Developers Say the Darndest Things: Cliffy B on Microtransactions and Some Other Stuff Too, I Guess.


If you’ve been paying attention to the internet video games journalism scene lately, there’s been a fair bit of game news assaulting your eyeballs.  We’re waking up from the post-Christmas slump, and some real announcements are starting to get made.  One of those announcements comes courtesy of Electronic Arts, fresh off of the microtransactions in Dead Space 3.  Now, EA spent some time backpedaling from this statement earlier today, but as of late February, word from their CFO was that all their games are going to include microtransactions, those fun little things where you pay money on top of your original purchase price of the game to get a number changed in their system that works out to your benefit.

Now, as you may expect, the gaming community isn’t displeased with this.  I think the official word on the Dead Space 3 microtransactions is that they’re “not that bad,” but it’s still not something gamers are wanting to see more of.  So yeah, we’re not happy with it.  And when we’re not happy about something, we’re very, very good at talking to each other about it on the internet.  Sometimes we use angry words, even.  Words that might make some people cry.  Well, Cliff Bleszinski, designer for the Gears of War series and a bunch of other games I may try out some day but not really, decided that instead of crying, he was going to use some words of his own!  And he did!  You can read them here.  He likes microtransactions.  And seems to think that… you should shut up about them maybe?  He goes off in a couple different directions in that post, and it kind of hurts the coherent point he may have been trying to make.  But he said some things!  And I think he’s missing the point in a lot of the things he says.  Luckily for me, I have a blog!  That makes me eminently qualified to provide my own commentary on his post!

Just like last time we did this, we’ll be cherry picking the statements we have something to say about, starting from the top, if you’re wanting to follow along.  Cliffy B’s original statements will be in the larger bold text.  My commentary will look just like these words do. You’ll also be able to tell it’s my by the inherently sexy way I phrase things.

“Those companies that put these products out? They’re for profit businesses.”

You hear people say “Durrr, these companies exist to make money” all the time.  It almost always sounds dumb when it comes up.  Let’s go over a couple reasons why.

1)Companies Don’t Just Exist To Make Money

Companies are simply vehicles for people to do stuff.  They exist for whatever reason their owners want them to exist.  I’ve known business owners who’ve started companies so they could make their living doing something fun.  I’ve known businesses that exist just to give the owner’s kids jobs.  I’ve known business owners who weren’t making a profit on their business, but kept going because their community needed them there.  Businesses, even for-profit businesses, are there to do whatever their owners think is important.  Yes, it’s important for businesses to make money.  But my job puts me in contact with a lot of entrepreneurs, and very few of them are starting their business with ‘making lots of money’ as their top priority.

Even corporations, who are always having to please their stockholders, don’t exist only to make money.  If they did, most foundation grants wouldn’t exist.   It’s not even making money that’s the highest goal for them.  They need to make their owners, the stockholders, happy, and to do that they need to foster long-term growth.  “Making money” is only part of the process towards actually paying off the owners.

If making money was really the goal, these companies wouldn’t be making video games.  I hear gun running’s been pretty lucrative these days; they’d probably get more of a return on investment there.

2)Being a For Profit Business is No Excuse for Anti-Consumer Behavior

Even Cliffy B seems to recognize this, bringing up Ford’s massive lapse in ethics in the creation of the Pinto, in which Ford was accused of knowingly leaving in a defective fuel tank because it would be cheaper to pay off the families of the deaths it caused than to redesign the thing.  This applies to smaller anti-consumer behaviors as well, though.  Just because Bank of America exists to make money doesn’t mean they’re not scum for wrongfully foreclosing on all those homes.  Just because George Soros made a mint off of it doesn’t mean he’s not an asshole for single-handedly tanking the British economy in the early 90s.  And just because Capcom is there to make money doesn’t make it right for them to wall off content that’s already been purchased and sell it back to them later.

Your customers place their trust in you.  Screwing them over is cruel, no matter how much money you’re making off of it.

3) Nobody Doubts That EA et al is Supposed to Make Money

People need to eat, after all.  Nobody’s expecting something for nothing.  We do expect, however, not to be exploited.  Normally, that wouldn’t be too much to ask.

“Adjusted for inflation, your average video game is actually cheaper than it ever has been. Never mind the ratio of the hours of joy you get from a game per dollar compared to film.”

Except for some of the early N64 games, this is very true.  We’ve also got more people buying games than almost any other time in gaming history.  The market’s different now.  The metrics have changed.

I’m not sure what films have to do with the discussion, but since he brought it up: movies have much larger budgets than games do.  I think the largest budgeted game in recent memory is Grand Theft Auto 4, at $100 million, without marketing costs.  Meanwhile, the upcoming Lone Ranger film has a budget of $250 million.  Yet, when the Lone Ranger comes out, I don’t imagine it has to stop in the middle of the movie to offer us the choice of paying $15 or continuing with, say, all the action scenes slowed to a crawl.  Moreover, The average video game costs $60.  Average length is, what, 10 hours?  It varies wildly, but I’d guess 10-20 hours.  So it’s $6-$3 per hour.  The average 2 hour movie costs me $11 at the local theatre.  So $5.50 an hour.  Not that much different.

