||The Firing Line #3
June 24, 2003 Tom Chick
Summary: Tom Chick on the Firing Line:
How much would you pay for all this
In this week's The Firing Line, Chick sets aside his trendy little Hollywood beret and dons a dark helmet. The target? MMOs and monthly fees. The example? Star Wars: Buggy, Unfinished Galaxies (Star Wars BUG). The surprising plot twist? We find out that inside our little movie critic/director/afficionado/actor, there's a seafood chef. I'm not kidding.
| MMOre MMOney||Page:: ( 1 / 5 )|
Tom Chick on the Firing Line:
How much would you pay for all this?
The day after tomorrow, Star Wars Galaxies will go live, four days before the end of a fiscal quarter, ready or not. And it's not. I can attest to that. A lot of the beta testers can attest to that. In fact, even developer Kevin O'Hara can arguably attest to that. He wrote the following in one of his final beta updates: "We will be in stores in one week and one day. Notice how I'm not saying we will be "done" in that time." He qualifies his statement by elaborating on the usual stuff about how the game will continue to grow, how they'll keep adding content, and so forth. To his credit, he even admits they'll still have to fix bugs and work on the balance.
Granted, O'Hara would probably make a distinction between "ready" and "done", a unique facet of MMOs, which are constantly labeled "ready" well before they're "done". In fact, the conventional excuse for MMOs is that they're never done, something I first heard Richard Garriott concede shortly after Ultima Online was launched five years ago. But even though you won't be getting a completed game if you pick up Galaxies on Thursday, you'll still be paying the price for a completed game. Actually, that's not true. You'll be paying more than the price for a completed game, which used to be $50 for something you could play in perpetuity. But now the industry is splitting into two pricing models.
Traditionally, games cost $50. After Origin introduced the whole charge-for-an-expansion-to-complete-the-game with their voice packs for Wing Commander, games could cost up to $80 by the time you were done buying them. Now, games with sequels-that-are-really-expansions can run up into the $100 range by the time you've paid in for the whole kit and caboodle. But at least you know that's the end of it. You buy it, you got it for good. It's yours. Cool. Install it, play it, get sick of it in an hour, come back to it two years later when it's a classic. Whatever. You paid. It's yours.
But there's a new price tag in town. The initial $50 investment only gets you a single month of play. If you buy Galaxies and play it for a year of $15 monthly fees, it will cost you $215. Or $245 if you go for the collector's version with a lead figure, art book, and ingame wearable doo-dad like an eyepatch or a funny hat that no one else can wear, except for the other people who also buy the collector's edition.
SIDEBAR: In 1997, Richard Garriot’s avatar in Ultima Online, Lord British, was killed by a beta tester in Indianapolis named Rainz, who used a stolen fireball scroll. Origin claims Rainz’ subsequent banning was for unrelated offenses.
| Cash grabs||Page:: ( 2 / 5 )|
Own or rent?
And unlike the traditional pricing model, there's no guarantee that you'll spend your $50 month with a game that has any claim to being complete or completed. You are spending a month with a work in progress. Any playing after that will cost you extra. You do not own the game. You have one instance of a constantly changing client that will let you interact with the servers, which is where the game really exists, where it's tightly controlled, and where it's created over however long a period of time as the developers need.
What’s more, the server is kept plugged in only so long as it's profitable and populated. Just because no one was playing Motor City Online doesn't make it any less an outrage that Electronic Arts pulled the plug and those people who bought it have absolutely nothing to show for it. Okay, so no one really bought it either, but the point remains: when you bought Motor City Online, you had no idea whether it would still be around in a year. And yet, because of its monthly fee, you eventually paid much more than you would have for a traditional game. Okay, I know you personally didn’t buy Motor City Online. I didn’t either. But you know what I mean.
