THE (LATE) ‘THIRD YEAR’ ANNIVERSARY MESSAGE

Hello everyone. I hope you are enjoying the summer; make the most of the sunny weather while you can!

It’s really bad when you’re late to someone’s birthday. I’d say it’s even worse when it’s your own! So here’s a very late birthday to the blog! I think it’s called ‘fashionably late’. Can’t believe it has been three years already. While there is not much in the way of content lately, over three years time, we have steadily added to the blog. I’m pleased ultimately where this is going.

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Looking forward to the 4th one.

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Easy As D-L-C

Easy As D-L-C

Hello people of the internet. It’s not usual to have a leap year (since they only have the courtesy of coming every 4 years), so hope you are making the most of February 29th. Aren’t we lucky people? I think it might be a sign of the times…

Following on from the last post where we discussed about microtransactions, the theme of downloadable content was mentioned. It’s a relatable topic, so this post will be a sort of sequel post as we delve into a business practice within the gaming industry going back the years.

Bit-by-Bit

Whenever you pay for something, you expect to get what you paid for. It’s a standard consumer right, right? So when you pay for a loaf, you expect the whole loaf and not one slice. If you pay for a three-course meal, you expect the three-courses. In that respect, when you pay for a videogame, you expect the full game to play. Isn’t that common sense?

But where games differ with loaves is the scope. The nature of games, especially long-running or popular series, allows the opportunity for more content to be added in. For example, Skyrim exists as a regular game, but its fantasy setting and ‘lore’ allows more content to be built around the regular game, essentially expanding its in-game universe. Because all this extra material was created after the regular game came out, it therefore becomes what is known in the videogame industry as ‘downloadable content’.

Downloadable content (DLC) are basically extra add-ons that expands the original game in a multitude of ways (i.e. continuation of the game’s story). Some carry significant content while others are innocuous, such as additional cosmetic items that are more like gimmicks. There generally is no limit to how many DLCs a game can have, but as you can imagine, games falling under the role-playing genre have the biggest scope of how much content can be added as they can be as ridiculous or creative as possible.

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Skyrim’s downloadable content. Each one adds something specifically new to the game.

DLCs are becoming increasingly common in the gaming industry as they take less time to make then a full game, and are therefore less expensive to design and to buy. Even DLCs that contain the smallest of additions can be considered a continuation of the main game. They are a good way of keeping the overall game fresh and continuous, allowing players to carry on playing with variety and interest. The industry rule is that once the main game is out, the developers wait roughly a few months before shipping the first downloadable content. Depending on the game, several months is generally the average of when players start to have exhausted all that the game offers and move onto newer things. Games companies obviously want to keep their players for as long as possible.

Expansionist

Let’s look back in time to where it appeared to have started. Before we had things like Steam making things easy over the web, games had to be brought at the shops. They still are nowadays, but with the capabilities of the internet allowing many of us to do our shopping online, it’s not as it once was. Back then, games – almost exclusively PC ones – were utilising the precusor to DLCs: expansion packs. As the name suggested, expansion packs were extra add-ons to the base game. The way in which PC games were created and designed (all the programming, etc) allowed expansion packs to be readily accessed and built upon. It was easier since the base game was already there and all they needed was to build upon the existing code. Since they were additional content, the price of expansion packs was much less than the regular game. If the full game was £20, generally the expansion pack was around £10, give or take. No-one could not get away with selling the add-on at full price.

In many cases, because the expansion pack was an add-on, you would have had to have the original game to begin with in order to use it. It makes sense because the add-on wouldn’t work without an existing platform to use. A very good example is The Sims series. Where you had the original game, the developers subsequently added more expansion packs that added to what The Sims first brought in. For instance, there was The Sims: Livin’ Large, The Sims: Hot Date, The Sims: Vacation, and many others, all of which added more and more content for the player but still needed the original game as a reference. The more one person had, the more content they could access and play with.

sims expansion packs

The Sims and all its featured expansion packs. Each one adds something new to the base game.

When enough time has passed, often developers would package the games together, labelling them anything from ‘deluxe, gold or game-of-the-year’ editions. These are common industry bywords to denote that players can buy the entire collection: original game and applicable expansion packs, all in one. It usually is a few months later that these editions come out, which is a nice way to ‘rounding up’ the series. It can be expected, given how much time has passed, that buying these editions is a saving to the player.

As time went on, developers started releasing stand-alone expansion packs. These are still expansion packs, only this time they did not need the original game to play. As such, they were still priced less than a full game. However, should one start on these stand-alone packs, they may miss out on a lot of the main content afforded by the original game. Often, this means they don’t have access to certain capabilities or options, but it does allow the game to be more accessible for players who have a slight interest. By not having to have the main game, players can try out stand-alone packs and then branch into the main content if they like what they see. Think of them as a sample.

