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Gambling is Gambling

There have been a lot of posts about loot boxes lately, here and elsewhere. In fact, even the ESRB have weighed in on the subject, determining that:

ESRB does not consider loot boxes to be gambling. While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.

This is the sort of absurd logic that allows Pachinko parlors to exist in Japan despite more traditional gambling being illegal. “It’s not real gambling because you’re buying and winning steel balls… and trading them for prizes… which you then sell for real cash at a sketchy booth literally 5 feet from the parlor doors. But no slot machines!”

Maybe all the casinos in the US should start giving out commemorative business cards or wooden nickles to people who lose, so that they can avoid gambling regulations. You wanted X, and spent real money to get it, but got Y instead. #TotallyNotGambling

Look, we can have the semantic argument if you want. But you know it, I know it, the devs know it, scientists know it: loot boxes are gambling.

“The player is basically working for reward by making a series of responses, but the rewards are delivered unpredictably,” Dr. Luke Clark, director at the Center for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia, told PC Gamer recently. “We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards. Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis.”

Psychologists call this “variable rate reinforcement.” Essentially, the brain kicks into high gear when you’re opening a loot box or pulling the lever on a slot machine or opening a Christmas present because the outcome is uncertain. This is exciting and, for many people, addictive.

“What about Magic and Pokemon cards then!?”

Also gambling. In my replies on the subject up to this point, I played the role of TCG Apologist a bit. You know, all “these games feature pack opening as a central conceit, which is completely different than in Star Wars Battlefront 2, in which the system is just bolted on as a cynical revenue stream.” But… honestly? The gameplay of paper Magic exists completely independently of how you acquire the cards. If everyone who played had every card available by default, the only real things that would change would be the game being more fair (e.g. less P2W) and WotC making less money.

Keen replied in the comments of his own post:

I think what most people are conveniently ignoring is that with loot boxes and card booster packs you are trading one form of base value for another form of base value.

I put in $5, I get back a guaranteed set of cards that I must be willing to accept as worth $5, otherwise the exchange would never have happened.

Even Bhagpuss stated:

Lockboxes contain precisely the value you pay for them: if you buy $5 worth of lockboxes you have, de facto, agreed that there’s $5 value in them – you just proved that by paying $5, after all.

Please excuse my tone, but that is some Econ 101 perfectly rational economic actor bullshit. And a complete tautology besides. Like, how do you conceptualize a reality in which that is true, and yet the concept of Buyer’s Remorse exists? People make dumb economic decisions all the time. Are the people buying $2 lottery tickets doing so because they expect at least $2 of value in return? If they are, and they’re buying them when the jackpot is less than $500 million, they are irrational. The expected value of a $2 Powerball ticket is -$1.38. Similarly, the expected value of any given paper Magic booster pack will quickly (if not instantly) fall into the negatives, considering that the alternative means anyone can make free money by just opening the packs.

We can try and put a value on the “hope” and “dreams” of getting X instead of Y, but the bottom line is always the same: by virtue of paying real cash money, you had a chance at getting X and instead got Y. That’s gambling whether its a Charizard, a Black Lotus, or Boba Fett’s Rank IV Death from Above star card.

Is it legally gambling right now? No. Does the ESRB consider it gambling? No. But we all know what’s happening here, and the psychological mechanisms involved. Rational people do not buy loot boxes – the entire target market is for irrational people. And its profoundly sad, in a sort of “did we seriously give little kids candy cigarettes for Halloween?” way.

What do I want to see happen? Simple: a spade gets called a spade. Games that feature gambling as a revenue stream get labeled AO by the ESRB,  and the exact odds of any loot box are posted on a company’s website. If that also means people have to show ID to pick up Magic boosters, then okay. The less odious things would still survive, e.g. TCGs most likely, and the more odious loot box offenders would shift on to their next novel revenue stream. Hopefully one that does not specifically and (arguably) maliciously target people who can’t help themselves.

Do you guys remember when video game designers only got paid more when they made their game worth purchasing by more people? You know, that golden age of gaming in which producer and consumer interests aligned? Those were good days. I’d like to get back there at some point, without all the Consumer Surplus erosion.

