Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Consumer Experience (73)

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Star Trek (2013-2016)

So, I’ve been reading the Star Trek comics set in the world of the reboot movies. They are surprisingly good.

The sixth volume makes references to the events of the then-recent Star Trek game set in the same world, which surprised me–most Trek comics exist in their own isolated continuities, since mainline Trek continuity is dense with decades of lore by this point. But the reboot movies started with a cleaner slate and thus can have a single continuity between comics, movies, and games (well, there was just the one game, but still). So that’s kind of cool.

But it’s also clearly cross-promotional. If you read the comics and they tease you with references to the game’s events, maybe you’ll get curious and go buy the game. It’s a little blatant, but, well, I enjoyed the comics so much that it actually worked on me. I decided to pick up the game, which I’d previously ignored due to its poor reviews.

Here’s the dumb part: you can’t buy this game anymore. Not new, anyway. It came out in April of 2013 on PS3, Xbox 360, and Windows/Steam. In April of 2016 - just three years later - it was delisted from all platforms, presumably due to license expiration.

I don’t know much about licensing deals, but this really feels like a terrible model in which everybody loses. If I could have bought this on Steam, I would have, since I have a Steam Deck and no portable way to play a PS3/360 game. Instead, I bought a used physical PS3 copy and not a cent of that sale went to the developer, publisher, or IP owner. The cross-promoting comics convinced me to give Paramount money that Paramount actually refuses to take.

This is also a clear argument against digital-only distribution. If the game hadn’t been sold physically, it would now be almost impossible for me to play it at all… at least legally.

Thankfully, the game was sold physically, so I was able to grab it off eBay for ten bucks, and now I am excited to go play this terrible game.

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Player Exploitation and Memetic Antibodies

Sometimes I’m glad I grew up when video games weren’t very good yet.

There were certainly good individual games here and there (Tetris is probably the most perfect video game ever made, and that’s from the mid-to-late 1980s depending which versions you count). But the medium itself was niche and unpolished. The technology was weak, the audience was small, and best practices for design and marketing weren’t yet known. Video games were still a cottage industry.

Over time, the tech improved and the industry learned to make better use of it. The audience increased along with the potential revenue, resulting in increased investment by creators to capture bigger slices of a growing pie, and now global annual sales are measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Games are now a lot better. But better at what? Better for whom? The same advances that have enabled vast improvements in the player experience have also enabled vast improvements in player exploitation.

I think it was a tremendous advantage for me that I was playing games during the earlier experiments in these spaces, when exploitation methods were clumsy and transparent compared to their current level of refinement and subtlety.

The first gacha game I ever played was MonTowers, which didn’t do a great job encouraging the player to spend money. After playing for a while, I decided to buy some currency anyway since I’d been having fun with this free game and and it felt fair to support the creator with a few bucks. The purchase had no noticeable effect on my experience of the game, so I pretty quickly concluded the whole thing was dumb and I have spent literally zero dollars on gacha since then even though later gacha games are much better at extracting money from their players.

I was exposed to a weaker version of the attack, which allowed me to develop memetic antibodies and become immunized against the entire strain. I was vaccinated.

I worry about the people a couple decades younger than me, or even the ones of my generation who just waited longer to get into games. People whose first gacha game was Genshin Impact, whose first multiplayer shooter was Fortnite, whose first user-generated content game was Roblox. They’re getting exposed right away to highly-evolved attack methods, incredibly more virulent and pernicious than my early experiences, often with no protection at all.

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Paying for games twice

Like many people my age, I grew up with more time than money and access to relatively few video games, and found the situation reversed when I became a working adult. My scarcity-mindset habits combined with the glut of sales, bundles, and downright free games has resulted in my having a substantial backlog–even after canceling my PlayStation Plus subscription, I own something like six hundred games (depending exactly how you count them) that I have never played. (And over a hundred of those are ones I’ve flagged as ones I really should get around to at some point.)

I stemmed the tide somewhat by telling myself that I’m only allowed to buy a game if I’m confident I’ll play it that week - and then tightened the restriction to that day. But it was hard to hold myself to this. Great games kept going on serious sales! And though I tried not to, I still kept buying games that realistically I was probably never going to play.

But recently I was introduced to an idea that has finally put a stop to this behavior. I’ve now gotten through multiple sales without opening my wallet once, when I know I would previously have caved and bought something. The idea that did it for me was from this article: Everything Must Be Paid for Twice.

The article points out that in most cases, when you buy something you don’t get value out of it right away. You’ve paid the first cost–the monetary one–but the second cost is the effort and time to actually use the thing. Buying a book doesn’t add value until you read it. Buying workout equipment doesn’t add value until you exercise with it. Even buying a decoration doesn’t add value until you hang it up or otherwise display it. Until you pay the second cost, the first cost is sunk - not much better than throwing the money away.

