A lot of people tend to forget that video game companies are, at the end of the day, businesses. Yes, they are there to create content for their players, and yes, they are part of the entertainment industry, but their end goal is to make money. They’ll put out a game, rake in enough profit to fund their next project, then repeat the cycle until they no longer can. In a nutshell, that’s how businesses all work.
However, even in a community where console games almost never deviate from the standard ~$60 price tag, different companies have wildly different methods of squeezing extra money out of their player bases. Sometimes they make sequels, sometimes they introduce new content, and sometimes they even add in (*shudder*) loot boxes. Today, I want to talk about the companies that I feel do it right, those that do it wrong, and those that should just…stop.
This is fairly standard and obvious: a company makes a game, it turns out to be successful, the fans clamor for another one, so the devs crank out a sequel. I think this is simple, fair to the customer, and reasonable for the companies to handle. Is it worth the same $60 price tag? Well, that depends on the quality of the sequel. Firstly, you need to have a story in the game that at least matches, if not surpasses, its predecessor. Secondly, you’ve got to take feedback from fans about your first game and work in graphics and/or mechanics changes that make the game better. Coming out with a sequel allows a company to build off the success of an existing game, polish it, make it better, and market it to an even larger fan base this time around.
However, there’s an easy trap to fall into, which I’ve affectionately dubbed the “Call of Duty Effect”.
Call of Duty was an awesome franchise. CoD 2 was one of the first popular shooters to make it big on the Xbox 360, Modern Warfare changed the way developers looked at action games, and the multiplayer side of the series is, to this day, one of the most popular online playgrounds in existence with one of the most hardcore player bases we’ve ever seen. But, Activision pumps out a new Call of Duty Every. Single. Year. That’s not even an exaggeration: the last year that we didn’t get a new CoD was 2004. And aside from slightly updated graphics, new maps, and re-skinned weapons, there isn’t a whole lot of variance between them. Fans will still drop $60 a year for the new titles, but I question whether they’re getting their money’s worth. Ubisoft did the same thing with Assassin’s Creed for a while: crank out a new game every year with minor graphical tweaks and maybe a cool new gimmick, and the fans ate it up. The most egregious offender of this trap is any sports game developer, ever (looking at you, EA). Every title in a given sports franchise is basically a $60 roster update with some new engine that functions much like the previous one, with an added game mode or two if you’re really lucky.
My advice to game companies? Stop trying to develop mediocre sequels every year, and instead focus on doing a GREAT sequel every two or three. I firmly believe this is why Assassin’s Creed: Origins is so amazing: Ubisoft took a year off, stopped worrying about making some silly yearly deadline, and made what is probably the greatest AC game to date. How cool would it be for sports companies to spend two years making the next title in their series, with a free roster update in the in-between years so the players can still be up-to-date on real world teams? I try to only buy sports titles every other year, anyway, so this just seems to make sense.
Some companies don’t go straight for entire new games, but instead support their existing games with downloadable content in the interim. Usually, this means that players pay a little bit extra for new content and updates, the developers don’t have to worry about creating an entire new sequel, and an existing fan base can grow as new content drops and makes a game more playable. This seems to be, in my opinion, one of the best things that a company can do to extend the shelf life of an existing game; tweak the gameplay of a title to better suit its player base, keep its old players happy and always excited for new content, and hook new players as the game gets better and better. There are two companies that I can think of that do this absolutely right: Rockstar and Paradox.
Rockstar Games is the publisher of the infamous Grand Theft Auto series, the open-world crime simulators that your mother didn’t want you to play as a kid. Their most recent iteration of the franchise, GTA 5, featured an online multiplayer mode that dropped shortly after the single player game was released. It didn’t cost anything to play; if you bought the initial game, you had access to the multiplayer. And GTA Online positively exploded. Not even Rockstar could have predicted how successful their online component would be. People form crews, go on bank robberies, play Team Deathmatch between rival gangs, and so much more. The game has been out since September 2013 and Rockstar drops constant updates for GTA Online; adding new game modes, vehicles, cars, weapons, missions, etc.
And they have never charged for any of those updates.
Paradox Interactive is the publisher of such grand strategy titles such as Europa Universalis, Stellaris, Hearts of Iron, and Crusader Kings. I’m an avid fan of Crusader Kings 2 and I’ve been trying to get my buddies to start playing so that we can all play together one day. One of my friends, despite enjoying watching me play through the game, balked at the price tag when he went to look it up. CK2, with all of its DLC content, would run you close to $200. It’s understandable that you’d immediately look at the price point and do a 180-degree turn, but I look at it like this: Number one, the base vanilla game is your standard sixty bucks or so, depending on where you get it and whether Steam is running a sale or not. Number two, the game has been out for six years and the developers are constantly working on new DLC. $200 over the course of six years really isn’t that much at all, and the company needs constant cash flow to continue working on the game. Number three, you don’t need all the DLC to play the game: it’s definitely possible to play hundreds of hours in the vanilla game without getting bored.
Now, who doesn’t do new content correctly? First, any pay-to-win content has to go. Nothing makes me angrier than going through the grind of a game to get some new item or ability, just to have someone else with disposable income pay an exorbitant amount of money to get a better item or ability that makes all my work for naught. It’s lazy on the part of the player, and an obvious money grab on the part of the developer.
Second, companies need to stop putting out incomplete games. I remember going through this when the first Destiny dropped. I was super psyched for the game, picked it up on launch date, played for a few days, and realized, “this isn’t done yet”. The content dried up, I stopped playing, and I moved on. It wasn’t until a few expansions later, when Bungie dropped the Taken King DLC, that I picked the game back up. I paid for the content, booted up my old character, and had a blast. However, I could never shake the feeling that I’d been duped into paying twice for a game that should have been completed at launch.
And finally, the tenth circle of hell is reserved exclusively for loot boxes. It combines the laziness and money-grubbing greediness of pay-to-win content, then cranks it all the way up to eleven. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I can’t for the life of me wrap my head around the idea of paying a game developer extra money for a randomized set of gear or abilities that I might not even be able to use. I get that they’re trying to emulate the loot drop system of MMOs, and that’s all well and good, but at least when I got new items in those games, there were options. I could trade them, I could sell them in the auction house, I could keep it in my inventory to give to another one of my characters, whatever. But at least I didn’t pay my own hard-earned money to unlock those items, and at least my Darth Vader character wasn’t locked behind a paywall.
So, there you have it, ladies and gents: a collection of thoughts, suggestions, and angry tirades about the nature of the video game business. When it all boils down, a video game company is a for-profit business that needs to make money to survive. There are a lot of different ways that they can go about doing so, and just like every other company in the world, some are good, some are bad, and some are just downright ugly.
So what do you think? Do you agree, disagree, or want to expand on something I’ve mentioned today? Are there other companies out there that you think really nail the balance between profit and user enjoyability? Are there companies out there that are more exploitative than EA? Let us know in the comments!