It was once very simple – when you bought a new video game, the value proposition was simple and easy to understand. For $50, or thereabouts, a buyer purchased a game cartridge (or disc) with a box and instructions (and other printed material). The game was presented as-is – it worked out of the box, it provided the content it had to offer, and that was it. It was easy as a consumer to make a buy decision – will this game offer me enough gameplay hours of enjoyment to be worthy of the money? Can I keep this game forever as part of my library? What is the resale value after 1 month, 6 months, 2 years?
The majority of games released still fit into the traditional buying framework – most Nintendo Wii and DS games for instance – where the packaged game is the complete package. However, as internet-enabled consoles have become standard, the packaged game has become less complete. A typical PS3 release has more in common than a PC game than a PS1 game – usually needing to install a small to gigantic amount of data onto the hard drive. The game is a start, but once play begins, many gameplay options require online connectivity, whether it’s to play against other players online or simply download post-release patches. The packaged game is sometimes not complete – gamers can or must buy new digitally produced content to fully experience the game.
The problem is, as publishers have changed the rules on what is being “purchased”, they have not made the same in-roads in providing product at a fair value to consumers. Most major games have a shelf life for some or all of the features available – whether or not it was purchased as a physical product or digital download. It’s no longer possible to make a buy decision for a new, packaged game without considering a variety of factors – will people be playing this game online? Will the developer support online for years to come? Will my console even be around in 5 years for this software to be playable?
As of 2010, all three major console developers provide digital downloads and online access. The companies themselves are the gate-keepers to the content, and usually charge back some of the costs to 3rd party publishers. This is a perilous and nontransparent tower of uncertainty for game buyers – will a digital copy of Wipeout HD still be valid next year? In five years? The original Wipeout on PS1 exists completely on a disc – as long as the buyer has the disc and a system to play it on, the value remains. Wipeout HD might be taken offline. It might have ad-serving technology that is eventually phased out. It relies almost entirely on Sony’s online infrastructure for distribution and competition. It’s unclear whether a Wipeout HD buyer from 2010 will still be able to play some – or any – of the game in a few years.
Digital distribution is inevitable and imminent as a primary way of distributing gaming content – it’s already taken over music and on its way for movies. Even if a publisher wanted to “keep things the way they are”, the reality is that more and more gaming features will be impossible to serve as a one-time physical purchase. To create a sports title without live connectivity is setting up for failure in the marketplace – rather than limit themselves to a tangible disc, developers need the capabilities of modern consoles to keep the product fresh and relevant.
However, unlike movies and music, there is no way to create a physical, working copy of a digitally downloaded game. Where a music fan can burn a CD of MP3s that were purchased digitally, it stands as an impossibility to burn an Xbox digital download for play on a console or even for backup. Even if that were possible, it’s become increasingly difficult to deliver a stand-alone product – by definition the game will only work as long as the console does. It’s not like a SNES cartridge you can play if you still have a Super Nintendo – it’s likely that even with a working PS3 or 360 that parts or all of some games will be unplayable within a few years.
This week, noted developer David Jaffe made news on various sites for his blog explaining why Calling All Cars was being taken offline. He makes a case that so few players were playing it, so business-wise, it had to be taken offline. What is unclear is who made that decision – did Sony pull the plug? Did Jaffe’s team need to cut costs and end support? Sure it’s been three years since the game’s release, but it was available for sale all along the way – what about someone who bought the game in 2009? When a player bought Calling All Cars anytime between its release and last week, there was no indication from Sony or the developers that part of the game would be unusable during the console’s lifecycle.
As the definition of “buying” a game continues to shift away from a one-time purchase to an ongoing, rental-like agreement, it is imperative that the lines of communication and terms are more clearly labeled. There is no doubt that there is a disclaimer buried in the Sony/Playstation user agreement or download agreement for the software that lets Sony off the hook for taking games offline. However, the intangible loss of consumer confidence – the “what if the game I just bought is unpopular too and taken offline in the middle of its lifecycle” – is what Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft need to be mindful of as content gatekeepers.
The implication when buying a game is that it is a permanent purchase, and one that derives value for a time after. In a world of digital distribution, a game purchase is essentially a sunk cost – there is no way to recoup the money spent after purchase. While some adventurous gamers have found workarounds, it remains a major barrier that digital purchases are one-time, irrecoverable costs. The buy decision has had the rules changed – without much benefit to the consumer or better return of investment for the creator.
Next week, we’ll explore some of the possible solutions the industry has to continue the shift away from a single, tangible purpose to a model that better serves the consumer and the creator. In the meantime, consider these examples of games that are changing the definition of what a game entails.
How do these games fit into the buying paradigm?
World of Warcraft (PC) – The most obvious, but still ultra-relevant, example of buying a fixed time period of gameplay rather than a permanent “game”, WOW is one half stand-alone game and one half monthly recurring license fees.
Gran Turismo 5 (PS3) – A controversial topic in recent days, Gran Turismo 5 is being built up as a massive game purchase for later in 2010 (hopefully), but has already produced 3 full demos as well as a partial beta product available for sale. As development costs for high-end games reach incredible levels (rumored to be over $60 million for GT5), how can a franchise like GT morph into a modern product?
Warhawk (PS3) – at it’s launch, Warhawk was $40, with a $60 option that included a Bluetooth headset. The game itself works only as a multiplayer deathmatch – nearly requiring a persistent broadband connection, working central servers, gamers to play against.
Madden 2010 (Multi) – in previous generations, the key reason to upgrade a sports game each year was updated player rosters – a clear value proposition. However with the advent of internet-enabled consoles, rosters are kept up to date year-round, eliminating the need for a yearly upgrade. Now the reason to upgrade each year is primarily to maintain the online presence – once 2010 comes out, the available online players for 2009 and earlier versions drops to near zero.
Jonathan Widro is the publisher of Diehard GAMEFAN and owner/CEO of the Inside Pulse Network. He has worked as a writer and publisher for over a decade, after working in game-related retail for over five years. He has worked in game development, most notably creating user-generated gaming portal Fyrebug and over 100 Flash games. Gaming Under Construction, Jonathan’s perpective on the gaming industry, is published every Wednesday on Diehard GAMEFAN.