I was lucky enough to read Neal Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” a few years ago on a whim after spotting the book on Amazon. In it, Postman introduced me to a phrase that I had never heard before, a phrase coined by a Canadian philosopher by the name of Marshall McLuhan who focused on communication theory: Medium is the message. With the way we pay for games and game content constantly evolving in today’s markets, I believe this is an idea that all gamers need to take to heart.
A few months ago Brian Fargo of InXile Entertainment tweeted:
I love that we are making a game without sitting around figuring out how to “monetize” you.
— Brian Fargo (@BrianFargo) July 30, 2012
This tweet immediately implanted a thought in the back of my head, one that I knew I had to write about. It seems like such an important question that I have no seen approached on a philosophical level (as opposed to just looking at it from a more business-oriented view). How does an overall industry shift toward DLC, microtransaction, and free-to-play effect each individual developer’s approach to designing videogames and the end result of every new game? That’s when I was first reminded of the idea that medium is the message.
But what does the phrase mean? It rolls off the tongue easy enough, but if you are like me, it takes deeper thinking to really unravel its deeper implications. “Medium is the message” means that the medium is as important as the content it provides. It’s an idea that suggests we all be as aware of the particular medium as we are aware of the content it brings us. Jason Gross of Smashing Magazine explains it better than I ever could hope to in an article on the subject:
“Imagine, if you will, a deep well in the middle of a vast desert. The well is our medium (as the radio or Web would be), and the water is our message. A rich and reliable well in the middle of the desert would naturally become the hub of travel routes and even a sustainable population. The water by itself is of no use without the well. If it were inaccessible or people were unaware of its existence, it could not support life. The well, as a medium, delivers water to the people passing by or living nearby. As a result, the well becomes synonymous with water and life, despite really being just a hole in the ground.”
For videogames specifically, most of us are used to a classic model. We buy a game for a fairly expensive up front price (when compared to movies or books or music), we play it through until we get bored with it, and then if we like it enough we wait for a new Expansion to come along to reinvigorate our interests. Except, DLC has already made this approach one with the dinosaurs.
I was reading an excellent Forbes article the other day on the subject of Day One DLC specifically. Day One DLC is a far less accepted practice when compared broadly to the idea of DLC. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing, but I agree with the article’s writer Erik Kain when he discusses the importance of perception and how the act of putting locked off content on a disc and then charging gamers for makes a company look greedy. It is a fact that there is a window of downtime where developers can stay employed by creating DLC that does end up either releasing on the disc or on the very first day of the game’s release. I am all for developers maintaining employment, especially the ones I like, but I think it is obvious that the practice affects how we perceive the value of a newly launched title.
DLC specifically seems a lot less harmful. Of course, it killed off the entire idea of an expansion, which has led to most game publishers pushing for less meaningful content. There are silver linings, of course. Bethesda has recovered gracefully since the uproar around the idea of Horse Armor, though I dare say that Tribunal and Shivering Isles were far and away more interesting than any single piece of DLC for Fallout 3 or Skyrim. Don’t get me wrong. I have no patience when it comes to waiting on content for a game I love, like for example Civilization V’s Gods & Kings expansion, but I find it incredibly easy to be overwhelmed by DLC oversaturation such as the myriad of civilization packs for Civilization V (fun that Firaxis managed to be on both ends of the spectrum with that one). As it stands, we expect a lot less because DLC is the norm rather than the expansion packs of old.
In the case of civilization packs specifically, when did these sorts of things move from reasoned customer service from passionate developers to another reason to charge a small fee? I don’t expect every developer to have the time, patience, or money to provide players with an infinite supply of free content. However, before DLC allowed companies to monetize the smallest additions to their games, things as small as a civilization pack would have come free of charge because a small team of designers had some overflow ideas they wanted to see implemented. I remember getting maps and mods and advanced patches from developers who had overflow ideas that they felt were worthy of implementation but not worthy of an entire expansion. At this pace, we may be paying for bug fixes in a few years, especially if content-guaranteed, pseudo-social networks like the one for Call of Duty move the entire post-release game pipeline into a subscription model.
It isn’t just DLC that has changed things though. In addition, we now have had the sudden and immediate rise of cash shops to fund titles that have eschewed paid boxes for ‘free to play try’ models of income. These two elements alone have backboned the mobile app market here in North America, but their reshaping the medium of games hits me more at home in the MMORPG genre.
By their very nature, free to play cash shops generate the most revenue from those who are willing to pay the most. If you are not willing to pay, then assuming the game is balanced correctly enough, you will take the longer, less expensive path toward acquiring what you want (such as gold in Guild Wars 2, avoiding bonus experience boosts in Everquest II, or new heroes in League of Legends). The people who pay far more than they probably should, often referred to as ‘whales’ because of their nature as being very big, prized game, end up baking a far bigger slice of the profit pie than say someone like I do given I only occasionally-sometimes-maybe-might buy a thing or two.
I will admit up front that I don’t think your typical MMO is as guilty of pursuing this practice as your average mobile or Facebook game is (where the entire game is designed to hunt whales and keep their credit card constantly ready for one more charge). Still, this approach to game design is becoming more and more acceptable. We’ve already seen companies like Blizzard sell boxes, expansions, and charge outrageous prices for nonsensical fluff. Everquest II constantly bombards you with reminders that you aren’t a full member yet and that there are things to buy in their cash shop. League of Legends is making a mint by producing bi-weekly rehashes of shallow hero design.
But before you start yelling about personal choice and freedom, remember that that is not the point of this article. The point is that free-to-play, DLC, and microtransactions are changing the definition of a video game. A few years ago, you would’ve never hard to argue about freedom of choice when it comes to simply deciding to invest yourself in a video game. The question was a lot less complex: do you think it’s worth the cost of entry? Games are changing right under our noses and we’ve been more focused on the idea of cash shops allowing players with extra cash to pay for in-game advantages than the idea of changing what it means to own a game. With more and more major publishers moving their MMOs to these systems and more big name games announcing that they will have cash shops and microtransactions on day one, the MMORPG genre is only going to change more.
And that brings me back to my original question. If the core idea of what a game should be, how much it should be worth, and how consumers should acquire it has began to shift so dramatically, then how have or will developers follow? Will games become nothing but episodes where we as the fans and players get nickled and dimed for the tiniest of downloads in an attempt to keep the flow of entertainment constant? Will the idea of sandbox, virtual worlds like that of Ultima Online forever fade away as anyone can jump in and radically effect the economy and landscape because they had a few extra dollars to burn and a broadband connection to download the game?
There are silver linings to be had, for sure. There is also the possibility that I am clinging to a distant past instead of embracing a future of greater potential for games as a medium. Either way, the medium is the message, and games, as the medium, are rapidly producing messages that I can’t decipher. If we don’t ask ourselves questions like “what should a finished game look like?”, “what am I as a fan/consumer/player truly entitled to?”, and “how does spending my dollar in ways beyond the price of the box influence games as a whole?” we might end up with only one question we can ask: Where did our games go?