Of course, the conventional wisdom is that you're paying extra because you’re getting a special massively multiplayer experience on persistent servers. You're paying for the servers and the bandwidth and the experience of interacting with other humans in a massive online cyber society populated by thousands of avatars in a virtual community. Whatever. When I play, I’m just hunting and doing quests and leveling up with groups of other like-minded cyber-citizens, clustered into gangs of six to ten folks whose interactions consist mostly of bon mots like “inc” and “afk” and the ever-popular “need healing”. But I can do this in Diablo II, where I’ve have been doing it for years, all for the low low price of about $80 for the game and the expansion pack.
Sure, MMOs have clans, corporations, guilds, and other bureaucracies where twelve-year-olds can wield authority over me with their higher ranks. But these groups are more often than not at the esoteric upper end of these games, where famous folks like Thedeacon in Anarchy Online and Mia Wallace in The Sims Online get interviewed by national media outlets just as bewildered as I am by the whole thing.
SIDEBAR: Mia Wallace, who has been ranked as the most popular person in The Sims Online, is the avatar for Richard Mathieson, a 34-year-old band promoter in Vegas, and his wife Jennifer. Thedeacon is the Anarchy Online avatar for Richard Stenlund, who insists he was unfairly portrayed in a New York Times article that described him as an unemployed and antisocial geek.
| Nickel and dimed||Page:: ( 3 / 5 )|
‘How much do you need?’
I wish I could say I'm not interested in these kinds of games, but that’s not true. I want to play them. I like them in theory. Some of them -- Anarchy Online, PlanetSide, Dark Age of Camelot, and even the inchoate Star Wars: Galaxies -- I like in practice. But I have very deep reservations about this new pricing model whereby I don’t own any actual game content. I like having shelves of games that can be reinstalled and played again whenever I feel like it. These shelves should be a library, not a display case in a rental store lined with empty boxes that don’t do anything until I pay the fee.
And I’m not convinced this pricing model is necessary. Some might argue that MMOs add a new layer of technology and cost with all their networking issues. But there are plenty of games that deal with similar problems on a different scale that are funded using the traditional $50 price. Granted, I don't know the ins and outs of server costs and what prices the market will bear and profitability break-even points, but as a gamer for fifteen years who's weathered the fiscal storms of our hobby, I do know this is something different, new, and outrageous. I'm astonished that so many of you are swallowing it, hook, line, sinker, and credit card number entry blank.
And the biggest problem isn’t just that our bank balances are being nickel-and-dimed and fifteen-dollared to death. The biggest problem is the message this sends to the rest of the industry. These days, it’s a given that a PC game is going to need post-release support. That should be built into the budget, not taken from the player’s pockets while they’re playing. Companies like Blizzard and Valve have earned an enormous amount of goodwill for going above and beyond the call of duty with their post-release support, all because they created enormously successful games in $50 boxes that moved like hotcakes. I don’t want any new pricing models to encourage them to rethink their strategies. For instance, you can’t play Blizzard’s games online without using battle.net. But I’m not complaining that I can’t enjoy direct IP games because Blizzard isn’t trying to bilk me for a monthly fee. I am, however, starting to get a little nervous that they’re tightly controlling connectivity when all the other guys who do this expect me to grease their palms.
My biggest hope is that this is a self-correcting problem. Hopefully, there will be a Great MMO Winnowing soon, followed by competitive pricing. There can’t be that many of us willing to open our bank accounts so generously, so unquestioningly. But right now, the market is forgiving enough that a big name license like Star Wars can waltz in and jack the price up a few dollars without scaring off many of their blind loyal fan base. I remember seeing a magician solicit someone in the audience for a dollar bill that could be used in a magic trick. The poor guy in the front row pulled out his wallet and asked, in all sincerity, ‘How much do you need?’ This is what we’re like with our MMOs. We’re so eager to see the next trick that we’re not thinking about the cost.
