The primary driver for any company, whether they’re bound to the public via the whims or the stock market or not, is to create value and wealth for its various stakeholders. There’s not many companies that do that as well as Valve who’s profit per employee is among the highest in any industry and an order of magnitude above all its competitors. This is almost wholly due to their domination of the digital distribution market but their innovative use of Free to Play for their flagship games has certainly contributed to that as well. Of course the question on everyone’s minds is where Valve will go from here and their latest announcement, which I speculated about last year, seems to be their answer.
Today Valve announced SteamOS, essentially a Linux environment that’s geared towards playing games. There’s also a number of additional features that will be made available with its release including the also recently announced Family Sharing program which allows you to share your steam library with others. Whilst this isn’t the SteamBox that many were anticipating it’s essentially Valve’s console launch as they’ve stated numerous times in the past that anyone would be able to build their own SteamBox and SteamOS would be the basis for that. What the SteamOS actually entails, in terms of functionality and look/feel, remains to be seen but the launch site promises it will be available soon.
SteamOS comes off the back of Valve’s substantial amount of work on the Linux platform with a decent chunk of the Steam library now available on the platform. If we take Gabe’s word for it much of this was driven by the fact that Windows 8 was a “catastrophe” for gaming, something which I don’t agree with, and Valve sees their future being the Linux platform. Whilst it’s admirable that they’re investing a lot in a platform that’s traditionally been a tiny sliver of the PC gaming market the decision to use Linux is, in my opinion, more likely profit driven than anything else as it gets them a foothold in an area where they don’t current have any: the home living room.
Big Picture mode was their first attempt at this which was pretty squarely aimed at replicating the console experience using the Steam platform. However since most people run their games on a PC dedicated to such activities this would mean that Steam’s penetration in the living room was minimal. The SteamOS, and by extension the SteamBox, is a more targeted attempt to break into this area with it’s additional media features and family friendly control options. I don’t begrudge them for this, the sole reason companies exist is to generate profit, however some seem to think Valve’s moves towards Linux are purely altruistic when I can assure you they’re anything but.
Of course the biggest factor that will determine the success or failure of this platform will be whether or not the big developers and publishers see the SteamOS as a viable platform to develop for. As many are speculating Valve could do this by drastically reducing their cut of sales on the platform, something which would go a long way to making developing for Linux viable. I don’t think Valve needs to do a whole lot to attract indie developers to it as many of the frameworks they use already natively support Linux (even XNA does through some 3rd party tools) and as the Humble Indie Bundle has shown there’s definitely enough demand to make it attractive for them.
If any other company attempted to do this I’d say they were doomed to fail but Valve has the capital and captive market to make this idea viable. I’m sure it will see a decent adoption rate just out of pure curiosity (indeed I’ll probably install it just to check it out) and that could be enough to give it the critical mass needed to see adoption rates sky rocket. Whether or not those numbers will be big enough to convince the developers and publishers to get on board though will be something that will play out over the next couple years and will ultimately be the deciding factor in the platform’s success or failure.
I love reviewing games, I really do. Back when I first started doing it I was constantly struggling with writer’s block as I felt I had already covered all the semi-interesting topics already and was simply cranking out post after post which I didn’t feel particularly proud of. Game reviews then were a writing safe haven, a place where I could write almost endlessly on how that game made me feel and the nuances of the game play and graphics. They were among the most time consuming posts to write but they were also the most fulfilling and, several reviews later, I had left behind the creative block that had plagued me for months before and I’ve never looked back since.
That love of game reviews hasn’t gone unnoticed by publishers, PR reps and developers. I’ve felt incredibly lucky to be invited not once, but twice to play the Call of Duty titles before they were released (I couldn’t go this year, unfortunately). I was also lucky enough to have my review of Resonance noticed by the PR department of Wadjet Eye Games and was invited to play their upcoming title, Primordia, before it was released to the public. Sure I’m not exactly overwhelmed with requests from PR reps and publishers to get coverage of their games but I’ve at least had a taste of how the game review world operates and like many of my fellow brethren I’ve always been left craving more.
