The games industry is awash with exploitation, greed, broken promises and false advertising, so why worry about one more corporate takeover?
The video games industry. It’s become relatively well-known for a near-industry-wide attitude of utter contempt towards its own customers. You could even argue that many video gamers are trapped in a nonconsensual findom relationship with video game developers and publishers.
After all, in what other industry is it standard practice to release something utterly fucking broken and charge a much higher price than if a customer waited eight months and bought the product at a discount when it is much more likely to work? Is it that dissimilar from Clips4Sale dommes charging $99 for a two-minute video of them laughing at you? Maybe the games industry should start including them as a launch day bonus. Eh, who am I kidding, that’d be exclusive to the ultra-deluxe edition.
Because you can’t just have a game anymore. Anyone expecting to pay their £50-£80 and get a complete game has not been paying attention. Certain developers are more reasonable than others, but almost every developer is looking to maximise revenues. Most commonly, this comes in the form of DLC (what we old farts used to call expansion packs). DLC, or downloadable content, is a catch-all term for anything added to a game post-release. This can range from cheap and cheerful cosmetic items to extra storyline elements. Done well, there is nothing wrong with DLC. It’s just an optional addition for people who enjoyed the base game.
However, it’s not always done well. Back in 2012, EA published Bioware’s Mass Effect 3, the concluding part of their space opera action trilogy wherein Commander Shepard and his or her allies must rally the galaxy in a defiant last stand against the Lovecraftian-inspired cosmic horrors, the Reapers. Exciting stuff! For the previous two instalments, Bioware had released DLCs and there was no reason to believe they wouldn’t for the third.
Only this time around, there was a launch day DLC. The thing about launch-day DLCs (or day-one DLCs, if you prefer) is that the content is already in the game. It’s just behind a paywall. That’s kind of a dick move. It’s an even bigger dick move when that DLC includes a new companion character who is intricately connected to the game’s narrative which is the case with From the Ashes. Yes, you can argue that you don’t need the character, but you were missing out on a whole heap of backstory, exposition/worldbuilding, and interactions if you didn’t pony up the extra tenner. An extra tenner for content that isn’t being added to the game, it’s just being unlocked.
Pulling shit like this is something that EA just loves. In 2017, as Star Wars: Battlefront 2 was preparing to launch, fans were outraged to learn about all the extra monetisation EA had graciously included. EA has fallen in love with loot boxes, which they consider “surprise mechanics”, but the rest of us consider a form of gambling that conveniently loopholes around age restrictions. Loot boxes are like those football trading cards where each pack is weighted in such a way that you’ll probably never get what you actually want, but you’ll probably get something that encourages you to pick up another pack. Of course, unlike actual trading cards, digital assets don’t tend to appreciate in value and are rarely tradeable.
However, the shitbaggery did not stop there. When we think of Star Wars, what do we think of? Luke Skywalker? Darth Vader? Han Solo? Jar-Jar Binks? Okay, maybe not that last one – at least not fondly. If you’re a Star Wars fan buying a Star Wars game with franchise characters like Darth Vader included in the marketing media, you might be getting excited about the opportunity to play a game as your childhood villain, right? Yes, well EA thought that was worth an additional $80. Don’t want to pay that because you’re a normal person? Okay, EA made allowances for you by introducing an inconsistent in-game reward mechanic called credits that allowed you to spend 40-80 hours of grinding to earn enough to get Vader without parting with any extra cash. How fucking generous!
EA’s post on Reddit defending their behaviour remains the most downvoted comment in Reddit history.
EA isn’t the only company indulging in this nonsense. When Bethesda released Fallout 76 to colossally poor reviews after the double-whammy of the game being both absolutely broken and absolutely shit, they also released the Atomic Shop that allowed you to pay for in-game items, including some items imported directly from the game’s predecessor, Fallout 4. In an almost incredible case of not giving a shit, Bethesda even openly flouted commercial laws by advertising items at a discount as an appeal to FOMO when the items were not actually discounted.
Bethesda also sold a special ‘Power Armor’ edition of Fallout 76 which included a bunch of extra physical items, including a canvas bag and a power armour helmet. The canvas bag was made of nylon, and the helmet posed a health hazard due to mould. When recipients complained about their nylon bags, Bethesda customer service sent out the curt response, “we’re not planning to do anything about it.”
They eventually did make the canvas bag after the threat of a class-action lawsuit.
That’s not to say that the soulless suits behind video game developers only hate their customers. They also hate the people who work for them too. They express this hatred by setting unrealistic expectations, changing the scope of projects, forcing their teams to play the hype game by showing off alpha builds containing features that will never make it into the final release, and inflicting 20-hour days of “crunch” to psychologically destroy their worker drones in the last few weeks before the next broken mess hits the stores.
