Gamer resistance to digital decreasing - Ubisoft

Whether it's full-game downloads or microtransactions, Chris Early says consumers are increasingly interested in intangible goods

Last year, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag launched alongside a handful of "Time Saver" downloadable content packs. For $1 or $2, players could stock up on in-game resources, or reveal the locations of the game's many collectibles and activities without the need for actual exploration. That sort of perk would have been freely accessible through cheat codes in previous generations, and it's not hard to imagine the uproar charging for them would have caused in the early days of the last generation of systems. Speaking with GamesIndustry International at E3 last month, Ubisoft VP of digital publishing Chris Early recalled the reaction--or lack thereof-- to those time-saver packs.

"There was no resistance," Early said. "Maybe there were 12 guys somewhere who said something, but whatever. As a whole, there wasn't a problem."

It goes to show how much the industry has changed in recent years. Early acknowledged the change in player attitudes of late, and chalked it up (in part) to the increasing amount of communication on and discussion of monetization in the industry. The industry has seen approaches to digital monetization that don't work for players (some offenders in the social gaming bubble) and ones that do (World of Tanks, Skyrim DLC), and is getting smarter about producing less of the former and more of the latter. With each one that gets it right, gamers are growing increasingly comfortable with the variety of monetization in the marketplace.

"Where it hurts is when you feel like you're forced, or you're at a disadvantage or can't do it unless you [pay money]. That's kind of a remorseful feeling, and nobody likes that."

"I think there are some models that are accepted now. DLC is pretty much accepted," Early said. "Season pass is pretty much accepted. Now it's interesting when you start to think of Season Pass as a Service Pass. For our Season Pass holders, I know we hold events for them specifically, so it's little bit more than just DLC content. So there's an evolution going on there."

The key, Early said, is to make sure it's perceived positively by the players. They should feel like their purchases enhance the game rather than fill in the gaps for an incomplete experience.

"Where it hurts is when you feel like you're forced, or you're at a disadvantage or can't do it unless you [pay money]. That's kind of a remorseful feeling, and nobody likes that."

That's not to say games can't offer a competitive advantage in exchange for money. Early points to the golden ammo in World of Tanks and his regular matches with his college-aged son as an example. The more damaging ammo can be obtained either by grinding away at the game, or by purchasing it outright. Early doesn't have enough free time to earn the ammo, but he does have the discretionary income to buy it. His son is in the opposite situation. As he sees it, the game is just giving its players the option to pay for the ammo through whichever resources they can most afford. It complicates the design process, he said, but when done well, it can provide significant revenue without creating ill will among players.

"I know people who've spent five digits or more of money in Clash of Clans, spending in the tens of thousands of dollars," Early said. "Who would think of that? But nobody's really angry about that. That's how that guy chooses to play, and he's playing against other people of the same calibre, whether they got there through spending hundreds of hours playing the game or tens of thousands of dollars. Good design, that's what it comes down to."

"I'm either super lazy and I don't want to get up and change that disc, or that's a much better experience now that I can jump in and out and between games without having to change all that."

DLC and add-ons aren't the only booming aspects of the digital industry. With the launch of the new generation of consoles, Ubisoft has also seen a significant uptick in the number of people downloading full games instead of buying boxed retail copies.

"I don't know whether it wasn't as easy before or wasn't as clearly messaged on previous generations, but there is definitely a lot more digital [demand], to the order of two to five times as much digital activity on some titles than there was on the same title on old-gen machines," Early said. "It's not just that they might have made it easier. To me, that means that people want it. I probably wouldn't have guessed there was that much pent-up digital demand."

Early's even noticed his own habits shifting more toward the digital end of the spectrum. As much as he thought he was "a digital guy" before, Early joked that it's gotten to the point now where he specifically asks for download codes from industry contacts instead of complimentary boxed copies of games, because "free" just isn't quite convenient enough.

"I'm either super lazy and I don't want to get up and change that disc, or that's a much better experience now that I can jump in and out and between games without having to change all that," he said.

It's not just the people who own the new consoles are early adopters and thus more willing to try something new. Early agrees that audience is more inclined to go digital, but Ubisoft has been seeing its download numbers growing even on the old-gen systems.

The growth of the downloadable market has also given Ubisoft the leeway to introduce games at price points that wouldn't fly at retailers. Creating titles like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Child of Light, and Valiant Hearts offer a number of benefits for the publisher, Early added.

"I have relatives in parts of the US even where it will take them several days to download a game. That's not just going to stop us; that's going to stop the industry."

"I'm sure you've read or even written tons of stories about people who leave a studio to go do their own passion thing because they don't have freedom of expression within," Early said. "This lets us keep our people and make them happy being able to be creative. It lets us go and experiment with treating war a different way with Valiant Hearts than the way the majority of industry treats war. I don't know if that's the right experiment to make a $100 million game. But as a game we're going to sell for $10 to $20 and costs in the single digits of millions to make? Now we can afford to do more things.