Reviews live and die by their timing, especially for larger sites. I knew from the start that I would never get a review out before any of the big sites would simply because I’d never get access to the titles at the same time they did. I’m ok with this as whilst I might not be first to market on these things I still manage to do alright, even if the amount of traffic I get would be a rounding error on the analytics dashboard of any proper gaming site. The opportunity to do reviews alongside the big time players then is a huge advantage to people like me as it gives us a chance at grabbing a slice of that juicy review traffic, even if most people will simply wait for their review site of choice to publish it.
Then DoritoGate happened.
I’ve never had someone call me out for being on the take for my reviews and that’s because (I hope) that I’m pretty upfront when I’m dealing with PR people or an event that was designed to generate blog coverage. Whilst my review scores tend towards the upper end of the spectrum, with a few people pointing out that I’m operating on a 7 to 10 scale and not a 0 to 10 one, that’s essentially a form of survivor bias that came about due to the way I review games. I did joke about giving a better review score to Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3 depending on who schmoozed me better but I never consciously did that because realistically there was nothing else for me to gain from it.
When you’re like me and these kinds of things don’t happen to you very often it’s hard to not accept it the lavishes of the PR agencies, especially when they’re helping you further your cause. I don’t have an ethics policy tying me down or a boss to report to so the only people I have to appease is you, my dear reader. As far as I can tell everyone is comfortable with reviewers like me receiving review copies of games and even attending events where we’re given previews of said games (them paying for your travel still seems to be a grey area) but the furore that has erupted from a man sitting beside a table of Doritos and Mountain Dew has made me question what’s appropriate and what I’m comfortable with personally.
Now I’ve got something of a position of power here since I don’t advertise on this blog nor have I ever worked with publishers and PR people to do things like mock reviews. However when I first started getting offers of review products I took a long time before I accepted something mostly because I didn’t know what taking it meant for my blog. Intrinsically the gift of a product is given on the expectation of a review so there’s an obligation there, even if there isn’t any formal contract to speak of. My journalist friends said that disclosure is the key here, which is something I’ve stuck to religiously, but after seeing how the wider gaming community has reacted has me wondering if there’s things I should say no to in the future. All in the name of some form of journalistic integrity.
Realistically I don’t believe I have as many conflicts or issues as some of the people involved in DoritoGate did but it’s issues like these that play constantly in the back of my head when I’m writing, or even thinking about writing, a game review. I’ll stick to my principles of being honest and transparent when it comes to benefits I receive as part of the review process but I don’t have any hard and fast rules that I feel I could apply to other games reviewer’s yet. I think that’s what’s bothering me the most and I’m not entirely sure when I’ll have a solution for it.
It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of DLC. Whilst there are many games that I enjoy going back to it’s not usually because there’s a sliver more of content available for them, it’s because the games themselves warranted it. The trend now however is to continue to release bite sized chunks of additional game play after it’s been released rather than the more traditional model of expansion packs which delivered what amounted to a game in its own right. Still there have been some notable exceptions like the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution Missing Link DLC which I’ve heard is quite lengthy and well worth the play through (I’ve still yet to play it, though). What irks me, and most gamers, is when a company releases DLC on the same day that they release the full game and an upcoming release has brought this issue to the table once again.
My first encounter with day one DLC wasn’t that long ago, it was with Dragon Age: Origins. I was a fair way through the game, not completely understanding the camp mechanic, when I saw a new character appear. Starting the conversation with them led to a quest (like it almost always does) but before he would accept it I was told that I’d need to pony up the cash to play it. Since the quest didn’t appear necessary and I had little interest in paying another $10 for a game I had just bought I left the optional DLC by the wayside and never looked back. Since then I’ve had several encounters with games that have had day one or close to it DLC and every time my reaction has been the same.
There is one exception though. Since my tendency is to buy the collector’s edition of games I’m usually treated to a free ride for most early DLC. This hasn’t changed my opinion on it though and in fact my experience with such DLC has reinforced my original stance that of if the game developers have time to develop early DLC then it should probably be included as part of the game. One of my all time favourite games will soon be releasing a sequel however and the outrage from the day one DLC has revealed that my current position might be somewhat ill informed.
