Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Consumer Experience (75)

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NFT discourse isn’t about NFTs

Here’s what frustrates me about the discourse around NFTs in games: it’s not actually about NFTs.

We’ve already had, for a long time, digital marketplaces for artificially-scarce virtual goods. There are many games where players can buy, sell, and trade their in-game goods, but to prevent counterfeiting and fraud the players need to go through a central server to do so. If the server is down or inaccessible you can’t do any of this, and if there’s real money involved the publisher-or-whoever takes a cut to pay for that server. Moving a system like this to an NFT-backed one would allow players to trade directly with each other regardless of central server availability and without needing to subsidize its maintenance.

This was a decently-well-known possibility for years, but no big publisher implemented it, because while it would have improved the player experience, it would have cut off a revenue stream. Taking a cut of every transaction pays far more than just the associated maintenance costs and can actually be the main way these games make money. No publisher is going to just give that away.

So when NFTs did catch on with publishers, it wasn’t for valid and player-friendly use cases in games where it made sense. It was for illegitimate cash-grab bullshit forced into games where it didn’t fit at all, or as the basis of a scam or pyramid scheme. And when those started getting big is when most people first heard the term “NFT”, and so it’s what they associate it with.

Players rightly deride these schemes, but this derision is now associated with terms like “NFT” and “blockchain” because the bad use cases are the only ones most people have encountered. So now if a game comes along with a good NFT use case (such as a digital trading card game that uses NFTs to make cards into unique and distinct entities that can be upgraded, traded, and sold player-to-player), it has an uphill battle because for most players it will be lumped in with the bad use cases and dismissed as just another scummy NFT game.

The problem was never the NFTs. The problem was the short-sighted player-hostile money-grabbing. But since that’s how a lot of people were introduced to NFTs, the conceptual well was poisoned. Once it gets in that state, the problem is self-reinforcing, because player-friendly publishers will mostly want to avoid tarnishing their games with this reputation, while player-hostile ones with nothing to lose will keep pushing for the player-hostile revenue streams.

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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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