.

However, like anything, it’s the extreme end that has really come into its own. And more specifically, being asked to pay MORE money for in-game items and content, when I’ve already paid £50-£55 for the game in the first place!

Look industry, I get it. You’re hurting right now under the sheer expense of all those costs and overheads. I understand your frustrations, but asking consumers to pay more money for content that even a year ago they might have been provided free of charge because it was part of the game? That’s shameful. Asking fans of a series to pony up £25 for a season pass and then to have the sheer gall to charge additional money on top to unlock content before others get it? That’s shameful. Asking people to pay money for characters that anyone with a half-arsed understanding of three-dimensional spaces could probably knock up in a weekend? That’s shameful. God items? Shameful. Bikini costumes for girls? Shameful. Witholding the best weapons/potions/stuff in a game you were promoting just to squeeze that last ounce of juice from your weeping consumers little wallet? SHAMEFUL!

Look, next year the UK Government is introducing legislation for mobile phone app creators to adhere to; this is to prevent the bad old ways of microtransactions on Android and iOS. In a world where somewhat unscrupulous individuals have been selling coin packs for kids games at £80 a pop, and where technology has its windows of opportunity to bypass security features, it’s a necessary evil. There are a select few crying that this will kill the market; but then, the market hasn’t been realistic for some time now, has it? These microtransactions have often over-inflated the value of companies and their products; turning over thousands upon thousands every single day looking for the ideal means and methods of getting a fool to part with their cash; or simply, to get their kids to part with it on their behalf. Where so many of these products were even five years ago often free little flash games on compilation sites, they quickly became increasingly over-indulged in their corpulently filthy gains. They were caught red-handed stuffing the cash into their pockets; there was little shame, little remorse. And hilariously, in America, it was Apple who was forced to pay up for this, to take responsibility for allowing it to happen on their platform.

People are fighting back against microtransactions; Gran Turismo 6 was released very recently. And already someone has found a way to increase in-game cashflow without paying a penny extra in microtransactions; yup, people are now cheating the commercialised cheats. The same is being worked on in other games too, like Ryze. The sad reality for the industry is that it has willingly walked into a war with their own customers; and at a time when the scale of how microtransactions got to be this huge monolithic giant of a creature has been revealed (to be less than honest), it’s chosen the worst possible timing in order to do it.

And they’ve done it in the worst possible way; with the costs of games already having increased by £10 in many cases, sticking in microtransactions is a lesson in pure, unadulterated greed. This isn’t wanting their cake and eating it. This is wanting OUR cakes too. They want all the cakes. They want to feast on the cakes until they vomit. And then they want to feast on cakes some more. Had they chosen one or the other to start with, there’s little doubt that maybe some more sympathy would have been given (maybe less on the microtransactions, but likely moreso on the flat increase). But to deliver the two at the same time – alongside muddying it all with season passes, day-one DLC, pre-order exclusive content and the like – smacks of sheer corporate avarice.

The problem is that they forget money for many is finite; we’re not all CEO’s of major multi-national conglomerates. We don’t all walk around with masses of bling and a car that only does four miles to the gallon. As they increase the costs gradually, they stretch the market to its limitations, gouging it as viciously as it can for money. And that seems like a fantastic idea – in the short term. But when your sequel comes out, reputation ruined, and sells a paltry 20% of its former glory in copies, you learn the damage. Short-term gains cannot be sustained in the long-term. People get wise, people learn, and people will avoid the carefully placed piles of dog poop. And eventually, they’ll simply price people out of the market.

To me, that’s the most shameful thing of all. It treats consumers with a contempt that borders on the obscene, and it won’t actually fix anything. Once the money dries up, the cracks will appear again, perhaps even larger than before. Whatever problems some of these companies have, it isn’t going to be easily addressed by asking their customers to blindly fork over the dollars/pounds. We’re talking serious business issues here. Sony spent its way into years of debt and poor credit ratings with the PlayStation 3. Microsoft has never made a profit on the XBox, and the Live service continues to lose it money. Capcom, EA, UbiSoft and Square-Enix, four of the worlds biggest publishing houses, are all facing serious finance issues too:

* Capcom don’t have the money to do a next-gen fighting game, likely because they’re down to a net worth of $125 million.
* Under Riccitiello, EA lost $3 billion over five years – and more millions this year in lawsuits!
* Square-Enix not only lost money last year; but also its long-suffering boss!
* UbiSoft has revised annual forecasts this year because it failed to get WatchDogs out for the next-gen launch.

It’s simply unrealistic for any CEO, or economist, to ignore such pressing issues. If the industry was in rude health, then one could argue that the measures were unjust and could fight back with relatively fewer repercussions. But right now, it’s a bit of a knife edge. And even if companies don’t outright keel over and die – the job losses that will have to be endured to cut their costs will certainly hurt like hell. Fewer risks, more annualised franchises, more need to gouge players for cash. It’s a horrible situation that the industry thinks is the answer to its prayers; without realising that it’s the devil himself who has answered, and stolen away with its soul.

