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Let people know what they're buying - A New Year's resolution for gaming

For 2019, companies should commit to giving customers what they need to make an informed purchasing decision

It's January, and that means it's time for New Year's Resolutions! Because if there's one thing a season of overindulgence and revelry tends to elicit in people, it's an impulse to overcorrect and fix everything wrong with themselves all at once. So in the spirit of the season, I thought it would be appropriate to suggest some resolutions the games industry should adopt.

In the first draft of this article, I had 19 proposed resolutions. But that seemed a bit much, and I noticed several of the resolutions shared a common sentiment, so I've trimmed it down to one simple resolution that could make things better on a number of different fronts: Give customers what they need to make an informed purchasing decision.

That's it. Sounds pretty simple, right? It's the sort of thing you might hear and then say, "Sure. But aren't we doing that already?" To which I would reply, "Not as much as you might think."

FIFA Ultimate Team players should know if their odds of getting a specific card are more like "free upgrade on an overbooked flight" or "getting hit by lightning the same week as winning your second PowerBall jackpot"

Let's start with the most obvious and (hopefully) least controversial place where we don't reliably do that: Loot boxes. I'm not saying the loot box mechanic needs to go. You can still make an informed purchase decision when buying a random assortment of in-game goodies, but to do so, you need to know what the distribution rates of those goodies are in the first place.

I'm not just talking about having a "Less than 1%" chance" to draw a "Ones to Watch" card in FIFA 19. If a customer is deciding whether or not to buy Ultimate Team packs in the hopes of getting a Cristiano Ronaldo Ones-to-Watch card, they should know whether their odds of getting that specific card are more like "free upgrade on an overbooked flight" or "getting hit by lightning the same week as winning your second PowerBall jackpot."

Of course, this also means that the information we present people with must be accurate. And that brings us to collector's edition bundles. For years, publishers have been offering preorders for big (and not-so-big) games with an assortment of related swag and digital content, often charging hundreds of dollars for the final package. There's nothing wrong with that in theory; it's a smart way to get more than the base $60 out of your most enthusiastic fans. But don't advertise these things with CG mock-ups of what you think customers would actually want unless you are committed to following through on that level of quality no matter the cost.

I'm looking at you, Bethesda. You too, Capcom. And don't think your imminent demise gets you off the hook here, Prima.

If including a picture of the actual items you're offering would result in fewer sales for you, then you're clearly not giving the consumers what they need to make an informed purchasing decision.

Of course, statues and trinkets aren't the only aspect of those collector's edition bundles where consumers are kept in the dark. One of the common selling points among them is the Season Pass, a guarantee that players will have access to the first few waves of downloadable content released for a given game. Unfortunately, these things have been hostile to the idea of an informed purchase decision essentially from the word go. Back in 2011, Rockstar Games started offering a $10 "Rockstar Pass" for L.A. Noire with a content description saying only that it would take the "L.A. Noire experience to the next level." (Later it was revealed that level consisted of the game's retailer-exclusive preorder items with two extra cases to solve.)

Companies are usually better than that now, although it's still very common for Season Passes to be advertised with incomplete details that only give a vague sense of the value proposition involved. These passes typically remain on storefronts even after all of their content has been released, so ultimately customers are able to make an informed purchasing decision on them, but the fact that they are so heavily promoted and tied into the pre-release marketing hype of games suggests much of their usefulness to publishers comes before players know exactly what they're getting into.

Typical Season Pass descriptions leave plenty of room for people to misunderstand what the scope of the new content will be.

Typical Season Pass descriptions leave plenty of room for people to misunderstand what the scope of the new content will be.

It's pretty clear how denying customers the ability to make informed purchasing decisions hurts them, but it's not exactly without drawbacks for the companies involved, either. On the loot box issue, the industry's reluctance to reveal odds has invited legislative scrutiny. On shoddy collector's editions swag, failure to follow through on the promised marketing burns through good will with your most excited and engaged customers, and damages your company's reputation with everyone else. As for Season Passes, we can look at what happened last month with Spider-Man.

For those blissfully unaware, there was a very vocal portion of the game's player base calling for Insomniac to add the suit from the Sam Raimi trilogy of Spider-Man films into the game. In December, Insomniac responded to these people by telling them it was listening, but added that didn't mean it would always do whatever people ask. A couple days later, Insomniac detailed the final chapter of DLC in its Season Pass program (dubbed The City That Never Sleeps). The last chapter included three new costumes, but no Raimi suit. People got upset, and while Insomniac community director James Stevenson didn't name names or link links, we can infer some of what happened. A couple days later, Insomniac announced that it was releasing the Sam Raimi suit as a free download for all Spider-Man players.

Ordinarily when I call gamers "entitled," I'm talking about a mindset where they mistakenly believe they are owed something. But in the case of Season Passes, they actually are owed something. I'm not saying that the jerks Stevenson referred to were in any way justified in their harassment--I'll explicitly say they were not--but it's worth re-examining where their sense of entitlement could be coming from. They've spent months parsing every bit of news about the DLC packs, every rumor and every announcement, filtered through the knowledge that they have already paid for this and are literally entitled to it.

The better the game and more fan-friendly the studio, the greater the assumption people will have that the mystery DLC in store will meet their hopes--hopes which, in the absence of more detailed information, can balloon to unrealistic proportions. And when those hopes meet cold reality, when players are instead given something they didn't actually want or have little interest in relative to what they imagined, it's not surprising they feel slighted. Given that we don't want studios to make worse games or stop listening to their fans, it seems preferable to instead be more upfront about what people will get if you're going to use a Season Pass scheme.

All this comes with the acknowledgement that everything in game development is difficult, plans change, and it's often hard to tell customers what to expect too far in advance because even the developers and publishers themselves may not know how things will turn out that far ahead. There are licensor approvals, external partners, and all manner of things that can go wrong.

But none of that changes the fact that consumers should have access to everything they need to make an informed purchase decision. If for whatever reason the industry cannot provide them with that, then it should revamp or withhold its offerings until it can. If a business literally cannot function unless customers are denied the information they need to assess the value of what is being offered, perhaps the industry would be better off in the long term without that business anyway.

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Latest comments (2)

Ralph Tricoche Studying MA, CUNY10 months ago
Some of the things the gaming industry "realizes" is pretty mind-boggling.
Makes absolute sense, right from the start to let people know what they are getting when they lay down their money. In what universe doesn't that make sense?
Anyway, glad it's being discussed?
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 10 months ago
There are those who can create giant singleplayer experiences with considerable time investment (e.g. Rockstar, Nintendo). There are those who create giant single player worlds with a much higher frequency (e.g. Ubisoft with Co-Op on top). And then there are those who declare single player dead, cut out already short campaign modes and bank on lootboxes.

The different consumer reaction to these different developer release profiles is not something to be blamed on the consumer. Buy one game and you can taste the culture of games, buy another and all you taste is the business of games. That does not mean either game lacks business or culture. It only means some publishers can cook, while others cannot and consumers are happy to remind those who cannot. No matter how many people run to McD so to speak.
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