The game in question is Mass Effect 3. Long time readers will know that my fanboyism for this game approaches near ridiculous levels: I bought a Xbox360 just to play it (I’ve bought other games for it, but make no mistake that Xbox360 was there for one reason only), I’ve got multiple characters and each time I’ve bought the collector’s edition. Had I done a Game of the Year post for 2010 it is quite likely that Mass Effect 2 would have come out on top. What I didn’t mention at the time was that there was some day one DLC included and whilst I did play it I didn’t feel like it added anything (nor distracted from) to the main core of the game. Indeed it could have been left out entirely and I wouldn’t have noticed a difference.
It has been revealed that Mass Effect 3 will have day one DLC, free to collectors and charged to everyone else. This put the community up in arms with many (myself included) wondering why this wasn’t part of the core game. Bioware came out and defended it fervently and revealed a point that I hadn’t really considered. The certification process for consoles is a long one, filled with all sorts of radical testing like clicking buttons thousands of times to ensure most of the bugs have been stamped out. This takes approximately 3 months and during that time many publishers elect to have the developers work on DLC rather than move them onto other projects (or do nothing at all). Since there’s less certification required to release DLC you then end up with a finished DLC product right on release day, much to the dismay of the fans.
That’s changed my view on day one DLC significantly, but it probably won’t change my purchasing patterns. Indeed I can understand why people are particularly frustrated about this particular DLC, it seems like a particular character (who’s previously appeared in the series) will only be available through it. That’s enough to put some people off it and I wouldn’t be too happy with somewhat plot critical elements being thrown into paid for DLC either. If it wasn’t included in the collector’s edition I certainly wouldn’t be bothered with it and my review later would reflect that.
For this case at least it looks like day one DLC didn’t come at the cost of the game itself but the gaming community is going to have a hard time swallowing that line from every publisher. It might then be worth delaying DLC to some time after the initial release in order to avoid this kind of negative publicity. Still I don’t have the numbers on this and if day one DLC works financially then you can bet on seeing more games with it in the future. I may not support it financially but so long as the core game isn’t affected by it I won’t say anything bad about it, but if said DLC does impact on the game you can rest assured I’ll give them a thorough panning on here.
The world of mobile gaming is a curious one. It’s roots date back well over decade but it’s only really come into its own in the past few years as smartphones became capable enough and there were platforms available to support it. The industry blossomed on the backs of the small and independent developers who took advantage of the low barriers to entry to be able to release their games on the platform and is now a multi-billion dollar industry. As a traditional gamer I was a bit sceptical that it would amount to anything more than just another time waster platform, my opinion only changing after buying Infinity Blade which I thoroughly enjoyed. Still I’m a firm believer that the mobile platform, whilst definitely a successful industry, is not killing other platforms as you just can’t recreate the same experience on a tablet or handheld as you can with a PC or a console.
Of course the large game developers and publishers are concerned about how what the future of their business will look like. With mobile gaming carving out a good chunk of the games industry in such a small amount of time (about 6.4% of all games industry revenue) and social networking games grabbing about the same it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that they might be worried about it. Recently Mike Capps, president of Epic who create the Unreal engine, went on record saying that the flood of 99 cent games was killing them:
“We have not been this uncertain about what’s coming next in the games industry since Epic’s been around for 20 years. We’re at such an inflection point. Will there be physical distribution in 10 years or even five? Will anyone care about the next console generation? What’s going on in PC? Can you make money on PC if it’s not a connected game? What’s going on in mobile?
“If there’s anything that’s killing us [in the traditional games business] it’s dollar apps,” he lamented. “How do you sell someone a $60 game that’s really worth it … They’re used to 99 cents. As I said, it’s an uncertain time in the industry. But it’s an exciting time for whoever picks the right path and wins.”
If you take into consideration the vast majority of people who play games on their phones don’t play games on other platforms¹ then it makes sense that you can’t sell them a $60 game because the platform just isn’t suited to that kind of title. Sure people may spend a good chunk of time playing games on their mobiles (rivalling the amount of time spent on more traditional titles) but it’s in no way comparable. Most of the time spent on mobile games is done in fits and bursts as the platform is aptly tuned to, rather than the long continuous sessions that PC and console gamers are more accustomed to. In essence if you’re a traditional game developer or publisher looking to push your wares onto the mobile market you’re not going to be building the same kind of products, nor are you going to be charging the same price.