I knew this, but what the article points out next is the piece I was missing: the second cost is usually much higher than the first.

If you’re in a position to buy things you don’t use, it’s probably because your time is, in some sense, worth way more than the amounts of money you’re throwing around. This is especially true if the amount of money you’re throwing around is, say, just a few bucks to get a discounted game that would require eighty hours to play!

Keeping that relationship in mind has gotten me to the point where I can finally ignore game sales. Before, I always used to think, “Oh, but what if I want to play this game later, when it’s back to full price?” Now I recognize that the difference between paying half price for a game and paying full price for it is significantly less than the cost of allocating the time to play that game. It’s a trivial part of the calculation and it should be treated as such. The “savings” from buying a game on sale that I wasn’t otherwise already about to buy aren’t worth it.

Obviously the threshold will be in different places for different people, but for me (especially now that I’m gaming much less than I used to), it’s clearly correct to just delete all those notifications about my wishlisted games going on sale. I’m a little embarrassed how much of a relief it is to just… not worry about that anymore.

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Inscryption and Privacy

I feel like I say this about everything, but to me the most interesting thing about Inscryption is something I haven’t seen anyone else talk about. In this case, it’s the story’s subtle commentary on how games have contributed to the casual erosion of privacy.

I can’t even be sure it’s intentional. The game doesn’t call much attention to it and I’m pretty sure I care about this topic more than most so I could easily be reading too much into it. But there’s still something interesting here whether it was put there consciously or not.

The details I want to discuss come from pretty late in the game, so here’s your spoiler warning. I’m about to go into late-game narrative and mechanical spoilers for Inscryption.

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Nintendo Switch Online + Experiment Pack?

So I feel like by far the most interesting thing about the recent Nintendo Switch Online announcements has gone completely unremarked.

As a quick refresher - Nintendo Switch Online (NSO) is the paid subscription service for Nintendo Switch, roughly analogous to PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold. Some of what NSO provides is standard for this space - the ability to play multiplayer games online, cloud-based backups of save files (well, mostly), occasional game trials and discounts and other little bonuses. The unusual thing is that it also grants access to a library of NES and SNES games.

Recently it was revealed that a higher subscription tier dubbed the Expansion Pack is coming. By paying extra on top of the normal NSO cost, you can additionally get access to a library of N64 and Sega Genesis games.

Now, there’s a lot to be said about the merits of these offerings and whether they are worth the cost and how they compare to previous-generation’s Virtual Console offerings and the approaches taken by Microsoft and Sony (not to mention how things work on PC) and so on and so on. I’m not here to talk about any of that.

What’s much more interesting to me is that the NSO Expansion Pack will apparently also include access to the upcoming paid DLC expansion for Animal Crossing: New Horizons. That’s fascinating.

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Two news pieces today on games adding restrictions in response to government action.

First, Linden Lab is banning gacha mechanics in Second Life. I’m slightly embarrassed that my first reaction to this news was “There’s gacha in Second Life?” I’ve known for ages that people could make and sell content and services in that game, but I frankly haven’t thought about Second Life since before the lootbox controversies and so it simply never occurred to me that users would be using gacha mechanics there. Once mentioned, though, it’s totally obvious that it would happen.

But what’s interesting to me about this is that the announcement specifically says this move is because of “a changing regulatory climate”. I’m not aware of recent changes to regulations around gacha, so I’d love to know more about what prompted this action and what the discussions around the “difficult decision” were like.

It’s worth noting that we have gacha in real life and have for a long time. There are the physical capsule/gashapon machines from which the mechanic get its name, and also things like blind-boxes and CCGs. Why aren’t these seen as just as problematic and exploitative? Why isn’t there a “changing regulatory climate” around these?

I think that it’s mostly because the physicality of the product creates a secondary market. If you like buying a surprise, you can buy through gacha; if instead there’s a specific item you want (either because you only like some of the items in the set or because you’re looking to complete a collection) you can buy from someone who already found that specific one. And if you buy a bunch through gacha and decide you don’t want to keep everything, you can recoup your expenses by reselling your duplicates or undesirables to someone who does want those specific ones. Heck, you could plausibly buy a bunch of gacha, decide you don’t want any of them, and sell them all for a profit.

This flexibility makes the entire system less exploitative. Resalability both makes gacha-purchases more valuable and prevents anyone from being “forced” into gacha and potentially-bottomless spending to get the specific thing they want.

