The first thing that hit me as I entered the South Hall of Los Angeles’ Convention Centre at E3 this year was a gigantic screen showing footage of FIFA 12, accompanied by ridiculously loud music atop a stand that must have (literally) cost tens of thousands of dollars to build, nevermind staff and maintain. And sure, the video migrated elsewhere as part of its raucous, dominating loop, but the segment that blasted out snippets of EA’s football game seemed ultimately pointless.
Personally, I could only wonder why? The game wasn’t playable, at least not in any public capacity that would warrant such brutal exposure, few details were known about the game and – most crucially of all – a few yards to the left began the queue for a sneak peak at Battlefield 3. Moments after E3 opened its doors that line of people was already offputtingly long, the initial stampede seemingly targeted solely at DICE’s admittedly rather impressive first person shooter.[drop]The point, in retrospect, of this ballsy, expensive gesture was to show everyone that walked into the South Hall (which, along with the West Hall made up for about 80% of the show) that EA have all bases covered. They’re prepared to not only shout about it, but also make sure that everybody listened: FIFA makes serious money, and it’s a good job, because this, along with pretty much everything else in downtown LA for those few days in June, must have cost an absolute fortune.
And so as the gaming industry manages to spend more and more on itself to attract more and more potential buyers of whatever this year’s big thing might be, so it must try new things to rake that expenditure back in. Let’s make no bones about it – publishers aren’t your friends: their roles may vary from company to company, project to project, but if the end goal isn’t to ensure that their game gets onto the shelves and sold, in high numbers, they’re probably doing something wrong.
I’m not just referring to online passes, either, before you decide you’ve heard this one before. The concept of paying an extra (for argument’s sake) £10 to get the most out of a game if I don’t buy it new (and having the potential resale value of anything I did buy new reduced) bothers me, by the way, but we’ve been over that before here. I’m more interested in a rather more general look at what publishers are doing differently this year, and whilst this newfangled trend of codes-in-boxes appears to be taking hold like nothing else, it’s certainly not the only craze to stumble out of a boardroom.
It’s not the worst, either. I’ve already voiced my concerns about what Capcom have done with the recent 3DS Resident Evil title (and voted with my wallet by staying well clear) but the apparent acceptance of this practice by all retailers bar a select few shows that not everyone feels the same way. Does the general public appreciate that by buying Mercenaries 3D they’re showing the publisher that it’s alright to lock out the ability to clear the on-board save game, or will that realisation only take effect once they try to trade it in and realise it’s (potentially) not worth as much as they might have hoped?
Certainly, it doesn’t mention anything on the box, and the GAME I entered recently proudly had the game featured all too highly in their chart section. The odd thing, picked up during the vitriol of the whole thing when it came to light a fortnight back, was that Capcom weren’t the first to do this – SEGA’s Super Monkey Ball 3D does exactly the same thing. Nobody really seemed to care about that instance, though, and it seems that now any issues with either have been swept under the carpet.[drop2]Of course, certain publishers are also keen to come up with ways to add extra value to their flagship games. This year both Activision (with Call of Duty Elite) and EA (with Battlefield 3’s Battlelog) will try to ensure their games aren’t piled up in the pre-owned bins by making the online sections ‘sticky’. By providing detailed, multi-game statistics tracking and the ability to keep up with the games on mobile devices, players will – hopefully – want to keep their first person shooter of choice and buy into long-tail DLC and subscription fees.
And speaking of DLC, this year saw the ‘freemium’ model turn into something that didn’t just populate Facebook. Countless iPhone games have released with in-app purchases – the likes of Tiny Tower lets you play the game entirely for free, but at a much reduced pace than if you were to turn real cash into Tower Bux to accelerate various steps in the game. Console DLC was once a laughing stock (anyone remember Oblivion’s horse armour?) but it’s now part and parcel of almost every game you buy, with many publishers holding back content so they can sell it on weeks and months after release.
But this wouldn’t be a comprehensive review of the changes publishers are making this year without looking back to the whole online pass situation. It’s clearly there to reduce the second hand market, regardless of whatever PR line spouts forth, and on the whole it’s something I personally don’t really find much favour with. It’s not just about having to pay extra if I rent a game, or buy it second hand, it also – on a few occasions – makes reviewing games considerably more difficult if a) we don’t get an online code pass or b) the Store isn’t up yet to buy our own.
But with publishers on the surface not making anything from the sales of pre-owned software (despite subjective opinion that suggests such a market keeps the industry buoyant and retailers in business) the concept of online passes is here to stay.
EA might have been the first out of the gate with ‘project ten dollar’ but they’ve been swiftly joined by other publishers (Codemasters went a little further than just locking out multiplayer – codes for DiRT 3 also included a car pack) and last week’s arrival of Sony to the scene cemented the notion firmly: online passes are going to be the medium-term future of the industry, and if you don’t like them there’s very little you can do apart from deciding not to buy any games sporting the system second hand.
Which, of course, might be exactly what those pesky publishers wanted.