Additionally the mobile gaming industry is in no way killing any of the other platforms. Consoles are by far the kings of the industry bringing in over 40% of the total revenue with PCs still making up a good 20% (and is even growing despite the heavy competition). Sure mobile games have brought some disruption to the industry and have given pause to many developers and publishers who are trying to gauge where the industry is heading. Frankly though if you think that there’s no future left in the classic $60 titles then you deserve to go out of business, since the industry figures just don’t support that view.
I do agree with Capps’ claim that we’re at an inflection point where the games industry is facing quite a few fundamental changes. Just like the music and film industries before them though they will need to adapt to these market changes or face dying a slow death as they attempt to shoe horn their business models into the new world. I do believe that the games industry is far better poised to adapt and innovate with these market disruptions than their more traditional media outlets were and that was proven by just how fast mobile gaming caught on as a mainstream phenomenon. Still mobile gaming is a long, long way from killing off the traditional gaming sector and realistically it has a lot of growing up to do before it would ever have a chance at doing so.
¹I tried my darnedest to find some solid numbers on this and couldn’t find anything substantial. I stand by the sentiment though as from my personal viewpoint the vast majority of people who are mobile gamers are solely dedicated to that platform and don’t play games anything else.
I’ll admit that I haven’t bought many games used since I’m usually in the store on release day hungering to be one of the first to get my hands on them. Still I realize there’s quite a market for second hand games since not everyone has the disposable income that I do to splurge on the latest and greatest titles. They’re also a significant source of revenue for brick and mortar games retailers as the margins on used titles are significantly higher than their brand new counter-parts and provide an additional sales hook for them to attract customers (I.E. trade-ins for newer games). There are one group of people who aren’t so pleased with the second hand games market however, the publishers.
Second hand titles, whilst generating significant revenue for the retailers, generate almost nothing for the publishers that first distributed the games. The advent of downloadable content mitigated this somewhat as it was usually tied to the console it was downloaded on and not the game itself but it is a pittance compared to what they generate from a new sale. More recently however games publishers have taken a more sinister approach to the second hand market, seeking to make a resold product less attractive than the new unless the consumer ponies up the extra cash to make up the difference.
Sadly this kind of chicanery affected one of my most favorite games, Mass Effect 2. New buyers of the game received a special code that gave them access to the Cerberus Network, a daily news service for the Mass Effect universe plus the gateway to all the DLC available for the game. The code was a one time use deal so anyone buying the game second hand would have to do without or pony up the US$15 for access to it. Whilst you could argue that you still got the vast majority of the game despite the lack of the additional DLC there was quite a bit of free stuff on there, some of it even on day 1. This meant that anyone buying it without the code was essentially getting an incomplete game, even if it was playable.
Whilst it’s still not the norm to cripple the second hand market like this it is becoming alarmingly common, with several recent titles making used purchases far less desirable through new-only-or-pay-up DLC. It’s still a step ahead of something like Steam which doesn’t allow the sale of second hand titles at all, not even for a trade in on other steam titles. But it’s still a dick move by the publishers who are just trying to squeeze money out of the consumers in any way they can. Realistically though its detrimental to both the publisher and consumer since many trade ins drive new games sales, to the tune of 20%. Cutting that market out completely would harm the new games market significantly, but none of the publishers will admit to that.
It’s also arguably a violation of the First Sale Doctrine although no one has yet tried to test out this particular violation of it in court.
All this does is reduce the perceived value of the product that the publishers are putting forward and will only help to encourage people to seek out alternative methods in lieu of forking out the extra dollars. Whilst I am happy to give up my freedom to sell my games for the convenience that Steam provides (I am a hoarder, though) I know many people who aren’t so willing to make that trade and have avoided purchasing games that remove their right to first sale doctrine. Instead of punishing people for buying second hand they should be encouraging people to buy in early with things like betas and in game items. Of course I find it hard to fault a company that tries to maximize its profits but when it comes at a cost of significant good will I have to wonder if the costs outweigh the potential benefits and the only ones that know the answer to that are the publishers.
And they’re not talking about it, unfortunately.
