A Dirge for the Sinking Ship

Ask certain people in the know, and they will tell you that the current gaming market is unsustainable. It’s pretty rare that I turn my Sauron eye to the forums for support, but this particular comment about Electronic Arts’ recent layoffs is the kind of science I like to see laid on people. It ties together with troubling research I’ve done on my own end, and while I’m not on board with the full conclusion, there does seem to be some strong evidence that the gaming industry is stuck in the Death Star trash compactor and can’t seem to get 3PO on the communicator.

I honestly have a genuine fear about what the next 3 or 4 years might bring in the gaming marketplace. Even if there is not dire writing on the wall some troubling graffiti has turned up portending dark days ahead. The industry has been in a struggle for nearly a decade to monetize their transactions outside of the initial purchase, and instead of making progress the rise of the used market, an unreliable consumer base and the omni-present piracy revenue suck have just made things worse.

So, when Bioware and EA put so many resources into developing a hardcore gamers-game like Dragon Age, and people light pitchforks on fire because of optional DLC, I can’t help but feel intensely frustrated at what I see as thin-skinned entitlement and monumental naivete.

I consider many in the angry mob to be friends, and it does not give me pleasure to stand against them. But, I firmly believe that if you want to keep getting games like Dragon Age, like Fallout 3, like Uncharted 2, like The Beatles: Rock Band then gamers are going to need to get on board with or at least stop openly revolting against things like Day-1 DLC.

I have been watching with trepidation and concern the past 2 years as a conflict of game publishing ideology has erupted between the once mighty Electronic Arts and the laser-focused, unrepentant capitalism of Activision. And, as EA sheds hundreds of jobs, and more importantly dozens of projects, my worst fears are come true. The focus on scatter-shot approaches to new IPs and emphasis on driving quality over quantity is great for warming cockles in hearts, but ejaculating dozens of crappy iterations of go-to franchises has tragically triumphed as the profitable way to go.

The only way to sustain that emphasis on gamer-friendly qualities is by making a profit on the releases that do well to off-set the costs of doing business. Warden’s Keep isn’t about greedily slurping up the ignorance of gamers. It’s about funding the next Mirror’s Edge. It’s about having the resources to take chances on games that gamers love.

Have cake or eat cake. Sorry, kids, you only get to choose one, and I fear now even that choice may have been taken from our hands.

While we were all squabbling in the corner over meaningless skirmishes about DLC and dedicated servers, the war was waged on another front and it’s starting to look like we lost.

I hate to be dire, but I’ve seen 3 years of the Bobby Kotick doctrine, and if that’s what the future for companies like EA and TakeTwo and THQ is going to be then we’re going to sit back in a few years and long for the day when we got to whine about Day-1 DLC in a game like Dragon Age. Let me describe the future I see. Subscription based services married with microtransactions. Hobbled initial releases where the DLC is not just an optional quest, but key game mechanics. One-time required online authentication that prevents multi-player for used games. A virtual death of games like Mirror’s Edge, Dead Space, Ghostbusters, Brutal Legend, Borderlands or Dragon Age.

You're standing on the Titanic, and you're complaining about the color of the deck chairs.

If I sound mad, it’s because I am. It is an unfocussed rage that simmers and burns, because many of the kinds of games I adore are destined for the dust bin. And, the reality is that no one is clean in this fight. Publishers have adopted a model that is proving unsustainable to match the rising cost of development. Retailers who struggle against thin new-release profit margins have compromised the industry as a whole for their own profit. Gamers have waged their own zealot war against a changing marketplace, irresponsibly made unreasonable decisions about their entitlements and bent the rules as they see fit to get what they think they’ve got coming. Nobody comes out of this smelling like a rose.

As our well-informed forum commenter mentions in his post, the acquisition of Playfish along with the cancellation of mid-range games might as well be EA’s white flag waved in the breeze. You recall when Activision let go of Ghostbusters, Brutal Legend and the Chronicles of Riddick remake. These are exactly the kind of games that major publishers can’t afford to make any more if they can’t find a meaningful way to continue profiting beyond initial sales. These are exactly the kind of games that EA just ejected.