Keeping It Interesting

Because of the way we use the internet and how significant it is in our lives, it’s no surprise that the gaming industry are also using the internet to its advantage. The internet means the ability to download vast quantities of information and data, making it the preferred way of purchasing games. It’s less likely that someone would go to the shops when they could just do it at the click of a button at home. That’s understandable and I’ve done it myself. You do things to make it easier on yourself, right?

As was said earlier in the post, downloadable content are essentially expansion packs, only they are downloaded instead of being stacked on shop shelves. They still serve the same purpose of adding to existing content which they do by the bucket loads. Because everything is done online, people can buy several DLCs in one sitting and have them all to play later.

Increasingly, with online services like Xbox Live, console gamers are also utilising DLCs that they never could before, including stand-alone packs. Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath required the original Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars to play on the PC, but Xbox 360 versions of both games are available and not mutually exclusive. With these online services, there is a dedicated online store where players can buy things using online payment – think similar to microtransactions before. It’s like having a shop on your games console that you can browse form the comfort of your own home

One of the biggest problems for developers, especially those MMORPG-type games, is keeping a large enough player base to offset the costs of making and running the game. In other words, keeping the interest of the player is critical to ensuring profitability and longetivity not just to the game, but to the companies themselves. Developers are keen to take advantage of that fact by the retention of users. In other words, by periodically releasing DLCs to provide extra content, developers hope to continue to keep the players playing.

This long paragraph gives an insight into the retention of players. ‘A recent study by Juho Hamari –Helsinki Institute for Information Technology– and Aki Järvinen – Digital Chocolate, Inc – shows the importance of DLC for the acquisition, monetization, but more importantly, for the retention of users in social games. Games as a service has established in the industry as a viable model. It’s now possible to acquire users more easily and engage them with good gameplay and then offer virtual goods through in-app purchases that enhance the game’s original experience. This one-two punch is something to have in mind if you want games to last longer: a larger influx of casual players thanks to free-to-play, plus better retention of hard-core gamers who are more likely to spend on DLCs. Greater game longevity can be achieved with a constant stream of DLC releases that help players get a sense of continuing support for the game. It keeps player interest alive thus reducing the drop out. Plus, it can make players who stopped playing to come back and check the new content for the game’ (David Xicota, 2014).

This situation is a concern for many developers, especially small-scale ones, where players are money. As Xicota (2014) stated, DLCs are an excellent way of retaining people to use your products.Many free-to-play games see this as the vaiable way to stay in business. By releasing more content (usually through updates or patches) can they keep things varied. The free-to-play game World of Warships recently added new features to the game, such as dynamic weather effects, as a way of doing something different.

One way in which developers do this is to promote what is known in the games industry as a ‘season pass’. Season passes allows the player to have a yearly privilege of having first access to the upcoming DLCs before anyone else. In better words, it is ‘a system that allows players to pay upfront and receive all of the DLC for a game, including DLC that has not yet been released. This lets players receive a discount compared to buying DLC individually’ (GiantBomb, 2015). These are popular for a dedicated community, such as Borderlands or Skyrim, where DLCs are numerous and extensive. Developers usually announce a series of upcoming DLCs and players can then pay for the season pass, providing access to those DLCs at a discounted price. The idea is to create an incentive to buy not just one, but many DLCs for longer retention of players.

As GiantBomb (2015) writes, ‘for publishers, this bundling together with a discount may influence players who were going to only buy a small amount of DLC to purchase more of it to take advantage of the discount. Additionally, by offering pre-orders of future DLC they can collect revenue before the DLC is officially released. For players, those who were already planning to buy all of a title’s DLC are able to receive a somewhat significant discount.’ Cameron Koch (2015) also argues that ‘videogames are no longer released, purchased, played and put on the shelf. With rising costs, game developers and publishers have looked for ways to bring in more revenue after a game’s release, while also keeping their game in the headlines for longer. The solution they appeared to have settled on is the season pass. For one price, a player can get access to all the additional content that comes out for a game post-release, oftentimes including new missions, multiplayer maps, skins and more. No matter what kind of game it is, nearly every major AAA game released this year will have one. From Batman: Arkham Knight to Star Wars Battlefront, season passes are here to stay.’

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Example of a season pass for Borderlands 2. Players pay a fee to have access to upcoming add-ons and other features.

The idea of the season pass can provide benefits to developers and players alike. For one thing, season pass (and DLCs in general) give that extra bit of income by providing that extra bit of content that does not necessary ask the developers to break the bank. For players, purchasing DLCs doesn’t mean having to spend big for extra content and there are often discounts involved. For developers, DLCs are often much cheaper to produce, but if done right, can pay itself off with a dedicated following to that game. ‘Videogames are not a cheap hobby, but fans who enjoy what a developer is doing don’t appear to have a problem paying more money for more content. Developers wouldn’t spend time making extra DLCs and season passes if players didn’t buy them, and by all accounts, it looks like players most definitely do buy them. Players want more content for their favourite games’ (Koch, 2015).