I often reminisce about how the games industry has changed over the past couple decades and its mostly because I’ve grown up along side it. We both took our first timid steps into the real world many years ago and we’ve since been trying to define ourselves in the world. Granted one of us has grown up to become a multi-billion dollar industry and the other a slightly disgruntled consumer of said industry, but that’s growing up right?
One of the big things I always remember was lining up on release day for the game that everyone wanted. You see back then unless you were actually working in the retail industry (which I was, for a significant amount of time) you had to be there on the day to pick up the game you wanted. Queue all sorts of mayhem when the game you want is exceptionally popular to, as you’ll be lining up with many a fellow nerd and geek in order to get your latest fix of gaming pleasure. Then some bright spark coming up with the idea that a certain time before the game was released you could pre-order your copy. You could then swagger up anytime to pick up said copy, and hopefully avoid the shameful looks people would give you for being camped outside Electronic’s Boutique all night. So began the gamer’s love hate relationship with this new fangled way of acquiring the latest games.
Initially the only advantage to pre-ordering a game was a guaranteed copy which in itself was a pretty good deal. I can remember swaggering up early one morning to pick up a copy of World of Warcraft, thinking they’d be brimming with copies, only to be told there were 7 left. My fellow comrades and I managed to get ourselves a copy each but from then on we knew that anything remotely popular would require us to have our orders in, and in early.
I’m not sure what changed in the games industry since my first forays into pre-ordering but the idea has stuck in all the publisher’s heads that customers expect something for guaranteeing to buy a copy before the game is released. It started off with a few small things, like early access to a demo or maybe a DVD of extras like soundtracks and pictures. More recently however we’ve seen publishers lavish pre-ordering people with things like beta access to the game, pre-order only items (which are very prevalent in MMORPGs), secret levels, downloadable content and so much more. Realistically if you think a game will be any good you’re probably better off pre-ordering it, as there is usually some kind of benefit to be had.
I can see the benefit for the MMORPG genre. Launch days are the most critical time for any game that is going to base the rest of its life off on-going subscriptions and a bad experience on the first day might be enough to turn many customers away. This is the thinking behind the pre-order head start that I’ve seen in almost every new MMORPG that has come out in the past 2 years. The pre-orders get to go in a couple days head of everyone else which allows them to progress a little faster than the normal sales. Not only does this give them an idea of just how many people will be playing (for server balancing) it also makes sure that the starting areas aren’t overflowing with new people, making the game unplayable for the new comers.
For other genres it would seem to be a good indicator of how popular the game will be before launch. Sure you can watch the gaming media and see how your hype is being received but in the end the cold hard numbers of pre-sales will tell you how much of that buzz is actually translating into real sales. It might trigger the marketing department to step up their campaign a couple weeks before release day to try and sure up some more numbers if the pre-sales aren’t good. This is where things like downloadable content come into play as you can easily keep a few things secret from the press and use them as incentives to entice people into the game. Although I’ve yet to see that kind of tactic used unless it was 2~3 months out from release.
There’s a darker side to the world of pre-orders however. Depending on the publisher-retailer relationship they may start taking pre-orders for a game that doesn’t have a definite release date. The best example of this is Duke-Nukem Forever who went on pre-order in 2001 and will more than likely never ever ever be released. While this is rare there have been many times when pre-orders have been taken for games that have been significantly delayed (Half Life 2 was a good example of this). There’s also the chance that the game will only go pre-order only which is again rare, but for things like collector’s editions it happens quite often. I remember getting burned on Bioshock for that one, but I really have no one but myself to blame for that one (yeah who would’ve thought that game would be so popular! ;)).
As someone who has the disposable income to purchase games in advance the pre-ordering scheme has worked extremely well for me. There’s nothing more satisfying than buying the game 2 months before it’s released and then getting called in to pick it up, as I don’t have to check if it has arrived at the store yet. The incentives to pre-order are really just the icing on the cake for me but it’s something that I hope the publishers continue to do as little things like this are the kind of initiative that will actually drive people away from piracy, especially if it’s something physical that can’t be duplicated.
Now excuse me while I fork over a wad of cash for Left 4 Dead 2…. 😀