PLAYING THE LAME PRESENTS: “Of Braids and Nickle-and-Diming.”


PRESENTS: “Of Braids and Nickle-and-Diming.”
AKA
“Shove your five dollars up your stupid ass.”

Three things before we begin. First, here be profanity, again. Second, for those of you who have been wondering when I would be saying bad things about Microsoft, this column is for you. Third, this column isn’t actually ABOUT Braid, so if you wanted to know something about the game, well, Matt’s writing a review, so wait for what he has to say about it. Cool? Cool.

So, I find it amusing that we have once again come back to the whole discussion of value as it relates to digitally downloadable content, especially because the people who, a little over two years ago, were saying:

“I don’t think the mounts are an especially good buy. I don’t find these amounts especially monstrous in a general sense, but as a person who has spent quite a lot of time thinking about micropayments I’m more than familiar with the yawning conceptual gulf between no cost and any cost at all.”

are now suddenly defending the yawning conceptual gulf between ten and fifteen dollars by way of saying:

“You’re mad about five dollars? What? Shove your five dollars up your stupid ass.”

as if, in both cases, the actual issue here is the content itself.

Way, way back, I wrote up a little something about the whole “horse armor” debacle as it related to the actual content presented, IE that if you don’t actually want to pay money for the content presented, that’s entirely your right to not buy it, but to bitch over two fucking dollars is incredibly petty and if that’s all you have to do with your free time, perhaps you need to find a hobby or something, and I stand by that assessment. What never really came under any sort of scrutiny at the time, but certainly came up later (thanks to Electronic Arts, basically) was the revolting underbelly of the argument, IE the fact that if developers felt that they could potentially nickel-and-dime us to death by locking away content in the product and charging us to unlock it after we’ve paid our cash, or worse, purposely leave content out and make us pay for it later, what would stop them from doing so? Many of the people who were afraid of such an eventuality saw the Horse Armor download as a sort of test of these waters, a way of determining if players would indeed be willing to purchase such things if the asking price was right, to determine if it might be fruitful to leave content out of the final product as a way of ensuring additional earnings from people who have ALREADY bought the core game and are thus of no further financial value at that moment.

Now, I will gladly defend the Horse Armor scenario, even now, under the grounds that

1.) it wasn’t available at launch,
2.) Bethesda doesn’t strike me as being THAT greedy, and
3.) two fifty wasn’t all that big of an expense,

but in the time since this situation came and went we have indeed seen developers do this very thing as a way of making money from customers, whether it be paying money to unlock items early in the game (Soul Calibur 4 did this) or stripping items out of the product to force the player to pay more money to get the complete experience (Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life As a King is especially guilty of this, as was Lumines on XBLA to a lesser extent) or what have you, all in the name of making a buck. It seems that the worries of the doom-sayers were not entirely unfounded, and while I still defend the specific PRODUCT, I do not support the practice that has come about in its wake.

Which brings us to Braid, or more neatly, to the fact that the game is fifteen dollars on XBLA instead of the normal ten, which has caused the many of the gaming masses to scream and shout once again of conspiracies and such… except that, this time, the sides are a lot more divided.

Now, the two quotes I extracted above were, if you didn’t follow the links provided, extracted from Penny Arcade, with the former being an assessment of the value of the Horse Armor download, and the latter being an assessment of the value of Braid as a fifteen dollar product. Now, the obvious difference here is the tone of the statements, as the former amounts to an actual attempt at assessing the value of the product on a level everyone can accept and work with, while the latter is a very simple “fuck five dollars, this product is worth it” endorsement of the game in question. But the devil is in the details, and in this case, the details amount to two separate interviews with Number None head Jonathan Blow (who I really, really wish had been named Joseph), where in the second, he notes that he feels that the fifteen dollar price point was vital to making money off of the product, while in the first, he essentially says “Microsoft made us do it”.