I suppose you could argue that these working conditions advance the artistic merits of video games as an entertainment medium. Where would we be without realistic horse testicle physics in Red Dead Redemption 2, slightly uncomfortable semi-explicit first-person sex scenes in Cyberpunk 2077, or tearing down several years of work to redo it all in a few months (ala pretty much every Bioware release since 2014)?
And it just wouldn’t be a 21st Century entertainment industry if allegations of racism and sexual abuse weren’t rife, would it?
Many of these issues can be traced to the age-old problem of corporatisation. Just as the TV and film industry has seen merger after merger after merger that’s created all-consuming monoliths like Warner Bros. Discovery, video games have a long history of mergers and acquisitions leading to a relatively small number of companies enjoying a ludicrously large market share.
Much like the difference between an independent film studio and an entertainment titan, while the pursuit of profit is very much the motivating factor behind creation, the reasons for pursuing profit aren’t the same. If we take a game developer like Larian, creator of the critically-acclaimed Divinity: Original Sin series and the forthcoming Baldur’s Gate 3, we see a company that is genuinely invested in making the best product it can. That’s not to say that it doesn’t make mistakes, release buggy titles, and does not always hit the mark with its fans, but Larian knows that a single flopped title is a literal game over.
Ostensibly, Larian makes games to make money to make more games, and with each successful title, they evolve their approach, committing more of their past revenues to the development of their next title. Baldur’s Gate 3, for example, features fully motion-captured cinematic cutscenes for every single conversation in the game’s expected 80-hour(ish) campaign.
This represents a huge leap forward from Divinity: Original Sin 2, which utilised a narrator to describe body language during conversations, and somewhat awkwardly, the game’s sex scenes. Ahem. For a game that even in early access permits the player to approach both major and minor story beats from several directions, in turn opening up entirely new narrative branches, BG3 is a huge undertaking and financial investment for a developer working in the rather niche genre of turn-based RPGs. Nonetheless, it demonstrates a commitment to giving the player the best experience their resources permit while still being able to turn enough of a profit to greenlight their next project.
However, over in the corporate mega blocks, the pursuit of profit is, unsurprisingly, simply the pursuit of profit. EA, Activision, Ubisoft, etc. don’t give two shits about doing anything special for the player and are only ever really driven to do so when a competitor emerges and dares to infringe on their market share. No, they’re not in the fun business, they’re in the business business. They just want your fucking money, and whether they milk it from you like a trashy Reno casino, or charge you £70 for what amounts to an incremental update of the same game they released last year, they’re going to do whatever they can to get it. Other than, you know, actually put in some effort like Larian.
While I can sing Larian’s praises now, I can only really do so while they remain an independent developer. It seems a lifetime ago now, but CD Projekt Red (CDPR), were once the darlings of the video games community because they were seen as the company that championed gamers. Their stated aims included providing gamers with the best possible experiences, to not kowtow to corporate influences, and not treating their customers as glorified beta testers by releasing broken games to patch later.
Having made their name adapting The Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapowski, CDPR embarked on its biggest challenge to date – turning Mike Pondsmith’s tabletop roleplaying game, Cyberpunk, into an open-world RPG, Cyberpunk 2077. For CDPR, Cyberpunk was a huge undertaking and one that required significant outside investment. After all, how else are you going to pay for Keanu Reeves’ voice and likeness?
Perhaps somewhat ironically, in a setting highly critical of corporatism and corporatisation, where the gap between the haves and have-nots is perhaps best epitomised by the recurring phrase “Burn Corpo Shit”, Cyberpunk 2077 suffered heavily from these outside investors pushing for a return on their investment. The game was released in such a broken state that Sony even removed it from the PlayStation 4 digital store and started handing out refunds. However, it wasn’t just the near-unplayable state of the game on last-generation consoles that angered consumers, but the sense that for seven years, CDPR had been lying to them.
There’s always an argument that developers shove a disclaimer on pre-release gameplay videos and trailers that warn that certain features may not be included in the final release. However, so many features were missing from the finalised version of the game that those disclaimers did little to quell the outrage. To many, it felt like CDPR had purposely misled people for seven years over the game’s content and design philosophy, when in reality they probably didn’t, but they did have investors to mollify and the repeated delays had already stretched the patience of their financial backers.
CDPR has spent the past couple of years getting the game into a playable state, fixing the multitude of bugs and glitches, and only recently delivered anything close to the game that was promised. With the forthcoming release of the Phantom Liberty DLC, it suggests a further massive overhaul of the game’s mechanics is on the horizon to further bring it in line with what was originally advertised, almost three years after its release.
