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Friday, March 1, 2013

Freemium, Micro Transactions, Online Passes and DLC

OK. I must be getting old. I can hear the comments now; That I'm stuck in the past, being stubborn, or not seeing things from a business perspective. But I've got to get this off my chest: I am completely against the new pricing models game companies are forcing on gamers and I refuse to buy games using these models. These models are obnoxious, tone-deaf, obvious money grabs and I fear that there are too many casual, uneducated gamers supporting them to stop them.
Thank goodness that Nintendo has labeled certain incarnations of these pricing models as "unwholesome", but even Nintendo has bowed to pressure and is implementing "freemium" models into the eShop. I can't say how much I think that shifting to these pricing structures will lead to a dark age of profit-driven, uninspired video games.

Freemium

The concept behind freemium (or free-to-play) games is to give you a part of the game to get you hooked, then force you to purchase your way through the rest of the game. This can manifest in many ways. You could be forced to pay for a game level-by-level. You could be forced to pay for the game to let you progress, such as imposing a "recharge" time unless you pay to instantly unlock the game.
Take for example Zen Pinball 2 for Wii U: You get a couple bare-bones pinball tables for free. Want anything of value? Well, you'll have to pay for each table you want to add. In some ways, this is a great idea. You only need to pay for the parts of the game you want. On the other hand, if you want the "full game", you're probably going to pay more for it than you would pay for a traditionally priced game.
For another example, Real Racing 3 for iDevices: You can download and start playing the game for free. But if you damage your car in a race, there is an imposed "repair time" clock that makes you wait to repair your car unless you pay to have repairs made instantly, stopping you from playing the game further. Want to play with any other cars? You'll have to pay for that too. There isn't even an option to disable these roadblocks by paying for the full game. You could end up paying through the nose to play a game that was sold in full, without limits for $10 in it's former iteration.
Finally, what part of this model isn't served by a good old-fashioned demo? Back in my day, if you weren't sure whether or not you wanted to plop down cash for a game, you'd get the demo (usually tucked into your favorite gaming magazine, or later, downloaded). Am I crazy or is this essentially turning a game into a demo that you have to pay in perpetuity to play the full game?

Micro Transactions

This pricing structure is even more insidious. It somewhat overlaps with Freemium, as micro transactions are just small payments made in-game. But the meaning has expanded to include stores within full retail games.
Take the recent Dead Space 3 for example: You just paid $60 for a game. Or so you think. You've actually paid for a partial game with a store stapled to it where you can buy parts of the game piece by piece. Look! You can get an uber-powerful gun! Not for any achievement in the game or for beating a level... for cash!
There are even some games that will sell you items so powerful, it completely tips the scales in the multiplayer portion of the game. Didn't pay for that uber-powerful item in the store? Awwww, too bad. You just got owned by someone who did!

Online Passes

Online passes are where you pay $60 for a game with online multiplayer. When you're done with it, you re-sell the game you own to someone else. That person has no access to the online portions of the game unless they pay another $15 or so for a piece of cardboard with letters on it that allows them to connect to the online servers.
"But wait!" I hear you say, "That person you sold your game to didn't pay the game company to use those online services like you did when you bought the game!" What do I say to this argument? THEY SHOULDN'T HAVE TO. With your original purchase of the game, you paid for the online services for your copy of the game. Just because some other person is now the owner of your copy of the game doesn't mean that the services for that game weren't paid for.
The new person playing the game isn't adding any extra load to servers that you wouldn't have added if you still owned the game. So the game companies' arguments for these passes are pretty baseless. They'd have to make the original owner of the game pay $60 for the game and then the extra $15 for this to even make sense.

DLC

For the most part, DLC has been a tolerable addition to gaming. You buy a full game with no limitations, a full story line, and more than enough in-game tools to finish the game for $60. Meanwhile, the developer continues toiling on the game, adding levels, map packs, etc. and will let you add this valuable content to your already complete game for a reasonable price. I can think of scores of games that use this model and are better for it.
But then there is DLC's evil twin, On-Disk DLC. This is the game where the developer (Capcom, I hear) sells you a game for $60, but part of its content is locked unless you pay up. This content was shipped along with your game, was developed at the time your game was developed and is already in the code of the game, it's just arbitrarily not accessible to you unless you pay a fee.

A Bleak Future

The way that game publishing houses are talking recently, I can't see a future where anyone will be able to play a full game for a reasonable price. Companies whine that the $60 people pay for games doesn't cover the costs of developing the games. Well, then cut your costs, or raise prices. Companies whine that used games are making them bankrupt. Have used cars sent Toyota to the poor house or garage sales made Old Navy go under?
I feel old because as a traditional gamer, I expect you to provide me with a full game for a single, one-time, reasonable price. But I see all of these people arguing across the internet that freemium games, micro transactions, and online passes are the way of the future. Or worse, I don't see any argument from gamers at all either way. I see casual gamers eating up this trash ignorantly and I'm terrified that those voices outnumber the voices of reason and principle. I see a bleak dystopian future of partial or crippled games that make you pay over and over forever just to play them.

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