Developers Say the Darndest Things: John Calhoun on the Dead Space 3 Microtransactions

So Dead Space 3 comes out in a couple days.  Sometime between February 5th through the 8th, depending on which country you call home.  For most of the lead-up to the game’s launch, I found it hard to care.  Nothing against the game itself, the series just never appealed to me.  Never seemed like it would push my particular buttons.  And this third game in the series seems like it would be no different.  I’m sure some people might like it, but it’s just so far outside my gaming sphere that nothing EA’s marketing does could get me interested in the game.

Instead, it seems to be something the developers did that got me interested, and not in a good way.  Dead Space 3 is going to have microtransactions, imported directly from all those free-to-play games you’ve probably never tried.  Essentially, these have you paying real world money for some sort of in-game resource.  Sometimes it’s time, where you don’t have to wait for something to happen.  Sometime it’s resources, as in this case, whether in-game money or crafting material, or something of that sort.  Either way, what I’m getting at is that microtransactions are essentially you just paying money to get the computer to change a number.  It’s not DLC, because you’re not paying for any new content, what you are paying for is something that you could get otherwise within the game, were you just to put in the time or energy.  Like I said, really common in free-to-play titles.  A lot less common in games that you have to shell out full price for.

I’m not going to say it’s a bad thing in these “hardcore” games, or that anyone’s in the wrong for buying into it.  Each individual player will have to make the choice as to whether it’s worth it or not.  It’s not like this is a new phenomenon either.  Mass Effect 3 had microtransactions for its multiplayer weapons.  Tales of Vesperia had microtransactions for levels and basic items.  This is a practice that disgusts the gamer in me, and I’d hate to see it take root, but the businessman in me understands it.  After all, Dead Space 3 has infamously had a massive development budget, and for whatever reason EA’s marketing isn’t pushing the game nearly as strongly as I thought they would.  They’ve got to make up for it somehow, and giving players the choice of paying money if they wish to get these resource packs wouldn’t be that big a deal, so long as the game didn’t actually require it.  Between the gamer and business perspectives I have, I’ve kind of found a bit of balance, that of just idly hoping the microtransactions flop.

Of course, it’s easy for me to have such a passive outlook on the issue, as I’m not actually invested in the game whatsoever.  I was mostly paying attention to these microtransactions because it’s created so much internet drama, and I do enjoy a good bit of butthurt. I was never going to bother saying anything about it though, until I saw this interview at GamePlanet with Visceral Producer John Calhoun.  Several of the things he says in the interview set off my bullhonky detector.  Normally, that’s the sort of thing I’d just quietly sit on and forget to care about after a couple of hours.  But now, I don’t have to! I’ve got a blog now!  If I don’t use it to share my random thoughts with the world, what am I doing with this thing?!  So we’re going to go over my perspective on a couple of the things Calhoun has said in that interview that just seem weird.

If you’re wanting to follow along in the linked interview, we’re going to be starting from the top and working our way down, cherry-picking the statements I have specific comments on.

“…there has been a lot of misinformation that came out when that story [about the microtransactions] broke.”

I’m not sure what sort of misinformation, exactly, he’s talking about.  I haven’t exactly dug deep, but I haven’t seen a whole lot that could be classified as “misinformation.”  I’ve seen a lot of “this presents a dangerous precedent” and “I am offended by this” and “Aether is very sexy” and “let’s boycott EA for this” posts.  You might notice, that all of those, except for one, is based out of pure conjecture or opinion.  The only bits of actual information I’ve seen is the list of day one DLC that includes those microtransactions.  Unless if the list itself is wrong (unlikely) I have no idea what “misinformation” he’s referring to.  I’m reading this as a gentle way of saying “all the stories aren’t using the context we want them to”.

“The resource packs are available because there is a large audience of players out there who come from a mobile background. People who are 10 or 15 years younger than you or I are actually mobile first: they play mostly on iOS or Android and don’t necessarily play a whole lot of console games. The concept of instant gratification, having only 15 minutes to play, but wanting to still be able to succeed – that’s the kind of game design that those people are used to.”

Taking a look at John Calhoun’s LinkedIn profile, the earliest professional position he’s listed there starts on June 1999.  It’s a management position, so it probably wouldn’t be part-time, meaning he likely wouldn’t be able to fit it into his schedule were he taking classes full time.  Let’s assume he got that position shortly after his college graduation, and that he graduated at the average age of 22-23.  That would put him at around age 35 at the youngest, right now.  Meaning he’s talking about the 20-25 year olds, as the gamers who are “mobile first”.  You know, I can’t deny that there’s a large amount of 20-25 year olds whose primary gaming activities are on mobile devices.  However, Dead Space 3’s market within that group is not going to be nearly so large.  The group of 20-25 year olds that primarily game on mobiles but are going to be interested in Dead Space 3 are also going to own consoles or modern computers, have some familiarity with non-casual gaming, and be invested enough with more “hardcore” games that they’d be willing to drop 60 bucks or so on a deeper game.  These people are not going to expect to play Dead Space 3 in only 15 minute spurts.  Moreover, they may be used to playing in quick bursts, but if they’re savvy enough to purchase Dead Space 3, they’re going to be familiar with more long-form structure.

