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Archive for May, 2007

Skull Fucking the Golden Goose

Posted by nfinit on May 9, 2007

Submitted to The Platformers 5-9-07)

When you think about it, going to a store to buy a games at a store is pretty silly.

I mean, it’s all data. Ones and zeros laid out in pattern, embedded on optical desk or a magnetic memory matrix. The other stuff- the case, the manual, the other various tsockies publishers try to foist on us to justify a Collector’s Edition box- they’re all forgotten in the time between the the moment we place the game in the DVD tray and the moment we put the game away. At best, they’re wall-rack trophies to impress your gaming geek friends; at worst they are staggering wastes of paper and plastic, and unleaded gasoline is a terrible way to move ones and zeros into your home. The music and TV industries are already understanding this in their stumbling, quaint old-media sort of way. At some point the gaming industry will embrace digital content distribution in earnest, possibly shortly after some bright kid realizes he just spent a week’s worth of 30 hour workdays on a title that spent all of four weeks on display at Wal-Mart. Whatever company sells downloadable content (or, in industry parlance, DLC) to the public in the same way that Apple has sold the public on iTunes stands to pull in a staggering amount of money.

It’s a damned shame that company won’t be Microsoft.

Which is odd, for if any company should be able to get DLC right, it should be Microsoft. No other system has more riding on it’s online fortunes than the 360. No other company has spent as much time and manpower on it’s online service, and indeed Xbox Live shames Playstation Home and Nintendo’s Virtual Console in terms of integration and ease of use. If anything, spending money on Xbox Arcade and Marketplace is all too easy. After all, it’ s not like Microsoft Points are real money, right? So why is Microsoft hell bent on scaring the public shitless about the implications of downloadable content.

The Guitar Hero II songpack situation is only the most recent example in Microsoft’s history of DLC PR blunders. And while Activision’s exploitative pricing is out of Microsoft’s hands, their constant defense of this pricing- over twice what you’d pay for the original songs over iTunes- only serves to implicate Microsoft in Activision’s rapacious scheming. Not that Microsoft isn’t without blame for this situation, after all, higher DLC prices can only mean a higher cut for Microsoft itself. Indeed, it’s not a great a leap in logic to conclude that it is the Redmond giant’s insatiable lust for cash that’s doing the most to hurt the public’s confidence in the concept of DLC, and there’s no better place to look for evidence of ther guiding hand in DLC pricing than Epic Game’s blockbuster, Gears of War.

(One more bit about Guitar Hero II song pricing before we go on though, because it’s so fucking insane- At $90 and 52 songs, the original song list for Guitar Hero II averages out to around $1.70 per song. Three song DLC packs over Live at $7 a pop, you’re looking at $2.30 per song– and that’s not counting the free guitar Activision threw into the original game!)

Epic Games is primarily a PC publisher with a policy of disseminating content updates free of charge online. This strategy has extended the popularity of the Unreal Tournament games to the point where most rival FPS games have long vanished from store shelves. Epic expected to continue this practice with Gears of War, using free DLC to keep an already immensely popular game relevant up to (and possibly exceeding) the release of Halo 3. And you’d think three million copies of Gears of War sold- by a wide margin the best selling game for the 360- would be enough to convince Microsoft to give Epic a bit of leeway from Microsoft’s own tradition of avarice, perhaps even foster a bit of good will between Microsoft, the three million people who already paid sixty dollars for Gears of War, and future companies who may wish to replicate Epic’s success.

You would be terribly, terribly wrong.

“With Gears of War we’ve gone through our own effort and expense to build additional maps, which are free to download. We’ve already released two and we have four more maps that we’ve built. We’ve been wanting to give them away for a long time, but actually Microsoft has been pushing back on us for that.

They’re trying to build this business model around selling additional content for games and it’s a valid idea, but definitely we would like to release more stuff for free, and we haven’t been able to do so yet. It’s unfortunate as there are a lot of good business reasons for releasing free content for games… you want to increase the player base, you want to keep the game alive…”

To be fair, Microsoft and Epic have since agreed to release the Gears of War map pack for free after allowing the update a few months to gain revenue on Marketplace. Still, the situation has damaged gamer confidence in the concept of DLC, and the news that Microsoft was willing to shut down free content only serves to betray good will in a player base that’s already being asked to pay fifty dollars a year for the privilege of playing 360 games online in the first place- something neither Sony nor Nintendo require their customers to do.

Speaking of which, that fifty dollar Live Gold subscription fee brings up some awkward questions. Namely, if Live Gold customers are already paying for a premium service, why didn’t Microsoft look out for those customers and politely remind Bethesda Softworks that asking the public to pay money for a horse texture map wasn’t a great way to start off the whole DLC experiment? Where was Microsoft to advise Q Entertainment that charging the public seven dollars for a Lumnies Live demo was a ruinously bad idea? Why has Microsoft yet to discourage Electronic Arts from charging microtransaction fees to unlock content that exists for free on versions of the exact same games for other consoles? Why is it, every step of the way through the past eighteen months of Xbox Live DLC, Microsoft has seen fit to step in the way of companies wishing to reward their fans, but not to disabuse companies from using microtransactions to fleece its customers? Why has Microsoft shown nothing but cynical contempt for it’s most ardent supporters, the users of Live?

Now, I’m not saying we should expect DLC be provided for free. But when companies want to give us this data, why must Microsoft, time and again, refuse? Why isn’t Microsoft as anywhere vigilant in protecting it’s users against damaging (and downright insulting) pricing?

The answer is that Microsoft is a decidedly old-media company that somehow managed to stumble it’s way onto the forefront of new media distribution. The have yet (and indeed, perhaps cannot) realize that we exist in an age of consumer empowerment, that you cannot have profitability without good will. Microsoft built much of the 360’s image around the idea of online content distribution, and have failed to convince the public that bothering with DLC is worth the associated headaches. As a result, they are going to have a difficult time succeeding in this console generation, despite a yearlong head start and what’s turning into a respectable game library. If Nintendo or Sony take Apple’s lead and leverage the full potential of DLC, they’ll have an even harder time next cycle.


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