Thursday, September 29, 2011

In which I am humbled by the bundle

I have previously been very dismissive of "pay what you like" offers. My limited understanding of economic theory convinced me that there was no rational justification for customers to pay more than the bare minimum. I couldn't accept that this was a viable business model and I was sure that these offers were no more than a passing fad.

Well, maybe I was wrong. The humble indie bundles continue to thrive generating substantial revenue for indie developers and a chunk of money for worthy charities to boot. I got an opportunity to experience a bundle first hand last night when I bought the latest humble offering the Humble Frozen Synapse Bundle.

I was most impressed with how slick the process is. A single web page quickly lets you know what is on offer and lets you place an order. Choosing the price you pay is trivial and you can even choose how your money is allocated using sliders. This sounds like it could be complicated but it is absolutely not. This is the slickest easiest online checkout I have sever seen. This is a masterclass in encouraging the impulse purchase. There is even live chat support - all available from that same page.

The order delivery is equally slick. There is no logging into accounts and navigating through multiple screens to find your digital goods. Immediately after ordering you get a link to a personalised web page that has all of your games available for download. That same page even offers codes for installing your games under Steam, Impulse and several other gaming platforms.

One single web page for presales and order processing. One single page for order delivery. This is not a passing fad. This is the cutting edge of digital retailing.

I am perhaps most surprised at the price I chose to pay. I could have gotten Frozen Synapse for 1c but paying more than the current average ($4.50 or so) would get me several other games. My rational mind screamed $4.51 but in the end I paid $15. I still amn't entirely sure why. Guilt? The slickly set up order page defaulted to a  price of $25 which was I believe the original price of Frozen Synapse. Frozen Synapse is a game I have heard a lot about and I am keen to try it but I know that I probably won't play it for very long. I was never going to buy it at $25. I probably wouldn't have bought it for $15 in a Steam sale but here I was paying $15 for it in a bundle with a bunch of other games that I have never heard of. The donation to charity aspect is nice but I can't say that influenced my decision. Some strange combination of rationality (I'm not paying $25) and irrationality (I'm not going to be a meanie and pay $5) combined for me to settle on a price of $15.

I still don't understand how all this works but I have to accept that it does. Is this a new business model that overturns the naive assumption of my undergraduate economics textbooks or is this just a natural outcome of traditional economic theory in a business where manufacture and distribution cost have become almost zero? I don't know.


Monday, September 26, 2011

In which nothing much is said for no reason other than it is Monday morning.

I have noticed that bloggers reluctance to write posts over the weekend tends to spill over to Monday morning. Therefore this is probably as good a time as any for me to break my blog silence of over two weeks. I haven't got much say but hopefully I can get away with it given the lack of blogosphere competition this morning.

Busy life at the moment has sapped much of my time and enthusiasm for gaming. I did spend quite a few hours finishing the main Torchlight campaign as an alchemist. Torchlight is a superb example of its type but games of that type normally quickly drive me to utter boredom with their progress quest like repetition. It is a measure of just how busy I have been in the real world that I stuck with it long enough to finish the campaign.

I have been making very slow progress through Deus Ex Human revolution. I feel it is a game that deserves full attention in order to get the most out of it. The game world is full of detail and the variety of augmentation offers many ways of exploring it. You could just blast through the game as a killer warrior or you could (almost) just sneak your way through but I feel that taking either extreme misses a lot of the variety of the game. I am actually trying to role play a character who is basically humane but who is passionate enough to use violence when the situation warrants it. For example when I was asked to infiltrate the police station I used stealth to avoid casualties but when a later mission confronted me with the special forces who murdered my colleagues and ex girlfriend the gloves came off.  Thinking about "what would my character choose" rather than "what gives me the best game play advantage" is a very rewarding way to play the game but it does take concentration and I haven't been able to give much of that to gaming recently.

I have also found some time to install and play Atomic City Adventures from  Windstorm studios. This is a open world driving/shooting game a bit like Grand Theft Auto meets Crimson skies. There is a lot to admire in the game, not least the wonderful 1930's meets the atomic age setting but it does have flaws. The wooden driving controls take some getting used to and this is not helped by the fact that your hoverbike regularly gets stuck in the scenery. Nevertheless the game is very enjoyable and will easily entertain you for a few hours. 

Thursday, September 08, 2011

What happens if people stop buying $60 games

I am cheating a bit here because the bulk of this post is a copy of a comment I left on Andrew Anderson's blog Systematic Babble. Andrew's post reflects a growing trend in gaming which suggests that the days of the $60+ game could be numbered.