Now, if the approach here is a simple “we believe the game is worth the money, worth the cost, and we want to recoup our loses on the product however we can”, then fine. Your product is your own, and you can choose to sell it for however much you like, end of discussion. Mr. Holkins from PA certainly knows about that, seeing as how he and his cohort helped to assemble a game of their very own, and they have since attached themselves to their very own digital download service in Greenhouse Interactive. They would be entirely capable of making an informed assessment on such things, and their input would be welcome, as it would allow those of us who are not informed of the nature of things to more readily understand the dilemmas associated with price points and such.

But the “Microsoft made us do it” observation adds an additional layer to the argument, and it is THIS assertion that everyone is having a problem with.

Now, as noted, people can charge whatever they want for games, and as such, anyone who would piss and moan about the cost of Braid, were the cost purely assigned by the creators, really isn’t the ideal target market for the product. Is the game worth the money? I couldn’t tell you. If you liked The Lost Vikings, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and plot-heavy games with significant twists, it’s most likely worth your fifteen dollars. I personally found the game to be a quality piece of work, filled to the brim with interesting details and stuffed full with artistic merit, but if I knew about the product what I know about it having played it to completion, I most likely would not have purchased it. You can take away from this what you will, but for me personally, I don’t think the game would have been worth the supposed ten dollar “ideal” everyone is harping about, simply because it does something I personally don’t like, not because it isn’t a good product. It’s a fabulous product, certainly, but it’s a product that will engender vastly different opinions from players simply because of the metaphorical nature of the storyline, and unfortunately, the only way to know if the game is right for you is to play it to completion, which effectively makes recommending the product difficult as a result. The point being, however, is that the product is good, and a lot of people will like it, and if the developer feels the product is worth the cash, they are entirely right to feel this way (even if they have more or less already proved that they are pretentious dicks within the first week of release). That’s as far as the discussion would normally extend, and if this were the beginning and the end of the situation I wouldn’t even be writing this, as nothing else would even need to be said.

But with the revelation that Microsoft had any sort of input into the pricing, the discussion turns from the normal “this game is too expensive” diatribes to the more ominous “Microsoft is nickel-and-diming us to death” discussion that conspiracy-minded individuals often like to latch on to whenever they see something they don’t happen to like and assume it’s the harbinger of the end of video gaming as a whole. In this case, however, one has to wonder why this is even a situation. With Braid, it seems that a ten dollar price point would have been ideal, not simply because “that’s what every game should cost”, but rather because there’s no real reason to charge the extra five bucks. Size isn’t the issue; Capcom’s 1942: Joint Strike is a larger game, size-wise, and it costs, you guessed it, ten bucks. It isn’t a publisher/developer familiarity issue either; one would think that a virtually unknown entity like Number None games would sell their games for LESS MONEY than a well-known company like Capcom, especially since 1942 is a brand name some gamers can instantly recognize. Nor is it a genre popularity issue; Braid is a platformer/puzzle game, while 1942 is a top-down shooter, and neither genre is exactly lighting up the sales charts, online or otherwise (as games like N+ and Exit have proven).

Aside: bear in mind one thing here before we go any further: you can never un-say what you have said. Any amount of justification or denial or retroactive backpedaling done by Mr. Blow isn’t going to change the fact that he went public and said “Hey, Microsoft made us price the game this high” unless he later turns around and says he was lying about this, and that would be WORSE because at that point the discussion becomes about how much of a lying asshole Jonathan Blow is. As he’s not done this yet, and hopefully will not, the problem remains that once, when asked about the price of his game, he accused the people hosting the product for the high price point and noted that it didn’t thrill him. The end. Any further attempts at justifying this thing, while they enforce his love of his creation, do not really erase the fact that he has come out and openly said that he was made to do it by those in charge. THAT is the problem here, make no mistake about that.

