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Friday, December 10, 2010

The Money in Multiplayer: Take a Tip from Gabe, Kotick

There was a news article on recently calling for the immediate monetization of the Call of Duty multiplayer game mode. They cite "a betrayal of shareholder trust" as the main cause of this call to action (I won't make that pun. No!) On a purely business level, which is really how Bobby Kotick and the analyst in question are looking at the situation, this is a no-brainer. Do it, make more millions (as if Activision Blizzard needed more money), and work on the next way to milk your fanbase. It is good sense to monetize something with as large and fanatical a userbase as Call of Duty, in any of its iterations. What Kotick and our analyst, one Michael Pachter, fail to understand is what that fanbase really is. They are, by and large, ages 12-21 (sometimes younger and older, but that's the average). The lion's share of this population not only relies on their parents for their systems and games, but also the money for absolutely everything else in their lives. With games now reaching what I think is the line where they increase in price again, to sixty five or even seventy dollars, is it wise to charge people to play a game when they can't even pay for their own lunch? I don't particularly think it is.

Now I'll grant you that the parenting in the Call of Duty community is less than stellar. *Soapbox time* The game is rated M, for users seventeen years of age and up. You can't walk in and show a brand new, just out of driver's school license and expect to walk out with Black Ops, or Reach, or any game with rating higher than T. Yet still the parents do it for their kids and let them interact with adults who have every right to be playing the game and saying what they wish how they wish. The children then begin to say these words and use the vernacular, not knowing its full meaning, and end up being lesser human beings because they think saying "Fuck" seventeen times makes them macho, and putting a swastika as their emblem is funny, when to millions upon millions of people it is a sign of the worst memories mankind can muster (We haven't forgotten the Holocaust, kiddies. Parts of Europe are still trying to come to grips with it, more than sixty years later).

*exhale* That being said, most of these kids and young adults, myself included, won't have the funds to pay whatever Kotick shoves at us on a consistent basis. And yes, I know that there would be plenty of kids who could sucker their parents into opening their pocket books yet again, but what I'm trying to get at here is principle. There is not a single first person shooter franchise with a multiplayer side that charges  for the use of that service. Battlefield? No. Medal of Honor? No. Halo? No (Microsoft charges you. Not Bungie). Team Fortress 2? No. Counter Strike? No. Assassin's Creed? No. Red Dead Redemtion? No. You certainly can pay for certain parts of the game, the DLC, but you don't have to.

I titled this post "Take a tip from Gabe" for a reason, and I'm finally getting around to what I mean. As some of you may know, Team Fortress 2 was, for a long time, a game with items. You found these items through achievements and eventually through an item drop system (that was exploited and properly patched). Valve always fostered goodwill with its community through these patches, tweaking the game to balance it and make sure that nothing made the game unplayable for a large population. The humor inherent in the game and the fun nature of Valve's interaction with the community meant that, when they recently made certain items obtainable through purchase (and others usable only through purchase), there was a bit of a rumble, but not an explosion. The community was supportive of the new system, and especially those five people who made it work so well, the Polycount winners. Everyone cheered when they saw the items that won, and there was much congratulation, pats on the back and friend requests. Everyone felt that, in the long run, these people had earned every cent of the money they earned, and no one seemed to care that Valve probably takes a huge cut from every purchase made, giving I'd guess only 10-15% of the total profits to the creators. This is the tip Kotick needs to understand: goodwill between the creator of the game, its publisher and the community will fully allow you to charge for Call of Duty multiplayer. If you weren't a total jackass and actually tried to know who you were selling your games to, you'd understand that they want to be talked nice to. Everyone does. If you provide a stellar product, as Treyarch has (with Activision's support), and support it with everything you have over a consistent period of time (as Valve always has), you can make large changes with little fear of reprisal.

But, Mr. Kotick, you have not done this. You see only the dollar signs in the name Call of Duty, Bungie, Warcraft, Starcraft. You are a lucky man that the people in charge of these games love them. Even with this, however, putting in a fee for playing Call of Duty multiplayer will probably not ruin your company, but it will shake the industry like never before. You will lose what I'd say is a full half your Call of Duty player base, your stocks would stumble, and you would be faced with a choice you may not want to make (not to mention a possible fight with Microsoft over the money in multiplayer subscription). Take a tip from Gabe, Mr. Kotick. Become Bobby to those you sell games to. Know what their needs are, what their limits are, both within the game and in their pockets, and foster some goodwill. You'll do better in the long run.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Battlefield Marketing: Why Vietnam is Timed Perfectly (Also, Valve!)

This came to me last night and I felt I had to post it before I forgot about it. As I've said, I watch a lot of YouTube, but not just Call of Duty. I play(ed) and watch Battlefield Bad Company 2 from commetators like DCRU Colin, StoneFaceLock, Swordsman75, jayekaisermistuhed and Benjisaur among the more prominent. In the past months prior to Black Ops's release, there were rumblings of discontent with the state of the Battlefield scene, and for good reason. EA DICE released almost no truly "new" content. They updated maps for different game modes, but the maps themselves never really changed. For the first two or so months of the game's lifetime, this was a complaint to be sure, but not a damning one. As things went on, though, it trotted closer and closer to that point of no return, when even the dedicated Battlefield players withdrew for what they considered greener pastures (Black Ops and, to a lesser extent, Halo).

What I think DICE was well aware of, even back in the March release of BC2, is that their game was not Call of Duty 4, the game that needed no infusion of new content to remain both relevant and prominent for two years and longer. This led them, or at least it led Electronic Arts, to the following strategy based on their knowledge of their game. They knew they had about six months worth of game life ahead of them if they did nothing, and seven or maybe eight if they released different map types but not new maps. Their calculations put the end of their game's relevancy right at the release of Black Ops and the huge rush that the game would surely (and did) bring. They knew also that Battlefield wouldn't die out entirely, but it would begin to fade. However, the second tier to their plan was the coming Vietnam expansion, placed about a month and a half after Black Ops release of November 9th.

