Setting the Record Straight: On Nintendo, Xenoblade, and Pirates

Rich George, I love all the great Nintendo coverage you and your team provide at IGN.  But perhaps that only makes it all the more sad to see your latest editorial, “Xenoblade Pirates, Don’t Be Stupid.

First, let me say that I’m always interested to read IGN’s editorials.  They rarely disappoint.  And this one was no different, to a point.  You’re general argument is that those who pirate a game like Xenoblade are, in the end, only hurting themselves, and what’s worse, everyone else who would like to seem games of that caliber and style brought stateside for all to enjoy.  Fair enough.  It’s extremely important that those who enjoy various media do what they can to support it.  This goes for anything from music, to movies, to video games.  For instance, I love BBC programming, and from The Hour, to Luther, to Sherlock, audiences this side of the Atlantic have been able to enjoy these television masterpieces thanks to its airing on BBC America.  If I want their to be more where that came from, so to speak, I better walk the walk and pony up the cost of admission.

I could download these programs and get them for free, or even more importantly, earlier then they would otherwise be available.  But such a course of action would only lead to a net negative later on down the road.

Another more familiar example is Game of Thrones.  If fans of the show and of the fantasy genre more generally want to see more of the that kind of quality material, then they need to give HBO its due.  Every HBO subscriber and DVD sale makes it that more likely that the network will pursue more programing like GoT in the future.  But also, it shows the rest of the industry that a fantasy based TV show drawn from niche genre books with dense plot and complex characters can be profitable.

Xenoblade is the same way.  Every sale shows not only Nintendo and the game’s developer, Monolith Soft, but everyone else in the video game industry that a JRPG in the classical tradition done right can still make a big splash, still attract a loyal following, and still be both a critical and financial success.  On this much we agree.

Thus, it is not your main conclusion, but rather the tone of your piece that furrows my brow.  For though you rightfully reprimand the game’s piraters you let Nintendo off with less than a slap on the wrist.  While it is not the place of video game journalists and editors to go around flagrantly bashing the companies and creators they report on and write about, there is something in the record here that needs to be set straight and made more explicit than your editorial does.  Nintendo failed, just as assuredly as the fans who pirated Xenoblade did.

You assert nearly as much when you write that, “Nintendo must own some of the blame for the massive Xenoblade piracy. By staying silent and avoiding comment on whether the Monolith Soft RPG was coming to the world’s biggest video game market, Nintendo of America convinced many gamers they would never see a title that promised dozens of hours of play.”

Indeed, you got at the heart of things with your brilliant “Alone in the Dark" post which you mention, but don’t quite borrow enough from.  Nintendo didn’t simply stay silent or avoid commenting on whether Xenoblade would make it to the Americas, they made it clear in no uncertain terms that, "Nintendo Will Not Release Missing Wii Games in North America.

Instead of calling on fans and players to do the right thing (which they should), Nintendo should be begging for them to take the company back.  Like love left to languish, if Nintendo wants to rekindle its relationship with disaffected gamers and faltering loyalists it needs to make a good faith effort to rehabilitate things.  And that needs to be the priority.  Yes, gamers need to reciprocate, but they can’t in good faith be asked to do that until Nintendo comes forward first.  Rich you are right, the whole thing “leaves such a bad taste in all our mouths, but it’s necessary.”  But not without first making it absolutely clear just who started this row, and who is first and foremost responsible for winning back its gamers support and making things right again: Nintendo.

Slowly Moving Toward Gaming Subscriptions

"This is the first time that the technology has matched the business model."

That’s what Big Fish Games founder, Paul Thelen, told Bloomberg News when Apple decided to allow that game company to offer subscription-based pricing options for its iOS content.

As Ars Technica’s Chris Foresman reported:

“Until now, Big Fish has offered each of its titles as a separate app on the App Store for about $1.99 each. However, founder Paul Thelen saw the new iOS subscription APIs as a way to offer his company’s games on an ‘all-you-can-eat’ basis. The idea is that users could simply download one app, pay a monthly subscription via an iTunes account, and play whatever game struck their fancy. (Big Fish’s catalog largely consists of casual puzzle and mystery games.)”