For the record, having played the PC version of the game, which didn’t struggle quite as badly due to superior hardware, I quite like Cyberpunk 2077. Yeah, it’s not the game they advertised, but I’m old enough to realise video game hype is just that, hype. It’s a marketing fantasy peddled to sell games, and should never be confused with reality. And I must confess that in these days of ridiculous inflation and energy companies bleeding us dry while their executives enjoy big fat bonuses, slaughtering corporats in Arasaka Tower while wearing a jacket with “Burn Corpo Shit” scrawled on the back has a certain cathartic appeal.
However, as much as I hate the corporatisation of video games, I find myself in a peculiar position of wanting some more of it right now. Microsoft, that company that none of us particularly like, has been on a bit of an acquisition bender lately, having bought out several developers, including the likes of Bethesda. Recently, they’ve made a $55bn offer to buy Activision Blizzard, the name behind titles such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Diablo, Guitar Hero, and others. While the European Union has backed the deal, the UK’s Competition Markets Agency and the US’s Federal Trade Commission have both nixed the deal, at least for now.
The UK’s CMA has cited its opposition to the acquisition as concern that Microsoft could gain a monopoly in the cloud-gaming space. Since they already own Xbox, run the Game Pass games-on-demand subscription service, own a bunch of developers, and have their own cloud gaming infrastructure in Xcloud, the CMA believes that if they purchased Activision Blizzard, they’d be in a near-unassailable position in cloud gaming.
Cloud gaming is still in its relative infancy, but allows players to stream games over the Internet rather than needing to rely on local hardware. This potentially permits people to save significant sums of money, not just on hardware but on their energy bills too. After all, if you use a cloud-gaming service to stream a demanding PC game, such as Cyberpunk 2077, you could theoretically run it on a 40W ultrabook, rather than a 150W gaming laptop, or 750W+ gaming desktop PC and you could do so with all the graphical settings cranked to maximum, which would ordinarily cost you £1,500+ in hardware.
This is how I’ve played Cyberpunk 2077, using Nvidia’s GeForce Now service, and I have to say, it’s fantastic. On my 1Gbps connection, I have the speed and the low latency needed to experience the game in 4K HDR with all the bells and whistles like Ray-Tracing enabled without needing to cough up a grand on an RTX 4080 GPU.
The problem, however, with cloud gaming is that the big publishers are rather greedy, and since they’re not being paid for putting their games on platforms like GeForce Now, they are reluctant to do so. You can find some EA and Ubisoft titles on GFN, but you won’t find any Rockstar titles (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption), and nor will you find any Activision Blizzard titles. In fact, Activision Blizzard are such a bunch of cocks that if you want to buy the digital PC version of Diablo IV, you can’t go to Steam, Epic, GOG, or any of the other major digital storefronts to do it. You have to buy it directly through them and install their client software to launch it.
Microsoft has already signed a 10-year-agreement with Nvidia and other cloud platforms to bring their full library of games to these services, and that agreement includes Activision Blizzard games if the buyout goes through. Of course, that does mean that after ten years, they could just pull them all again, but as it stands, they’d actually be increasing the competition by buying Activision.
I’ve tried Microsoft’s cloud gaming offering and it is absolute trash. Poor picture quality, buffering, jitter, packet loss, latency, etc. All of the things that make a game unplayable. Nvidia’s service is so far ahead of Microsoft’s that while there is no question that Microsoft will benefit greatly from the deal, and Sony, in particular, has the right to be nervous about it, for the consumer it opens up an extra option that doesn’t currently exist because the company Microsoft wants to buy doesn’t give a shit about customer convenience. Moreover, once more of the bigger titles are on cloud gaming services, it becomes harder for the holdouts like Rockstar to justify their position, and it encourages development in the cloud gaming sector which may lead to future services to rival Nvidia’s. Do we really think AMD or Intel wouldn’t want a piece of this eventually?
I’m not saying there are no potential future pitfalls to consider with the Microsoft deal. They could quite easily wait ten years, then go all cunty and pull their titles. They could start locking major titles to Xbox and Windows exclusivity (like they’re doing with Starfield this year). They could start trying to force people to their own digital storefront in order to sell their cloud gaming-approved copies of games. They could do a lot of shitty things.
But you know what? The gaming industry is so fucked anyway that I actually think it’s worth the risk because it’s hard for this industry to get much worse and continue surviving. Every company with any sort of decent market share has turned into a bunch of corporate twats anyway, so if letting one of them get a bit fatter is the price to pay for the end-user actually having another viable option to unwind by netting the winner in a cup final, blasting aliens, romancing elves, or assuming the position in a dusty warehouse in post-apocalyptic Nevada, then I say, fuck it. Let’s do it.
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