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Opinion – Publishers Should Stop Mistaking Gamer Enthusiasm For Stupidity

by Mike Futter on Dec 29, 2014 at 04:36 AM

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I am guilty. I have pre-ordered games. I have purchased season passes without full details of the contents. I have done these things based on my enthusiasm for the medium and faith in the publishers. That time has passed.

As a reporter covering the gaming industry, I have to look at things with a critical eye. I try to see things from multiple sides, including from that of the bottom-line driven publishers. 

I understand that season passes and a la carte micro-DLC are crucial for a number of reasons. $60 per customer isn’t quite enough anymore. Jobs are on the line, and DLC creates bridge projects to keep developers from being let go before they are needed for the next big game.

There are a lot of questions (most of them pointed) that pop up every time these items are announced. 

Q: Why is DLC announced immediately before or after a game’s release?
A: Publishers are capitalizing on enthusiasm and the “newness” of the experience. Gamers want a second helping before they’ve finished the first and are more likely to purchase content in advance.

Q: Why have season passes become so prevalent?
A: The closer to a game’s release that DLC is sold, the more consumers psychologically view it as an “up-sell” rather than a brand new purchase. An additional $20 on top of $60 might seem like a bargain early, but when it’s $20 for DLC compared to $0 or, instead, $20 toward a new game, the odds aren’t as much in the publisher’s favor.

Additionally, there is a core rule of finance called “time value of money.” In other words, revenues collected for DLC that’s not even released now is worth more than that same amount later. Those bundle discounts are calculated carefully.

Q: How can publishers expect us to buy season passes without knowing what’s in them?
A: Put simply: historical data. You’ve done it before, therefore you’ll likely do it again.

As a consumer, I’ve bought in a number of times. In most instances, I’ve been rewarded. NetherRealm hasn’t let me down, and I’ll likely buy the inevitable season pass for Mortal Kombat X. 

So far I’m happy with what Activision and Bungie have put together for Destiny. I’ll probably buy another expansion pass if offered (yes, I know this is a controversial opinion).

But I’ve noticed that as time goes on, more publishers are offering fewer details about pre-sold DLC. Timing has been getting fuzzier (BioShock Infinite is a prime example, even though the quality of most of the content was phenomenal). The amount of meat on the bone has varied between feast and day-after-Thanksgiving carcass picking (Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel broke convention with the season pass offerings of the previous two titles leading with a bonus character instead of story content).

Despite the wiggle room publishers are allowing themselves, consumers continue to purchase. Wallets continue to open based on two commodities: faith and enthusiasm.

Gamers purchasing season passes do so because they believe that developers and publishers will make good. The confidence to purchase add-on content comes from the faith that the core experience will fulfill all of the promises made leading to release.

A number of this fall’s marquee releases cracked the industry’s foundation. Driveclub, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and even the online services themselves so susceptible to DDoS assault have introduced skepticism and doubt into the covenant between gamer and creator signed every time a purchase is made.

Faith in the industry’s ability to deliver the experiences it promises has been questioned in a way we haven’t seen since the video game crash of 1983. And, without that trust, gamers trade enthusiasm for weariness.

Publishers rely on excitement built through flashy trailers and enticing gameplay slices to motivate retail purchases. Without those initial buy-ins, the DLC conversation can’t even begin. The enthusiasm to pre-order and follow through with a purchase (sometimes before the review embargo has even been lifted) is crucial.

Unless publishers correct course, both of these vital resources–faith and enthusiasm–will dry up. Gaming is an emotional experience and purchases are often made as such. A concerted effort must be made to nurture trust and excitement, and that means a shift in perspective from those selling content.

Consumers aren’t stupid. They have seen what’s been happening, and patience is starting to wear thin. We’ve heard it bandied about that gamers are “entitled,” and I agree. 

Consumers are entitled to a product that works when it’s purchased. Consumers are entitled to complain when that product does not function properly. Consumers are entitled to expect more from their years (sometimes decades) of relationship with publishers.

2015 needs to be a year in which trust is rebuilt. And it needs to start before the calendar page is turned. We’re not off to a great start, unfortunately.

Today, Microsoft announced two limited edition versions of Halo 5: Guardians. Neither have been fully detailed, but you can go and pre-order a $250 Limited Collector’s Edition with a statue you’ve never seen even in rough sketches. It’s absurd, especially after the brand-weakening problems that have plagued Halo: The Master Chief Collection since its November 11 launch.

This is a mistake, and one that should not be replicated. The mysteries of the season pass should not be extended to game purchases that amount to over 70 percent of the price of the console on which they are played.

Gamers are still ready to be enchanted by games and give themselves over to the fantasy. In order for that to persist, they need to continue to feel good about buying in and that starts with respect. Publishers need to start treating customers as a vital part of the ecosystem once more and not rubes at the carnival.