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The Big F2P Correction

Big props to Eph for bringing my attention to a recent Gamasutra article entitled “How the Data Implosion will trigger the Great Game Dev Correction.” In it, the author put his “100% predictive accuracy” record on the line to portend the coming (Date: TBA) collapse of the F2P market.

If you want the short version of the 3100-word article, here it is: erosion of Consumer Surplus.

Really though, the author points to two primary trends that have entangled with one another in a negative feedback loop. The principle one is that the User Acquisition Cost, e.g. how much money spent on advertising/etc, continues to increase. One of the main drivers of that is the simple fact that there are thousands of competing titles on the market, with more arriving all the time. While we like to imagine that more options are better, the truth is that nobody really goes past the first two pages of Google results, much less browsing all 21,000 new games that came out in the last month. By “mathematical certainty,” costs go up trying to find new customers, revenue goes down as a result, and studios close their doors.

…but not before engaging in some Consumer Surplus shenanigans.

See, the second part of the feedback loop is how most F2P game companies are engaging in their data-driven quest to extract the maximum amount of Consumer Surplus from each user. Think lockboxes and timers and “special, one-time deals” that are psychologically honed to trick you into believing them to be worthwhile purchases. The very real problem though is that consumers have finite money. Shocking, I know. Since all of these F2P titles are trying to extract the same pool of dollars, all that happens is that each individual app only receives a smaller share of them.

And even worse than that is what we as gamers come to understand intuitively: these games just have less value as a result. In every sense of the term. Studios are spending more time and development dollars on ever more novel ways of tricking you to part with your cash, than they are with creating content worth purchasing in the first place. But even when those two points intersect, we’re left with little to no Consumer Surplus. At a certain point, you are better off watching Netflix than having to spend precisely the amount of money as enjoyment received from a game.

Now, the author is predicting a Correction at some point, with the Creative forces – as opposed to Big Data – rising up from the ashes of a devastated (F2P) game market and commanding a higher salary since we all suddenly realize we want better content again. I’m… not so sure.

For one thing, the F2P genie is out of the Cash Shop bottle. There is zero reason to believe that the surviving games of a post-Correction world will leave that extracted Consumer Surplus money on the table. Secondly, the game industry itself has proven rather resistant to the notion that content creators should be paid practically anything. Undoubtedly part of that is due to the fact that everyone wants to be a (armchair) game designer and thus there is no market pressure to improve working conditions/pay. Hell, I wanted that job so much that I spent two years of college studying programming and Japanese so I could try to break into the industry back in the early 2000s.

Finally, there’s Minecraft. You know, that little indie game that was sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion three years ago? While an excellent case study in why Creatives are better than Big Data, the fact remains that this “simple” game won the lottery in a way that will inspire decades of copycats and dreamers, just as WoW convinced everyone that MMOs were the next big thing. The MMO fever has mostly died down, but that’s because it costs $60 million a pop to roll the dice. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of people creating apps in their basements for free, let alone the corporate code monkeys churning out thousands of Flappy Bird derivatives. The cost of each attempt is so low, and the payout is potentially so high, that there is no reason to believe investors wouldn’t keep some pocket change flowing into basically purchasing Powerball tickets each week.

So, while I do agree there will be a Correction of some sort in the game industry, it’s ultimately not going to fix the flooding of garbage games. What I expect to see is a return to Curation: a sifting through the river of shit for those few nuggets of value. People will find the voices that they trust, and those voices will end up picking the winners and the losers. At least, up until the Curators become corrupted by studios throwing money at them, and the great cycle repeats.

Surplus Deficit

Last week, Keen blogged about a tweet that should be filed under “Things that make you go Hmm… not really”:

In a world of $5 lattes a game with 50 hours of content is worth $1,000. Instead, many won’t touch a game until some stupid Steam Sale. (source)

Wilhelm has already penned an exceptionally good take-down of the latte vs game comparison. What struck a cord in me the most, though, was this follow-up tweet:

The unwillingness to pay what a game is actually worth is why we have on disc DLC, F2P, micros for single player games, season passes, etc. (source)

This, my friends, is the embodiment of everything I warned about six years ago.

surplus1

We as consumers have been beaten down so often and for so long that the argument almost makes sense. It seems “fair” that someone gets paid a proportional amount for the benefit received. But the funny thing is that reasoning only ever seems to go in one direction. Price exceeds the amount it costs to create? Capitalism, working as intended. Benefit exceeds the price? Suddenly there’s a whole lot of hand-wringing and articles about Millennials killing functionally useless industries.

