On Premium Content Subscriptions – Corporate Greed, or the Path to Open Source Gaming?

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Hello, my name is BOSS jediZOHAN and I want to thank MP1st for bringing me on as a contributor.  Without their support, you’d probably never see this.  More importantly though, you wouldn’t have this great website giving you all the latest info on everything MP.  That said, I’d also like to extend a HUGE thanks to you.  Without your support, MP1st wouldn’t be possible.

Below you will find both a video and an article written and produced by me.  If reading isn’t your cup of tea, the video will highlight the bullet points of the article.  For  a deeper look at my opinion of Premium Content Subscriptions, read through the article.  However you end up at the bottom of this page, I look forward to reading what you have to say in the comments.

Enjoy!

When Activision first announced COD ELITE Premium, the gaming community collectively uttered a frightened, girlish shriek and ran off to hide in a cave.  The impending doom that was ELITE Premium sent a predictably divisive shockwave through the COD community.  Some saw it as a money-grabbing scam and instantly denounced it as the devil’s work.  While others saw the DLC discount and added exclusive content (clan ops, video content, titles/emblems, etc.) as an acknowledgment on Activision’s part that their DLC costs too much and offered too little.

As time went on and a myriad of problems regarding the ELITE services popped up, people started wondering if their $49.99 was worth the risk of paying for content nobody had seen or played yet.  Eventually, ELITE Premium started living up to the hype floating around its initial announcement.  The ELITE website stabilized.  Clan Ops started happening.  Exclusive emblems/titles were released, etc.  But the experience left a sour taste in a lot of subscribers mouths.

ELITE has shown us a lot about Activision’s plans for the future of COD.  On one hand, Activision is obviously listening to our complaints about paying more than we feel we should for DLC.  ELITE Premium offers a roughly $10 discount over the total price of buying all the DLC for MW3 indvidually, and even throws in some exclusive content and services.  But on the other hand, Activision seems poised to make COD a pay-to-play game.  Imagine having to pay Activision twice just to play COD online, once for the game, then again for the online services.  As gamers that have a special appreciation for multiplayer gaming, I think we can all agree how much pay-to-play MP sucks.  EA did it with BF3’s online pass, much to the dismay of gamers.  But I think something bigger is going on here.

Steam, the “iTunes” of PC gaming, rocked the industry by giving developers a massive platform to release their games on at a reasonable price without the mountain of restrictions they typically faced with traditional publishers (Activision, EA, Rockstar, etc.).  Now, EA has Origin, Activision has ELITE, and just about every gaming platform and company has an “Indie/Arcade” game marketplace with games made by small developers being sold at rock-bottom prices.  Premium subscription services are the big publisher’s way of cutting out the middle man (Xbox Live/PSN) from the DLC content system.  Now, instead of XBL or the PSN facilitating your DLC purchases, you go to the publisher’s website, pay upfront in full for yet-to-be-released content, and buy it without Microsoft or Sony getting a cut of total sales, or the exposure their marketplaces get every time you make a purchase through them (which is where they sell games at an even higher percentage of profit than DLC).  Decreased exposure means decreased profit.

Gone is the worry on the publisher’s mind that not everyone is going to buy all of the DLC they release for a game.  Gone is the percentage of sales profit that would normally disappear in Microsoft or Sony’s pockets.  But most importantly, gone is the competition inspired by an industry of exclusivity agreements, pay-as-you-go DLC, and competitor content pricing feuds.  Basically, if premium subscription packages become the only way to get DLC content, not only could pay-to-play be just around the corner, but publishers could start charging whatever they feel like for the services they offer, like multiplayer matchmaking and monthly DLC releases.  I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I don’t want to have to pay $49.99 to get the $15 of DLC that I want for a game.  But that’s exactly what’s going to happen if publishers manage to squeeze XBL and the PSN out of the DLC hustle.

Something like Steam is going to happen to gaming as a whole and EA is already competing with Steam via its Origin service.  The people behind Steam, Valve (a game developer), created the service as way to become both a developer and publisher.  It gave them the flexibilty to make the games they wanted to make and sell them at a greater profit than the traditional market allowed.  But Steam is “cool” because not only does its library include a plethora of games not made by Valve, most of the games on Steam end up at bargain bin pricing months before they do anywhere else, if they aren’t free to begin with.  On top of that, they have annual sales with HUGE price reductions on many major titles.

Steam has shown the big publishers how successful and profitable removing the middle man (XBL, PSN, Gamestop, etc)  between their content and customers can be.  Though Steam and Half Life made games like Counter Strike (a user-developed mod of HL that was eventually taken over by Valve) possible, based on Activision’s long-standing practice of quantity over quality and running franchises into the ground because of it (Guitar Hero), I can’t say I’m comfortable with Activision being their own distribution system.  Origin is proof of how awry things can go when publishers start their own distribution systems.

However, services like Steam give people like Robert Bowling, the previous creative strategist at Infinity Ward, a say in how much their games cost and how they’re made. If Activision wants to sell an IW game on the “ELITE Network,” they’ll have to agree with the terms IW sets, meaning the price, how and when it’s distributed, exclusivity, and a bunch of other things.   Considering his new company Robotoki’s interest in the OUYA, I’d say people like him deserve a say.  Hate him though you might, Bowling had some good ideas for the future of DLC.  Ideas that, ironically, Activision has implemented, like Terminal for MW3 being free to all players.  The problem is that publishers make so much money they can afford to buy the developers up, which is what happened to Infinity Ward.  Activision doesn’t need to negotiate anything with IW, which means IW does what Activsion tells them to, which means IW games get the quantity over quality treatment (MW3).

Free content doesn’t happen if the people making all the money get to choose whether or not they want to do things that cost them money without charging for it.  Services like Steam basically give companies like EA and Activision free reign to do as they please, assuming of course people are willing to pay for it.  If people like Bowling have no say in the business of pricing or subscription services, which they won’t if the publishers get their way, and we as consumers pony up the dough for services that aren’t worth their cost, the chances of gamers getting something without paying top dollar for it drop to nearly nothing.  That’s a scary thought when you think about games like Mass Effect 3 having all its multiplayer DLC releases being available for free.  What about the Indie/Arcade games on XBL?  Would DayZ be possible if Bohemia Interactive made it so you had to pay for it while it was still an extremely rough, buggy, and frequently hacked alpha?  If the publishers become the creation and distribution systems, games like Minecraft won’t even make it off the drawing board.

The list of woes and worries could go on forever, but there is a silver lining.  If publishers become the new marketplace, maybe internal developer VS developer (think Treyarch and Infinity Ward) competition will drive premium subscription models that include low-cost games and free mods that add substantial amounts of new and innovative content.  Maybe the Steam or EA Console will be even more likely to happen if the competition from Sony and Microsoft tapers off.  Without the revenue from the game marketplace and DLC purchases, XBL, the PSN, consoles, and their development is basically a money hole for Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.  Considering it looks like the publishers are pushing for that to happen, it seems likely that it will.  And don’t forget the OUYA, which could provide the framework for the future of free-to-play console gaming.

So, what are your thoughts?  Are you worried that the greedy guys in suits at EA and Activision are going to bully you out of every last penny just so you can play your favorite games online.  Or are you glad to see the publishers getting the control they need to make things like a Steam console possible, even if it will only play a single publisher’s library?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments as I’m sure you have something worth talking about to say.

Thank you for reading.

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