Let me put it this way, if having Day-one DLC in a game like Dragon Age means that Bioware gets to make the sequel, and not having it means they don’t, I will happily take the opportunity to make my informed purchasing choice and I will fold my arms and look sternly at those who gripe and complain. Drawing the line in the sand has consequences, and I’m not nearly invested enough in the ideology of consumer activism in the gaming marketplace to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If you want an industry that can take chances. If you want an industry that can be agile and adaptable to niche demands. If you want publishers that are willing to explore new IPs and put resources behind projects like Dragon Age, then you, my stubborn and well-intentioned comrades, need to turn down the righteous fury.

Comments

Pages

this was a great read, this should be communicated to everyone everywhere.

Very well said. Up until this point in my gaming career, I have never purchased any DLC for a game. Zip, zero, nada. Dragon Age is actually the first game I plan on getting DLC for. As soon as I reach the infamous part of the game in which the stranger tries to sell you the Warden's Keep DLC, I plan on replying with a, "Hell Yeah. Sell me more sh*t!" And it goes beyond just really enjoying DA:O. I've realized that games are going to need to do this to survive. I might as well help the good ones.

I'm just going to jump in and comment here and say thanks for the kind words checkm and tkyl, because I'm about to get my ass thoroughly kicked for a couple of days.

Amen.

Edit: And by that i refer to the article, not the ensuing ass-kicking.

Well said and completely true. The gaming industry must mutate or die, just like any other business model. Those who struggle to hang on to old ways are in for a world of pain (a la print media). I personally don't get the nerd rage over all of this. In its current form, DLCs and microtransactions are optional. They aren't stopping anyone from playing and enjoying any given title.

Now if and when it becomes mandatory, where publishers release skeleton-games that can only be fleshed out with additional purchases ... Well then I will have to take a good long look at which entities I will be supporting with my consumer dollars.

Also I don't think birthing new revenue streams is the only answer. Digital distribution is no longer an exception to the rule. I don't have exact numbers, but surely there is tremendous cost-savings there. How long before games are *only* available via download?

Elysium wrote:

I can’t help but feel intensely frustrated at what I see as thin-skinned entitlement and monumental naivete.

It could be a very unpopular opinion, but I think it needs to be said. Gamers need to reward the good developers if they want to play really good games.

Now if and when it becomes mandatory, where publishers release skeleton-games that can only be fleshed out with additional purchases ... Well then I will have to take a good long look at which entities I will be supporting with my consumer dollars.

Couldn't agree more. You think today's fight is bad, wait until this happens. And, I have to admit that I'll be thinking the whole time, "boy, if people had just gotten over themselves 4 years ago we wouldn't be in this mess." Those who will rail and complain the loudest may end up having no one but themselves to blame.

jonnypolite wrote:

Amen.

Edit: And by that i mean to the article, not the ensuing ass-kicking.

Seconded. Aside from what is outlined above, I tend to think DLC offers greater consumer choice, by letting one more precisely decide how much 'game' they want to buy, and how much they want to spend: You want Abbey Road but not Sargent Pepper? Done. You want Warden's Keep? It's up to you.

I think how you feel about this really depends on how you view something like the "Warden's Keep" DLC. You, Elysium, seem to feel that it's an optional purchase that will help fund future mid-range games; others, myself among them, feel that "Warden's Keep" is a harbinger of exactly what you describe: "Subscription based services married with microtransactions. Hobbled initial releases where the DLC is not just an optional quest, but key game mechanics. One-time required online authentication that prevents multi-player for used games."

"Warden's Keep" seems like testing the water for these things. Dragon Age is a complete experience without it, but it's hard to escape the suspicion that content that could be sold for extra money on day one could have been included in the original package on day one, as well. Similarly, the one-time-only map codes for Gears of War 2 were a shot at preventing, or at least hobbling, multiplayer for used games. Gamers have almost universally bought into the idea of subscription-based services married with microtransactions in the form of MMO's; even World of WarCraft has added microtransactions, and the reaction here and elsewhere seems to have been either indifference or a good deal of kvetching on the way to the register.