Fight for your own Consumer Surplus! The difference between how much you paid for something and the amount of enjoyment it provided is yours. That’s your profit, not the game company’s. These corporations will try to erode your consumer surplus with ever more novel monetization schemes, and other people might try to guilt you into “supporting the devs” or admonish your “unwillingness” to throw your hard-earned money in a hole for literally no reason. But the fact remains that it’s the game company‘s responsibility to effectively manage their own resources, to figure out what payment models they should utilize, etc. Not yours. Their business is not your responsibility.

Don’t settle for the precise intersection between Supply and Demand. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for getting a deal. If you want to donate extra money to random devs in some idealistic hope they generate future value, go for it. But understand this: the only person looking out for you, is you.

Skill Punishment

I continue to play Clash Royale on my work breaks, and often inbetween games while at home. On the ladder, the start of the Challenger 1 tier is at 4000 trophies, and I fluctuate between that and about 4200. The next tier up requires 4300, but the end-of-season rewards aren’t that much better, especially for the nonsense that one has to put up with on the ladder. Specifically, players with less skill but higher-level cards they got either from grinding one specific deck, or using cash.

Usually the latter, honestly.

The problem – or, rather, Supercell’s money-making feature – is that new cards come out about once a month. Sometimes the card is OP, sometimes it’s junk, sometimes it just makes the gameplay more interesting. Trouble is, my skill level is such that I am actively punished for changing my deck.

This high in the ladder, anything less than a level 11 common or level 9 rare card is mostly garbage, with only a few exceptions. New cards come out at level 1, and require you to both collect the necessary amount of cards (which is not a given) and the necessary amount of gold to upgrade the cards. Going from a level 1 to level 11 common costs 35,625g; rares cost about the same, 35,600g, to get to level 9. The cost of upgrades is exponential, with the “hump” between level 10-11 common and level 8-9 rare being 20,000g by itself.

It is not inconceivable to accumulate the 20k gold by normal gameplay within the month, but 35k gold is really pushing it. Nevermind how all the gold is being funneled into upgrading a new card, rather than the cards in the actual deck grinding the gold. The next level tier above 11/9 costs 50,000g, for example, and might be enough to start winning you games that you should have lost. Or you could play with the new cards and probably be rolled.

The latest preview shows that there are 5 new cards to be released, including one Legendary card. Seeing this on my screen after grueling matches between either equally skilled opponents or P2W whales is demoralizing beyond belief. These new cards could be something cool, something to revitalize my flagging interest in the game. But I can’t afford to keep up.

This is absolutely a Red Queen scenario too, because while you might not be upgrading, everyone else is, and that makes your own cards weaker over time. For example, one of my favorite cards is the Furnace, as it spawns little Fire Spirits every 10 seconds; people typically don’t know how to deal with it, and often end up wasting Elixir trying to play around it. Trouble is, if your opponent has a higher level Princess Tower (e.g. one of the towers you need to destroy to win) than your Furnace, the Fire Spirits get one-shot for free versus forcing your opponent to respond or take gradual damage. For this reason, I poured a lot of resources into getting the Furnace to level 9 ASAP. Nowadays, half of my opponents are level 12, which means my Furnace is practically useless. Over time, this is just going to get worse, as more and more people continue leveling up.

Supercell has ways out of this death spiral, although I’m not entirely sure it’s enough. The various tournaments you can play in cap the levels of cards such that everything can be relatively balanced. More recently, they re-introduced the 2v2 mode and allowed you to play it while earning treasure chests and Crowns. The 2v2 mode actually uses your potentially over-leveled cards, but the introduction of a partner and the general chaos of the fights obfuscates the level disparity at worst, and sometimes negates it entirely at best. For the past week, I have opted to fight zero regular ladder games because 2v2 is immensely less frustrating to lose. And even when you do lose, you don’t actually go down in ranks.

