A somewhat sensationalist headline, perhaps, but one not entirely without truth. The games industry of 2015 is one in which consumers work to please publishers rather than the other way around, and things are only going to get worse. As with any war, there have been victories on both sides – but the publishers won an extremely important battle years ago, and you still might not even realise it.
It’s an issue I’ve bemoaned on this site more than once before, but it bears repeating for the purposes of this article. Remember when we were playing games on our GameCubes and PS2s? Sure, it was annoying that we had to buy memory cards to gain the ability to save game progress, but when we bought a shiny new game we could simply open the lid, stick the disc in, close the lid again, and start playing (or at least get to the title screen) within a matter of seconds. Those of us who didn’t also play on PC pointed and laughed at our put-upon keyboard-bound brethren, who had to battle through various compatibility issues, the need for upgrading, incompatibility with virus software, tedious waits for installation, and unfinished games that were still being patched weeks after release.
One day, we woke up and the last two on that list were suddenly our problem too.
Nintendo machines aside, publishers have succeeded in convincing you – me – us – to accept games with an RRP of £49.99+ that are released unfinished as not only acceptable, but normal. Inevitable. Oh well, never mind, just download the patch. Huge graphical errors in my console game off the shelf? Oh well, never mind, just download the patch. Game breaking bugs in my console game off the shelf? Oh well, never mind, just download the patch. How do mainstream videogame sites report problems like this? “That’s bad, that shouldn’t have happened, but… oh well, never mind, just download the patch”.
Score one for the publishers.
That’s a huge win for ‘Them’, but there’s an even bigger win that – so far – lies with ‘Us’. The ideal position for a business to be in any market (particularly when it comes to technology) is to be leading the market rather than following it. The insidious widespread release of broken games feeds into this, as it means time and money can be saved prior to a game’s street date; milestones are more likely to be hit, marketing campaigns are less likely to need changing. More overtly, however, the industry has for the past decade or so been pushing hard for an overwhelmingly – exclusively, in fact – digital market. Indeed, there were many who genuinely believed that we would have already reached that point by now, or at least be on the cusp.
If you’re not quite sure why the industry is so rabidly lusting after a digital future, compare the prices of digital retail titles and their physical equivalents, especially when discounted on the internet. Now, bear in mind that a small portion of the physical prices will include a profit for the retailer. Bear in mind also that even though the lion’s share of a physical price tag will make its way to the publisher, that price has to cover costs including (but not limited to) the manufacture of discs and packaging, shipping, contracts with distributors, and the manufacture and distribution of marketing materials to high street retailers. Taking all of that into consideration, just imagine how much of a leap publishers’ profits would take if every single game were sold exclusively through digital channels. There would still be overheads, but they would pale in comparison to what companies must pay now.
It’s debatable just how good or bad prices would be for the consumer in an all-digital market, but on balance it’s highly unlikely that consumers would be better off than they are now. Fortunately for the consumer, an exclusively digital future – if it ever happens – is still a very long way off. The hardest push from the industry in this respect is no longer generally talked about, simply because it failed spectacularly. In late 2009 Sony released the PSP Go, a digital-only version of its PSP handheld. It crashed and burned so embarrassingly, less than eight months after release Sony were giving away ten free games with every unit (three in America). That wasn’t enough to save the project, however; while prominent industry figures spouted nonsense about how glorious a digital industry would be for everyone throughout 2010, and how it was completely inevitable, the PSP Go was officially discontinued almost as soon as 2011 had got going. The world’s first digital-only machine from a major console manufacturer suffered less than a year and a half of worldwide distribution (although interestingly, the PSP Go limped along in North America until January 2014).
It should be pointed out that, as much as I and others would love to solely attribute the machine’s failure to its abandonment of physical media, this can not be conclusively proven. Far from the least of the PSP Go’s problems was that it was ludicrously expensive, almost as much as a PS3. There was the inevitable hefty price cut later, but this was too little too late. In addition, Sony initially claimed that PSP owners could somehow transfer their physical ownership of games into licenses for the digital versions, but later reneged on this. If this promise had not only been kept but implemented at release, with a reasonable price tag, who knows? Perhaps things would have been different; and if so, that would have had a knock-on effect on the design of the Vita.
Of course, this wasn’t nearly enough to snuff the industry’s desire to kill the secondhand market and exert control over consumers’ purchases. The disastrous, farcical reveal of the Xbox One and its initial DRMtastic features were proof of that (I shan’t patronise you by going over the details, but feel free to Google it for a refresher). Microsoft’s string of embarrassing policy reversals for its latest machine were smart business decisions and victories for the consumer in equal measure. The hangover from the original line of thinking is still visible in today’s Xbox One, however, and – once you realise why – in the PS4, too.
