The video game industry is changing. Not just in the ever more popular arm of eSports, or the continued rise of PC gaming. Or even the inevitable surge towards disc-less, digital access to games.
The way we pay for video game content is changing. For better or worse, it’s likely to change the way we play.
The traditional model for accessing video game content has been in place for generations, and generally, gamers have little in the way of complaints. You hand over your hard earned cash, and in exchange you’re given a disc packed full of content. The fruits of years of developer blood, sweat and tears, you enjoy the complete experience straight out of the box. When you’ve finished, you sell on ownership of that disc to another party, be it via eBay or trade-in.
The whole process operates supremely well for the consumer, but never so much for the publishers. Once a game has been purchased outright, no further income can be gained from second hand sales. In response, the industry has tried to introduce extra layers of content via DLC packages and “season passes”, to mixed success. Microsoft even tried to deprive gamers of that right to second hand ownership. Initial plans to ban pre-owned titles were quickly shelved after an uproar from the Xbox (and wider) gaming community.
Undeterred, the industry are now harnessing the growing digital platform to change the way video games are monetised.
Built off the back of an ever rising broadband internet infrastructure, digital platforms for videos games are growing. Steam is the Holy Grail to which, arguably, the rest of the industry should look up to. With countless titles, regular sales and easy access to additional content, Steam is a brilliant and entirely online platform, and we’ll see how well it can tackle the console market this winter with the Steam Machines launch.
So why are traditional console giants such as PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo dragging their heels? The answer- retail. Physical retailers such as Game still hold significant sway in the industry, and their agreements with the console arm of the gaming industry keep prices high on their respective online platforms. So, if you’re infuriated by the PlayStation Store’s continued high prices, blame physical retailers, who they are unable to undercut.
Another challenge facing the console hierarchy is on gamer choice. Backwards compatibility is a mere blot in my gaming memory today, banished long ago as a pleasure manufacturers were unwilling to bless us with. With the big three in the console world all making losses on each machine sold, they need to maximise the amount of profit they make on each player via brand new games. The worst way to do that would be to allow users to access a huge back catalogue of games, from which the likes of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo will make no money cash.
Its reasons such as the above that driving disillusioned console gamers to the thriving PC market. Steam is ploughing a lone furrow in offering gamers choice and value. Console developers may take some time to rid themselves of their current issues, but eventually we’re likely to see discs make way for exclusive digital content.
Within that digital umbrella, an alternative model to outright purchase an installation of a particular game is to stream it. Streaming content online has proven to be a great success for TV and movies. Naturally, the transition to gaming is one with more logistical obstacles. The concept has been proven to work with services such as NVIDIA’s GRID service and OnLive (which has now been sold off to EA Access), all of which offer subscription based on-demand gaming services.
Aside from the technological boundaries, there are a number of challenges to champions of the concept. Sony have dipped their toes into the idea by launching PlayStation cloud service PS Now. Currently in UK beta, I was mildly impressed at the potential of the system. How successfully Sony can win over publishers and get the best content onto PS Now remains to be seen. It could hold the key to on demand gaming making a real impact on the future of the industry.
For developers, one method of monetising their product is through an episodic release. Pioneered by Telltale games, episodic content comes with a number of advantages to both gamers and developers. The success of episodic games has piggybacked on the rise of big budget TV productions. Releasing content in a series of episodes, to be gradually enjoyed as part of a full season, lends itself kindly to modern TV. For developers, it allows a shorter development cycle (episodes tend to be 3-4 hours in length), allowing the plug to be pulled quicker if ideas flop. Plus, more money is ultimately made. Ahead of paying £40 for one completed title, gamers contribute maybe £10 per episode. Bought over a number of seasons, consumers could find themselves investing a significant number of hours, and pounds, into a gaming series.
Not that gamers don’t approve of episodic content. Built on a strong narrative and engaging characters, gamers are hooked by the drip-fed nature of the content. Indeed, a number of the episodic titles have tied in with popular TV shows, as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones both saw conversations from TV to episodic game.
So is it the future? It’s unlikely to surge ahead of traditional methods anytime soon, but the success of the Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us has shown there is undoubted potential for episodic games. Microsoft agree. They recently announced that that big budget exclusive Quantum Break will released as both an episodic game and TV show, both of which will run simultaneously.
The gaming community drew in a horrified squeal back in 2012 when EA interactive senior vice president claimed that the freemium gaming model will be the future of gaming. Take a look at the iOS app store now. In all likelihood, a number of the top grossing apps will be completely free to download.
And everyone loves free, right? Take a look at the definition of “Freemium” however, and it all become clear.
“a business model, especially on the Internet, whereby basic services are provided free of charge while more advanced features must be paid for.”
Hiding the majority of a game’s content behind a paywall, and hoping to drag in unsuspecting gamers with the ‘free’ headline is fine on mobile, where a number of casual gamers operate exclusively on that platform. That they consistently populate the mobile charts is enough indication that developers are making more than enough cash. And for users, many of whom are unhappy spending more than 99p on a mobile game, the dip-your-toe-in for free option sort of works (even if the recent release of Angry Birds 2 as a freemium title was met with disdain). But given the promise of it one day overtaking the traditional one payment system, made let’s not forget by the boss of a major player in the industry, should dedicated console and PC gamers be worried? A little.
Microsoft have set an unnerving precedent with the upcoming release of Role Playing title Fable Legends. The latest edition of the hugely popular franchise will, unfortunately, be a freemium title. Microsoft attempted to diffuse the inevitable uproar by claiming the entire game can be completed without a penny of microtransactional investment. That Microsoft, who have shown considerable intent to push into the gaming sphere with Windows 10, have plumped for such a model is a cause for concern in itself.
If the words of EA and actions of Microsoft are anything to go by, freemium titles are likely to bleed their way into gaming circles that were previously untouched. The way to counter a push towards freemium? Gamers must take a stand and simply ignore the free-to-play genre, and continue to support the fully functioning and completed experience we enjoy straight out of the box.