There are many ways to skin a cat (seventeen traditional, plus one of my own invention), and there are many ways to approach video game creation and distribution.
Developers and publishers have a choice, and somehow, a lot of the time, they’re still making the wrong one.
Thus, in my infinite wisdom and vast depths of narcissism, I have taken it upon myself to offer four examples of how to do it right, and how to do it oh so very wrong.
Mr Kotick if you’re reading this, you’re welcome.
Good Code vs. Bad Code
This is kind of what inspired this whole column – I was playing Hearthstone, and reflecting on what a phenomenal, almost overnight success it was. People came to the game in droves, people who’d never so much as swapped Pokemon cards on the playground were now CCG fanatics.
What I was thinking about, however, was Magic: The Gathering Online. I’m sure most of you reading this have heard of MtG at some time or another, a lot of you have probably even played it. It’s a great game.
The online client, however, is a steaming pile of turd. It recently underwent a massive overhaul, ushering in a brand new version that had been worked on for 5+ years.
Almost everyone agrees it’s worse.
I believe, and have always believed, that what makes the Magic Online experience so terrible is that the company hired Magic players who can code, instead of coders who can play Magic (hell, just hand them a rulebook, they’ll get the hang of it).
After suffering for years and years with a small but dedicated fanbase, MtGO has been embarrassingly blown out of the water by Hearthstone’s success. There are other factors besides the coding, of course, but HS showed the world what a properly designed online CCG experience would look like, and the difference is quite honestly shameful.
Paywall DLC vs Free Support
You may have heard me say in a recent column that Call of Duty Advanced Warfare is going to reinvigorate the franchise with a new formula, and likely be the best selling title they’ve had. That, so far, appears to be correct.
What I did not anticipate was that Activision, in their almighty greed, would have the audacity to put the ever-loved Zombies mode behind a frikken’ paywall. An enormous, sixty dollar paywall at that.
There’s really nothing wrong with DLC – its extra content that you don’t have to buy if you don’t want to. But taking something that has always been a free addition in the franchise and putting a huge pricetag on it – that feels like extortion. We have this thing, we know you really want this thing, so now we’re going to make you pay for it.
For comparison, I’m going to look at (of course), Titanfall. I’ve sung the praises of this underappreciated game many times so I’ll spare you the monologue, but what I want to highlight is this:
Since release, Titanfall has had a number of massive updates, many of them including new features, game modes, items and other in-game niftiness – all of it for free. There’s been DLC too, but only in the form of extra maps.
In the latest update, they released a brand new co-op vs AI mode. It’s exceptionally well designed, complex and frankly adds a whole new dimension to the gameplay experience – free. Eight MONTHS after release.
Supporting your game with brand new content, totally free, eight months later? That’s doing it right.
Free-to-play vs Pay-to-win
The free to play model is great. You’re allowed full access to a game, completely free of charge, and if you absolutely love that game you can consider putting in some cash to unlock new characters, maps, whatever.
I’ve spent some of my biggest chunks of gaming time on free to play titles, such as DotA 2, League of Legends and Quake Live (before it was butchered). I’ve paid for some cosmetic features in League of Legends for example, but I wouldn’t be missing out on any of the core gameplay experience by not spending a damned cent.
And many people don’t – the free-to-play titles make their money off the paying minority; a lot of their gamers don’t spend at all.
The ugly side of free-to-play games are those that we call pay-to-win. This is a massively critical issue in any competitive free-to-play game – the idea that spending money gives you an advantage over other players.
This is something which literally breaks the game. When I’m interested in any free-to-play title, I immediately check for signs of pay-to-win. If I find anything, I simply don’t download it at all.
Games like DotA 2 and League of Legends have found a way to include micro-transactions without influencing the actual gameplay, and they’ve made a fortune doing so. That, is doing it right. Allowing players with more money access to more powerful items and skills – that is not.
Subscription vs Micro-transactions
Speaking of micro-transactions, they’re a fantastic way to monetize your game. Again, I have to emphasise the awesome element of this – the most dedicated lovers of your game will shower you with money, a lot of the other players won’t shower you with anything. I’m one of them – I have something like 1500 DotA 2 games played, and I’ve never spent a thing on it.
The big spenders support the no-spenders, and the whole thing works out great. Just ask Valve if they’re struggling to make money out of DotA 2 – if, that is, they’re not too busy planning next year’s tournament with a twenty million dollar prize pool.
Here’s something developers need to realize – nobody wants to pay a subscription. People don’t want to be tied down paying monthly access to a game. Many developers have learnt this the hard way, like the people behind The Old Republic or Call of Duty’s “Elite” service.
World of Warcraft is a unicorn, not to be repeated. And even that, the most successful MMO of all time, is struggling to hold on to their subscribers.
Micro-transactions allow people to have flexibility. They can pay nothing at all, they can pay when they afford to or they can pay when they’re actually playing the game. I’ve taken two or three or six months off a game only to come back to once again and put a little more cash in. Being tied down by a monthly payment makes you feel like you’re losing money if you’re not playing that game as much as possible. It makes gaming feel like work.
If I wanted gaming to feel like work, I’d just play EVE Online.
Seriously though – ditch the subscriptions, along with all these other nonsensical business practices. If you give people what they want, they will give you their money. Simple.