Like Andrew I am generally not willing to spend $60 on a game and nowadays there is so much gaming entertainment to be had for so much less that that price point has become almost silly. However I must admit to a certain hypocrisy here. Even though  am miserly in my spending I still really enjoy AAA games with Hollywood level budgets.  I would hate to see a future in which the demise of the $60 game meant that only free to play and Iphone games survived.  Anyway here are my thoughts as expressed in that comment:

I agree that the $60 price point is rapidly becoming unsustainable but I don’t think my gaming hunger can ever be fully sated by $1 Iphone games.I still want to play AAA games with cinematic production values. As an adult with limited time available I am very comfortable with the trend towards short but intense single player campaigns. I am not however prepared to pay $60 for less than 10 hours of gaming. 

As a PC gamer my current compromise is to wait a few months and buy the AAA game in an online sale. Reviewing my game purchases for last year my average spend per game was less than €10 and I still got to play all the games I wanted albeit a little bit behind the crowd. To be honest it feels a bit like cheating to get so many great games for so little money and I don’t know if this situation is sustainable long term. Game developers probably need those $60 dollar sales to pay the massive costs of developing AAA games. 

I am no futurologist but here are some possible scenarios following a collapse of the $60 game market:

1. AAA developers stick with their current strategy of $60 up front and then charge for lots of expensive DLC. Only a few big franchises manage to sustain this price level and even they start hemorrhaging sales once the public tires of them. A video games market crash not seen since the 1980′s ensues. 


2. AAA game developers move to a free to pay plus micro transaction model to try and bolster revenues. This does generate a lot of extra revenue for game developers but has negative impacts on game design as titles are modified to coerce users into spending as much money as possible in the item shop.


3. AAA game developers reduce their prices substantially and the market responds positively greatly increasing sales. The increase in sales more than offsets the reduction in unit price and a new boom in game development ensues.



Tuesday, September 06, 2011

New Survey: The Average Age of Gamers is 106!

Thank you to a recent tweet from Syp for reminding me of one of the most ridiculous things on the internet that seems to hit gamers more often than others. I am talking about the ludicrous age verification checks that ask you to tick the year you were born in order to "prove" you are old enough to view content.

The whole concept is ludicrous because it is trivially easy for a minor to lie about their age in  order to see the prohibited content. In fact given that these almost universally employ roll down lists it is far easier just to scroll wildly towards 1900 than it is to pick out your exact date of birth. I suspect that most people do just that which is why I imagine a survey of the average age of gamers picked up from such tools would indicate that we are all well into our dotage.

Of course randomly scrolling down the dates has its own hazards too. On a couple of occasions I have inadvertently hit  the wrong date and was told: "Sorry you are too young to view this content". This is a complete nuisance because the incorrect age seems to get stored in a cookie leaving you locked out of the content until you can figure out how to reset it.

I guess there is some spurious legal justification for these ridiculous checks but yet I cannot imagine any court in any country accepting the "evidence" produced by one of these.

Monday, September 05, 2011

MW2 single player versus MW1

Having played and enjoyed the single player campaign of Modern Warfare 2 over the weekend I am finally ready to share my thoughts of how it compares to it's predecessor only twenty two months too late!

I realise that these games are most famous for multiplayer but single player is still important both because many players never get beyond a brief flirtation with multi and because the single player game will live on long after Activision turn off the online servers.

Storyline: I was very surprised to find that MW2 has a strong storyline that is both ambitious and audacious. It is certainly more coherent than the thread which ties together MW1's series of missions.

Pacing: The action has cranked up a bit from MW1 to MW2 and the game moves along at a faster pace. Indeed the pacing of the game is pretty much flawless. This is a game that is hard to put down. There are no boring filler patches and there are no unfair difficulty traps. The checkpoint timings are so good as to be virtually un noticeable.

Difficulty: MW2 is definitely an easier game than 1 but this is because there are no unfair difficulty traps in 2 while there were several in 1.

Missions: MW2 has come out on top so far but finally we have an area where it's predecessor triumphs. Modern Warfare 1 has many moments of sublime brilliance and some of the missions rank up there as all time greatest video game experiences.  Missions like "All Ghillied up", "One shot one kill" and "Death From above" remain on in the memory and I still go back and replay them regularly. While MW2 has better over all pacing and coherence there really aren't any standout moments. There wasn't a single mission that gave me an instant urge to replay it. Indeed only a day after finishing the campaign I struggle to remember an individual mission at all.