That being said, the situation still feels pretty grim. Supercell recently changed the matching algorithms such that you can’t really sandbag your ranking anymore; even if you intentionally drop 500+ ranks, you end up facing other skilled players who have sandbagged themselves too, potentially trapping yourself at lower levels. And while the 2v2 mode is technically here, it also has an apparent time limit. Nevermind the fact that if the 2v2 mode actually sticks around and “resolves” my issue, that means Supercell forgoes the thumbscrew that is the ladder system.

The ideal gamer response seems to be… being mediocre at the game. That way, upgrading cards doesn’t take tens of thousands of gold, and thus you have more free gold to more easily try out newer cards as they are released. Plus, you know, you are less likely to be as invested in continuing to play the game, thus less tempted to throw down cash to stay competitive.

Eroding and monetizing every inch of Consumer Surplus has always been the end-goal for these companies, but more and more I am understanding exactly how malicious it ends up feeling.

On Mods

As you may as heard, Valve’s grand experiment with paid Skyrim mods debuted and shut down in three business days. At one point the untouchable darlings reddit, both Gabe and Skyrim itself has taken a huge beating in the eyes of the horde; Skyrim went from a 98% positive feedback rating on Steam down to 86%. Gabe confirmed that the number of emails his staff received will cost them literally $1 million to comb through.¹

From my seat up in the peanut gallery, the entire issue of paid mods seemed to be a solution in search of a problem. Was there some crisis in the modding community preventing mods from being developed? Were popular mods being abandoned? What, exactly, was the issue with the status quo?

To be clear, I’m not against people getting paid for their work, in the same way I’m not against, say, religious liberty. At the same time, I don’t think the concept in of itself justifies every means of expressing it. The modding scene was already a healthy ecosystem built upon passion, collaboration, and natural curation. SynCaine points out there are some mods out there more elaborate and fun than the game they’re built upon. Just imagine how many more, better mods would be generated if said people were paid for their work?

Well… err, maybe eventually.

The Skyrim paid mod section was not active for long, but the future cesspit of theft and profiteering was clear to see. Who looked at Steam Greenlight or Early Access and thought, hey, let’s introduce that to the modding community? Under a paid mod paradigm, you literally can’t give your mod away for free, because someone else can and will turn around and try to sell it for cash.

During Gabe’s AMA on reddit, the creator of the Nexus website point-blank asked what Valve was planning on doing in terms of, you know, not single-handedly monopolizing the modding market. Gabe had no real answer. Which is a problem considering paid Steam mods would give even ambivalent modders every economic incentive to pull their mods from Nexus and any other site to exclusively use Steam Workshop. I mean, what, is Nexus and all the other sites supposed to suddenly create their own mod marketplaces?

With the paid mods plan on ice (for the moment), there has been some further crying about how “freeloaders” and “trolls” have won the day. Out of the entire fiasco, that sentiment bothers me the most. Erecting pay-walls around hitherto free content is an erosion of Consumer Surplus, full stop; it doesn’t matter whether modders “should” have been getting paid this entire time. Splintering the modding community into factions with negative incentive to cooperate is an erosion of Consumer Surplus. Maybe we get really well-done, professional mods out of the paid system eventually. But considering you are paying extra for that value, the Consumer Surplus gains may be a wash. In which case you are no better off than before, minus a thriving modding community.

Nevermind about all the bizarre arguments surrounding mods like DotA and Counter-Strike. Would those mods have achieved their meteoric status had they been priced “fairly” at the start? I don’t think anyone believes that that would be the case.

Do modders deserve to be paid for their work? Probably. Do I deserve to be paid for writing posts for the last four years? Feel free to Paypal me as much money you want. But as a consumer/reader, you are under no obligation, moral or ethical, to pay for something someone is giving away for free. And as a consumer/reader, you have every right to complain when your net Consumer Surplus is being reduced in any way. “Freeloaders” and “entitlement” are specious non-arguments, and especially absurd given how we’ll all talking about people who already bought a videogame.

If you want to pay modders, there is nothing stopping you. As in, right now. Go for it. I’m sure their contact information is listed somewhere on the mod page. Just don’t pretend this change was anything less than a fundamental redesign of the entire concept of modding. Or that this particular implementation was at all going to work, logistically or conceptually. In fact, I doubt that it ever does, even when Valve comes back to “iterate” the process later on. And by “work,” I mean generate more value in the aggregate for gamers and (free) modders alike.