The timing of this expansion, and the Map Pack 7, which actually brought new maps, is next to perfect, and ingenious regardless. By allowing the giant push and affair with Black Ops to fade and then shoving a boatload of new content at their faithful consumers, DICE extends the lifetime of Bad Company 2 until the release, or at least the Beta, of Battlefield 3. To encourage their followers to play even more, and this is perhaps the most effective marketing that isn't Team Fortress 2's constant update system and Portal 2's announcement. By asking their players to use 69 million support actions (heal, ammo box, repair, revive, spot) in order to receive a fifth map for Vietnam, they've assured a huge amount of time spent in other things in game. Vietnam has been rumored for several months without a release date, and now that it has a firm December 21st (18th on PC) release, you can bet the dedicated BC2 players will not only be helping their teammates a whole lot more (something that was certainly lacking in the games initial stage), but that Vietnam will get even more orders.

I put Valve in parentheses in the title for a reason: they already do this kind of thing, and the industry is only now catching on. TF2 released and was immediately patched quite a few times in the months following its hitting Steam. Valve has always been dedicated to making their games as playable as possible for as long as possible. But they didn't stop at just game tweaks. They did what more developers need to do, at least from a business standpoint: add new content at all times and take full advantage of their community's own map/content making ability. TF2 as a game on release wasn't really much.  Few maps with only two or three game modes and nine classes when a fairly set playstyle, I would have placed a lifespan of around six months at the very most, even with constant game code tweaking and bug fixing. Valve, as usual, knew how to make their game continue thriving for three years and counting: class updates. Placed around four months apart, Valve had 36 months, or three years if they only updated the classes and added nothing else. They also added new maps, game modes, in-game systems to acquire class items (hats included), community maps becoming official, contests and more. This does not even take into the fact that they haven't yet finished the Meet the Team videos and remain coy on both what those clips will contain and which gender the Pyro is (we want to know, dammit!)

I'll end by saying what I've always said outside of this blog to my friends. The video game industry is reactionary to Valve. They innovate, and everyone else clammers to catch up, even Bungie. DICE and EA took the right rout with the release of BC2 Vietnam, and when Battlefield 3 comes out, I think there'll still be players trudging the rice paddies long into the future.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Rage Factor

I watch a little too much YouTube, but one bastion of insight and, for me at least, solace and solitude, is the commentator SeaNanners. He's one of those people who seems to never be angry, though, like all of us, he is human, and anger is certainly an emotion he feels. I'm not subscribed, but when I came across the video Rage-Nanners, I had to watch it. The nice people, with calm, distanced personalities, who rarely get angry are, to me, far more frightening when they are angry that those who are upset more often than not. But enough about me and my thoughts on SeaNanners. I want to talk about rage in gaming, as he did.

I have my fair share of anger, but I find that I spend more time enjoying my experience than I do with a pit in my gut and a scowl on my face. What causes these rage sessions, though? It's a game. There's no attachment to reality, the people you play you'll likely never see again, never meet face to face, the objectives a useless means of spurring players to different play styles. The answer is a simple one, but before, I want to make an analogy. Games are like sports, and indeed are quickly becoming a sport unto themselves. You don't go to a sports game and not see at least one guy in the stands, and on the field, angry at something at some point. There is an inbred need to compete inside us and all thinking animals (indeed, all of evolution is essentially a game of who's better at what), and when we begin to fail at something, even a little bit, there is a frustration that builds. It's a subtle thing, really. When we have an expectation of ourselves, as everyone does with enough experience in something, and we thusly do not meet that expectation (perceived or real), we feel that we've cheated ourselves. Why, we ask, can't I hit that guy/catch that ball/ find that flag/get that grade? What is it I'm doing that makes me unable to achieve my goal?

I think it's these questions that are the real cause of the anger we feel. From my own experience, I put this forward. With Black Ops being my first Call of Duty game, I had no expectations of myself. I knew I'd suck, and I knew I'd suck with impunity. I was completely fine with it. My good games were those where I had K/D over 1, or even right at 1. The whole experience was new, there was nothing there that made me want to know what it was I'd done wrong, or even I was doing anything right. I chalked up a lot of my kills to luck of the draw or the stupidity of both me and my opponent (and that I managed to be just a touch less stupid). As with most things, with time came skill and, by extension, expectation. I began to see where my limits lay, what I could and couldn't do, and, like a typical human, I wanted to push those limits. The anger came when I couldn't own up to even the most basic of the limitations, false limitations, really, that I'd set for myself. My K/D, in my mind, should always, always, be around 1.5. I can generally get two kills before dying, because I know what players are doing, how they move and where they plan to go based on my time in game. It is when that knowledge either fails, situations present themselves that block my ability to reach my goals or my team is outright shit that I begin to get truly angry. The questions come, and they come in waves. Why, why, why, why, why, why, why? I ask myself with no clear answers because there are none, because the situation I've found myself in lends itself to an unexplainable deluge of failure, and because my rage-clouded mind can't process more than the sum of my anger. It doesn't help, of course, that like SeaNanners, I am very much a perfectionist, whose expectations of himself and his attitude towards himself are far higher, and far worse, than some others.

In the end, though, it remains a game, and if you fight through the frustration, you can have a good game. If that's not your game, put down the controller and have fun in the sun, surf, snow or rain (or some combination thereof). I know I need to do that more.