Like other subscription services, including those to print media like the New York Times and streaming media like Netflix, for a flat monthly rate Big Fish Games would allow users to take advantage of all of their content rather than invest in each app on a per piece of content basis.

Big Fish Games’ Mystery Case Files: Dire Grove

What was amazing about this news was that it hadn’t come sooner.  Apple is understandably resistant to this kind of business model.  For a company that regularly brings in large streams of revenue from its digital media store, allowing venders to package content like this could potentially hurt the company’s bottom line as the overall number of financial transactions goes down and consumers spend less time browsing the App Store.

However, a shift of this type is long overdue.  In fact, it’s built into the very nature of the mobile media market Apple has helped develop.  Smartphones, tablets, and advanced mp3 players like the iPod Touch are all about being “of the moment.” 

You choose what music you want to listen to at a given point in time.  Then maybe the urge strikes to play a game and you load that new app your friend keeps telling you to check out.  Only a few minutes in that same friend calls to see what your plans are for the night.  Maybe you check your email before you go to meet up.  Perhaps on the cab drive there you check the latest news headlines, before getting to the night’s rendezvous point and firing back up that app while waiting for the rest of the gang to arrive.

In other words, we want what we want the moment the desire or whim arises and not a moment longer, and sometimes not ever again.  And it’s the obsolescence made possible by digital distribution that has accelerated this common sentiment in the context of media consumption.  No one’s concerned about not owning all the TV shows that come on during their daily cable intake.  Instead, they pay a flat monthly service in order to access “channels,” that offer menus of media entertainment, some bits of which will be better than others.

Similarly, it makes sense that few people would be concerned about having “ownership” (to the degree it exists in the world of licensed digital content), and would rather pay a set amount to be insured continuous access to new content (e.g. Netflix, Newspapers, and music sites like Pandora).  Maybe, maybe I need to own Angry Birds in order to dependably satiate my ongoing addiction to the physics of brightly colored avifauna.

But that’s the exception, not the rule.

What’s this though?  Apple’s having second thoughts on this new arrangement? 

Indeed, the techno-behemoth has pulled Big Fish Games’ subscription app from its store for still unknown reasons.

In response to this plot thickening event, Thelen stated, “We were notified that the app was removed…The app had been available since Nov. 18…We’re trying to follow up with Apple to try to figure out what happened.”

Despite this apparent reversal on the part of Apple, I can’t imagine them stemming the tide at this point.  Sooner or later the subscription deluge will spill forth and could even envelope Apple itself.  Who wouldn’t love to pay-per-month for some bundle of stream-able apps and discounted content?

Sony has already attempted this with Playstation Plus, and though that service has its problems, it’s both an affordable and sensible service for a growing segment of gamers, especially if Sony is able to continue expanding its benefits to include access and discounts to newer and more recent digital content.

Because in the end this isn’t about any one company’s business model or any single consumer.  It’s about the entire market and what kinds of modes it lends itself to.  And it’s increasingly apparent that with the continuing digitization of media consumers are less interested on holding on to content, re-watching/re-playing/re-reading it at a later date, then getting caught up in whatever’s hot at the moment.  Not only are people’s schedules so tight that they don’t have the time to get out every last bit of fun from their investment, but there’s so much entertainment, available at such cheap prices, accessible nearly all the time, that to spend too much time on any one game, app, movie, album, or book is to sacrifice the chance to be experiencing the hundreds of millions of other things all available at that same time.

So hopefully Apple changes it’s mind, and other distribution platforms follow it’s lead and start moving to subscription services as soon as possible.  It’s not just what the consumer wants, it’s what the moment demands.

Gamer Choice and the Future of “Play it Your Way”

You’d have to be living under a rock, or still grinding away on your first gen console not to have been affected in some way by DLC.  Simply one of the latest, and not especially greatest, ways of fragmenting content to the supplier’s benefit, DLC and the distribution modes that make it possible have had consequences that are still being realized.  But for now, one question that’s clearly one every one’s mind (except those rock inhabiting, first gen peeps) is whether or not the benefits of DLC outweigh the costs.