¹ As opposed to Support tickets, which no human ever reads.

Humble Bundle: Best Thing, or Worst for Indie?

Current Humble Bundle up is the Humble Indie Bundle 12, featuring:

  • SteamWorld Dig
  • Hammerwatch
  • Gunpoint
  • [BTA] Papers, Please
  • [BTA] LUFTRAUSERS
  • [BTA] Gone Home
  • [BTA] ???
  • [$10+] Prison Architect

Prison Architect by itself is a $29.99 Early Release game that has only ever hit $9.99 before… in Humble Bundle’s own store, in fact. So for the price of that one game, you get at least four other titles that have made some waves (i.e. Gaming Journalism™) in the indie scene: Gunpoint, Papers Please, LUFTRAUSERS, and Gone Home. Granted, most of these were topical back in 2013, but still, those four games were on my watch list (and I even bought two of them last year) without even considering Prison Architect.

As some Reddit commenters point out though, it is precisely bundles like this one that cement the “bundle or bust” mentality that surrounds indie games. I mean, let’s face it, I probably shouldn’t be buying any more games anyway, but it’s to the point these days that I don’t even bother checking Steam sales for most of these titles. If I hadn’t bought Gunpoint and Papers, Please last year, I could have gotten even more consumer surplus for that sweaty Hamilton. Which makes me think “maybe I should remove Transistor, Spelunky, Banished, Child of Light, and Ironclad Tactics from my Steam wishlist and wait for a bundle sale.”

Is that good for, well, anybody? I’ll save some dollars at the expense of being topical and relevant, perhaps. I suppose the creators of SteamWorld Dig and Hammerwatch get a win in the form of a “sale” that they would likely have never made otherwise. Who knows, maybe I’ll find those games super fun and end up eagerly awaiting their next release? Of course, by “eagerly awaiting” I likely mean eagerly waiting for the next bundle.

Instant 90s, cont.

In a rather topical turn of events, Blizzard has confirmed both that the level-90 boost will be $60 for real, and that it’s priced that way for your own good.

“In terms of the pricing, honestly a big part of that is not wanting to devalue the accomplishment of leveling,” Hazzikostas said.

“If our goal here was to sell as many boosts as possible, we could halve the price or more than that – make it $10 or something. And then hardly anyone would ever level a character again.

“But leveling is something that takes dozens if not over 100 hours in many cases and people have put serious time and effort into that, and we don’t want to diminish that.”

He added: “I am not an economist, I’m not the one setting the dollar value myself, but it’s not the profit maximizing price. That was not our aim here.”

You know, because anything less than $60 devalues your leveling accomplishments from years ago. Aside from everyone getting a free 90 with the expansion. And aside from those free level 80s via the Scroll of Resurrection (RIP). And aside from getting triple XP for putting a character on /follow for $12.50. And aside from the people cajoling their friends for power-leveling AoE dungeon runs while wearing full heirlooms. And, of course, aside from the inevitable XP reduction that comes with each expansion.

What’s extra interesting to me now though (and with Wilhelm too), is what Blizzard is going to do when the price of the expansion inevitably drops. I ended up buying Mists of Pandaria for $20 over Christmas a few years ago. Will the $60 character boost go down in tandem with the box price? Or will their stomach for the “unwieldy” buy-extra-expansion-copies suddenly steel up?

_______________

My post yesterday came across to Tobold as an admonition of in-game purchases or whatever. While I do not expect people to maintain a full inventory of my opinions, I do hope that I am occasionally afforded the benefit of a doubt. Just so we’re clear though, here are my thoughts.

Way back in July 2011, I posted The Problem with F2P and Microtransactions. Over the years (!), I have come to concede the point that microtransactions are not going away. However, I have and will always continue to fight to slow the steady erosion of consumer surplus whenever I can. To me, there is no inconsistency with being okay with DLC in general, but not being okay with on-disc or Day 1 DLC. Similarly, there is good F2P and bad F2P, the latter of which can be summarized in Green Armadillo’s “To Vote Against Monetizing Nuisance” post. I’ve spent real dollars on PlanetSide 2 and Hearthstone, but would never spend anything on Dungeon Keeper or Candy Crush Saga, even though I have nothing against playing those latter games.

