This is a guest post by Cliff Bleszinski, former game designer at Epic Games. During his 20-year tenure at Epic he was deeply involved in the development of Unreal and Gears of War game franchises.
The video game industry is just that. An industry.
Which means that it exists in a capitalistic world. You know, a free market. A place where you’re welcome to spend your money on whatever you please… or to refrain from spending that money.
Those companies that put these products out? They’re for profit businesses. They exist to produce, market, and ship great games ultimately for one purpose. First, for money, then, for acclaim.
And when those companies are publicly traded on the stock market they’re forced to answer to their shareholders. This means that they need to make a lot of money in order to increase the value of the shareholder’s stock. Every quarter.
Adjusted for inflation, your average video game is actually cheaper than it ever has been. Never mind the ratio of the hours of joy you get from a game per dollar compared to film.
To produce a high quality game it takes tens of millions of dollars, and when you add in marketing that can get up to 100+ million. In the AAA console market you need to spend a ton of cash on television ads alone, never mind other marketing stunts, launch events, swag, and the hip marketing agency that costs a boatload in your attempts to “go viral” with something. Not only is the market more crowded than ever but your average consumer has many more entertainment options than ever before in the history of humanity. (Hell, when levels are loading in our games my wife and I read Twitter and Reddit.)
Another factor to consider is the fact that many game development studios are in places like the San Francisco bay area, where the cost of living is extraordinarily high. (Even Seattle is pretty pricey these days.) Those talented artists, programmers, designers, and producers that spent their time building the game you love? They need to eat and feed their families. (Something that the hipster/boomerang kid generation seems to forget all too often.)
I’ve seen a lot of comments online about microtransactions. They’re a dirty word lately, it seems. Gamers are upset that publishers/developers are “nickel and diming them.” They’re raging at “big and evil corporations who are clueless and trying to steal their money.”
I’m going to come right out and say it. I’m tired of EA being seen as “the bad guy.” I think it’s bullshit that EA has the “scumbag EA” memes on Reddit and that Good Guy Valve can Do No Wrong.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of Gabe and co. and most everything they do. (Remember, I bought that custom portal turret that took over the internet a while back and I have friends over there.) However, it blows my mind that somehow gamers don’t seem to get that Valve is a business, just like any other, and when Valve charges $100 for an engagement ring in Team Fortress 2 it’s somehow “cool” yet when EA wants to sell something similar it’s seen as “evil.” Yes, guys, I hate to break it to you, as awesome as Valve is they’re also a company that seeks to make as much money as possible.
They’re just way better at their image control.
Making money and running a business is not inherently evil. It creates jobs and growth and puts food on the table. This country was built on entrepreneurship. Yes, there are obvious issues around basic business ethics (Google “Pinto Fires”) and the need for a company to give back to its community, but that’s not what this blog is about right now.
People love to beat up on Origin, but they forget that, for a good amount of time, Steam sucked. No one took it seriously for the first while. When Gabe pitched it at GDC to my former co-workers years ago they came back with eye rolls. (Who’s laughing now? All of Valve.) It took Valve years to bang their service into the stellar shape that it is in these days. Yet somehow everyone online forgets this, and they give EA crap about trying to create their own online services. Heaven forbid they see our digital roadmap for the future and try to get on board the “games as services” movement.
I remember when the rage was pointed at Epic when we allowed users to purchase weapon skins in Gears 3. I replied to an enraged fan on Twitter that “You’re more than welcome to not buy the optional cosmetic weapon skins that will make you more visible to the enemy.” And you know what? In spite of the uproar, people still bought plenty of them. (I’ve seen the numbers.)
If you don’t like EA, don’t buy their games. If you don’t like their micro-transactions, don’t spend money on them. It’s that simple. EA has many smart people working for them (Hi, Frank, JR, and Patrick!) and they wouldn’t attempt these things if they didn’t work. Turns out, they do. I assure you there are teams of analysts studying the numbers behind consumer behavior over there that are studying how you, the gamer, spends his hard earned cash.
If you’re currently raging about this on GAF, or on the IGN forums, or on Gamespot, guess what? You’re the vocal minority. Your average guy that buys just Madden and GTA every year doesn’t know, nor does he care. He has no problem throwing a few bucks more at a game because, hey, why not?
The market as I have previously stated is in such a sense of turmoil that the old business model is either evolving, growing, or dying. No one really knows. “Free to play” aka “Free to spend 4 grand on it” is here to stay, like it or not. Everyone gets a Smurfberry! Every single developer out there is trying to solve the mystery of this new model. Every console game MUST have a steady stream of DLC because, otherwise, guess what? It becomes traded in, or it’s just rented. In the console space you need to do anything to make sure that that disc stays in the tray. I used to be offended by Gamestop’s business practices but let’s be honest… they’re the next Tower Records or Sam Goody. It’s only a matter of time.
Remember, if everyone bought their games used there would be no more games. I don’t mean to knock you if you’re cash strapped – hell, when I was a kid and I had my paper route I would have bought the hell out of used games. But understand that when faced with this issue those that fund and produce those games you love have to come up with all sorts of creative ways for the business to remain viable and yes, profitable.
Saying a game has micro-transactions is a giant generalization, really, it is an open ended comment. What can you buy? Can you buy a cosmetic hat? Or can I spend a buck to go to the top of the leaderboard? Can I buy a bigger gun? What about gambling? (It’s like saying a game is open world; that could mean GTA, Assassin’s Creed, or heck, even Borderlands.) Which one do you actually mean? Do Zynga’s practices often feel sleazy? Sure. Don’t like it? Don’t play it. Don’t like pay to win? You have the freedom to opt out and not even touch the product.
If you truly love a product, you’ll throw money at it.
No one seemed too upset at Blizzard when you could buy a pet in World of Warcraft – a game that you had to buy that was charging a monthly fee. (How dare console games have steady cycles of buyable DLC!) When I was a child and the Ultimate Nintendo Fanboy I spent every time I earned from my paper route on anything Nintendo. Nintendo Cereal. Action figures. Posters. Nintendo Power. Why? Because I loved what Nintendo meant to me and I wanted them to keep bringing me more of this magic.
People like to act like we should go back to “the good ol’ days” before micro-transactions but they forget that arcades were the original change munchers. Those games were designed to make you lose so that you had to keep spending money on them. Ask any of the old Midway vets about their design techniques. The second to last boss in Mortal Kombat 2 was harder than the last boss, because when you see the last boss that’s sometimes enough for a gamer. The Pleasure Dome didn’t really exist in the original Total Carnage. Donkey Kong was hard as hell on purpose. (“Kill screen coming up!”)
I’ve been transparent with most folks I’ve worked with in my career as to why I got into this business. First, to make amazing products – because I love the medium more than any. Second, to be visible. I enjoy the notoriety that I’ve managed to stir up. And finally, yes, to make money. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure is a nice lubricant when you can take that trip you’ve always wanted or feed your family or pay your bills on time.
And that brings me full circle to my main point. If you don’t like the games, or the sales techniques, don’t spend your money on them.
You vote with your dollars.
Republished with permission.