Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Dangers of Download Content

The first time I found myself organizing Pokémon by their Pokédex index number in the original Pokémon Red cartridge (no small task) I realized there was something fundamentally compelling about collecting and organizing things. Perhaps it is our hunter/gatherer origins that drive this motivation. Whatever the source of this phenomenon that most of us share to varying degrees, the video game industry has really locked in on it and is now in the process of exploiting it. You may want to argue that you are not an obsessive-compulsive completionist like I often am, but I am sure that most games that really hook their audience are using a tactic of baiting the player with unlockable content. Hell, it’s the entire business model of an MMO – to keep more content coming at regular intervals to keep you paying your subscription month after month. It’s now something fairly obvious and universal that we have all experienced in one way or another with video games.

Now that's a collection!
I personally like collecting video games themselves. I typically prefer to put them on a shelf and display them rather than resell them for money toward new games. I tend to take really good care of my games and their accessories. When I purchase a used game, for example, if the casing and booklet inserts aren’t included then I am sure to pass on them for a new version with all the bells and whistles, superfluous as they may be. Because of this, I resisted buying digital copies of games from digital distributors for as long as I can remember. Digital copies don’t really come with bells and whistles. There’s nothing really to display. They simply exist as a smattering of electrons that come together before my eyes to entertain me on a whim. It doesn’t have as much to offer someone who likes to display his collection with pride. My attitude toward this is shifting lately, largely due to the quality and convenience of Valve’s digital distribution service, aptly called Steam.

And who wouldn't, Scrooge?
I’ve been building my collection since roughly 1990. I suppose someday I hoped to build a Scrooge McDuck “Money Bin” full of video games that I could swim through lovingly. I’d toss them up in the air and let them rain down on my head while I squealed with delight. As it stands, 22 years later, I have enough copies of games to fill a wheelbarrow. Perhaps I could even fill an inflatable swimming pool and live out the poor man’s version of this fantasy. However, now that I am a recent convert to Steam, I fear that my dream of swimming through mountains of plastic cartridges and laser discs will be dashed upon the proverbial rocks. As I face a personal increase in displeasure with the constant “nickel & diming” video game publishers insist on inflicting upon their presumably loyal customers, I can’t deny that Steam’s prices are quite often the most rewarding and financially responsible solution to this growing problem if you don’t mind waiting patiently for the Steam sales to take effect.

This haircut is irresponsible in so many ways.
If anyone out there is playing video games and doesn’t realize that the market is trying to take advantage of you, you need look no further than The Sims 3 online store (link to example) where purchasing a new hairstyle for your fake people costs some real money. These micro-transactions are becoming quite common, but what boggles my mind is how within The Sims 3 itself things are so inconsistent. As you can see, a single haircut can run you $1. That is to say 30 haircuts will run you about $30, which is equal to the price of The Sims 3 itself, and all of its subsequent expansions – which I can assure you are much greater than the sum of 30 hairstyles. They contain entire neighborhoods worth of people, places and things to do and explore. The compulsive collector in me would love to be able to collect all these hairstyles (not to mention: clothing, furniture, homes, stores, tattoos, etc) and play dress-up with thousands of options, but the often-rational side of my brain is constantly reminding me the value of a single dollar. If my brain felt these prices even remotely reflected their true worth (about 80% or more off their current market price) I’d probably be irresponsible enough to spend $500 on fake clothes for fake people per year. Thanks to EA’s ridiculous (money-grubbing) prices, though, they are lucky if I spend $30 on their expansions – in fact, I often wait for Steam to put them up for sale so I don’t even pay the full asking price of the expansions which are typically worth the $30 to begin with.

Get a few drinks in me and start talking about my childhood, and I may pay $30 for these costumes.
That’s just one example. The idea of Downloadable Content (DLC) is a marvelous one. Who doesn’t want to add additional options and quests and stories to their favorite games? However, I feared early on that it would devolve into what it’s already becoming. It’s a way for game companies to milk us for money. I feel like if a game is worth $60, and content arrives worth $10, then the content should easily be 1/6th the content you already have. When it’s just an additional 2 hours to a 60 hour game, I feel you are getting ripped off. Remember, I’m only judging these games and these prices based on the retail prices the publishers themselves set. You should not be paying $10 for 5 new weapons, when you paid $60 for a game filled with hundreds of weapons. It just doesn’t add up. The game itself is a microcosm where the developers hold the reins on a monopoly, especially on console games which are not open to public modifications. Your only option to rebel against these outrageous prices is to not buy them, because no one else is making or selling them for reduced prices. There is no competition to drive prices down, and every time someone buys this content they justify the price to the developer.

This brings me back to Steam, which is becoming my primary solution to this problem. It should be common sense that if we are patient and shop around we can typically come to a price we feel is reasonable for the product being offered. Despite my previous distaste for digitally downloaded games, Steam has really won me over with its convenient and easy to access games. While many game publishers are busy running around trying to come up with ways to defeat piracy and shut down used game re-sales, which typically hurt their legitimate consumers most of all, Steam is busy providing accessible, affordable, streamlined service with no chance of used-game resale. They have this bizarre theory that if the service is good, people will pay for your products and although I’m a new member to Steam’s community, I completely agree. Not only have I never had a problem accessing my library of games on any computer I’ve sat down at, I’m constantly being bombarded with amazing sales – where games and their download content are being sold for prices that actually make sense and are even cheaper than buying used, physical copies of retail games.

I am not trying to write an advertisement for Steam. I simply want to encourage other gamers to take a step back and realize where their money is going, and how it could be better spent. I fear for the future of the video game industry when already the DLC is so ridiculously over-priced for what it actually is offering the player. We’re potentially headed into a world where the used game market disappears in place of locked games, locked content, and digital distribution locked to the downloader which is a scary prospect for many. The only way to send a message to game companies that they can’t get away with as over-charging is to not buy their products at all (cold-turkey or resort to piracy; I advocate neither) or stop throwing away money and wait for the deals that reflect the true worth of your money. Don’t be fooled into think “it’s only a dollar.” You could easily spend 5 of those dollars a new character costume for your favorite game, or buy the whole game itself for $10 including that costume and all its other DLC if you’re patient.

Think of all you'd have saved if you waited for the "Ultimate Edition" of Dragon Age: Origins!
I’m providing the link to a forum I recently been acquainted with that features all kinds of deals on video games across the board. I haven’t been buying too many games lately so I haven’t had the chance to put it to good use, but I definitely have it bookmarked to help me fight against being overcharged for games in this current economy. Members of this forum list all the sales happening in both digital and physical retail. Don't be taken advantage of and shop responsibly!


Related Links
Steam - http://store.steampowered.com
Cheap Ass Gamer forum - http://www.cheapassgamer.com/forums/

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