The war is already lost; the ship has sunk. What's happening now is the process of applying business models that have been successful for games like The Sims and Maple Story and Mafia Wars to "hard core" games. In much the same way as music and movies have segregated over time into expensive crowd-pleasers and lower budget, more ambitious efforts, so too will the gaming scene divide into big-budget, nickel-and-dime-you games and buggy, bite-size indie offerings.

Great article, and I've totally got your back.

BRING IT ON, BITCHES

IMAGE(http://pmx2.krose.org/emoticons/auto.gif)

adam.greenbrier wrote:

"Warden's Keep" seems like testing the water for these things. Dragon Age is a complete experience without it, but it's hard to escape the suspicion that content that could be sold for extra money on day one could have been included in the original package on day one, as well.

Calling Dragon Age a "complete experience" without the DLC is an understatement of staggering proportions. Dragon Age minus the DLC is still a game with so much content that most of us will never experience all of it. This is quite simply the wrong game to use as proof of the coming DLC apocalypse.

Elysium wrote:

I'm just going to jump in and comment here and say thanks for the kind words checkm and tkyl, because I'm about to get my ass thoroughly kicked for a couple of days.

I hope not! I sent what you and Morgoth13 wrote to several people I know minutes after reading this post; one who ironically that works for EA (for now). This is a problem which affects all platforms and actual lives. People are losing their jobs here! Flamers, fan boys, and ignorant gaming websites need to stop turning a blind eye to see the overall picture. Our blockbuster quality gaming is at stake here and we might as well go back to the days when all we had were board games.

adam.greenbrier wrote:

I think how you feel about this really depends on how you view something like the "Warden's Keep" DLC. You, Elysium, seem to feel that it's an optional purchase that will help fund future mid-range games; others, myself among them, feel that "Warden's Keep" is a harbinger of exactly what you describe: "Subscription based services married with microtransactions. Hobbled initial releases where the DLC is not just an optional quest, but key game mechanics. One-time required online authentication that prevents multi-player for used games."

"Warden's Keep" seems like testing the water for these things.

I agree with this. The reason why games like like Mirror’s Edge, Dead Space, and Ghostbusters may be going away is because gamers didn't purchase those titles, not because people are not buying enough downloadble Rock Band Tunes. If consumers now begin to show that they are going to support add ons and expansions and etc, EA's not going to go back to risk new IP again, they are simply going to put out MORE add ons and expansions and DLC for already established IP.

Gamers certainly had a chance to change the course of things in the last year or so, but we would have needed to do that by buying the new IP. The fact that we didn't do that is why the industry looks like it is heading in a way that I doubt any gamers like...

So basically you are just saying GG has been right all these years and we just need to listen to everything he says about everything.

I'm with you 100%

Elysium wrote:

Couldn't agree more. You think today's fight is bad, wait until this happens. And, I have to admit that I'll be thinking the whole time, "boy, if people had just gotten over themselves 4 years ago we wouldn't be in this mess." Those who will rail and complain the loudest may end up having no one but themselves to blame.

This is why I have made a conscious decision over the last ~3 years to rely primarily on digital distribution, and support developers like Runic Games. At first, there wasn't much of an advantage. The games cost the same, and getting them was arguably less convenient.

However, I wanted to use my dollar to demonstrate that there was a real market for digital distribution.

No reselling of games? Fine.
Anti-piracy measures? Great.
Internet connection required? No problem.

Despite the risks, I chose to support this model instead of the burn-the-candle-at-both-ends approach publishers and retailers are currently using.

Honestly, it's going to get ugly. I'll miss Fallout 3 terribly, but I've still got Torchlight.

I get your concern...but every industry is constantly changing, growing in some areas and shrinking in others. We've probably all had fears about where the industry was heading in years past; I bemoaned the death of storytelling once adventure games and the likes of Planescape died, but things eventually took its place. I bemoaned the (relative) death of RPGs, but the elements of them are so ubiquitous now that almost every game is an RPG in some sense. The only time to truly worry is when the industry isn't changing at all; that usually signifies the cartoonish pause right at the edge of the precipice before plummeting to death.

Also:

I consider many in angry mob to be friends

I think you're missing a "this" or something similar.

the once might Electronic Arts

And sometimes "y"!

