Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bonus Round 402 - Part 2 of 4

(Originally posted to Geoff Keighley's Blog 2/16/10)

To Bonus Round Viewers,

I’d like to apologize, because I don’t think I did a good job of explaining what I was suggesting, and the panel quickly turned it into an argument about business models I didn’t suggest and game balance, rather than a fair price for games and the industry’s ability to survive.

Additionally, there were arguments made on the panel against suggestions that were not mine, but somehow I got blamed for: for example Shane suggesting that I would approve of games that shut off if you didn’t pay or paying for prestige. These are not my beliefs and if you watch the panel you can see that I never suggest either and denied that they were good ideas. I want to clear that up.

It is a discussion of industry financial survival that I was brought onto the show to discuss, and it is here that any discussion of what I really believe has to begin.

The first misconception from those that have commented is that the industry can stay as is. The most common comment has been that many gamers like the current model of game pricing. Were the industry in good shape financially right now, then I would agree that there is no reason to change. Unfortunately, this model is not currently working very well and may not support continued game creation. This is not my opinion alone, and I didn’t invite myself to the panel to ask myself these questions. These are unfortunately blatantly obvious facts. Michael Pachter specifically pointed to EA’s recent earnings (or lack thereof) as an indication that something is indeed broken. EA and Activision’s large recent layoffs (Activision after the show’s taping) also point to less AAA games getting made and changes ahead. Losses and layoffs are not a sign of a healthy industry.

Certainly, all of us understand that if a company loses money continually it must either 1) change the way it behaves or 2) cease to be. We can all agree that ceasing to make games is not what we want, so we have to look for a change of behavior that makes the company healthy and profitable so we can all get the games we want to play.

This does not necessarily have to be digital distribution or other payment models. It could be something nobody has thought of yet. But making games at a loss is not a business that can survive so SOMETHING clearly has to change. It is my suggestion that alternate business models and digital distribution are a possible solution.

The second misconception is that I somehow advocate letting people buy their way through games, to get ahead of others through payments, or somehow unbalancing the game, for example by “buying prestige.” Anybody who took this out of the panel was not listening to my continual protests.

I have never believed that game balance should be influenced by cash.

Possibly the most misconstrued (and most unintended) moment was when we discussed WOW gold mining and I conceded that life isn’t fair. This was not a suggestion that games shouldn’t be fair. Nor was it a suggestion that people with money should be able to buy advantage. I was referring to the same unfairness that allows some people to pay $60 for a game while some are unable to afford that pleasure – EVER. That is unfair, so there is already unfairness in the system today. But I would endeavor to make the system more fair rather than stick with the current unfairness. I don’t believe that digital distribution and alternate business models leads us away from that goal. In fact, I believe they may lead us towards it.

To be clear:

I have been a game maker for my entire life and balancing games has been the most important skill I have learned. Over 40 million people have played the games I made and thought my balancing was fair and fun. I am aware that is no less ridiculous to let people buy completion of a level of a game or to buy “prestige” than it is to try to sell them the end of a movie plot before they go into a movie theatre. Furthermore, since many games today are multi-player, unbalancing a game will have tragic results not only for the person buying the advantage, but also for those that did not. In short, it screws up the whole game for everyone.

Buying bullets, buying advancement, buying better guns, and tons of other ideas were shot down by the panel, and those that have commented, but those ideas were never raised by me. It is really easy to rail argue something I didn’t say, but it says nothing about my suggestions.
The third misconception is that while many of the comments have assumed that alternate business models must mean higher costs to gamers on average. We do not know this to be true. I do believe that the model will distribute costs differently, and hopefully a model that is as good for the gamer and better for the industry can be found.

If anything, the current model is not fair pricing. The small number of heavy users for each game get an incredible deal, while the majority of gamers, who are searching for a game they love, can try less games because of the price point. There is a real cost to publishers for multiplayer games in servers and infrastructure, which is unevenly borne by those that don’t play the game as much as those that do. This was not true with the old offline game model, and it is not true with DVD’s. That inefficiency is great for hard core gamers (who of course are overrepresented in the Bonus Round audience) but bad for the industry.

My comments that the industry must take chances and create new experiences, which I was lauded for in the comments in section 1 of this panel, are at direct odds with the current model.
For example, when researching a recent online game I calculated that the highest volume user (who had played 150+ 8 hour days in the games 190 days of release!) was paying less than a nickel per hour. Now of course this was only the highest volume user, but it is insane to argue that this is fair pricing. This user was costing the publisher money based on server and bandwidth costs. Who was paying for this usage? Users that played less and the publisher were paying. That may have been you.