But Why Pay For More?

While DLCs can be beneficial, they are not without its criticisms, and it comes under some scathing ones. The biggest issue, no surprises, is about money. Just like with microtransactions, there is a sense that developers are far more interested in making as much money as possible by releasing as much extra content as possible. I don’t think anyone begrudges companies making money because they are still a business.

The demanding nature of the gaming industry, coupled with rising costs to developing games, means that companies have to make that money back quickly. As Koch (2015) says, triple-A games are going down the seasons pass route because the developers know that there is a demand for extra content in their games, no matter how trivial these content are. The very popular games like The Sims means they could bring out many DLCs and still sell well. The combined sales figures of the orignal game and all the DLCs could be substantial.

But with DLCs and seasons passes, it just seems more ways to milk the cash cow and fleece people for money. They are willing to pay  but not if they feel if developers are becoming greedy, espceially for content that those not appear to add much back into the main game. As a result, there is the perception that the quality of games in general is lacklustre because of the saturation of DLCs and the desire for companies to make profit. Why would people pay for sub-standard material?

I can only speak for myself here, but I certainly know what it’s like. I get the sense that DLCs are coming out thick and fast. Sometimes they don’t add much to the game; things like cosmetic items don’t seem worth my money. It will pander to the dedicated players but, for the most part, is it really worth it? I guess that is a chioce for each individual person.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliant DLCs and add-ons out there that actually do enhance the original game and are worth the money. The game Oblivion had an amazing expansion pack called Shivering Isles which added a whole new area to have fun in. But it seems to me that with DLC after DLC (and mirotransactions thrown in), the focus appears to be about making money fast by throwing things in. I’m not against that so much, but at the expense of quality is an issue I have.

This is where we are at. It’s a demanding industry is the games one. There is a great deal of pressure to deliver on time and companies are under scrunity for their titles. Negative feedback  can be a disaster. The demands and the pressure often mean games are rushed, leading to lesser quality. I can understand the need for profit. But are we getting to a sitatuon where they are so concerned about keeping players that they will churn out DLCs just for the sake of retention?

Or have we got there long ago?

Bibliography

Giantbomb’s article, ‘DLC Season Pass’:

http://www.giantbomb.com/dlc-season-pass/3015-7186/

Cameron Kock’s article, ‘If Video Game Season Passes Are Going To Work, We Need To Know What’s In Them’:

http://www.techtimes.com/articles/96272/20151017/if-video-game-season-passes-are-going-to-work-we-need-to-know-whats-in-them.htm#sthash.N6SCOhxJ.dpuf

David Xicota’s article, ‘What Does DLC Mean for Your Games’:

http://www.gamedonia.com/blog/what-does-dlc-mean-your-games

 

More Than Your Fair Share

Hello people, hope you had a great New Year’s party. I’m sure you kept the drinking to a minimum….

Something that is becoming increasingly commonplace in videogames (among other things) is the topic for this next blog entry, the first of 2016. Picture this scenario: you are playing a game; however, there is in-game content that potentially is beneficial to you. Yet it is not given to you just like that. In order for you to use it, you have to buy it with real money. Sound familiar? Welcome to the prevalent world of microtransactions.

What Are Microtransactions?

Perk (2014) gives a definition: ‘Microtransactions (or micro-transactions or micro transactions) are a term that applies to small value financial transactions that happen within digital games and apps.’ Essentially, microtransactions are all about generating extra money. This business model has been increasingly used as a popular method for companies to do just this. The way it works is that within a game, there are additional (and optional) ‘extras’ people can buy using online payment that provides additional benefits or bonuses to their game, although the reason varies from game to game. In order to purchase in-game content, the player needs to enter their card details just like you’d normally do for online payment (e.g. Amazon purchases).

It must be stressed that microtransactions are not mutually exclusive to videogames. In fact, many other businesses implement them. It’s the same for certain software such as antivirus protection. If you downloaded it from the web, you can pick from the basic version (no charge), or for a fee, the premium version which gives more functions and services. In a way, paying to use a premium account is like giving you ‘preferred customer’ status, allowing you to use more of the service. Other websites such as LinkedIn also uses some form of micropayment, allowing users to ‘upgrade’ to the premium version.

There are a number of reasons why this business model is used. Perk (2014) lists some reasons below:

• 1. Small purchases add up very quickly: Some of today’s highest-revenue apps (games in particular) are free for users to obtain, but earn money with microtransactions. These success stories are evidence that users spend quite a lot of money even when individual purchases are small.
• 2. Free-to-play is growing fast: The trend in digital is decidedly towards a free-to-play app market, in which users expect to download or acquire an app/game for free. In 2013, 90% of the Trillion (yes, that’s a T) dollar app market is free to download.
• 3. Implementing microtranscations is easy: Our SuperRewards platform allows any developer to have microtransactions up and running in a few minutes. This means you can accept payments today for the goods or content that increase engagement and make users happy.