“Another factor to consider is the fact that many game development studios are in places like the San Francisco bay area, where the cost of living is extraordinarily high.”

The video game consumer is not responsible for ensuring that the video game developer can eat.  That’s up to the companies actually making and selling the game.  Yes, you deserve a fair wage.  I deserve a fair game.  If I buy a game, and find out it’s unplayable because it’s balanced for players who buy whatever resource they’re selling, you’ve made a bad game and flat-out cheated me, no matter how you justify it.  McDonalds employees have crappy jobs and don’t make much, but that doesn’t mean I’m obligated to spend more money there.  Companies have been making profitable games without microtransactions for 30-some years now.  In fact, they’re still doing it today!  They get to pay their employees even!  Maybe Cliffy B should try working for one of those companies.

Yes, businesses do need to find ways to make money so they can keep their employees fat and happy.  Companies that do that by abusing their customers tend not to exist long, however.  And that’s just bad for everyone.

“I think it’s bullshit that EA has the “scumbag EA” memes on Reddit and that Good Guy Valve can Do No Wrong.”

Cliffy B continues on this tangent, comparing Valve’s $100 engagement ring to whatever it is that EA’s doing.  He complains that Valve gets no heat for the purely aesthetic DLC it’s putting out, and that it’s all due to image control.  Two things, here.  As I recall, Valve got a lot of complaints about the hats in Portal 2.  They’re not immune from this either.  The second thing shows me that Cliff Bleszinski is completely missing the point on this whole microtransactions deal.  It’s not about image control.  Not at all.

This issue is about respect.

And that’s really the biggest difference in the way Valve and EA approach their customers.  Valve has a lot of respect for the people who buy and play their games.  And they go above and beyond in showing it.  So many free updates.  They’ve moved one of their most successful games to a free-to-play structure, and still released updates for it.  They may be pursuing high sales, but they still seem to value creating a good value for their customer above all else.  They seem to see the importance of artistry in their games, they understand what the customer sees in the art form they’re creating, they understand what the customer wants, and they try to ensure that the customer has a good time with what they produce.

EA, on the other hand, just seems to see customers as big piles of cash, and games as a way to separate consumers from the contents of their wallets.  Their marketing is absolutely insulting  and actively sets the industry back.  While their developers may appreciate the artistry behind video games, it’s clear that as a corporation, they don’t, and they make wide, sweeping, misguided decisions in a flat attempt to improve sales rather than to create a better quality product.   They do things like decide that all games must have multiplayer or all game must have microtransactions regardless of whether they’re appropriate or good for the consumer.  But most of all is the fact that they don’t even seem to appreciate their customers.  With the DRM they’ve been using, they actively make it difficult to play their games.  They just don’t seem to respect their players.

And that’s really what this issue with the microtransactions is about.  Dead Space 3 may be easily playable without buying resource packs, but with their announcement that all games will have microtransactions and their lack of respect for the consumer in the past, gamers don’t trust EA to treat them with respect in regards to this issue in the future.  DLC and microtransactions can and have been blatantly exploitative in the past, and it’s hard to believe that, if they truly are implemented into every game, they’ll be done so with respect to the player rather than attempting to exploit them again.

“People love to beat up on Origin, but they forget that, for a good amount of time, Steam sucked. No one took it seriously for the first while. “

Again, I don’t see what this has to do with the point we’re discussing, but whatever.  Cliff brought it up, let’s talk about it.  If Steam sucked in it’s early days, I would hope people ‘beat up on’ it then, too.  It’s both our right and our responsibility as consumers.  If something sucks, especially if it’s something we’re forced to use if we’re using other products, we need to be making noise about.  Developers need to know our displeasure, so they can fix the issue.  Our peers need to know our displeasure, so they can stay away.  Origin sucks now.  We need to be making noise about it, until it gets better.  It’s our civic responsibility.

Related to that is this:

“Heaven forbid they see our digital roadmap for the future and try to get on board the “games as services” movement.”

No.  It’s more like “Heaven forbid they see our digital roadmap for the future and try to get on board with an inferior product that they require people to use anyway.”  Steam was breaking new ground.  EA’s Origin could be learning from their example.  But they’re refusing to.  Yet if you want to play their games on PC, you have to deal with them anyway.

“I remember when the rage was pointed at Epic when we allowed users to purchase weapon skins in Gears 3.”