In fact, I talked about games like Dungeon Keeper just about two weeks ago. Their business models suck and they are emblematic of the wrong way to take game design, but if you treat their nuisance as an extra layer of challenge, you can re-extract the consumer surplus you inevitably lost somewhere else. Plus, paying in time management games is an extremely bad trade of value. Getting extra imps or builders or whatever usually results in maybe an extra minute or two of gameplay if you’re lucky – you will be able to take a few extra actions but will otherwise still be required to put the game down for an arbitrary period of time. Compare that with Don’t Starve or Terraria or whatever full-fledged indie game you could have bought with those same dollars.

In any case, circling back to Blizzard, I hope it’s clear that I’m not against all in-game purchases. I’ve used both the Scroll of Resurrection and dual-boxed a RAF account in the past (that’s the origin of my Priest named Freexp). My opposition to the $60 instant-90 is precisely the dollar amount, on top of the bullshit PR logic used to justify it. I have always had a problem with the $25 character transfer service too, which really came to a head when they dropped the price for a week. These services are priced so absurdly compared to what other pieces of entertainment you could be buying because, quote, it’s to discourage their use. Yeah, okay. Tell that to the thousands of people left duped and abandoned on no-pop “Recommended” servers that Blizzard left to rot for 6+ years. To those people, it was “pay $25 on top of the subscription to continue playing the game.”

Xbox One11!one1!

The Xbox One reveal reminded me, forcibly, that Microsoft is the company behind the console. I mean, obviously, right? But between Windows 7 and Bill Gates building better condoms, I temporarily forgot about Games for Windows Live, Windows 8, and all the markedly cynical shit the Redmond company pulls as it endeavors to further erode all consumer surplus and out-EA EA.

Remember the always-online brouhaha? Well, the new Xbox doesn’t require an always-online internet connection. Except when you play a game for the first time. Or if the game company feels like pulling a Maxis and “off-loading computations to the cloud.” And just kidding, your Xbox needs an internet connection to phone home once every 24 hours or it presumably bricks itself until you do.

So how often does it check your connection? “Depends on the experience,” Harrison said.

“For single-player games that don’t require connectivity to Xbox Live, you should be able to play those without interruption should your Internet connection go down. Blu-ray movies and other downloaded entertainment should be accessible when your Internet connection may be interrupted. But the device is fundamentally designed to be expanded and extended by the Internet as many devices are today.”

Oh, how nice of them that your Blu-ray movies “should” be accessible when your internet connection is interrupted.

In return for all of these restrictions, you get to opportunity to… pay full MSRP for all your games! There are no used games for Xbox One, there are simply game disks which will prompt you to pay a “fee” of the full price of the game to play it. Remember when we thought EA eliminating the Online Pass was a gesture of contrition and good will? Surprise! It was cynical bullshit because Microsoft is handling the Online Passes now and adding them to 100% of all future Xbox games.

A lot of the Xbox Apologists have pointed at Steam in making their arguments that things are not so bad. In fact, there is talk that you may be able to sell your used games game licenses to other people on the Xbox Marketplace, in a sort of virtual GameStop setup. Okay… details? If it is true, and assuming you can set your own price, and assuming there isn’t exorbitant fees, then great! We just had to give up renting games, letting your friend borrow your games, and in the case of Steam comparisons, getting 50% discounts on brand new games released just three months ago.

I am not an Xbox customer; I neither bought any of the prior consoles nor plan to purchase this new one. But this sort of shit will affect every one of us. We already see DLC for our PC games delayed because of “Xbox exclusives.” Ports of future Microsoft games could be pulled from Steam just like EA pulled theirs, ostensively so we can have the privilege of paying more money for no conceivable consumer gain. What we see today is what we can expect more of tomorrow – not just from companies like Microsoft, but from everyone who thinks they can get away with it.

And that sucks.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Good Things

A few hours after Saturday’s post, I decided: “Yep, that PS3 bundle is the way to go.” Part of the ordering process is choosing the bonus game, which I did. “Part of this bundle is out of stock.” Alright, maybe everyone is picking LittleBigPlanet 2? I tried another game, and got the same error. Finally, I refreshed the page and saw this:

God… dammit.