It’s an interesting dynamic in regards to the first point. Imagine an in-game content costing 5p, which doesn’t sound a lot admittedly. But if you have an audience of one million players (perfectly feasible) who all spend that 5p, then you are looking at a profit of £50,000. But then you can have people spending loads more, leading to a greater profit. Sometimes, it’s not question of how much it is, rather how often they spend. That is just an example of the potential profitability of microtransactions.

This business model is increasingly relevant to games colloquially known as ‘free-to-play’. Free-to-play games generally means there is no charge to play the game in its base form, but in order to take advantage of the bonuses or specials, one needs to cough up for the benefit. So in the strictest sense, they are not free-to-play unless you plan on not paying for any benefits. A lot of mobile phone apps fall under this category. There are some pretty big examples such as Farmville, Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja that are free-to-play with optional micropayments.

As Perk (2014) explained, this trend is on the rise. Team Fortress 2 is a very popular game on Steam, which used to be a full game but has since converted to a free-to-play model in order to take advantage of microtransactions, of which there are many. And while I’m on it, Steam itself is a walking billboard for online payments. I’ve been banging on about the Steam Market and all about the collaborations and transactions between the players (insert post link here).

Lori Bray agrees (2013), stating: ‘Keeping the title free means fewer barriers to entry and a more efficient cost-per-install. Micro-transactions also mean that far more granular price points can be developed, converting a wider base of users who might not be willing to maintain a €12/month subscription or purchase a retail box for €30-40.’ Because of this, players are not hit in the pocket quite so much and can spend more on the game as a whole.

How Are They Implemented?

As stated above, microtransations/micropayments are popular within free-to-play games. Let’s face it, game designers have to make money somehow otherwise they’d go bust; same with any other business. Microtransactions are a way of providing an incentive for players to make in-game purchases and keep the game running as a free-to-play model.

The idea of going free-to-play in the first place is to entice players, to get as many people into the game who may otherwise have been put off by the (sometimes) extortionate price tag of retail games. Come on, have you ever seen a game you wanted but bulked at the asking price? Think of the poor people who play on consoles when they have to shell out £40-50 for new games. Free-to-play games offer a different alternative for people who are reserved with their money. The player doesn’t lose out financially if they don’t like the game so it’s less hassle about getting money back.

Many successful free-to-play games are massively multiplayer online role-playing games. This is not surprising given that these MMORPGs can have huge scope in their content. Often the size of the in-game world is vast, allowing players to explore to their heart’s content and therefore allowing developers to maximise micropayments. World of Warcraft is a big player in this genre. When you have as many people as World of Warcraft does, it presents a very good opportunity to rake in the money.

The game introduces in-game items that are extremely valuable, such as extra damage or health boost, but of course, you can’t give it to everyone otherwise that would devalue it. Instead, the developers use micropayments: players wanting the items must pay for it to have the right to use. For these types of games, the ‘money’ is usually called whatever in-game currency the game uses. In World of Warcraft, the terms ‘coin’ or ‘gold’ are used in place of real money in keeping with the game’s fantasy setting. The conversion rate from real money to whatever in-game currency is used varies. For instance, £10 real money equates to ‘£10’ of coin, but not necessary the same value.

Case Study: World of Warships

Let’s look at an example of a free-to-play game, subsuewntly one I have been playing recently. It is called World of Warships, which is part of the Wargaming series. I quite like the cool explosions of battleship guns, but that’s another story.

World of Warships has a loyal and popular following, but that doesn’t mean they can operate completely free. Everyone who creates an account and downloads the game initially does not pay any price to play it. This creates an opportunity for the player to experience what the game offers.

As with many games, there is a system of ‘levelling’. Basically, as the player accumulates more experience and credits in the game, the higher their level goes. Everyone starts at Rank 1, with progression to Rank 11. With more experience gained, players can spend it on better ships.

However, it is a slow process to rank up. As an added incentive, the player may instead purchase what is called in-game as a ‘premium account’ to speed things up a little. There are certain versions to purchase such as 1 Day accounts all the way to 1 Year; it depends how much the player wants to spend. I think the rate for 1 Day is 80p, which is not a lot but can add up with continual use it.

The bonus of having a premium account is 50% extra experience gained in battle. So if I earned 100 experience points, having a premium account would then give me 50% more so I’d end up having 150. It may not seem much but it goes a long way to getting that next best ship. For a while I didn’t spend any money but I eventually did out of curiosity, and I must admit, I have spent more than I’d like to (but still not a lot to make a massive dent in my bank account). That’s the thing with free-to-play games, you spend what seems an innocent amount at first, but it slowly spirals into more as you spend more time in the game. It’s almost like gambling.

