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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.


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