"We can bring a bigger breadth of games to players, a creative breath of fresh air to our designers, and we approach all of it the same way. We look at all of these as opportunities to bring entertainment and at the same time provide a good return to our shareholders."

Despite the clear shift toward digital of late, Early doesn't think the industry will ever shift completely away from physical media. He stressed the continued value of brick-and-mortar retailers like GameStop, and said moving to a digital-only game industry just isn't possible at the moment.

"It's not just our challenge, but the biggest worldwide challenge is the even deployment of infrastructure where people can get their games and participate digitally in a free environment," Early said. "I have relatives in parts of the US even where it will take them several days to download a game. That's not just going to stop us; that's going to stop the industry."

And he's not talking about just the game industry. Early said it's a digital entertainment problem, one that affects downloading or streaming any kind of media, not just games.

"You see the difference of how it happens when you look at countries that have engaged in high-bandwidth infrastructure projects," Early said. "Korea's a great example. When you look at what people do with bandwidth there compared to what people do with bandwidth in some of the flyover states, it's a radical difference."

[UPDATE]: After reading some reactions to the original article, Early provided GamesIndustry with some clarification on some of his remarks above.

My comments are more about player opinion and player choice of ways to play than monetization. World of Tanks and Clash of Clans are used as examples because they each have more than one way to progress through the game, either by spending time or by spending money. The complaints usually come when the equilibrium between the two seems unbalanced (World of Tanks Gold Ammo before their adjustments). And this is not just for consumable items; any severely unbalanced game is a terrible experience.

Digital and physical, time and money, DLC or not - none of these are either/or questions for the industry or for consumers. The market will not be 100% digital nor 100% physical, nor should the resource I spend on a game be 100% time nor 100% money. Players should have the choice. As a publisher, our goal should be to give players that choice (in a balanced way within the game constraints), and let players choose how to experience and enhance their experiences of our games.

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Latest comments (11)

Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago
I am not sure that this article paints Early in a good light. In it he seems unaware that digital is what what customers have wanted (and business did not want to provide). He sounds like a music executive that has just announced that resistance to digital downloads from consumers is dropping....

Also, the examples of gold ammo from World of Tanks, and purchases Clash of Clans are not exactly 'good' examples of what consumers would consider balanced payment models. In fact these two are often consumer examples of 'bad' models...
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Jordan Lund Columnist 7 years ago
I can't speak for everyone as a whole, but I played the heck out of AC IV and wasn't even aware those time saver DLC items existed.

I think I looked at the list once, scrolled through it really fast and went "Meh, this is too much stuff to look at right now..." and I never went back.

Just because people don't complain about the DLC doesn't mean they're buying it. I'd like to see the rate of purchase on this type of DLC vs. the number of owners of the game. How many people actually buy it as a percentage of game owners as a whole? 1%? 5%? 20%?

Then we can start talking about what's accepted and what's not.
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Michael Adzijevic Sales Executive, Mecca Electronics7 years ago
Brian you are wrong with that statement when it comes to full game downloads. I'm a hardcore gamer and would never pay full price for a Full game download. I want to own something that I can lend out or resell or collect. That's why the retro market is exploding. To pay $30, $40, $50 or even $60 for a download is insane. I don't mind downloading characters or new levels, but the most I would pay for a download game is $9.99. And that I would do, if the game was only available as a download. I'm a gamer, collector and a reseller of games. If in the future we are forced to download all new games I will no longer support the New Video Game Market, I won't buy that generation of consoles. I would then stick to retro gaming.
And I can say that every single one of my gamer friends feels the same way, and that happens to be a lot of people.
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Show all comments (11)
Anthony Chan7 years ago
I can appreciate Early's comments. I think as the primary gaming demographic ages and matures, we will continue to see a rise in digital downloads. Ultimately digital downloads is a solution to an age-old problem - lack of time. 10 y ears ago, the primary demographic was younger, less responsible (i.e. family, career, etc) and thus lining up at midnight for launches or even (God forbid!) browsing a store shelf was acceptable. As technology prices continue to decrease, hard drive sizes increase exponentially, broadband internet becomes more widely affordable, digital downloads will pick up favor and solve the problem we all face, lack of time. I personally pre-order my digital copies online now - rather than pre-ordering at brick & mortar. I set my console to download as soon as I can, and I know I will have the game ready to go at launch when I get home from work the next day.