Given the fact that I would have been getting five games, all of which I had a passing interest in, along with the 250gb console itself for $219, I started kicking myself for not jumping all over this thing. Why didn’t I order as soon as I saw it on Friday?

Bah. Let me check some other places to see if they offer similar price ranges…

raaaaaaaagggggggeeeee

You goddamn sons of bitches.

In the heat of my rage, I did end up laughing a bit over the fact that I was partly mad that I hadn’t thought to do this exact thing myself. These assholes aren’t even including the bonus game, which means they basically got paid $65 to take a free videogame.

But, seriously, this sort of shit is why we cannot have good things. Capitalism and free markets working as intended, sure, whatever. But can you sit there and tell me that this sort of arbitrage is anything more than nihilistic? There is zero difference in “markets” between Walmart.com and eBay, especially when the latter is being sold by a small-time retailer. I am fine with arbitrage conceptually because while the profit is essentially risk-free, it can be argued that value is actually being generated by the arbitrageurs by virtue of them moving product between markets. For example, I am fine with some local store basically buying shit online and selling it in their store at a markup, because hey, maybe I don’t want to wait for it to get mailed. Or maybe I’m not internet savvy. And so on¹.

These guys though? Fuck those guys. Stores are posting deals to encourage more shoppers to show up, and what they get instead are opportunistic leeches extracting other peoples’ consumer surplus while adding nothing. These are concert ticket scalpers buying thousands of tickets, artificially creating the scarcity they prey upon to the detriment of all parties.

And what really sucks for me personally? I am not going to be able to look at any sort of lesser PS3 deal without a jaundiced eye. Future deals will be contrasted with a $219 possibility and likely be found wanting. Just like with the Steam Autumn Sale going on right now, if I somehow miss a 75% deal during its window, I am not ever buying that game until it is back on a similar discount. It may not be entirely logical, but it is the way things work for me.

Moral of the story: Jump on these sort of deals immediately. Worst case scenario: eBay.

[Fake Edit] As I pulled into the Best Buy parking lot on Sunday to pick up my $180 32″ TV and $20 MoP expansion (uh oh), I noticed there was a Walmart right next door. Went in to get some groceries, walked out with the $199 (!) aforementioned Infamous/Uncharted PS3 bundle (cheaper because no bonus game). My “normal” Walmart didn’t have any, but this one had at least four. I was sorely tempted to go “I’ll take all of them,” but internet bravado rarely transfers into real life. Plus, I was already feeling worried I was going to get ‘jacked on my way to the car by carrying around a 32″ TV and PS3, let alone several.

¹ It did occur to me that I did a lot of this sort of thing in MMO AHs, i.e. “flipping.” However, I would argue that I was still providing a service insofar that the original seller was desiring a quick liquidation and nothing else. Or maybe it is the same thing in the abstract. Then again, the person who ends up buying my flipped good never knows how much I bought it for, which is the source of a lot of my ire right now.

Kingdoms of Amalur, Used Game Sales

As you may or may not be aware, there was a minor kerfuffle surrounding Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The gist is that Amalur is an EA-published single-player RPG with an Online Pass that unlocks Day 1 DLC, which is like a triple-word score on the Scrabble board of controversy. The thread on the forums ballooned to 48 pages of indignation, Curt Schilling (CEO and some baseball guy) responded in an eminently reasonable manner, and now the thread is about three times as big.

The irony in all of this is that this particular incident is not that big a deal. However, it touches on so many things that ARE a big deal, that it becomes something that should be a big deal. Specifically, the demonization of used game sales, which has came up before in an unfortunate Penny Arcade post back in August 2010. Later on in the Amalur thread, Curt Schilling laid out the issue:

Herein is the dilema no one wants to talk about right? We CANNOT in ANY WAY cater to people that buy used games exclusively right? We see ZERO revenue. Now as a consumer you may care nothing about that, and that is absolutely your right and we respect that.

However we are a business, we have 400 people, every single one of them is awesome, but I just can’t get them to work for free, so we need to make money to pay them, to make more awesome games.

Now the issue is the straddler, there are people like me, never ever bought a used game in my life, or pirated one, and never will, and people that ONLY buy used because they don’t have the means to buy new or whatever, but they have their reasons, agree with them or not it’s not relevent.

