A recent opinion piece in Wired Magazine references a reader poll by The Consumerist where respondents were asked to select “The Worst Company in America”. The winner by a landslide was not a bank, or an insurance firm, or even an oil conglomerate; it was Electronic Arts – a video game publisher.
Whether you agree with the results or not, they point to a hot, simmering undercurrent of anger and frustration that’s been steadily coming to a boil in the gaming community. I once wrote a piece here lamenting the high price of comic books in modern times, but there’s no question comics have got nothing on video games. Buying a new game these days is an investment of sixty dollars, MSRP, and I don’t know about you, but that’s enough money to make people like my wife and I take a serious look on whether we really, really need to have it or would be better off doing a rental or used purchase.
The above of course hits on a sore spot for publishers, whose number one claim is that the used and rental marketplace is exactly why they have to sell new games at such inflated prices – set-ups like GameFly and GameStop are to blame, not to mention the everpresent spectre of software piracy. But articles such as the one in Wired and this one are calling bullshit on such notions, pointing out that game trades and used sales have been going on for decades, and one particularly choice tidbit is a chart showing how game sales under the sixty dollar model were increasing right up until 2008; the year the current recession started, yes, but also when App Stores and digital delivery services like Steam really started becoming major players.
This is probably also where consumer frustration started to really heat up. As an analogy, let’s consider that gas in the Los Angeles area currently costs around $4.30 per gallon. No consumer is happy about that, but we grumble and pay it because we need to run our cars. You might find the occasional station that’s 10 or even 20 cents under the average, but it’s not like there’s someone selling perfectly good gas at a tiny fraction of that four dollar price tag. If there were, you would probably be asking questions — well, first you’d go fill your tank to the brim, then you’d ask questions.
So you can get these App Store games, like the infamous Angry Birds, for 99 cents. If you make the argument that Angry Birds is no Mass Effect or Call of Duty, well, there’s Steam and Xbox Live Arcade and other such services now where you can get new games or oldies-but-goodies digitally delivered for $20 bucks or less. Now you’re asking the question: if this model is succeeding and profiting (and it is), where’s all that extra money going to for the sixty dollar games? The packaging? The CD? That’s not an answer because even if you buy a digital copy of a new game (like we did with The Old Republic) they expect the exact same price of sixty dollars.
We’re not even talking my imperfect gas station analogy where that mythical gas station would have a line so long the hassle would outweigh the benefits, we’re talking an unlimited supply of software available to you with a few clicks and a download. This is where people start asking what the hell’s going on. This is where game companies start running out of any answers other than “We charge this much because we know you’ll still pay it”. And that’s an answer people really, really tend not to like, especially if they end up with a product that doesn’t meet their expectations. Would people be quite so enraged with the Mass Effect 3 ending if the game had cost them 20 dollars?
Maybe, but I’m sure the hefty pricetag doesn’t help. What also doesn’t help is that that DLC’s are piling further cost on top of your purchase, and more and more those DLC’s are really skating the edge of being something that should have been included in the core product. One of the more controversial recent examples was Street Fighter X Tekken, which was released as a sixty dollar game with extra characters already on the disc that you couldn’t unlock through play like has always been the norm in fight games – Capcom gave no option but to pay an extra 20 dollars in order to access those characters as “DLC Content”. In a way it’s like hiding a true price tag of $80, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, it’s already been hacked.
The modern gamer faces a real problem. On the one hand, you want to support the people whose work you admire and you’re willing to pay for that – but on the other, now that Bioware is under EA’s umbrella, you wonder just how much of the money you’re spending is actually finding its way into the pockets of the people who made Bioware such a quality name in the first place?
Speaking of which, these arguments and counterarguments all want to sound the death knell on risk taking, on “mid-tier” publishing, on ideas untested in the marketplace. Both supporters of the sixty dollar model and the ones who want to see it torn down have written off the casualties…
“Games that critics and consumers universally laud as “must-haves” can continue to support this massive premium. But it’s the mid-tier titles, the unestablished IPs, the riskier endeavors, the worthwhile games that don’t quite master the magic formula, that will never get off the ground. Even highly-praised franchise entries like Rayman Origins struggle, and publishers like THQ have been threatened with NASDAQ delisting despite enjoying sales that “exceed expectations.” Black Rock, creators of critical darlings Pure and Split/Second, were denied sequels by publisher Disney to focus on freemium content and eventually shuttered entirely.”
For whatever reason, neither the Wired article nor the one on Yahoo! Games spend any time talking about Kickstarter.
And they really, really should. One article even went so far as to single out Tim Schafer’s Brutal Legend as a lamentable casualty of the system. I remember worrying about the future of Double Fine, Tim’s independent development company, in the wake of the game’s commercial failure… but between then and now, something happened. Kickstarter happened. Shaffer and his cohorts bypassed all the established models and took their message straight to the consumers, and those of us who still remembered the glory days of LucasArts adventure gaming or the more recent awesomeness of games like Psychonauts barely got through the first few sentences of the pitch before we started gibbering in incoherent glee and giving up our credit card information. Schafer even brought the band back together by getting Ron Gilbert on board. They were asking for $400,000 to fund a new-old-school style point-and-click adventure, exactly the kind of project no big modern publisher would touch (I mean, for heaven’s sake, where’s the multiplayer?). By the end of the funding period, all the old nostalgic nerds, and apparently quite a few new ones, had between them pledged nearly 3.5 million dollars.