I fear now even that choice may even have been taken from our hands.

That's an awful lot of "even"s. Wordsmythe needs to go sit in the corner for a while, I think.

Also also:
I'm mostly in favor of the new layout, but is it possible to bring back the writer icons at the top right of the page? I miss reading articles while grappling with the dichotomy of Elysium peering at me with his serene smile while his grickle-grass beard threatens to grate me like parmesan cheese.

Personally, I'd much rather just go for a subscription-based system, even for FPS's.

When I look back on the games that sucked up my time the most--BF2, TF2, L4D, etc.--I would have been happy to pay a couple of bones a month to make sure that there was a steady stream of new maps, weapons, etc. that everyone would get. It would keep the game fresh, the community unified, and me playing.

The micro-transactions, especially if they give one person a perceived advantage over another or are essential to progress the game, just cause people to (rightly) bitch and moan. I mean you'd never put up with that behavior in another form of entertainment--like having to pay extra for the final episode of BSG, etc.

What I fear is that publishers have figured out the secret of gamers and will ruthlessly exploit it for all the profit they can squeeze out of us. Gaming is unlike any other form of entertainment in that it's very interactive. I wouldn't say it's "addictive", but rather it's very captivating. And that "stickiness" means companies can charge for a lot of things before gamers who are personally vested in the game or their game character will start to complain or stop playing.

"but it's hard to escape the suspicion that content that could be sold for extra money on day one could have been included in the original package on day one, as well."

This is entirely wrong. For about 20 different reasons.

First of all, just because DLC was complete by the time the game shipped, does not mean that it was done before the game went gold and was shipped to manufacturing. Two very different schedules.

Second of all, as you yourself point out, the game is complete without it. If Warden's Keep was released a few weeks after the game was out, would there be an outrage? If you wouldn't be upset, then perhaps your only problem is that the DLC came out too quickly? Is that really the issue?

And thirdly, Bioware invested in making a complete game and also invested in making this content. Even if the Warden's Keep were completed before DA went gold, why is it that you would expect it to be part of the package? Either a) you think you deserve to get it for free, or b) you think everyone should have to pay for it when they buy the game. I thank them for not forcing b down our throats, and I don't understand the entitlement mentality behind a.

Remember, you are buying a product, not a complete accounting of all the company's efforts over x time. If one team programs two games at the same time and releases both, you don't expect that buying one ought to give you the other for free, do you? Then why, if they create extra content beyond a complete game, do you feel that you deserve that for free?

And it's not like Dragon Age is lacking in content, is it? All the reviews I've seen so far go out of their way to praise Bioware for squeezing so much content into the game. But it's still not enough?

Maybe the biggest reason EA needs to make money from Bioware is the massive amount of money they paid for the company.

Anyway I thought the $10 price increase and collector's editions would take care of the making money problem. DLC Is just an extra money grab, but really not alot different from a collector's edition.

So I don't have a beef with it.

However I won't buy a game if I don't think it is worth $60. I'll wait for the price drop. I don't buy collector's editions. And the only DLC I bought were maps from Battlefield 2 which reminds me. On the pc side of things we've always had xpacs sold to us a year later and not many complained about it except when the perceived value wasn't there.

That's what it is really all about. Of course these companies know gamers have no control and gamers know this too so that's why they complain. Why are you making DLC day one and charging me $10 for horse armor? I'm a gamer. I have to buy that. You're taking advantage of my DNA. Dam you Bethesda. You suck.

Not sure Dragon Age will be hurting. It's a Bioware game. I'm pretty sure they've sold 1-2 million copies at least and made money. So I don't buy the dire circumstances.

They have a loyal audience. And a long game like a Dragon Age doesn't make for a good rental nor is it quickly traded back in. They probably didn't have to hurry so much on releasing DLC already. But I guess they wanted to get the message out loud and clear that you shouldn't trade your game back in or you will (miss) the extra content - a sample of which we have ready for you now.