The fourth misconception is that I was suggesting a specific model for specific games.
While a subscription may work for some games (WOW is one), it is not the cleanest or nicest model, and may not fit for many other games. Just a reminder, I never suggested subscription or pay as you go during the panel. And I certainly never suggested your game should “turn off” after a period of time. I don’t like that idea either.

Nor was I suggesting that FarmTown’s model would work for any specific game. Every game is different, and every game might need a different solution. But I think there are solutions.
In fact, I was vague on specific implementations not because I don’t have ideas, but because one solution cannot possibly fit all games.

There are many, many examples of digital distribution and alternate business models that are better and are working for gamers and game makers, from inexpensive games to full sized games. There are billions of dollars in income in such games with tens of millions of users… some with more users than the biggest console game. Anyone who denies this has not done any research.

I believe that game developers are some of the smartest people on earth. If they spent as much time being creative with business models as they are with content then I think that they would find solutions that made gamers and game makers happier… even those who dismiss the concept without giving it a chance.

PS: If you would still like to call me an idiot directly you can find me or on twitter at jason_rubin.



  1. I agree with a lot of what you have to say but I don't think you or anyone else are really honest about the truth of alternative models supplanting 60 dollar put it in a box as the way of getting games.

    I live in South Korea and i see alternative bussiness model games all around me. In fact the 60 dollar put it in a box model is something that's really only for the hardcore here who have to travel to a weird open air electronics market in yongsan seoul to buy many console games.

    And the costs are things like single player and state of the art quality graphics. Maybe you can do it but I've yet to see anyone who can do a game like uncharted 2 this way. In Korea there are no single player games, and they all have pretty janky graphics compared to what your 360, PS3 or high end PC puts out.

  2. Great blog. I confess to being one of those with misconceptions (specifically that you suggested subscription models, which I thought was at least an interesting idea, though I didn't hold the further misconception as others apparently did that you were suggesting subscription games turning off after a period of time), but I'm glad you're writing this and clearing things up. Like you referred to in your more recent post (was reading the blog from the top down) I trust your analysis more than others because you are someone who has been in the industry and has first-hand experience.

    If I may though, seoulbound, I think you are misunderstanding his points. I think the part about deliberately not suggesting a single alternate model because one size doesn't fit all would imply an opening in his theory for traditional price-models as long as they are generally for single-player games like what you're suggesting.

    Because as he pointed out, the alternate models are mainly for multiplayer games because the costs of the game (like running servers, reserving bandwidth, etc.) are unfairly distributed towards those who play the game less; this wouldn't be a problem for single-player games I would suspect, and indeed he references older offline games as well as DVDs as not having a problem with the traditional $50/60 pricing model because of all that.

  3. Thanks for clarifying your views on this topic, Jason. I was bothered a bit by how you were getting shouted down by Satterield's and Keighley's strawman arguments. I suppose the similarly knee-jerk reactions in the comments are understandable given the current & imperfect implementation of such things as DLC.

    I see what you are getting at. Right now we're stuck in an "all or nothing" business model. Breaking up and selling a game as distinct modules (x number of dollars for a single-player game; x number of dollars for multiplayer-only) could be explored in greater depth but even with the friendliest looking pricing scheme you are going to be met with a lot of resistance, by gamers and the gaming press.

    I`m intrigued by the idea of publishers releasing games as extended `glorified demos` that will provide a solid 3-5 hours of entertainment free of charge. The meat of the games plus all the other exciting features and add-ons can be purchased a la carte. Of course the secret sauce is how a company even introduces, let alone implements this concept properly, without triggering the panic alarm of assuming we`ll all have to pay for a game`s ending.

  4. Hi Jason,

    I read your comment on the blog post I made at

    which lead me to your blog.

    I for one would like to say that I do not fully understand why some people reacted the way they did in response to the Bonus Round Interview. At first your message was a little unclear but I thought later you clarified your point and you brought up some interesting ones.

    I absolutely agree with you that the business model may need to change and I was very interested in the topic. I have my practicum coming up soon and the company I will be working for will be working on Facebook games. Up until that point I had no idea how successful Farmville was doing and was really uneducated about the social media gaming world. In my opinion Farmville is a terrible game that has done many things right and the gaming industry needs to sit down and evaluate their success.

    I think that Michael Pachter is right in that Call of Duty is the poster child for shooter games. In fact Call of Duty has such a great base that it probably doesn't even need to come out with another title. They can keep expanding the franchise with downloadable content. Just make a story, create new maps and sell it as a bundle for 15 bucks. Right then and there you practically have a new Call of Duty game for 15 dollars instead of 60.

    Another example would be EA's NHL 2010. That game was pretty much flawless. It has tons of features and the gameplay is almost perfect. Its hard to resell that game next year for the same price. If I bought 2010 then I already have an awesome hockey game why would I pay another $60 next year. All I'm gonna get is new rosters. To me thats not worth that much.