There are a couple different ways to use the word “microtransactions” and I get the feeling a lot of people are getting confused.  Here, Cliff uses “microtransactions” to refer to generic DLC.  A lot of the gaming community is basing their complaints off of the context EA provided, and considering them to mean “resources I can otherwise get in the game but may be required to purchase to save time or actually be able to get past a certain point”.  DLC, even minor aesthetic DLC, actually gives you new content.  Microtransactions, in this sense, do not.  Just seems to be a disconnect between the two parties.

“If you’re currently raging about this on GAF, or on the IGN forums, or on Gamespot, guess what? You’re the vocal minority. Your average guy that buys just Madden and GTA every year doesn’t know, nor does he care.”

Way to dismiss people out of hand.  But yes.  Those of us who complain about it are probably a vocal minority.  In fact people who post stuff on the internet in general are just vocal minorities.  Doesn’t mean we don’t share an opinion with the majority.  And even if we don’t, it doesn’t mean we’re wrong, nor that we should be discounted.  The online gaming community still has a very significant purchasing power, and we do effect those who don’t actively speak up.

Moreover, the average guy that buys just Madden and GTA probably isn’t even aware that these microtransactions exist, nor is he really invested enough in the game to consider spending more money above the purchase price.  I doubt he’d be buying much of the microtransactions either.

“The market as I have previously stated is in such a sense of turmoil that the old business model is either evolving, growing, or dying. No one really knows.”

This is so true.  The AAA video game business model is probably unsustainable, the way it is now.  The industry needs a change, and it needs a change before some exterior force comes along to shake things up.  Could microtransactions be that change?  Possibly.  I doubt it, though.  It seems more to me like a way to prolong the old model.  It’s just another layer of icing on a cake that’s already rotting underneath.

” Every console game MUST have a steady stream of DLC because, otherwise, guess what? It becomes traded in, or it’s just rented.”

Wanna do a completely non-scientific experiment?  Let’s take a look at Amazon.  Gears of War 3, which has plenty of DLC, currently has 191 used copies available, as of the time of this writing.  Bayonetta, which has no DLC, has 82 used copies available between the two versions.  Bayonetta looks to have sold a little more than a 3rd as many copies as Gears of War 3, and has 42% as many used copies available.  Going by that alone, it seems that DLC may have an affect on used sales, but a small one, and it doesn’t strike me as being enough to justify that being the focus of putting DLC up there.

“Remember, if everyone bought their games used there would be no more games.”

Again, what the hell does this have to do with the matter we’re discussing?  Whatever.  I’m not trailing this one.  Used games is another post.  I just want to point out, based on some of the things he’s said earlier in his post, that Cliff Bleszinski seems to believe that when market forces lead to something that benefits the publisher at the expense of the player, we need to just shut up and deal with it.  When it leads to something that benefits the consumer at the publisher’s expense, it’s eeeeeeevil.  Nice double standard.

“If you truly love a product, you’ll throw money at it. […] When I was a child and the Ultimate Nintendo Fanboy I spent every time I earned from my paper route on anything Nintendo. Nintendo Cereal. Action figures. Posters. Nintendo Power. Why? Because I loved what Nintendo meant to me and I wanted them to keep bringing me more of this magic.”

I wonder if Cliffy B honestly had a straight face when he was writing this.  The idea behind this statement is so malformed.  You buy products because of the value and enjoyment they bring to you.  Buying them because you want the company to have more money is just stupid.  Buying something because you want a company to make more of it is almost as dumb.  Persona 4 is one of my absolutely favorite games.  If you come to my place, you may notice that I only own one copy of it.  I would love to see more of the series.  But I’m not just giving away money in the hopes of making it happen.  I’ll buy the fighting game spinoff because it’s something that interests me, not because it’ll make it just a bit more likely that we’ll be seeing Persona 5.

“People like to act like we should go back to “the good ol’ days” before microtransactions but they forget that arcades were the original change munchers.”

You may notice that after buying the $60 home version, you were not required to keep putting quarters into the game.  Just one difference between old school arcade games and modern day microtransactions.

“And that brings me full circle to my main point. If you don’t like the games, or the sales techniques, don’t spend your money on them.

You vote with your dollars.”

I’ve got a better idea.  Yeah, if we don’t like the game or sales methods, don’t spend our money on them.  In fact, let’s make a point of it.  Then let’s make some noise about it.  Let the developer’s know why we’re not buying it, why we’re offended by their inclusion, why we would otherwise love to pay for the game but we’re just not willing to deal with their anti-consumer behavior.  And let’s keep it up until this behavior is gone.  Because honestly, I know there’s been some games I would have loved to play but I just wasn’t willing to put up with the strings attached, and I’m sure there have been for you to.  Once we can start getting some more respect from the kinds of developers that currently put that sort of stuff in, we’ll have more gaming opportunities open to us, and the developers will get more of our money.  Everybody wins.

One response to “Developers Say the Darndest Things: Cliffy B on Microtransactions and Some Other Stuff Too, I Guess.

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