Every single physical Xbox One and PS4 game comes with a free bonus of a compulsory installation. We’re not talking partial installation of files, either; installation of the entire game. Let me ask you a question, and if there’s a decent answer, do please let me know in the comments; why? What possible benefit could it, or does it, bestow – and to who? Anybody who owns one or both of these machines knows well enough that compulsory installation does not, by and large, eradicate or significantly reduce loading times; does not eradicate or significantly reduce frame rate issues; does not have an across-the-board effect on graphics or sound. If you’re unsure on any of these points, just compare any of the many games which are available on both current and previous gen machines.
Keeping my Hat Of Cynicism firmly wedged atop my crown, allow me to observe that this necessity means physical games no longer keep your hard drive relatively clutter free. It does rather look – again, to cynical eyes – that two of the world’s largest console manufacturers have intentionally removed one of physical media’s largest advantages over digital media. Make of that what you will.
Another sore point is that, in the age of Metacritic, reviews are more important than ever to publishers (arguably more important to them than to consumers), with many stories of bonuses being linked to Metascores of 85 or above. There is an obsession with killing the possibility of reviews dampening day one sales, to the point where reviews are sometimes forbidden until the game has gone on sale. This isn’t a new tactic, but it’s slowly becoming more common for big-budget titles to be protected in this way. Assassin’s Creed Unity is a good example, yet another game released broken where reviews were embargoed until the day of release; and microtransactions apparently hidden from reviewers altogether. There is however a more extreme, more dangerous example of a game being released to a blind public that happened just a few months before that.
On September 9th 2014, Destiny was released with literally no reviews at all available until after the game was released. Bungie came forward with some crap about how it would be literally impossible to review the game properly until it was out in the wild, and even ‘warned’ people not to trust reviews that appeared too soon before or after the game’s release. Editors, keen to avoid angering Activision but equally keen to find a way to generate ongoing Destiny content for SEO considerations, ordered their minions to write “reviews in progress” which essentially meant people blogging about their play sessions for about a week until a final review and/or score went up on the site. By the time official verdicts started appearing en masse, critical consensus (or lack thereof) was something of a moot point. Destiny’s launch had broken several records, and a huge chunk of its lifetime sales had already been made. Most purchases made after reviews were published were likely to be at a reduced price, with the “It’s cheap so I’ll give it a go” mentality that can only be knocked by the very worst of verdicts. Bungie’s latest had essentially launched while taking reviews out of the equation, and it was a roaring success. Mission Accomplished at Activision HQ.
I’ll gladly admit that this wasn’t the very worst case scenario (though it was close). As I said in my review (our copy arrived a week after release, but then we’re not exactly a huge site), there’s a sore lack of content in this game, and it leans too heavily on repetition. Credit where it’s due to both Bungie and Activision, however; it’s a technically solid, stable game. It works (though with a budget of $310,000,000 you’d bloody hope so). Also, importantly, not everybody who bought a copy of Destiny went in blind. A great many didn’t. A few pre-release builds were released for players to try out, and so many people made up their own minds; the very best kind of review that there is. Nonetheless, a huge number of people bought the game based purely on marketing, which I find greatly troubling.
Destiny set a dangerous precedent, which Ubisoft cautiously followed with its almost equally online-focussed The Crew. Again, reviews were delayed, and the public was ‘warned’ against reviews that appeared too quickly. How long until the next big-budget title that forces reviews back until a week after release? How long, indeed, until the first AAA game where the publisher makes no effort to support reviews at all?
To summarise: a worryingly large and powerful section of the industry wants you to buy games blind, at a price they set, in a format that can not be sold on to others or returned for a refund. Pre-order incentives are another part of this, and it’s an issue that has been discussed at length across the last few years by more talented writers than myself (such as this 2013 piece at Rock Paper Shotgun). To take the most recent and disturbing example at time of writing, however, consider Evolve. This is a pretty naked example of players being punished for daring to wait until the price falls or reviews are available before parting with money for a game. Pre-order Evolve, and you get all characters instantly unlocked and a bonus monster to play as; wait, and you need to grind your way through the unlockables, and pay a preposterous amount for the extra monster.
So, what can we do to resist such tactics, and perhaps even prevent them from being used in future? Complain (politely) certainly, be it via e mail, official forums, or feedback forms. That’s not enough, though. Publishers and their executives aren’t stupid; internet outcry will be expected and even factored into any plans for any marketing trick that they know won’t sit comfortably with everybody. It’s been said across the internet about everything forever, but it bears repeating until the end of time: vote with your wallet. Don’t pre-order or, at least, don’t pre-order anything with no reviews available. Don’t pay outrageous digital prices because if you do, make no mistake – you’re part of the problem. Buy physical whenever you can, because it’s almost always cheaper, and you can claim some or all of its value back by selling on or trading in. Keep DLC purchases to a minimum. Take control of the market, don’t surrender it.