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A screenshot of World of Warships ‘Premium Store’ listing various deals on doubloons

There is an in-game currency called ‘doubloons’. Their role is to create a monetary system in the game. A dedicated website ‘store’ allows players to add funds in exchange for doubloons to use in-game. As I said before, real money and in-game money are not necessary the same value. I think 1000 doubloons is £3.60 of real money, which is quite expensive actually. That could buy you a decent lunch. Doubloons can be used to purchase special camouflage, signals, ships or flags to use. Of course, the better the extra, the more it costs.

Paying-To-Win

While microtransactions are beneficial to developers of free-to-play games, the practice has drawn criticisms amide what is perceived as an obvious attempt to fleece more money. No-one denies that companies have to make money anyway, but what is disliked is that with the myriad of microtransactions, it gives the impression that the biggest concern for designers is how to make as much money as possible. According to PCGamer (2013:1), “Free-to-play” and “microtransactions” are dirty terms to some. That’s understandable. Famous Facebook Skinner boxes like Farmville have clouded attitudes toward today’s free-to-play games, and there’s an assumption all microtransaction-driven game design is handicapped by the need to create ways to charge players.’

The article continues to say, ‘a lot of the distrust toward microtransaction-driven games comes down to the way they habitually obfuscate both what exactly you’ll be paying for, and how much you’ll be paying for it. This starts with the standard practice of exchanging of standard currency for fake fun-bucks equivalents. In Rift, it’s “Credits”, in The Old Republic, it’s “Cartel Coins”, in War Thunder, it’s “Golden Eagles”, to name just a few. The deliberately awkward exchange rates are of course designed to hide the actual value of the items you’re buying, but hiding the value of every transaction at this fundamental level appears dishonest. There’s a widespread lack of clarity around the payment systems attached to free-to-play games. The price and payment method of engaging with a game should be quickly apparent, and expressed in a way that lets players know exactly what they’re getting for their money’ (PCGamer, 2013:1).

This point is important, as it can be confusing for players to know exactly what they are potentially buying, and more significantly, whether is it worth it. Here is a screenshot of the store of World of Warships. The in-game currency is doubloons, but you can see the different rates, so for 500 doubloons, you need to pay £1.69. For 30,500 doubloons, the price is £75.50. These are actually very expensive for, to be honest, not that much. You can easily use that many doubloons very quickly and end up spending more real money even quicker. It seems insane to spend that much but people do it.

This environment that free-to-play games promote has lead to the term ‘pay-to-win’ which is not complimentary by any means. Pay-to-win is the idea that in order for you to have success in the game, you need to spend real money for those special bonuses and abilities. For balancing purposes, these extras are mainly cosmetic items such as clothes or costumes so as not to give too much of a disadvantage to those who have not paid. However, depending on the game, it doesn’t work like that. Some games clearly have a competitive edge so players who spent have an advantage to possessing powerful items like weapons which can’t be obtained any other way.

So I guess what the real reason as to why pay-to-win exists as a term is the principle behind micropayments. As Phil Hartup (2015) writes, ‘Principles, even in something as wretched as the videogames industry, matter. What Konami and other companies are up to represents a very real problem in videogames. The wanton, gratuitous monetisation of any aspect of any game that a developer thinks they can squeeze a dollar out of is a sickness within the industry and it’s not without consequences. Games are built to accommodate pay-to-win mechanics.’

He goes on to say, ‘The greed of the games industry manifests itself in other ways too. The pre-order culture that now employs glorified pyramid schemes to secure early sales. Paid-for mods, a concept roundly rejected by players that may yet resurface with the release of Fallout 4. The pre-order DLC (downloadable content) packs where developers place chunks of content behind unnecessary pay walls or tied to specific sellers, preventing players from owning the whole game on launch day’ (Hartup, 2015).

I have to agree somewhat with what he’s saying. Sadly, it is increasingly becoming the standard industry practice. We looked at paid-for-mods in a previous post regarding Skyrim and that idea did not go down well with the players. They feel mods should be accessible so by slapping a price tag on them it restricts access. Again, it’s not about so much the money, it’s about the principle being implemented that it’s just another way to gain it.

For free-to-play games, nobody denies the developers shouldn’t make money from them. Yet with the myriad of potential in-game content, it seems that to get anywhere in the game, you have to spend, and spend lots. World of Warships has a levelling system where you’d have to raise enough points to get the next best ship. The process gets exponentially longer the higher you go, so it almost feels ‘obliged’ or even ‘necessary’ to upgrade to a premium account to get there faster.

This Is This Reality?