It’s perhaps easy to see this from an outside perspective. But from inside, it’s probably less obvious through the concern to keep the money pouring in. All they know is they have to keep the money flowing. If that means less sales to get more money, that’s a trade-off. But it’s one the industry can’t make. It doesn’t want less sales. It wants more. It wants more sales, more money, more everything. And it’s becoming painfully clear, with dwindling sales figures, that really – it can’t. It really can’t have it all, and at some point, it’s going to have to sit down and address the pressing issues that it has been so wantonly ignoring for the past five or six years. Microtransactions in newer games are merely filler; they’ll smooth over the cracks for now. Then it will reappear, and they’ll think, “That’s odd. Best get more cash.” Then they’ll fill it again, not realising that it’s the same crack that is simply getting larger, and larger. Eventually you’ll have serious structural failings, and the response will be: “But it is only a little crack! How on earth could it do that?” – ignoring that they’ve been filling over that “little crack” every year for seven or eight years.

IT’S THE SAME FREAKING CRACK!

You know, the one you’ve been painting/filling over for years? That ‘little crack’, in truth, isn’t really so little. It’s probably a massive great big movement; the foundations of the market have shifted, the ground around it has become saturated with content (and not all of it pleasant… eww!) and ultimately the whole structure that is built on top of it is at risk; unstable, unsteady and needing serious structural work and underpinning in order to keep the whole thing upright. If the video game market was a house, I’d be calling in Sarah Beeny round about now.

The longer such issues are ignored, the more disastrous and ugly the eventual crash is going to be. And the harder it will become to put it back together without having to rebuild the entire thing from scratch again. The warning signs are there; we as the consumers are being asked to be party to such lunacy and disregard for its own well-being. We’re being asked to pretend it’s all okay; Sony and Microsoft prance around right now. “Look at all our console sales!” they say. Except, you know, they’re not making any money right now.

The thing is, I don’t believe the industry knows why its costs have spiralled so much. It’s somewhat telling that games like Super Mario 3D World can make a profit at a tenth of the sales of any other title; or that Nintendo believes in the idea or potential of games selling over years, rather than the weeks that many others afford their titles, weeks that entirely denote whether or not they’ve done enough to make their money back before their next release. But that’s an aside; whether it’s marketing budgets gone haywire, teams that have become overly-bloated, schedules that can be constantly put back for very little overall gain or constantly competing with their own products most of the time, the end result is the same. The problem is as it has been for some time; more money going out from the games than coming in. Spending more than you are making.

And asking consumers to go along with this is frankly idiotic to me. I sigh, because I know that eventually someone will end up getting hurt, and they’ll look around for sympathy. “We never saw it coming!”, they will tell us. And yet, we all saw it coming. It’s just that the people whose job it is to identify and repair this sort of thing have simply been plastering over the crack repeatedly; the end result is obvious. And what will happen with all those IPs that need rehousing? They’ll probably end up being rehoused in other companies, buying them at auction. Companies who are similarly ignoring the cracks in their own walls, hoarding property away in poorly-conceived shelters.

I don’t wish to end on doom and gloom; there’s still plenty of hope. This generation could last well into 2022 – 2025 at a push, even. The idea of slash and burn profit has to stop; this might have been somewhat acceptable and perhaps even tolerable when hardware generations were four or five years; now, they’re twice that. We have digital distribution that can sell games long after they go out of print, at far less cost to the publishers (although really, they need to slightly lower the prices for that to work!). People are buying independent games; proving that short, sweet, cheaper games can be just as valid and profitable as some of the higher-cost, big-budget alternatives (a lesson you think UbiSoft would have learned with Bastion, eh? Clearly not…). A longer hardware generation will invariably also help the hardware makers themselves; a longer generational cycle means they can start to make profits on the hardware itself.

The industry has a chance to take a deep breath now, to stop and take stock. The demand for big-budget games is dwindling; recent low sales show that we’re just saturated in them, and we can’t afford to buy them all at the same time. The call for some older IPs is great; even just cheap and dirty ports of older games are accepted by many, something Sega have amazingly responded to recently with 3D-tweaked ports of many of its Mega Drive/Genesis classics for the Nintendo 3DS. People are actually wanting more merchandise; the crying over a Mega Man-themed board game being US only is quite interesting. The diversification of the market, and the push for mid-tier priced games around the £20 mark as well as sub-£10 products, has created many more avenues that could absolutely be explored.

I won’t be disingenuous; in saying the industry has never had it so good would be perhaps overly optimistic. But it’s never had the time to allow their developers to breathe a little, and explore multiple different avenues and markets. If it’s all rush-rush-rush, spend-spend-spend, they’re going to get worn out. Many people are making great livings from their cheaper, interesting games. Big publishers may assume that leaves them open to dominate the top end. But we can’t all afford seven or eight multi-million dollar big-name franchises all in the space of three to four weeks. That’s £440 at the top end. In games. I can’t do it. And I don’t think anyone else can either.

And yes, back to those microtransactions; if I’m being expected to buy all these games, you can’t expect me, as a consumer, to also buy the in-game DLC packs or microtransaction buffs/currency. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. I can’t afford it. And I’m sure you can’t either. So perhaps it’s time to tell them that crack needs seeing to. This isn’t being horrible. It’s not being nasty. It’s not even being a fanatical fan. It’s just pointing out those cracks it keeps trying to cover up are the same cracks over and over. That we have to point this out seems simplistic; surely they have people being paid to point this out?

But as we’ve seen in analysts and economists in the last couple of years, in terms of the Euro, the banking sectors and a certain analyst who always sticks his neck out and gets plenty wrong, sometimes they’re not the best people to be taking financial advice from.

After all, their jobs depend on a little financial chaos, no?

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