Uninformed Economic Voters

Recently, your friend and mine Cliff Bleszinski wrote an essay defending microtransactions in general and EA in specific. There are a lot of things to be said about this essay - some of which are said expertly by Jim Sterling here, and some of which touch on concepts discussed by Shamus Young writing a couple of years ago about Bobby Kotick here and here.

Cliff’s main point is that game developers exist within an economic landscape, and as such they will do what makes them money and avoid what doesn’t. As consumers, our job is to vote with our wallets, supporting what we like and boycotting what we don’t.

In response to this, I’m going to finally post something I wrote back in October 2011. I never put it up before because I couldn’t find a way to turn it into a full article. It’s really just one simple idea. But as foreseen by Nathan Grayson and proved by the recent SimCity debacle, if anything it’s more relevant today than it was a year and a half ago.

Here it is.

I remember when buying games wasn’t a political statement.

I know I’m venturing dangerously close to get-off-my-lawn territory, but surely you remember too - it wasn’t that long ago. Buying a game was casting an economic vote for the kind of content you wanted to see in games - not for the sleazy tricks you’d let publishers and distributors get away with.

We already talked about Diablo III’s lack of offline single-player and ban on mods a couple of times. And now it turns out that Batman: Arkham City is placing offline, single-player content - the Catwoman levels - behind an “online pass” that will cost you extra if you buy used and which can only be activated online.

You may really want these games, and may not personally be troubled by the new constraints. Maybe you were going to buy Batman new and only play Diablo online anyway. But you still might be concerned about the precedents being set, and maybe you don’t want to spend money saying that these practices are a-okay with you. If so, I know exactly how you feel.

It’s a minefield you don’t have to worry about with other media. To decide whether to buy a movie or a book or an album or a painting you mostly just have to decide whether you’re interested in its content. You don’t have to research its delivery method. You never take home a DVD only to find that since you bought it used, you’ll have to fork over a couple more bucks if you want to watch the director’s commentary. You never buy a book only to find that, as an anti-theft measure, it can only be read while you’re in view of a CCTV camera. Recent video games are unprecedented in that the mechanics of acquiring and consuming their content can vary tremendously and without warning from title to title.

Because we’ve been long trained by other media that this isn’t something you have to look out for, most people don’t. How many people buying Arkham City will do so because they’ve decided they don’t mind the online pass - and how many will do it because they walked into a GameStop and—hey, look, Batman! Batman’s awesome.

A lot of the economic votes that come in, demonstrating that publishers can pull these tricks and still get our money, are completely uninformed. You and I know these games come with these barbs, because we are interested enough in gaming to read about it online. This places us firmly in the minority. Most people who buy these games have no idea what they’re getting themselves into.

Which makes it seem all the sneakier that the boldest of these experiments always seem to come attached to games that a huge number of people are guaranteed to buy anyway. It seems that the more hotly anticipated a game is, the more likely it’ll come inextricably attached to a new way to devalue a product in the name of cost cutting or profit protecting.