SIDEBAR: When this article went to press, there were 165,666 people logged onto battle.net playing Blizzard games, 63,166 people on Gamespy playing CounterStrike, and 2,213 people playing Eve Online.
| Return Fire||Page:: ( 4 / 5 )|
Last week, Brett mentioned shock games like Postal 2 as “proof that gaming is finally making it into the pop culture heartland populated by Friends, American Idol, and John Grisham…” Like comic books, rock n’ roll, and Hollywood, he saw it as part of the growing process before society “[gives] up and [accepts] that little Johnny does Doom and so does his dad". But on the other hand, he said Postal 2 was an impediment: "The childish need to shock mommy and daddy is a real problem that's holding back the games industry from wider acceptance and greater maturity in content."
Whatever Postal 2 is, it’s ultimately irrelevant to games going mainstream, which is a recurring wish by guys who want to be taken more seriously, whether they’re making games, playing games, or writing about games (this is not a jab at Brett, who has no pretensions of being taken seriously, as you can see by the fact that he gave the Hulk game an 80%).
But this mainstreaming isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Computer gaming is a weird little hobby that most people have heard of and a few have sampled by picking up breakout hits like The Sims, RollerCoaster Tycoon, and Grand Theft Auto, all of which can be enjoyed as brief diversions that aren’t very demanding. Of the 3 million people who bought Vice City, I’ll bet you less than half got past the first mission where you had to aim a sniper rifle and less than half of them got past the remote control helicopter mission.
Most people don’t really want to play these things we call games, and certainly not the way we play them. If anything, they might pick up Postal 2 because they read about how terrible it was. But they’re liable to think Rise of Nations is that old silent D.W. Griffith movie, Tony Hawk is a skateboarder and not a game, and Metal Gear Solid is a, well…okay, they probably wouldn’t have any idea what to make of that name. Neither do I.
We’re a niche hobby, complete with our own bad boys pushing the envelope just like when they started showing naked butts on NYPD Blue. But guess how many pages were devoted to gaming in Entertainment Weekly’s annual It List issue this week? Zero. Our problem is that we have a very narrow vision. Most of the people who make and play games have little insight beyond the production design from Blade Runner, the cultural references from The Simpsons, the narrative depth of the average second-rate Marvel Comics property, and the breasts of some impossibly proportioned polygonal model. Until this changes, like it’s starting to do very very slowly, we’re going to be an industry that just makes toys for boys like you and me.
SIDEBAR: As if anyone has ever wanted to see Dennis Franz’ butt. Except Tom. Speaking of Tom, he did the previous four Facts all by himself! They grow up so fast…
Okay, Brett's shots were lame. Not only that, they were plural. I'll only be bringing you a single shot of the week, but it'll easily be worth three of Brett's. Last week, he brought you pictures of some brown stuff that, if you squinted, had little tanks or army men or something in them. But dig this:
| Shot of the Week||Page:: ( 5 / 5 )|
That’s me on the left. I’m a Mon Calamari chef (must make gathering seafood ingredients easy. -ed.) Well, I will be once I figure out how an artisan can make an honest living in a player-driven economy. I don’t know the wookie, but I stood next to him to pose for a picture so it would look like I had my own wookie, like Han Solo, but with the head of a purple squid instead of the head of Harrison Ford. I was going to ask the wookie to help me make some crepes, but we don’t speak each other’s languages, so when I chatted with him, it looked like this: “alsdkgaoin adslfal iadfoe algpagwerld adga?” Besides, I don’t know what class or level he was, so he might have just held me back during the crepe making process.
So that’s the final word from Darth Chick. He’s the first Darth to wear a beret and cook… or do either, for that matter, but apparently even an Imperial villain can dislike price gouging monthly fees for unfinished games. In fact, it seems he doesn’t like monthly fees at all, even for MMOs. So how do you feel about it? Ready to lambaste Chick again? Sound Off! for Mo’ Money Mo’ Money Mo’ Money!
SIDEBAR: Incidentally, we’ve heard some horrible things about encounters and combat.