In any case, the market of these people that are going to buy Dead Space 3 but require these microtransactions to find success is so small it seems odd to me to cater such a feature to them alone.

“So we wanted to make sure that Dead Space was accessible to all kinds of players, whether you’re hardcore or coming from a mobile background, which is why we put them in there”

You know how developers have been making sure their games were accessible to all kinds of players for years?  Difficulty levels.  But I know not all developers like implementing those.  Or maybe Dead Space 3 already has them, I don’t know.  There’s also been adaptive difficulty, where it changes depending on your successes or failures, or the option to skip a section that’s giving you too much trouble.  But let’s forget those for now.  Let’s assume that the only way to make the game accessible to all kinds of players is to offer these resource packs that Dead Space 3 is charging for.  If the goal really is to make the game more accessible, why is there a price tag on them?  Why limit accessibility to the people who are willing to throw money at it?  What about the people who bought the game, are having trouble with it, but are either not willing to spend the money on simple numbers or aren’t invested in the game enough to be willing to spend money to get farther?  Might it be nice to bring them in the fold too?  You can put these resource packs up for free.  People that like to explore and find challenge don’t have to download them.  People that don’t have the time or ability can download those packs for help.  Everyone’s happier.  Except for EA.  But EA’s not why the packets are there, are they?

“All the resources available naturally within the game are enough to beat the game on its hardest setting”

This statement doesn’t really say anything.  I’m sure eventually there will be challenge runs posted where someone beat the game on the Hard-as-Hell difficulty setting with only the starting weapon.  So you could say you start with enough resources to beat the game on its hardest setting.  Doesn’t mean a thing for the average gamer.  The big question is whether the game is balanced for buying these resource packs or not.  A question Calhoun’s statement above says nothing about.

I’m not going to say the statement above’s a lie.  I am going to say it brings back memories of another EA-published game, Mass Effect 3.  You remember when Bioware said that playing multiplayer wouldn’t be required to get the best ending, when it was revealed how the multiplayer effected the single player game?   You remember how that was a complete lie until they brought out the new ending DLC?  I have never heard of a single person who got the >4000 readiness rating just playing single player.  Time will tell how Dead Space 3 plays out.

“[In regards to whose idea it was to add the microtransactions] EA leaves us alone. Almost every decision when it comes to the game is ours and ours alone”

I don’t doubt this is half-true, at least in regards to these specific microtransactions.  EA may not have been the one to suggest this.  Even though they’ve used it before.

Either way, even if Visceral was the one to come up with these microtransactions, EA has DLC for all of their major releases.  I’d be surprised if they never strongly suggested that Visceral would be expected to produce a certain degree of post-purchase monetisation.  It just seems to be their MO.  They may not have come up with the idea, but they would have had a part in creating the culture that led to it.

“Our dev team is made up of pretty hardcore gamers, right? So you have to ask yourself, if you were a hardcore gamer and you could make your perfect game, would you make it so you had to pay real-world money on top of the sixty bucks you spent for the disc?”

It wouldn’t just be the dev team’s decision.  Game companies have a whole lot of staff that aren’t directly involved in producing a game. Some of those staff are responsible for making sure the business makes money.  They may make suggestions or orders, depending on how the corporate structure works, that stuff like these resource packs be included.  For pay.

“The last thing we think about is monetisation.”

In my time working, I’ve been to a lot of product meetings, where we get a bunch of people together to decide what we’re going to give our clients and customers in order to make money.  At those meetings, ideas are floated.  When those ideas come out, it’s always customer focused.  We think about what our customers could use, what needs they have, how we can provide a better product to them than the competition.  We’re not thinking about how we can separate our customers from their money.  But it’s assumed we’re going to be charging them for it anyway.

What I’m saying here, is that, even if they didn’t come up with the resource pack idea with monetisation in mind, I find it likely that the assumption was there.  I can believe that they started programming in the resource system without the goal of making money off of it.  I won’t believe that selling resource packs only entered their brainspace at the final stages of the game’s design.

Basically, over the course of the interview, Calhoun was trying to give the idea that the dev team was being honest about implementing the resource system in the game.  The the resource packs were just an option, not what the game was balanced for.  He failed at it, because he was talking about the microtransactions came about rather than talking about how they fit into the system itself.  And because of that, he seemed untrustworthy.  It’s entirely possible the resource system is balanced just fine, that the hardcore gamers will have no problem with it, that the resource packs are for sale simply to help those willing to pay rather than being a strict expectation.  This interview just sounded a lot more like after-the-fact justification, with a lot of his statements not holding water with me.  How well the system actually works, well, time will tell.

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