Overall: It is curious that despite the single player campaign of MW2 winning out over its predecessor in many areas I have absolutely no doubt that MW1 is the better and more important game. Modern Warfare 2 is more polished over all and exhibits significant competence but Call of Duty 4 had moment of standout brilliance.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

MW2 Boycott Finally Ends

Surely the most ignominious moment for PC Gaming in recent years was when so many members of the loudly protesting Steam Modern Warfare 2 boycott group were exposed to be actually playing the game.

Well I guess I can lay claim to some small bit of personal pride that I did not cave in and maintained my own personal boycott of the game. Of course this was somewhat easier for me because my boycott wasn't based on a sense of entitlement as to what Activision should or shouldn't put into their games. For me the big issue has always been the price of the game. The €60 initial purchase price was more than the game was worth to me.There was just too much other gaming entertainment available to me for less money to make that a worthwhile purchase.

Given that the game racked up more than a billion dollars in sales it it perhaps no surprise that MW2 maintained it high price point far longer than most other games. The price did fall but only slowly and while I kept an eye out for it in various sales it always seemed to remain just outside the value sweet spot until yesterday.When I saw the game on offer for €10.44 on Impulse I realised though that my comfort zone had been reached and I could finally end my long and lonely boycott.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Buying Game Codes on the Grey Market

My exasperation at regional pricing differences for Deus Ex Human Revolution led me to stumble across a wide range of "grey market" resellers who Sell activation codes for Steam games at substantial discount over US /European prices. Intrigued I spent some time researching these before concluding that it would be better to stay away from them but just in case it could be useful to others I will summarise my opinions on the subject here:

1. There are a wide number of websites selling cheap Steam codes. Some of these sites seem to be very dodgy, some of them seem to be run as legitmate businesses.

2. The business model is to buy games cheaply in bulk in a low cost market (Eastern Europe or perhaps Asia) and then resell the code to customers in higher priced markets (America / Australia / Western Europe) at a profit.

3. In many cases the code is taken from a boxed retail copy and the supplier may offer a scan of the box. I am not sure what extra protection this provides.

4. It works best for games that do not have a region lock because then you can just enter the Sinagporean or Russian code into Steam youself and it works. If a game has a region lock the reseller may propose alternate routes involving Russian VPNs or even sending your Steam login details to the reseller in order to fool Steam into thinking you are in Russia / Singapore.  This sounds foolish to me and is probably illegal.

4. Some of the better known resellers seem to have good customer service with support forums and representatives who respond to customer issues. 

5. Some of the resellers accept third party payment services (for example paypal) which gives some security against your credit card details being sent to a dodgy website.

6. In my opnion (and I am not a lawyer) there is nothing illegal about buying a game code from Singapore or from Russia. Trying to spoof Steam into thinking your are in a different country using VPNs etc may well be illegal.  Regardless of the legality however buying a code from an unauthorised reseller does go against Steam's terms of service and Steam are under no obligation to honour that code. If the code doesn't work then Steam will not help you and you are at the mercy of the reseller. From browsing forums some of the resellers appear to be good at supportng their customers in these cases and some don't

7. Even if the code works initially Steam can revoke it at any time perhaps after you have been playing for a few weeks. Steam have most notably done this for the Orange Box and also for Modern Warfare 2. I don't know how they decide which codes are unauthorised but it is probably a regional thing. They only seem to bother cracking down in the case of a few high profile games. I wouldn't be surprised if they crack down on Deus Ex HR next because the market seems to be flooded with cheap Russian codes for the game.

8. All of the normal hazards about dealing with little known websites in unknown places apply: These include the possiblity of fraud, identity theft or even that you will be in receipt of stolen goods. The better known resellers seem legit but that is just my opinion.

My overall conclusion:
Although I detest regional pricing and normally support the idea of grey markets on balance in this case I think the risks outweigh the benefit:

-Can get a Steam game at a significant discount (perhaps as little as half price)

- Possibillty of dealing with dodgy websites: fraud, identitiy theft, stolen goods.
- Possibility of game not working or being revoked at any time by Steam.

Some further reading on the issue:
Laws of play has a good analysis with a legal slant but they are very anti-grey market. Somehow I find myself unable to share their sympathy for poor Activision who spent $50M developing a game and $200M  advertising it.

More details on Steam revoking MW2 keys and previously Orange Box keys

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