The straddler does both, he buys new and used, he turns in used to buy new, and that new game could be ours right? How do we handle that? How does the industry handle that? Industry? That’s the huge challenge.

I want to talk to the executives out at EA and other game companies for a moment. Are you guys listening? Get ready to write this down:

Fuck you.

A used game sale is a guaranteed new game sale at a lower price point.

Don’t you see? These people are ready and willing to give you money, and YOU ARE NOT LETTING THEM. No one is buying used games because used is better; used games are universally worse, with possibly scratched disks, missing manuals, missing cases, and so on.¹ No one is buying used games to specifically deny money to the developers; otherwise they would simply pirate it. People buy used games because they are otherwise being priced out of the market (which includes people who don’t feel a game is worth full MSRP).

I understand it’s EA or whoever’s right to set their merchandize at whatever price point they like. I have doubts that $59.99 is the precise intersection of Demand and Supply, but whatever. My point here is that used game sales is literal demand that is being filled by other people expressly because you refuse to accept any less than an arbitrary amount. The idea of Online Passes is to get something back from the secondary market, right? Instead of selling $10 Online Passes, how about, I dunno, dropping the price of the game by $10?

Maybe the Online Pass thing makes them more money. If a game is resold ten times, that is potentially $100, right? But if that game was resold for $40 ten times, that means EA could have sold TEN NEW COPIES AT $40. Gamestop could sell used copies at $35, sure, and maybe no game company one wants to get into such a race to the bottom. But at that point, I would hope that EA and friends would get on the right side of incentives instead of the wrong.

Because here’s the thing: this is all about the continual erosion of Consumer Surplus. When you buy a brand new game for $59.99, the ability for you to sell that game to Gamestop for $20 when you are done with it is Consumer Surplus. It is value, whether you explicitly exercise it or not. We can imagine a world where used games somehow don’t exist in any form.² In such a world, you have LOST $20 worth of value and have likely received NOTHING in return – probably LESS than nothing, if the mechanism that prevented used games inconveniences legitimate customers the same way DRM harms actual customers. This is the reason DLC (especially Day 1 DLC) is troubling, the reason Cash Shops are troubling, the reason being forced to go online and register offline, single-player RPGs is troubling: all of these things are signs of Consumer Surplus extraction.

Remember back, say, 20 years ago? When a game company only received greater profit by ensuring they put out quality products? Those days are long gone. It is no longer about generating more sales, but from extracting more dollars from the sales that ARE made. Whoever came up with the phrase “value-added services” is a goddamn Doublespeak genius. Instead of simply getting those extra costume options, we pay for them. Instead of getting free map packs, we pay for them. Instead of being able to earn Sparkleponies and Disco Lions, we pay for them. This incentivizes game designers to have us pay more for less, instead of pay less for more.

The Kingdoms of Amalur controversy is not that big a deal in the scheme of things. Indeed, when you put it in the context of pre-order bonuses and Collector’s Edition items, it’s hard to see 38 Studios “giving away” DLC as particularly nefarious. Lesser evil is still evil though, and I can’t help but wonder whether in a different age those seven quests would have been included in the game, or in a free patch later on. Or as a poster in the Amalur thread said:

Is it just me or does that PR statement just admit that they develope DLC at the same one as the game, or in non moron speak, the game you’re paying 60 bucks for is having parts removed so you could buy then later.

AHow incredibly fucking nice of them to give Us the entire game up front, oh wait, they just admired to holding that back.. What else did they pull out? What other content did they strip from the title to bilk us for later?

Looks like $20-30 GOTY edition it is.why would I pay full price when I can’t trust or believe I’ll actually get the full….Fucking…. Game?

¹ Remember when games came with cloth maps and game posters? I still have the two game posters that came packaged in the FF6 box. Those sure as hell didn’t show up with your used game copy.

² Just look at Steam: no used game sales. Of course, you should also look at Steam because they are on the right side of consumer incentives. In return for DRM and no resale of games, we get hassle-free DRM, truly ludicrous sales (consumer surplus!), automatic game updates, amazingly fast downloads, integrated community, and the ability to manage a library of titles without worrying about CDs or CD keys. Compare that to the typical ham-fisted Ubisoft or EA implementation of DRM.