    My point is games with a solid base can continue to make a profit with their franchise with minor upgrades through DLC. It almost seems like a crime to release the same game with minor adjustments for the same price when I already paid that amount.

    But then again I don't know if that would work. I just wanted toss my 2 cents out there cause something needs to happen and it needs to happen soon. Layoffs suck.

    Anyways I enjoyed your insight on the topic and I feel you give a very intelligent perspective and I look forward to your next Bonus Round Interview, if there is ever another one.


  5. I just watched the Bonus Round and I both loathe and love the idea of pay-to-play. I infrequently finish games, my attention span for a game is about 12-15 hours, so the idea that I can buy something that may enhance my experience and somehow encourage me to play through the game is an attractive idea. More so, since games are now, in my opinion, too long, I see this pay-to-play concept going further. Developers are already adding additional levels post-release, but I would appreciate paying, maybe $30, for 12-15 hours of a 40 hour experience that takes me through the main story, without side-quests or story-lines that pull my focus from reaching the end. Later, if I enjoyed the game enough, I could buy those other quests or story-lines and continue through the experience.

    However, this idea is a slippery slope and is why I loathe it. The worst case scenario like you mentioned has me buying individual elements of the game. I don't want to pay $1 to have the privilege of being able to jump. Or worse yet, the game be completely broken unless I buy a certain weapon or vehicle. I would hate to come to a level where I need a jet ski to progress through the game and a prompt pops up saying, "Buy the jet ski for $5." This would be fine if the game were free, but if I paid $30 for this game, the damn jet ski better be in there. It would likely never come to this seeing as how reviewers would rip this kind of behavior apart.

    I think the ability to buy powerful weapons for multiplayer wouldn't hurt multiplayer as much as people think. The weapon is only useful if the player is experienced enough to use it. I'm terrible at multiplayer games, so you could give me the most powerful weapon in the game and pit me up against an experienced player with only a knife, and I would lose every single time. There are ways to level the playing field here; a level 10 player could buy and use a level 70 weapon, but that player would be up against players at level 50. It really all comes down to the experience of the player. I hardly think putting a powerful weapon in the hands of a novice is going to negatively impact the game. In fact, it will likely raise the competitive spirit.

  6. justjason, Obviously, any game that asked you to buy a needed jump mechanic (which is the equivalent of saying pretended to let you play, but without a needed mechanic) would not succeed. The slippery slope argument only goes so far. Game Designers cannot force people to play games that are unfair or un-fun. So there are obvious limits.

    The key to designing a good alternate payment game is to create a situation in which people actually desire to pay more, and at no time makes the game unfair, unfun, or unbalanced. I have given FarmTown as an example of a case in which tens of millions of dollars have been happily given by players to ENHANCE their gameplay. That does not make it's payment methodology the answer to every game.

    Multi-player games are especially hard. But there ARE methodologies that will work, of that I am confident. Some of the same people who say they will NEVER pay more than $60 for a game are already downloading DLC. Those people can play the new levels or whatnot. Others cannot. It is already happening.

    As I have said elsewhere, game designers are some of the most brilliant people on the planet. If they can go from Pong to Call of Duty, World Of Warcraft, or choose your favorite game, in 30 or so years, then they can figure out a way to make the game they are making work with a payment system that improves gamers experience at the same time as it makes the game work for the business.

  7. During the last hardware generation I would buy 20+ games a year at $50; during this generation, I may buy 3 games a year at $60. This is in large part due to the increased cost of games. Now I even think twice about spending $30 for a Platinum or Greatest Hit. The prohibitive cost of games has curbed my spending by 82%, an astonishing drop that took place practically overnight.

    Lowering the cost of games initially would be a step in the right direction. I think it's crucial that game designers and publishers focus on implementing pay-to-play as a way to control their development costs while still giving the player a great experience with A LOT of room for expansion. FarmTown is an easy example because the sim genre has a lot of opportunity where pay-to-play makes sense. It's finding opportunities in other genres that's the challenge.

    One pay-to-play model that's already been employed is through episodic games. Fable II is the most recent (and best?) example. You can download the first episode for free on Xbox Live and pay for each additional episode. This gives the player an initially free, rich experience and encourages them to continue paying for the content as it's released.

    I definitely see the value in the pay-to-play model and if it had been implemented more desireably 5 years ago, maybe that 82% drop would have been far less dramatic. It makes me wonder; is it better to develop and sell a game for $30 to (hopefully) more players who might support the DLC/enhancements then to sell a "complete" game at $60+ to fewer players who might support the DLC/enhancments? My gut tells me getting the game in the hands of the player is most important. What are your thoughts?