We need to talk about paymium. It's a very serious topic and emotions tend to run high around it, but in light of the next-gen console launches, it's a conversation we can no longer avoid.
Almost all of the flagship titles for the Xbox One boast some kind of paymium system, suggesting that Microsoft has adopted a policy of normalising in-game transactions as standard on its new console. Sony is clearly less committed to the notion, but still willing to experiment - first-party title Gran Turismo 6 will feature in-app purchases when it launches on PS3 next week. To describe this move as "unwelcome" within the early adopter market who pick up new consoles and core games would be like describing a hungry fox as "unwelcome" in a henhouse; the reaction has been less like a cold shoulder and failure to offer a cup of tea, and more like unbridled panic, flapping and squawking all round.
"Any discussion about paymium must begin from an understanding on all sides that the existing game development business model is no longer fit for purpose"
There are two sides to the discussion we need to have, both of them legitimate and neither of them particularly bolstered by heated shouting matches. On one side, there's a pretty significant group of consumers who feel that including premium currency systems borrowed from free-to-play titles in full-price games is downright abusive - who argue with conviction that the design changes made in order to push players to spend money on consumables and currency result in a significantly worse experience for players who just want to buy a game for £50 and enjoy it. On the other side, there are the publishers and developers who have watched the costs of game creation ratchet up rapidly over the years, only for the growth in average unit sales to stagger to a near halt in recent times - meaning that it costs more to make games than it used to, but games don't make any more money than before. Moreover, with the industry increasingly hit-driven - meaning that only a handful of huge games make any proper money, with everyone else fighting over scraps - the risks associated with funding game development are higher than ever, and the rewards haven't grown much, if at all.
Something has to give. Any discussion about how paymium (the English-language-mutilating moniker for full-price games with in-app purchasing mechanisms) works or does not work must begin from an understanding on all sides that the existing game development business model is no longer fit for purpose. It's genuinely a sad thing, but unless the market for core games starts growing strongly again (which is entirely possible but not happening right now), it is simply no longer commercially viable for a game creator who wants to build a rich, modern, fully-featured console game with high production values to stick that game in a box with a £50 price tag. The games for which that model does work are outliers - the handful of breakout hits we see each year (most of them from established franchises) or, well, Nintendo games. Pretty much everyone else faces losing money from that approach, perhaps not on the level of individual titles but certainly from a publisher's entire portfolio, with its fair shares of hits and misses.
In other words, if we don't find a way to make the business model work better - either by selling more games or by making more money from the games we already sell - there isn't going to be a games business, at least not at the AAA end of the market. Yes, there'll still be video games - the extraordinary flourishing of the indie sector, bubble market or not, guarantees that there will still be interesting and exciting things to play, no matter what, while the sheer financial resilience of a handful of creative firms (Nintendo, Blizzard, etc.) and franchises will ensure that games themselves won't disappear. But with the entire middle tier of games - the A and AA titles, the mid-budget games which made up the bulk of the catalogue for consoles like PlayStation and PS2 - already swept away by industry changes, the next tier to disappear will be AAA itself. Big-budget development will get costlier and riskier, revenues won't rise and lo and behold, we'll end up shorn of basically everything apart from the biggest of big-ticket, low-risk, long-franchise action and sports games.
"Indie is great, mobile is fabulous, casual and social are wonderful, but if the core game development sector collapses we'll all lose out"
Now listen, I know there are a lot of people who will shrug their shoulders at that notion and say, "so what?" - and the reality is that yes, this might just be evolutionary selection in action. I've talked before about the notion that today's indie scene shows us some of the bright green shoots that are going to break through once the forest fire presently raging through the core games industry burns itself out, and I firmly believe that to be the case. That does not, however, mean that there is any excuse for being complacent about putting out the forest fire. The studios impacted by the disastrous decline of sub-AAA titles and now even of AAA titles themselves provide employment to vast numbers of the industry's most talented and creative people. They provide the medium with many of its most high-profile, beautiful and immersive experiences, and even if they may not push interactivity or narrative forward in some of the radical directions which indie creators have shown us, they do constantly challenge technological, graphical and production boundaries, giving the medium opportunities to work with the finest talent from around the creative industries and providing a kind of stable core to the industry which is necessary to bring in investment and support. Indie is great, mobile is fabulous, casual and social are wonderful, but if the core game development sector collapses as its traditional business model crumbles, we'll all lose out.
We have to accept that as the basis for discussion - and I don't think it's unreasonable, since if you're annoyed enough at paymium features in your games to complain bitterly about them, presumably you'd be even more annoyed if that kind of game simply ceased to be made. Don't get me wrong, though - that's an argument for saying that people need to keep in mind the purpose of paymium, not an argument for saying that people should just accept paymium as it stands, suck it up and move on. It's not "paymium or bust"; other ways and other models exist. The discussion we need to have is a broad based one, asking "how can we make core game development pay?" - and "is paymium the right approach?" is just one of the questions on the table.