I can see the purists who appreciate disc based software, and I appreciate their preference for the medium. However, as we move forward, I honestly believe 20 years from now, disc based gaming will be long dead.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Anthony Chan on 3rd July 2014 5:24pm

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Jamie Knight International Editor in Chief, Playnation7 years ago
unless I can continue to play the game offline after downloading, installing and long after the servers have been switched off by the developer then I am never buying digital.

just another way to cream cash from you, one of the few markets where people can literally sell you nothing. whats next? selling you play time for a game that you have to top up every month or you lose your game, saves etc?

no wait....
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Pete Thompson Editor 7 years ago
As a gamer I'd love to be able to go digital on my next gen consoles, I was among the few who liked Microsoft's 2013 E3 XO digital vision, but it's not me that's stopping myself from going all digital, it's the cost of digital games on both PSN & XBL that seem to be higher than retail prices, who is going to buy a game for 60 from a console store when you can get that same game for 40 from an on-line retailer delivered free? and then of course there's game file size, most games on next gen consoles are huge, if they could be preloaded a few days prior to the games release in the same way as PC games then I can see digital being used and accepted more..
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 7 years ago

The industry is going to find out that there's a hard wall at around 30% of people who will pay more than $20 for a downloadable game. Just look at how many Xbox One downloads are coming out at that price now, very few, the only exception is RBI Baseball, which is a $5 game on mobile with no multiplayer. The hardcore will go for it, but the general public will not. Microsoft has their system that allows resale, but Sony ran their propaganda campaign specifically to derail it because they couldn't compete for at least 18 months (what, you thought it was about gamer rights?)

I will not pay more than $15, and only then for something only digital that I really want, for a game I cannot resell. There's that wall on season passes that do not contain extensive single player content. An d I have not been impressed with the. Ubisoft season passes one bit. Map,packs are not worth $50, i

So while I'm sure that they'll reach 10-15% of day one. Sales within a few years digital, that next 10% is going to be hard! and the one after that way harder. People still believe that digital should be significantly cheaper, not understanding that the cost of physical is only a few dollars I did a poll of movie buyers a few years ago, and on average they expected the day one price to be 30% cheaper on day one for digital. Steam users are used to waiting for the game to be $2. The move to digital devalues the merchandise,

And anyone who drops ten grand on any of these digital slot machines needs to be in treatment. It's no coincidence that these things mirror the population with serious substance abuse and gambling problems. The human creature assigns value to the tangible, and the kids who don't, don't want to pay for anything. Other than convenience of access. Woe be unto Sony if they think their current pricing scheme will stand, especially when the general public discovers the lag inherent in the tech.

Mom won't buy it, the kids won't buy anything, it's a bad future ahead for anyone who dumps the physical on major titles.
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Charlie Scott-Skinner Senior Developer 7 years ago
@Brian: What? Supercell are an excellent example of F2P done right - probably the best example I know of...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Charlie Scott-Skinner on 4th July 2014 9:05am

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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext7 years ago

You have to remember that we part of the industry. We see 'Clash of Clans' as a good example of how to monetize a game... because it makes a lot of money.

This article is not about monetization, or even about industry opinions. This article is about public (consumer) opinion. That means that the examples given would be seen as bad examples, not good examples. Better examples of more popular F2P approaches would be games like: League of Legends, Path of Exile, etc. These are 'perceived' as being better by the consumers, because they monetize with a lower ARPU, and do so primarily via vanity items.

The lack of understanding of these types of issues is why I stated that this does not show Early in a positive light. It makes it seem that he does not understand the demographic he is professing to be analyzing.
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Axel Cushing Freelance Writer 7 years ago
Yes! Path of Exile and League of Legends are both good examples of how the consumer looks at value. If somebody pays a hundred bucks for an "I win!" button that ended a match in their favor, the consumer position would be that it was horribly broken. If that hundred dollar "I win!" button causes their character in LoL to do a victory dance with little fireworks animations going off around it, that would probably garner some sales.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 7 years ago
That's not to say games can't offer a competitive advantage in exchange for money. Early points to the golden ammo [by which he means "premium ammo" --cjs] in World of an example.
There's an important point to be made here, though. Premium ammo does give you an advantage, but it's not a sufficient substitute for a lack of player skill to be "pay to win" in most circumstances. Poor players benefit from spending a lot of money on it, but they still won't be able to compete with a good player who uses only the small amounts of it he can easily buy with the in-game currency he earns. Decent to good players will have no problem using their in-game earnings to cover the cost of premium ammo where it's most effective, and not use it in the situations where it offers little benefit. Some very good players will use it in every battle because, even when it's only marginally helpful, that's the kind of edge you need when battling amongst the top few hundred players in the game for the very highest win rate.

The "time-saver" content packs for AC appear to be similar; I have experience with these in Far Cry 3, where you could pay to have certain weapons available at the start that have a level of power that would otherwise not become available until later in the game. Having now experienced them I don't think I'd buy them again except to be a completionist; you actually pay money to spend less time playing the game, which seems a bit counterproductive to me.

What you really want in the end for this sort of stuff is differential pricing that doesn't affect game balance: i.e., the game is fine and fair without the items, and they're basically used to extract a bit of extra money from those who have it, ideally subsidising the game to some degree for those who have little real-world currently to spend. If you can do that, everybody wins.
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