Activision passed on those games because it was highly likely they weren't going to make any money.

adam.greenbrier wrote:

I think how you feel about this really depends on how you view something like the "Warden's Keep" DLC. You, Elysium, seem to feel that it's an optional purchase that will help fund future mid-range games; others, myself among them, feel that "Warden's Keep" is a harbinger of exactly what you describe: "Subscription based services married with microtransactions. Hobbled initial releases where the DLC is not just an optional quest, but key game mechanics. One-time required online authentication that prevents multi-player for used games."

What you seem to be suggesting, to me anyway, is that there is no middle ground. Either current DLC practices are leading directly to skeleton games whose real features are *only* enabled through DLC -or- you get everything in the game day 1.

Warden's Keep, as you seem to admit, doesn't fall within that first rubrik... it's completely optional set of gear/missions that extend the gameplay of the original; Dragon Age was not hobbled in order to make DLC more attractive. It would seem that DLC in this instance would at least be palatable, but the argument you appear to be making is that a publisher cannot reliably provide a core game + optional DLC on day 1 because it inevitably leads to DLC abuse.

I think Bioware have proved, so far, that they aren't trying to screw gamers over with their DLC. To rail against the practice of DLC out of some principle seems off...

Nice article, Elysium. Just a few points for food for thought (bold is my emphasis):

Elysium wrote:

Publishers have adopted a model that is proving unsustainable to match the rising cost of development.

Do you think that maybe development costs may come down in the future? I admit, that at this point in the current console life cycle, development costs should be as it good as they get. However, with the expectation that the 360 and PS3 have a few more years left in them, will we see less resources needed to develop games?

Elysium wrote:

Retailers who struggle against thin new-release profit margins have compromised the industry as a whole for their own profit.

I've always said that the current price point for games is one of the major hurdles in preventing me from purchasing a game. When you price games at a point where they become impulse buys, then you can expect an increase in sales. I would have not purchased Batman:AA at $69.99; but didn't think twice with it being sold for $39.99.

Maybe a possible way forward is to eliminate the middle man altogether. Forget places like EB Games, and go directly via digital distribution. I think it will take a strong developer/publisher to slash their online prices of games and thumb their nose at the threats from brick and mortar stores about not stocking their games anymore, but it may be worth it. If more money from the sales of games lines the pockets of those that develop it, maybe we can keep getting our Brutal Legends and Dead Spaces in the future.

Elysium wrote:

Gamers have waged their own zealot war against a changing marketplace, irresponsibly made unreasonable decisions about their entitlements and bent the rules as they see fit to get what they think they’ve got coming. Nobody comes out of this smelling like a rose.

I have to sorta disagree with you. If you are used to getting a standard set of features in an item for a long time, and they are then suddenly dropped, I think you may be forgiven if you cry foul. Especially if the new version of the item costs more than the previous ones.

You're right that no one is entitled to dedicated servers, 32 vs 32 player maps, or mod support in a game, but to some (very vocal) few, these are features that make the game for them.

I hope that before the model you describe comes into play, developers and publishers sit down and examine both their successes and failures before deciding that subscriptions and micro transactions are the way to go. Not every game has to look as good as Gears 2, be released in the fall of the year, or have a MMO hook to it. Dial down the graphics a notch, polish up the gameplay, and release it during a slow time of the year and maybe things will change. If the Wii and casual gaming market has shown anything, you don't have to sink millions of dollars and man hours into a game to turn a profit.

btw, I could also argue that DLC is what is going to kill games like Brutal Legend, Mirror's Edge, Ghostbusters, etc.

DLC will create fewer, but bigger and deeper gaming properties.

And the situation will be roughly analogous to WoW and the pcgaming scene.

GAmers will plow their money into their big favorite property instead of spreading it out amongst a bunch of games.

I can't say I disagree with your assessment of the future of "big-budget" gaming, but I see a future that lies in smaller, more intimate gaming.

We are in the middle of a Renaissance of smaller-studio/indie gaming that largely eschews these models and your DLC.

I look at what I'm losing the ability to pay $60 for like Brutal Legends, Borderlands, etc, and compare that to what I have the ability to pay $20-$30 for. Torchlight, Mount and Blade, World of Goo, Demigod, Braid, and Aquaria come to mind immediately. Fez, Spelunky, and more are coming.

