Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Micro Payments, Major Annoyance

Since when does paying £50 for a game mean you are only renting it nowadays?

The world has changed a lot in the last two decades, and probably in no greater way than in technology. Whilst the advent and subsequent popularisation of the internet is probably the single, greatest thing which has changed the way people live their lives in recent years, it has some damn subtle annoyances that come with it.


Back in the day (a wonderfully subjective and oft-abused phrase), I remember when you used to go buy a new game for your console. Commodore 64, Master System, NES, SNES, Mega Drive, Playstation, N64, Playstation 2, Playstation 3, it is the same business model. Shell out a fair whack for a shiny console that renders your old console a quivering wreck, destined to spend the rest of its life (and beyond) gathering dust in a dark corner of a cupboard (I'm a hoarder). Shell out £40~£50 and get yourself a nice new game. Maybe it was an off-the-cuff purchase. If it was, then you should be ashamed of yourself. I always thoroughly research my games. I want to know everything that's in the game before I buy it. Heck, I'd prefer to know that months before the game developers have finished weaving their magic code.

So with that in mind, you can rest assured that when I buy something, game or console, I'm usually fairly knowledgeable about the features available, and that these features were carefully balanced alongside the purchase price before making my decision. I have literally hundreds of game magazines bought so I could read about the newest and shiniest upcoming games stashed away beside those now defunct machines. So I'm a geek and a hoarder, that's what we do. For many, many years, and even a few decades, this has worked perfectly.

But curse that bloody internet and its oh-so-convenient ease at allowing games to ship before they're ready. Since when did consoles require games to be patched? A recent model for sure. I really miss the days when you bought a new game, took it home, ripped open the polythene wrapping, put the game in and started playing. It was part of the fun. Part of the justification for attending things like midnight launches even. Now every time I get a new game, my PS3 decides I don't have the right version and it will take quarter of an hour downloading some bug fixes that could have been fixed before, had the publishers not been so easily able to push a fix later.

OK, so that's a minor annoyance. What is truly a worrying thought however are micro payments, and everything that surrounds them. Micro payments are essentially ways of getting the player to purchase small items which can be used in the game, additional game modes, new levels etc etc... you get the picture. Now games have always made good use out of 'achievements' to incentivise and motivate the gamer to keep playing. It increases enjoyment and increases the longevity of the game. We aren't talking about unlocking bonuses based on performance any more though, it is now based on the (further) exchange of your cash to the game makers.

So not only do you now have to buy the console, buy the controllers (the many MANY ridiculous controllers on some consoles), and buy the games, but you have to keep buying for each game you buy. It's all too quickly that your new shiny games isn't quite as shiny as your friends, because he now has a pink leprechaun tattoo on the main character's ankle. "Oh you don't have the pink lep tat?!" I'm sure my fictional friends are thinking, in a would-be-patronising-tone-if-they-existed kind of way. You're socially bound to keep up with the Joneses of course, and therefore required to part cash for said virtual tats.

It's OK though, the publishers will argue, because they aren't required purchases. They are optional add-ons. Which in games I've seen is mostly true. But I worry about the propensity for these optional add-ons to become less optional. Let's say you have a particular level/zone/building/boss-fight in a game, and there are two ways to beat it. The first way is to manually graft for 10hrs in order to build up the right kit, XP, crew etc... and the second way is to buy the mystical rabbit's testicle of Mordor. It costs £0.45. My worry is the game makers can catch onto this model, and realise that if they make that 10hrs 'acceptably boring', then chances are they can make a sale here. Maybe the hardcore gamers will resist the first run through, but of course, there will be an incentive to play through again. Another 10hrs doing that boring nonsense I did before? Well I have the pride from beating the game the real gamer's way, I can hold my head up high as I just skip the boring bit this time and get back into the fun bit. Ka-ching.

Worse still. Remembering my geekery, and therefore, research that goes into buying games, you can imagine I wouldn't be too happy to get the game home and find out that a lot of the features I thought were in there, weren't. And why are they missing? Well because a recent patch (for my security and benefit) removed these features and replaced them with 'suitable substitutes'. Hmm, I'd feel a little cheated, and even if gaming isn't your thing, you can almost certainly relate. If not, imagine this. You buy a new car. You love the car. You name it Polly. You drive Polly around for a while then decide to get her serviced. On the way home, you feel that something isn't quite right... She is still Polly, sure, but something just doesn't feel the same. It takes a little while but you discover the problem, one of the back seats have been removed and replaced with a bidet. Why? Well because the garage had decided that not enough people were using all of the back seats and that a bidet would be preferred. Now I'm not saying I'm against bidets. I'm not saying people wouldn't find a good use for them in the back seats of their car (although the plumbing might prove a logistical nightmare, but it would ruin my metaphor to delve into this deeper) and I'm not saying everyone used their back seats.

But damnit I liked my back seats! So don't remove things that I used, and indeed, paid for, without my permission. It is a blatant mis-selling of the product to remove a feature later, and require I update it. So when Call of Duty pushed their recent patch, in order to feed the micro-payment scheme (hereby known as the yet-to-be-pronounced-before-now cancer of the video game) of selling me new maps that will divide my friends and end up with situations where I can't join them in all games as some will have the premium goods, some won't, and conveniently used that as an excuse to remove game modes I used and for which I paid, I felt, and still feel cheated.

And this type of thing is only getting started. Playstation 3 itself sold a console which could host other operating systems, a feature I'm sure many people valued when choosing a console to buy, only to revoke that feature later in a required update.

So not only does buying a game not get you the full game, it only gives you a percentage of the game for so long as it suits the game makers, who can, apparently, add or remove features later as they wish. Makes me wish I was in my parents' house so I could go resurrect my trusty old Master System II.

Go on internet, try take my Alex Kidd away from me. Golden days, when you knew what you were getting for your money.