I was browsing Kotaku the other day, and came across an article/review of a mobile game called Wayward Souls. Truthfully, I only read it because the byline mentioned Secret of Mana, which is relevant to my interests; it is, incidentally, probably my second-most played game of all time right behind A Link to the Past. Did you realize that SoM came out in the US 20 years ago this past October? Two decades.
Anyway, Wayward Souls is whatever – doesn’t seem to capture much of SoM’s magic beyond the pixel and music style based on the video alone. What was interesting to me though, was when they mentioned in the video that they’re going with the MineCraftian business model, e.g. selling it for $5 at first, and increasing the cost as time goes by. To me, this raises a number of interesting questions. First… is there a term for this payment model? I use MineCraft as perhaps the most well-known example, but surely it was tried beforehand.
Second, does it feel bad to anyone else?
I mean, I understand the logic behind it. Traditionally, game companies are going to want to charge full MSRP at release to capture the dollars of whom we now term “whales,” e.g. the people who would have paid $100 for the game, if they had charged that much. As time goes by, the price comes down via sales and whatnot to capture the players who would have bought it for less than MSRP. The MineCraft model seems like it should never work, but actually makes a lot of sense when you realize that the traditional model relies on a well-informed and excited playerbase for your game – in an ocean of crappy mobile games, you’re not going to have the whales spending money out of the game. This alternative model lets you build buzz somewhat organically, and then try and capture the big spenders as you ride the wave home. Plus, it sort of short-circuits the “wait until the Humble Bundle sale” strategy insofar as it will supposedly be more expensive the longer you wait (which ironically sorta is how Humble Bundles work).
Like I mentioned though, the MineCraft model doesn’t particularly work for me. It grates, like a piano out of tune. But I can’t fully articulate why though, especially when you consider nearly all games do this via cheaper preorders. Damn near everything is 20% off on GreenManGaming before it comes out. Sometimes a game will drop in price within the first three months (and sometimes faster these days, if they miss the forecasts), but it’s usually quite some time before it drops below the preorder price. So… what’s the difference, really? I can’t even claim that it’s because of psychological manipulation, because that’s pretty much behind all sales strategy. It just feels… bad, somehow. And causes me to mentally dig my heels in and wait for the Humble Bundle because screw you for defying the natural order of things. Or something.
I am a big fan of digital games. In fact, I am having a difficult time remembering the last actually physical game I have purchased. The Greatest Hits version of Final Fantasy XII (still shrink-wrapped)? Or… yeah, probably Fallout 3 for PC – unless Wrath of the Lich King counts, anyway. As you can imagine, I skipped this entire console cycle and plan to continue holding out until I at least see if the Xbox 720 and PS4 are going to be backwards compatible.
At first, my purchasing habits were driven more by pragmatism than anything else. With the exclusion of a ridiculous find of Fallout 1 & 2 bundled for $15 and Planescape: Torment bundled similarly at a Media Play (anyone remember those?), computer games had always seemed stuck in the realm of permanent MSRP or mislabeled bargain bin treasure. Meanwhile, the local used game dealership offered a nice selection of $25 titles that you could eventually turn around sell back for $10 or so. Between the cheaper games and the likelihood of four-player split-screen shenanigans, there really was no contest.
Then… Steam happened. And cable internet. And WoW too.
Over time, I realized I no longer felt the need to “own” my games anymore. Keeping track of all the cartridges and discs started being a chore, and god help you if you misplaced the registration code for a PC game that you still actually had the disc(s) for. If legally all we are buying is a license instead of an actual good, then why could I not play Diablo 2 for a three-month period when I couldn’t find the case? Between that nonsense and how frequently I found myself downloading no-CD cracks for games I bought, it was really just a matter of time until I started eschewing gaming packaging altogether if I could help it.
What brought all this up to me again is that I am moving to a new apartment this week. While rummaging around in long-forgotten closets, I came across my NES and SNES collections; the wave of nostalgia nearly rendered me unconscious. While I did act on the daydream of plugging the consoles back up in college one time, these pieces of electronics haven’t otherwise seen the light of day for almost a decade. Was I really going to pack them up and move them to a closet in the new place? Would my theoretical future child have the slightest bit of interest in daddy’s ancient consoles in 2020’s era of (mobile) games? Hell, would these things still even work?
Holding onto the Chrono Trigger and Super Metroid and Secret of Mana cartridges impacted me more than I thought it would, even as I was cataloging their condition to sell to a website. It is pretty well understood how ownership of a physical good can influence your perception of its value, so that should not have been a surprise to me. However, I could not help but think: in a post-ownership world, is anyone going to feel this way again?
Maybe our kids still will. After all, I never held onto a Mass Effect disc, but still choked up a bit after uninstalling. A digital version isn’t the same as holding onto a piece of plastic that has been in your life for 20 years, but… well, it will likely be easier to play again than any of my N64 games which are permanently MIA.
P.S. The website I am using is DKOldies.com, whose prices seem pretty reasonable. If you know of a better place, by all means let me know – I simply don’t have the interest in playing the eBay game when I could ship everything to a single location