All feature more modest price points and less overhead, but are still profitable. Furthermore, I think you may see that the quality and depth produced by the smaller studios can meet or exceed the "Big Studio Game" over time. (And frankly I would say they equal the creativity and depth of any game you mentioned except perhaps DA)

Still, a great article, and I think quite prescient as well. I think it may well be what comes to pass on consoles at least, particularly if neither Sony nor MS more aggressively reduce their barriers to entry for the indie PC-development studios.

Dr._J wrote:

I have to sorta disagree with you. If you are used to getting a standard set of features in an item for a long time, and they are then suddenly dropped, I think you may be forgiven if you cry foul. Especially if the new version of the item costs more than the previous ones.

You're right that no one is entitled to dedicated servers, 32 vs 32 player maps, or mod support in a game, but to some (very vocal) few, these are features that make the game for them.

Because I was looking for another excuse to post this:

Ha ha

I've often wondered if the self-indentified "hardcore gamer" is going to cause the death of a certain style of gaming -- mainly the one they love -- by demanding too much and buying too little. That said I'm not sure Day One DLC is going to be the panacea some companies and this article purport it to be.

And a couple of things about Activision. I wonder, if you take out the sales of Modern Warfare 2, how well Activision will really do this holiday season. I suspect that they'd probably be in a similar boat as EA and Take 2 if they didn't have the biggest game franchise ever right now. Every Big Box store I've walked into from Indiana to California this Fall has had pyramids of Guitar and DJ Hero stacked to the ceiling. And Tony Hawk RIDE sure looks like it is being sent to die.

Also Activision did make the right choice when it came to dumping Ghostbusters, Chronicles of Riddick, and Brutal Legend. Sorry. I know. You hate me now. But its true. We don't know the numbers for Brutal Legend but Ghostbusters and Chronicles bombed badly. Chronicles of Riddick was a remake, Ghostbusters just wasn't very good, and Brutal Legend -- which I still love -- also wasn't a terribly great game.

Activision is easy to hate but there should be a certain acknowledgement that they've made some smart business decisions. Outside of buying BioWare EA hasn't shown that sort of business acumen of late. And Take 2's business strategy seems solely based around BioShock 2 for the moment.

BritishDan wrote:

Either a) you think you deserve to get it for free, or b) you think everyone should have to pay for it when they buy the game. I thank them for not forcing b down our throats, and I don't understand the entitlement mentality behind a.

Remember, you are buying a product, not a complete accounting of all the company's efforts over x time.

That's well said, Dan.

Second of all, as you yourself point out, the game is complete without it. If Warden's Keep was released a few weeks after the game was out, would there be an outrage? If you wouldn't be upset, then perhaps your only problem is that the DLC came out too quickly? Is that really the issue?

It's all about perception. To me releasing day one DLC gives me the perception you are looking to nickel and dime your customer as much as possible. Yes had they waited a month and said, hey we've been working on some DLC here it is, I would have probably been super excited about it.

Give me some time to enjoy the game you wanted to deliver before putting out stuff you think is extra.

That's an awful lot of "even"s. Wordsmythe needs to go sit in the corner for a while, I think.

No blaming Wordy on this one. This is a good example of what happens when I'm running late on the deadline and don't get it once through the wringer.

Amen.

The only vote we have is with our money and our money has failed to do anything but prove Activision right about exploitative properties.

We are in the middle of a Renaissance of smaller-studio/indie gaming that largely eschews these models and your DLC.

I agree here... what is helping this renaissance is a byproduct somewhat of technology and the current economy.

The tools required by developers are getting cheaper and cheaper (and in some cases are free) and the economy has created a good deal of talent that can objectively look at what they really want to do rather than what they might have been forced to do in the past.

Add to that more sophisticated distribution models (Digital Downloads, Xbox Live, Browser based Flash games etc..) and you've got the ideal time to have a small indie studio that can be profitable for a dedicated and talented team.

But as great as many of these "indie" games are they still pale in comparison to the blockbusters like Dragon Age in terms of sheer content.

I for one am pretty happy with the current selection in my little world of personal gaming.. I love that I can play games like Castle Crashers and Dragon Age.

It's a great time to be a fan of video games IF you have an open mind.

Pages