Let me show my cards at this point. I don't think paymium is intrinsically evil or wrong. I'm a strong believer that F2P games can be fantastic when they're done right (which isn't all the time, or even most of the time, but when the stars line up on a good F2P game it can be genuinely engrossing, enjoyable and perfectly ethical in how it makes its money), and the same is true of paymium titles. Just as it is possible to create DLC for games which players genuinely welcome - opportunities for them to deepen their enjoyment of the game, exploring new facets of characters or challenging new scenarios - it is possible, in theory, to create a paymium system that enhances the game experience for those who choose to pay without damaging it for those who just want to play the game they bought without reaching for their wallet again. It's possible, in theory. It just hasn't happened yet, I fear - and herein lies the gaping maw of danger for publishers presently leaping in this direction, and particularly for the Xbox One, as I am very much afraid that its strongly pro-paymium policy may attract a damaging reputation as a platform lumbered with games that are defective by design, created to suck money rather than deliver entertainment.
"Sell me a broken product and you can be damned sure I'll want to extract some value back from it to put towards something less cynically sabotaged"
One of the primary criticisms I hear of paymium is that it's "free to play but not free", which sounds facile but actually digs right into the heart of this issue. Free-to-play games have a very unique relationship with their players, because you are truly that - a player, not a customer. You've not paid for anything. The game is free; in a good, well-designed free-to-play game, you could genuinely keep on playing forever without paying a penny (even Candy Crush Saga, often the bÍte noire of core players who despise F2P, doesn't extract cash from most players - 70% of those who finish all of the game's levels have never paid a penny). In this situation, it's not unreasonable for the game to prod you quite indelicately towards making purchases - deliberately introducing "friction" in the game design which you can overcome with a micropayment of some kind.
The relationship of a paymium game to its players is quite different, because every player is already a customer. I've paid a whole lot of money for a game, and by god, if that game turns around in the first several hours of play and asks for more cash in order to do something that it seems should be a normal part of a paid-for game, that game is going to get a swearing-at that will make Kinect shut off its microphones in sheer horror. If that game feels like it's slowing things down just in order to make me impatient enough to spend money to get them back up to speed - often a crucial aspect of F2P design - then that game is probably getting switched off and, bluntly, traded in, and to hell with anyone who makes a horrified noise about second hand trade-ins - you sell me a broken product and you can be damned sure I'll want to extract some value back from it to put towards something less cynically sabotaged.
In other words, if your paymium game genuinely is "free to play but not free", you've screwed up. You've implemented a bunch of systems that have no place in a paid-for game, you've completely failed to understand the psychology of the game mechanics you're putting in place, and absolutely worst of all - you've utterly failed to show respect to your customers, the people who have just gone out and dropped more money buying your game than the vast, vast majority of F2P players will ever spend on a game they download. Every single core gamer who buys your game is already a "whale", to use a mucky and (thankfully) increasingly unfashionable F2P term, and if your game can't find it in itself to treat that status with the absolute respect it deserves, then your game deserves every ounce of opprobrium which will be heaped upon it by justifiably enraged consumers.
"The salvation of core game development will lie, in some way, with a strategy that allows players who are deeply engaged with a game to spend more money on it"
This doesn't mean that paymium, or something like it, can't work. Honestly, I can see the appeal of paymium in some hypothetical situations. I'm not the most skilled game player in the world (I died about 15 times in a row in a single gunfight in Uncharted: Golden Abyss this evening) and I don't have a whole lot of time on my hands, juggling work, research and brave attempts at both a relationship and a social life. I suspect many people my age are in the same bracket - deeply enamoured with games but honestly not in a position to play them very much, thus condemned to a) suck at them and b) never be able to finish them. For players like me, for whom money is less a concern than time, a game which gives me a sack of "premium" gems at the outset which I can use to boost my character's power for a while to get me through tough bits faster, with the option to refill the sack for a few quid if I run out, wouldn't be a bad thing at all - if, and only if, the underlying game was designed just as it would have been without the paymium feature. In other words, if you deliberately added friction to a paid-for game just in order to encourage people to pony up some cash - breaking the game and asking me to pay to fix it - then you've done something that's genuinely unethical and deserves to be severely punished by consumers.
This is a minefield. That much should be apparent. There will, I have no doubt, be games that get it right - and even those games will receive some criticism, because there will always be players who hate paymium no matter what, just as there are still players who sport a rage-on at the merest mention of DLC, no matter how good the content may be. The salvation of core game development will lie, in some way, with a strategy that allows players who are deeply engaged with a game to spend more money on it - be it on content, merchandise, premium currency or some combination of all of those things - and some people will always regard that with suspicion and contempt. Right now, though, paymium efforts are almost universally being met with suspicion and contempt - and until those responsible for them start respecting their customers, toning down the aggression of their tactics and generally getting things right, that contempt is never going to fade.