Cast your mind back to the gaming world of yesteryear, a place of endless possibilities stored on CD-ROMS and 100mb cartridges. It was a place of wonder and possibility, a time where virtual reality was science fiction and when you paid for a game at the counter using your hard earned pocket money, the buck stopped there. In this day and age of modern gaming. With all its monetisation, it is hard to believe that when I was a wee lad, games gave up their secrets and extras for only one price – the cost of purchasing the game itself. I guess if I am to be completely fair, there was always a second cost to unlocking all that these games had to offer – time. Time is arguably the most precious resource we have on this earth, and one that we so happily spend on playing our much loved favorite pastime, video games. Whether it’s a cheeky hour-long multiplayer frag fest on the weekend between walking the dogs and mowing the lawn, or a 12-hour marathon session with the newest triple-A blockbuster, we happily and willingly spend our time playing games. Time, however, is a commodity that the modern games industry preys on, monetising our time for their profit.
As a whole, gaming is bigger now that it has ever been. It is a media behemoth that earns right up alongside other entertainment properties like Film and Television. Like any popular business, it aims to reap the rewards of its popularity by way of diversifying business strategies in order to better serve its customers – in other words, modern gaming aims to make as much money out of us poor chumps as it is able to in order to fuel the ever-growing machine. Some see this as a good thing – the more money a game company can make, the better it is able to reinvest in new innovation within the gaming space. This is a noble suggestion, and if it were true, would be of great benefit to the gaming sector – but the unfortunate reality is that we are seeing much the opposite. After all, games are business – investing in the new is expensive, especially when consumers will happily pay for more of the old.
Speaking of the old, let’s talk about remasters. Remastering is not a new concept – cinema has been doing it for decades, with director’s cuts and special edition releases. Many film buffs would argue that Ridley Scott’s director’s cut of Blade Runner is a far superior product to the original theatrical release – but for every Ridley Scott, there is a George Lucas. It is somewhat obtuse to compare film and gaming but it highlights a point – remastering in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but it is something to be approached with caution. This current generation of gaming has seen a massive boom in HD remasters of old videogames, often adding nothing more than up scaled graphics and a higher frame rate – all the while taking resources away from creating new interactive experiences. “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it” I hear echoing around the depths of the internet, as smug faced pundits from behind their screens feel a sense of satisfaction in discovering this unbeatable argument to justify their newly purchased HD copy of Gears of War (first made in 2005, then sold to them again ten years later). The empowerment of not buying something you don’t like doesn’t change the fact that companies don’t base development decisions on who doesn’t buy the game, but instead on who does. They don’t want to appeal to me, they want to see how far they can fleece you by selling you the same thing you have already purchased, time and time again. This from an industry so up-in-arms about pre-owned games that Microsoft announced their new Xbox with a form of built-in protection from playing pre-owned games. This is the reason that Ubisoft can happily release the Ezio Collection of Assassin’s Creed, while taking more than 10 years to make Beyond Good and Evil 2. It’s not anecdotal anymore. Games companies revel in the ability to take the safe financial option, bolstering their bottom lines and ensuring that you continue to play the same games you have played over and over.
Of course, the greed doesn’t finish with remasters. What better way further ensure consumer compliance than offering something for nothing – for example, when we pre-order games, we get cool bonus content that we can only get through pre-ordering (which naturally further serves the company’s interests by creating artificial scarcity). The idea of pre-order DLC (or in fact any DLC for that matter) is a prime example of where this road leads. When DLC first hit the scene, it was met with great optimism and a certain cynicism – after all, it is the practice that saw game companies offer DLC skin packs in games that would have otherwise had them as an in-game unlockable content. It was a change in the landscape and a chance for the industry to test the waters in order to see what they could get away with (ahem, Horse Armour). It wasn’t long before the game creators and the consumers were locked in a battle of what was acceptable. This saw the trend of tiny cosmetic DLC fall to the side in many instances, and opened the doors to what gamers really wanted – more games. DLC content packs saw gems such as Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare pack, BioShock 2’s Minerva’s Den and even standalone DLC like Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon. It quickly became a way for companies to double down on their investment in a game engine and the tools it takes to make games by creating smaller add-ons to the main game. There was a period of time where smaller and cheaper priced DLC all of a sudden became much less appealing. Spending $5 on character skins makes little sense when you can get actual gameplay for $15.
This created a problem for game companies who wanted you to buy their cake and then pay for each small individual slice too. Lucky for them, they saw an opportunity in the most unlikely of places – mobile games. The popularity of the mobile phone and its increased ubiquity in everyday life meant mobile had a volume that PC and console gaming couldn’t match, and in turn lead developers of mobile games come up with a neat idea – “what if we give the game away for free, and sell small purchases in game?”. With the penetration that the mobile game market had, this allowed for companies to only need to sell a small amount to each person in order to make the same sort of money that an otherwise fully priced game could make, with the added bonus of these small transactions being something that ensured that the more a gamer played, the more likely they were to buy. The dawning of the age of microtransactions was the direction the gaming industry had been heading towards for many years, but until then had been unable to implement that would be accepted by the mainstream gaming audience – but this was a problem that was quickly overcome. The fast paced world of the MOBA cracked it first, realising that they could provide a free to play game experience similar to mobile with cosmetic microtransactions that were optional. It was one step away from the industry’s perfect monetisation solution which, thanks to games like Counter Strike Global Offensive, took the shape of “Fee To Play” games, games that asked for a starting price of entry and then also sold DLC and microtransactions on top. This, for the gaming industry we now know, was the moment where they realised they could have it all, game, DLC and microtransactions.
Today’s gaming landscape looks very different to when I was but a wee lad. It’s a world of premium DLCs, Season Passes, pre-order bonuses, platform exclusives and microtransactions in full fee games. It’s a place where couch co-op is a thing of the past and not the future. It’s a world where consoles desperately emulate PCs while simultaneously ensuring that PC gamers are stiffed with broken ports of console games. The question I ask myself is – where does this path take us? What is the inevitable conclusion to this journey of avarice? Whatever it may be, one thing is for sure – [PAY $0.99c TO CONCLUDE THIS ARTICLE]