It would certainly seem so. In a world where we spend so much, so fast online, it was only a matter of time before the idea of micropayments caught on in games. In fact, the free-to-play model has expanded the games industry to accessible levels, allowing even the smallest of companies to grow that wouldn’t have been possible if they sold their titles in retail. Ethan Levy (2014) makes this point, summarising, ‘meanwhile, the influence of free-to-play has only grown over time. Not only was it the dominant business model on social network and mobile phone games, but its influence could be felt on console and PC, too. Struggling subscription-based MMOs found sustainable success in microtransactions (MTX), Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play and League of Legends conquered the world while selling champions and skins. F2P juggernaut World of Tanks was ported to the 360.’

Levy (2014) adds, ‘last month I ran a survey about gamers’ DLC and MTX purchasing habits. Over 2,700 gamers answered questions about how they have spent their money in the past 3 months. The results may surprise you. 1 in 10 gamers have purchased MTX in a premium AAA game in the past 3 months. 6 in 10 gamers have played a free-to-play mobile game in the past three months and 1 in 10 have made a MTX purchase in those games…these are, on average, 25 to 34-year-old men with full-time jobs making microtransactions inside premium console and free-to-play mobile games.’

Of course, this is not without its criticisms as we’ve had a look at. I’m not suggesting that companies shouldn’t make money, of course they do. But some of the practices do seem like fleecing people for extra money and the games industry is a lucrative business. The fact that there are so many microtransactions in-game accessible only by paying seems to reinforce this. Some of these micropayments may seem small at first, but continual usage will begin to dent the wallet.

Even AAA games have taken this route with what is called a ‘season pass’. It basically means that the player has paid for all the upcoming downloadable content (DLC) for a season. I think what we’ll begin to expect is that people will have to buy the game ‘in pieces’. As Perk (2014) said before, small payments add up big-time. If you have enough people paying then companies can bank a tidy sum, far more than they could if sold in shops.

I try not be against micropayments because I know they are vital for smaller companies to get recognition and profit. It’s hard enough in an already-congested industry to make a name for yourself as it is. But with free-to-play on the rise, as a gamer myself, I certainly  understand the criticisms of microtransactions and what they represent. It’s not nice to pay for something only to have to pay for something else just to get anywhere in the game. Before you know it you spend far more than you wanted. It’s easy to do that at the click of a button.

Bibliography

Lori Bray’s article ‘Microtransactions: 3 Common Mis-conceptions’

 http://www.gamesparks.com/blog/micro-transactions/

Phil Hartup’s article ‘Pay-Win, How Videogame Companies Exploit Players Deliberatrely’

http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/games/2015/10/pay-win-how-videogame-companies-exploit-players-deliberately-poor-design

Ethan Levy’s article ‘Why microtransactions aren’t going away anytime soon’

http://kotaku.com/why-microtransactions-arent-going-away-any-time-soon-1674260827

PCGamer’s article ‘Microtransactions: the good, the bad and the ugly’

http://www.pcgamer.com/microtransactions-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/

Perk’s article ‘What are micro transactions and how do developers use them?’

http://www.superrewards.com/micro-transactions

 

 

Welcome 2016

Hello everyone. Hope you all had a lovely Christmas and are enjoying the festivities. Who ate all the mincepies?

So we come to the end of 2015. It surely must not just be me to feel it has flown by. One minute I was saying hello to 2015, next I’m saying goodbye. In fact, we’ll be saying hello to 2017 in no time at all.

What are your resolutions for 2016, the same as before? Whatever they are (or if you don’t have any), have a great New Year, and I’ll see you then!

 

 

Happy Christmas, Everybody!

So the year is almost at an end, but before it is, there’s a little thing called Christmas. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, I hope you will have a fantastic Christmas with the family as it only comes once a year. Hope you’ve done your shopping and your presents all wrapped up.

I realise it has been since May I last posted, but something called life has been getting in the way. Sorry about that. There are ideas and topics I want to discuss, but perhaps they should be something for 2016. In fact, it won’t be long before we are waving goodbye to 2015. What are your plans for the New Year?

So there it is, have a wonderful time. Just make sure to wear those Christmas jumpers!

 

 

The ‘Two Year Ago’ Anniversary Message

Hello everyone,

Where has the time gone? I cannot believe it is over two years since the blog was setup (although I’m about over a week late with this one). You look behind you and ten years have got behind you. I’m sure I said something like this a year previously. 2nd-birthday

Ok, so I have not been as active as I’d like – thanks, life – but we’ve covered some topics that I wanted to talk about, such as the rise in esports. I know there’s going to be more in the future that should be discussed as we live out the year.

So thanks guys. I’m very pleased to reach the two year milestone and will be looking at the very next article to write. I predict exciting times ahead. Hope to see you at the three year anniversary.

Thank you.