If you’re not familiar with how Kickstarter works, you can establish reward tiers for various levels of money pledged, and the very first reward tier was basically pre-ordering a digital copy of the game. For $15. That’s the price of a goddamn movie ticket these days, and, it would seem, also the price a decent game could be sold for if you got rid of all the bullshit.
Kickstarter gets rid of the bullshit and the middlemen and ensures that, for better or worse, your pledge dollars are going directly to the guys and gals asking for them. It’s a good feeling. For creators, they have no one to answer to except themselves and their fans. Most of all, it answers an important question ahead of time: is there a demand?
Lest anyone think that Double Fine’s adventure (see what I did there?) was a fluke, it directly inspired another project involving some of the game developer wunderkin of the 80s and 90s. I give you Wasteland 2, which just ended its Kickstarter run this week after having raised nearly 3 million in funding, over three times what Brian Fargo and his cohorts were asking to fund a sequel to their long-gone masterpiece of post-apocalyptic, open world design. The fallout of Wasteland was, well… Fallout, not to mention just about every sandbox game since conceived all the way up to modern offerings such as Skyrim. It’s really something I still need to queue up in my Low-Rez Recollections, and I think I may have literally gasped in joy when my friend Bryn let me know about the Kickstarter in progress.
I mean, Interplay. Why have I not dedicated low-rez space to Interplay yet? Probably not enough memory on the floppy. Interplay not only developed and published legendary, innovative games like Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale (yes, there was an original that was very, very much unlike the more recent remake), it bloody well gave a little franchise called Baldur’s Gate its first home, supporting a little group of developers calling themselves Bioware. I’m going to stop with the gushing now, but seeing names like Brian Fargo, Michael A. Stackpole and Chris Avellone attached to the Wasteland project give me just as much of a thrill as Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert.
But you know what gave me the biggest thrill of all? Scrolling through the reward tiers and seeing this:
PLEDGE $50 OR MORE: One digital copy and one full LARGE BOXED COPY OF WASTELAND 2, complete with worn cloth game map and old school instruction book.
Just so you know, there was more than that. Novellas, digital art book and soundtrack downloads, etc., but seriously, they had me at the big box, with “worn cloth game map and old school instruction book”. In other words, an instruction book that actually has content. Haven’t I ranted before on how much I’ve missed all of that in this modern, minimalist age? I… I dunno, even without all the other extras, if games still came packed full of stuff like they did in the old days, a fifty or sixty dollar pricetag might not seem so steep to me.
I freely admit it, I’m carried away on all this. I am floating on serene tides of nostalgia, putting my faith in these folks of my youth to put my money to good use. If they can pull it off, then a new era will have truly dawned where we, the prospective players, can stop complaining that the games we want to play aren’t made anymore (or never were made) and start putting our money where our mouths are to allow talented designers to make them happen. Robert Brockaway over on Cracked listed four more great examples, including The Banner Saga, which just ended its Kickstarter run yesterday with almost 3/4ths of a million pledged, seven times the goal of 100k.
“…a beautifully hand-drawn, animated adventure with turn-based tactical strategy set in a post-apocalyptic Viking world…”
Turn-based tactical strategy? What year do they think this is, 1993? Electronic Arts would have patted the developers on their heads and gently shown them the door, assuming they even got in the door in the first place. I’m quite certain Electronic Arts is why Mass Effect 3 has a tacked-on multiplayer component, and not only that but one that can only be accessed through a code provided with a newly bought game or an additional purchase off Xbox Live. I ponder if they’ll go so far as to make Bioware charge for the new ending(s) that people are clamoring for?
Anyhow, Wasteland 2 is similarly planning to keep to the turn-based style of its predecessor, and that’s just not something it seems like EA would touch, despite the irony that a much smaller, non-megacorporate Electronic Arts was responsible for publishing Wasteland in 1988.
I’ll be curious to see how different the pricetag for the final versions of these Kickstarter games will be from the pledge pricing, but I doubt it will hit the sixty dollar mark. I’m just happy to see a lot of these guys back on the horse again, in some cases finally getting to do a sequel they’ve wanted to have happen for 25 years.
Kickstarter could very well mean not only the future of independent game development, but a return to those glory days of the 80s and early 90s when weird ideas abounded and creativity was king, and not every bestseller game was a real-time first or third-person shooter. To be fair, that style of game hadn’t really been born yet, but in 2012 it’s taken over to the point where it seems that’s how your game has to play in order to be taken seriously by a big publisher. Period.
So for those creators whose ideas lie in a different direction, and those of us who would like other options, I’m crossing my fingers that this works out. Indie developers who don’t have to charge sixty dollars a game, making labors of love for those who love the labor. A gaming economy based on merit? Madness. And yet once upon a time, it was… and I believe it can be again.