Do I really want to pay for that extra mission?  Is that CoD map pack really going to add much to my already exhausted online DM experience?  Would that quest have been kept in the original game if new methods for spinning off chopping room floor content weren’t proliferating?

Well on the one hands there’s the simple calculus suggested in the question itself.  What’s the cost/benefit analysis of DLC turn up?  For instance, Nightmare Mode’s Fernando Cordeiro think’s the whole enterprise holds its water:

“Is it fair? Absolutely. After all, people have the right to spend their time and their cash in any way they want it – and time can be translated into cash. The person who grinds in real life for cash to buy a virtual sword and the person who grinds in the game ultimately have the same result: a virtual sword. The only difference is that their value of time is different, as well it should be. We assume that value of time is the result of one’s endeavors, no? Why, saying it is “unfair” is highly unfair then! By eliminating the option to pay directly for the sword, a game would be setting its own value for time in stone, thus negating all the real achievements and merit someone whose time is more valuable might have struggled to attain. This is all because there is an inherent incompatibility between equality and freedom.”

While I’m extremely sympathetic to Cordeiro’s reasoned analysis here, I think it operates from a fundamentally flawed position.  DLC is a relatively new development.  And yet Cordeiro’s analysis reads its very existence into the rationale.  It would be “unfair,” to eliminate the option to pay directly for various in game content, a sword, bonus NPC, etc., because players should have the choice to spend their time how they like.

But this seems to invite an unusual level of player control, capricious behavior, and arbitrary expectation.  After all, isn’t it the designer’s product to?  Shouldn’t they have some say in how a gaming experience unfolds?  If it were just about the entertainment, about extracting pure pleasure from every last moment of gaming, why not attempt to simulate the pleasure inducing brain-states instead and pass on video games all together.

And what about those first gen players (who I myself am one of)?  Would Metroid have been better with the option to fork out a week’s worth of lawn-mowing mula to skip to the next section or acquire the next power?

Hardly. 

However, Cordeiro goes onto imagine a future darker and more empty than any I could cope with:

“The more DLCs we develop, the more niches could be attracted for the same game without having to compromise the amount of content of the overall experience, thus sustaining the Highest Common Denominator. If niche A likes vampires and hates mummies, but niche B hates vampires and likes mummies, instead of compromising the main game with NO vampires and NO mummies in order not to leave anybody upset, 2 DLCs could be developed, one just with niche A in mind (featuring vampires) and another with niche B in mind (mummies galore).

Another advantage for both customer and publisher is the reduction of the development cycle, as modes could be released as soon as they got finished. By satiating the gamer’s thirst with earlier modes from that anticipated game, the publisher could already start generating income that would fund the later modes of the same game. The end result would be more custom experiences designed with a clearer idea of who their audiences are.”

May it never come to pass!  And maybe it won’t.  Though some level of DLC may be inevitable, hitting the fragmentation singularity that Cordeiro hints at might be worse for suppliers than what we currently have.  True, some consumers might like to have video games “there way,” but just like cable stays bundled so that cheap, low quality programing can feed off the audience supplied by stations like AMC, Comedy Central, and Fox News, I suspect that spinning off a video game into all its component bits would lead to a whole lot of unsellable crap, which, once disconnected from the main attraction, would languish in purchasing limbo.  In the end it comes down to profit.  Why sell $30 copies of Battlefield multiplayer when you can bundle it with a not too expensive to produce single player campaign that brings the final retail price to $60?   

And in the end this is probably a good thing.  The gaming experience is already undergoing vast and fundamental change as the traditional culture is shattered into a million disparate pieces who share the same review scores and triple A boxart, but little else.  For players being swallowed in a sea of high quality and extremely diverse new gaming experiences, as well as a never ending surge in media content that dissects, describes, and relates every little nuance, feature, and detail from the interesting to the irrefutably droll, the LAST thing we need is to have our favorite medium broken up, commoditized, and diluted even more.