Paywall Is The New Firewall

If You Want It…

Hello everyone. Hope you had an enjoyable Easter. Something has come up on Steam recently that has copped a lot of negative feedback. It seemed inexplicable that Valve would consider going down this route, and now that they have, prompted many users to vent their disappointment (to politely put it). A few days ago, Valve implement a policy where users who wanted ‘mods’ for the game Skyrim would now have to pay for them. This is known as a ‘paywall’, a system where you must pay to gain access to certain information.

Skyrim and Modding

Skyrim is a 2011 game released by Bethesda Softworks. Part of the successful Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim is an action-based role-playing game set in a fictional, mythical universe. In this case, Skyrim is set in the snowy, alpine and Scandinavian-inspired setting of the same name. Like many RPGs, players may customise their character and chose to do whatever they wanted. The ‘open world’ of Skyrim is expansive, providing players with many different opportunities to feel their way throughout the game world.

A large part of the appeal of the game is the act of ‘modding’. Modifications, or mods, are add-ons created by the gaming community to be implemented into the main game via download. These mods can range from anything such as serious add-ons such as new armour, weapons, locations and characters, to humorous and miscellaneous ones like funny sounds and voices.

elder-scrolls-skyrim-gameplay-demo-2

Skyrim can accommodate many different mods

The modding community of Skyrim (and Elder Scrolls in general) is large. Several dedicated websites, notably TES: Nexus, are essentially databases for hundreds of different mods that have been added over time. People create these mods either to add something new into the game, to work on their programming skills or for recreational purposes. Most mods are created usually by a single person. The sheer scale of mods can be vast: you can find ones which make small changes to ones which adds entire new quests and missions.

In fact, the longevity of Skyrim is largely down to mods. These are a good way for players to spend more time once they have beaten the core game. There is generally no limit to how many mods a player can have, although it is not surprising that there will be clashes between incompatible ones.

Building a Paywall, Brick by Brick

Until recently, modding in Skyrim had been free on Steam. Players did not have to pay to download and use these mods, although donations were welcomed as a ‘thank-you’ to the creator. This has essentially helped with the continual growth of the modding community.

However, on 23rd April, Valve and Bethesda implemented a change to this on the Steam service. The main feature was that (as far as Steam was concerned), if you wanted to download a mod, you would now have to pay for it. Want to know why? Here is the statement:

Many of our fans have been modding our games since Morrowind, for over 10 years. They now have the opportunity to earn money doing what they love – and all fans have a new way to support their favourite mod authors. We’ve also updated Skyrim and the Creation Kit with new features to help support paid mods including the ability to upload master files, adding more categories and removing filesize limit restrictions.

What does this mean for you? As a modder, you now have the option of listing your creations at a price determined by you. Or, you can continue to share your projects for free. For those shopping for new mods, Valve is making sure you can try any mod risk free.’ – Skyrim Steam page, 2015

At the same time, Valve released their Steam Workshop feature. This is basically a database within Steam of uploaded mods, similar to the Market feature used for buying and selling in-game items. Skyrim happened to be the first game to use the Workshop, which is why this concerned the game. Here’s how it works:

‘Whether you’re just getting started or are already a professional artist or developer, now you can make money from your creations in the Steam Workshop. Starting with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you can make new cosmetic items, sound packs, custom skins, fancy houses, epic quests, entire new cities, or just a new hat for Lydia. Once you’ve made your creation, you can easily set a price and earn a portion of each sale made through the Steam Workshop.

Set a price for your creation, list it for sale in the Steam Workshop, and earn a portion of sales. Plus, the Workshop Revenue Activity site will help you track your sales and revenue so you can make better decisions about what to work on next. Workshop games will support paid content in the coming weeks. As creator of your Workshop submission, you get to set the price. You can specify a set price or choose to sell as pay-what-you-want and let the customer decide how much to pay.’ – Steam Workshop page, 2015

When a person wants to release their content for others to access, they upload it into the Workshop. By agreeing to various terms and conditions, and following acceptable content policies, their work will be added to the database within their own account. This acts as a portfolio as a showcase of their work.

best_skyrim_mods_so_far

Steam Workshop lists mods, both for free and for sale

The Workshop exists as a central hub of player-created content for everyone to use. This is similar to the Greenlight and Market features we’ve looked at before in regards to Team Fortress 2. Initially, this sounds like a good idea. With Steam being so inter-connected and well-known, people can have their works readily accessible. This is supported by the fact that you needed Steam to actually run Skyrim in the first place.

What Does This Mean?

But there is one problem which we mentioned at the start: paywall. If you wanted to use these mods, you needed to pay for them. How much is dependent on different factors. The more expansive and immersive mods (those which add a lot of features) tend to be more expensive than those that are more limited in design. For example, ‘a Blazing Ringsword or Scrib Crusher – additional weapons – are a mere 17p each, but the Midas Magic Gold pack, introducing 80 new spells to Skyrim’s mystic arsenal, is £3.99’ (Kamen, 2015).