Anyway, at this point, the rationale for setting such a price point comes down to one of two possibilities: either Microsoft decided that the price point would be best so as to assure the long-term financial viability of the developer, or Microsoft is greedy and, having realized they have a critical success on their hands, decided to simply charge more for it under the understanding that people would, in fact, pay the inflated price without complaint. The former rationale is certainly possible, in the same sense that it’s possible that someone reading this woke up next to Jessica Alba this morning: it’s not incredibly likely, but we’ll never really know for certain. On the other hand, the latter assertion is entirely possible as well, and seems a bit more believable if only because, hey, Microsoft is a corporation, and their major interest is in making money. Charging more money for something someone is willing to pay more money for is good business sense, bar none, which is why companies like Namco are more than willing to charge sfifty or sixty dollars for the latest Tekken and Ace Combat games, but attached a budget price to the original Katamari Damacy: it’s easier to sell games with no hype attached to them on the cheap to drum up interest by word of mouth than it is to assume a high-priced, unhyped game will sell well on its own merits.

Seeing as how Braid has generated tons of positive press at this point, it certainly seems like a good idea, if nothing else.

But the paranoia from the collective masses isn’t simply because of the cost of one game so much as it is because of the potential for OTHER games to be priced higher simply because it’s believed WE WILL PAY THIS PRICE FOR THEM. Now, just for fun, boot up your 360 (or Wii or PS3 or whatever) and look through your downloaded games (if you have any), and ask yourself one simple question about each one: “Would I have downloaded this if the game cost five dollars more than it did when I bought it?” Now, personally, I can’t say yes one hundred percent of the time; while games like Double Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, Ikaruga and Triggerheart Exelica would most likely be bought over again without a second thought, games like Omega Five and again, 1942 might not have been worth the acquisition at that price point, especially since fifteen dollars happens to be the price point for re-released Xbox games, and I find it somewhat difficult to compare the value of Stubbs the Zombie to the value of Every Extend Extra Extreme without feeling that one is of significantly more value than the other.

But the thing is, if it becomes apparent that people will pay the extra five dollars for games, what’s to stop this from becoming a common occurrence? I mean, we’re talking about a company who raised the MSRP on their next-gen titles ten dollars and charges us fifty or so dollars a year for the privilege of being able to play video games online, so we can’t expect that they would say “You know, this game did really well for us, but the negative backlash wasn’t worth is, so we should go back to the old way of doing business” if the possibility of profit exists in even the smallest amount. Understand this: whether or not Braid is worth the cost to download and play, whether or not it’s worth as much, cost-wise, as something like Fable or Ninja Gaiden or Guilty Gear X2 or whatever, that isn’t the issue here. The issue here is much simpler: what’s to stop Microsoft from seeing this as a success and deciding that fifteen dollars is a viable price point for some, or even worse, ALL future XBLA titles? The worth of the product is irrelevant; it all comes down to how much you are willing to pay for things, or at least how much people THINK you’re willing to pay.

Now, maybe this is all a bunch of unfounded paranoia, and lord knows I’d love to be wrong about this, but let’s assume that this ends up being a correct assessment. Let’s assume that a few months from now we see another XBLA title pop up at the fifteen dollar price point, and then another, and then another. At what point do we stop saying “this game is worth the cash to own, even if it’s more expensive than the normal products one can download” and start saying “no, guys, I don’t want to pay five more bucks for another game”? At what point do we stop defending the products and start laying the blame at the feet of the publisher of this medium? At what point do we say “No, YOU shove your five dollars up your stupid ass” to the apologists and simply stop being led along to pay more and more money for what are, in essence, three to four hour diversions? After the fourth, fifth, tenth, twentieth game? When the prices start rising up to the twenty dollar range for one hundred megabyte video games that we still don’t get a disc, manual or box for? Perhaps when it gets to the point where developers begin to see more profit from smaller downloadable products than larger retail games and begin to release thirty or forty XBLA titles a year instead of four retail games, because the biggest profit margins come from developing games that can be completed in a sitting, so long as you can keep touting that they’re not as expensive as those very same retail products that no one is buying?

Many people have said that digitally released content is the wave of the future. While this might well be true, let’s not let it be the new and innovative way to suck us dry in the process.

Just something to think about.

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