I would argue that what makes gacha a problem in video games (game design considerations aside) is lack of resalability. This is what makes it a money hole that takes more money from consumers while providing less value in return - other cheaper options are removed for users trying to get specific things and users have no way to get any portion of their money back after spending.

I have never played Second Life, but my understanding is that the in-game currency can be easily exchanged with real-world currency via an external market and that user-created goods are resalable - indeed, Linden Lab’s announcement refers to the ability to re-sell items that had been purchased through gacha and indicates this remains intact. So that means that gacha within Second Life does, in fact, have a secondary market and thus avoids the pitfalls and exploitations of non-resalable in-game gacha.

I previously wrote that “it’s very hard to write a law that prevents evil loot boxes while not preventing similar things that aren’t evil." If Second Life has to remove gacha mechanics because of regulations written to stop abuses by companies like EA, I think that counts as an example of this kind of failure mode.


The second news item that struck me today is that Chinese conglomerate Tencent will be curbing time and money spent in games by minors after Chinese state media called online games “spirital opium”.

Maybe you think that specific plan is a good thing and maybe you don’t, but what’s interesting to me about this is that I’ve been watching Tencent somewhat nervously as they gobble up ownership stakes in a number of international game companies, many of which have huge audiences. It’s hard to tell yet what the effects of this will be, but I can’t help but read it as a bit of a harbinger. It seems likely that Chinese state views on gaming and the Chinese “regulatory environment” are going to have an effect on a lot of popular games developed outside China and played worldwide, for better or worse.

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Jetpack Joyride Minus

It’s the ones you love that can hurt you the most.

On September 1, 2011, Halfbrick Studios released Jetpack Joyride on the iOS App Store. I was already a fan of Halfbrick thanks to games like Fruit Ninja, Monster Dash, and especially Age of Zombies. But Jetpack Joyride was on a whole other level, immediately becoming my favorite mobile game, my favorite one-button game, and my favorite auto-runner. It might, in some senses, still be all those things.

I bought Jetpack Joyride on iOS when it came out. I loved it so much that I then bought it again for my PlayStation Portable in 2012 and a third time for my PlayStation Vita in 2013. And now, I’m… pretty glad I did that. Because after revisiting the phone version in 2017 in order to finally review it, I found it had changed a lot. The game started as a paid purchase with some microtransactions, but now it was F2P with a lot more microtransactions and a daily reward system. It started adding even more engagement rewards in the form of limited-time events, and then Apple’s rules changed and in order to keep playing it I would have had to explicitly consent to Halfbrick harvesting my data. So I stopped playing it. But the PlayStation versions had been left behind by the updates and still had arguably the superior version of the game. Certainly the less-obnoxious, less-greedy version.

It’s one of the standout examples to me of the failures of the app store model. I bought Jetpack Joyride in 2011. I paid for it. Then it went free to play and made a bunch of changes and became a product I no longer wanted. And on my modern iDevices, I had no recourse. The old version of the app was no longer compatible. (I do still have a first-generation iPad laying around, which does play the old, better version of the game. It also has other quality iOS games that you can’t download anymore, like Mirror’s Edge and Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty.)

So I was - perhaps naively - quite excited when I saw that Jetpack Joyride+ was coming to Apple Arcade. It felt like a poetic example of what I’d hoped Apple Arcade could do for mobile gaming - change the incentives to reduce sleaze. Uncoupled from the need to push microtransactions and prevented from harvesting user data, Jetpack Joyride+ could be a much less obnoxious and more enjoyable experience again.

And, like… it is? Basically? But not how I expected it to be.

On Apple Arcade, a game makes money if people keep playing it - and the relationship is direct through getting a share of those players' subscriptions, not indirect through the IAP to which those players have increased exposure. There’s no way to apply concepts of “fun pain” and “whales,” so you aren’t putting content and quality-of-life improvements behind paywalls. Instead, those are now valuable as more things to earn through play over a longer period of time. They’re ways to keep people playing.

But that’s not the approach that Halfbrick have taken with Jetpack Joyride+. Instead, everything that was tied to IAP or the daily rewards or timed events in the non-Arcade version is just… missing. This is a stripped down version of the already-free game. It’s not Jetpack Joyride+. It’s Jetpack Joyride-.

That’s already sad, but what makes it rude is that it wasn’t even a clean cut. You can still do the daily reward task, and the first time you do it you clearly get the first-day reward, and then it tells you you’ve completed day one of five. The second time you do it… no reward, and you’ve completed day one of five. The third time… no reward, and you’ve completed day one of five. It’s just broken.

It’s still a very good auto-runner and I’m still playing it for now. It’s, what, the fifth time I’ve started the game from zero in the past ten years? But it’s disappointing, and I mourn the loss of the Halfbrick I once loved.

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