This is the reason why this issue has created such a negative reaction from many people. It is not because they have to pay; it is more of the fact that this policy had been implemented in the first place. Being an online platform for collaboration and sharing between people has been one of Steam’s its strongest points. For a company like Valve who actively encourages community activity, the implementation of a paywall seems to be surprising and disappointing. This was highlighted with hundreds of people quickly posting a negative review, not against the game itself, but against paid mods. There was even a petition created on Change.org for a reversal, gaining 20,000 signatures.

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Just one of the hundreds of negative reviews in the wake of the paid mods policy

The pricing of these mods will be neither Valve’s nor Bethesda’s decision: the creator will make that choice of how much to charge. Valve’s statement for modders to ‘have the opportunity to earn money doing what they love’ is also questionable. For anyone making money out of Steam must file a bunch of tax information, including filling in ‘tax interviews’ for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). After dealing with this extremely complicated system (isn’t dealing with government services is always fun?), here comes the damning statistic. Modders, regardless of whatever price they set, will only get around 25% of the total revenue for their content. The majority of it is split between Valve and Bethesda. The small print is listed in Steam’s supplemental Workshop terms, another legal wall of confusing text that many would not bother reading. The clue is in the Revenue Sharing section, point 1:

The percentage of Adjusted Gross Revenue that you are entitled to receive will be determined by the developer/publisher of the Application associated with the Workshop to which you have submitted your Contribution (‘Publisher’), and will be described on the applicable Workshop page.’ – Steam supplemental Workshop terms page

In theory, anyone can garner a lot of sales of their work, but the reality is that what they receive at the end is largely reduced. It is ultimately the developer/publisher that decides how much you would get for your work (usually less than 40%). In Skyrim’s case, modders get the 25%. Is that a fair deal? I don’t know but it’s listed on Steam’s terms and conditions. What’s more is that the money they receive is only useable within Steam. In other words, they cannot draw the money out like in a bank; only for use in Steam.

So Long, Goodbye?

About a week after they implemented it, Valve removed the paid mods feature. ‘In a post today, Valve employee Alden Kroll confirmed that the functionality will be removed, and all customers who have paid for mods will be refunded. The move has been made with Bethesda’s blessing, Kroll added. “We’ve done this because it’s clear we didn’t understand exactly what we were doing. We’ve been shipping many features over the years aimed at allowing community creators to receive a share of the rewards, and in the past, they’ve been received well. It’s obvious now that this case is different. To help you understand why we thought this was a good idea, our main goals were to allow mod makers the opportunity to work on their mods full time if they wanted to, and to encourage developers to provide better support to their mod communities. We thought this would result in better mods for everyone, both free and paid. We wanted more great mods becoming great products, like Dota, Counter-strike, DayZ, and Killing Floor, and we wanted that to happen organically for any mod maker who wanted to take a shot at it.” (Prescott, 2015).

The backlash against this policy was so strong, so dense that it seemed they had no other option. You could cut the resentment with a knife, it was that solid. Valve received a ‘dump truck’ of feedback on the matter, of which its disposition was very clear. Many didn’t like the fact that they had to pay to enjoy player-created content.

Here’s my take on it. Nobody expects anything for free and gamers do not expected things to be given away. The trouble is that when you impose restrictions and limitations, you will cause friction and it is no different here. For a long time, mods have been freely and readily accessible for others to enjoy, which has helped to grow the community and in turn keep Skyrim alive.

I don’t think anyone has an issue with the creators getting a financial incentive for their work. However, most people advocate a donation system as the appropriate way to support the content creators. The gaming community is, by and large, very generous and supportive. TES: Nexus, which arguably has a larger database of Skyrim mods than Steam, is still free to use. Its community and supportive feel makes it a popular choice for discussion and sharing.

There is no sense of entitlement from gamers that they have a right to use mods at will. It’s the fact that paid mods was thrown on them rather suddenly. Valve and Bethesda made the mistake of moving too quickly and have suffered considerably for it. If you ask me, having this system is largely counterproductive. Steam is full of creative content that probably will never get experienced or used because people have to pay for them. Perhaps that is the sad thing.

This is not the end of paywall, far from it. With the amount of games that are modified by the community on Steam, I’d say it’s a matter of when not if, this crops up again. Valve talked about using the situation as a ‘social experiment’, but they have a definitive answer to the question. Their reputation has taken a considerable knock so lessons need to be learned.

Bibliography

Matt Kamen’s article: Modders backlash supports paid Steam mods

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-04/30/modders-backlash-supports-paid-steam-mods

Shaun Prescott’s article: Valve has removed paid mods functionality from Steam Workshop

http://www.pcgamer.com/valve-has-removed-paid-mods-functionality-from-steam-workshop/