When $60 Isn't Enough

As publishers find more ways to squeeze gamers for incremental revenue, the $60 boxed retail product is buying a smaller and smaller portion of the game experience.

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Until recently, I was just fine with the digital era of gaming. I didn't mind downloadable content that shipped on the disc but needed to be purchased separately. I didn't mind unlocking online multiplayer modes with one-time use codes from new games or a $10 online pass. And despite some misgivings, I didn't even mind microtransactions or retailer-exclusive preorder incentives when they were done right.

But the rise of premium subscription services like Call of Duty: Elite and Electronic Arts' Season Ticket is a fee too far for me. My tolerance for incremental revenue streams has died a death of a thousand cuts, and I've lost all taste for publishers' short-sighted, exploitive, and (in the case of free-to-play games) downright predatory tactics in the marketplace.

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If the subscribers are considered Elite, what does Activision think of the unwashed masses who paid "only" $60 for Modern Warfare 3?

In most of these cases, publishers will tell us that the game on the disc is every bit as good as it ever was, and that gamers are getting everything they're accustomed to--a full-featured product with sufficient bells and whistles to justify a $60 price tag. And to take their side for a moment, each one of these approaches is defensible.

After all, the difference between DLC on the disc or not is a question of semantics: Should transferring MB of data to access the content instead of KB really make a big difference to the consumer? As for combating used game sales, why shouldn't publishers take issue with the practice? These companies spend millions making and marketing a game to convince people to go to their local GameStops to buy the thing, only to have the retailer sell them a used copy from which the people who made the game won't see a dime. Those sales add up pretty quickly, given that GameStop annually rakes in $2 billion in used game sales, an amount roughly 13 percent the size of the US retail gaming market last year.

Even microtransactions and preorder incentives have had their place. Who could argue with Rock Band's a la carte approach that gave gamers access to thousands of extra songs, tailoring the game to their exact musical tastes? And I'll be the first to admit I preordered Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike just for the preorder disc that featured the old Star Wars arcade game.

But when taken together, every one of these incremental revenue streams that publishers so desperately crave might leave a bitter taste in a gamer's mouth. While the $60 we once spent for new retail games is arguably buying just as much, it certainly isn't buying any more than it did before. In fact, that same $60 is now undeniably buying a second-class game experience.

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Rock Band did it right by focusing one extra revenue stream and implementing it in a consumer-friendly way.

If you don't buy the collector's edition with the extra content, the map packs, and the subscription service with the whiz-bang Web-based tools, you're only getting a fraction of the total game experience. And if that fraction doesn't meet your fancy and you trade the game in, you're getting less value in return because GameStop knows it's getting a disc with crippled online features. As a result, even consumers who always buy new games at full price are being punished by this scheme.

Publishers can say the core product doesn't suffer as a result of these initiatives, but the problem is one of perception. I perceive that my $60 is no longer enough for them. I perceive that their focus is shifting from making a game to making a business model. I perceive that the more desperate they become for my money, the more cynical, manipulative, and dehumanizing their approach to getting it will become. I can't even convince myself that I am a valued customer any longer; I am simply a potential revenue stream with an incidental pulse.

But the more examples I see of downright disrespectful cash grabs from publishers, the less common it becomes for my full-price purchase to get me a complete, cohesive gaming experience and the more I'll appreciate (and happily shell out for) the games that buck that trend: the Vanquishes, the Children of Eden, and the Shadows of the Damned.

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