Are You Stupid, Or Do You Think We Are?

by stavrosthewonderchicken
Features, Games and Gaming

This is the story of three cynical, greedy gaming cashgrabs. It is a story of bad design decisions, terrible PR and expectation management, treating customers with contempt, and ample lashings of just plain stupidity. In it, we learn what not to do, how not to do it, and we lose faith in at least one company that really ought to know better.

Now, look, I know as well as anyone that success in a crowded field isn’t an easy thing. Even if you offer a better gaming mousetrap, there’s no guarantee that the world will beat a path to your door. On the other hand, there’s Minecraft. Success may be X% inspiration and Y% perspiration, but X+Y only adds up to 50%. The other 50% is plain dumb luck. And you should allow 20% wiggle room for beer. And maybe timing. I’d better give up: I’m way over 100 percent now.

I also understand that companies want to make money, need to make money, crave money like wonderchickens crave the aforementioned beer. And I am quite willing to give my money to companies that provide superlative products or service, companies that actually get it, companies that Do The Right Thing, by their customers and their employees and everybody else.

Basically, I’ll give Valve money for anything they do.

But this is the story of a couple of Anti-Valves, parallel universe Valves with gold threads woven into their martial uniforms, all goateed and greasy. And stupid. Did I mention stupid?

They tried Facebook gaming. That phase lasted half-a-day. “The nature of social games is that you look first at the monetization model,” he said. “And then you look at the [game design] idea … We started a Facebook game and decided: ‘This is just going to be so boring.’ It’s basically like we’re trying to steal people’s money.” These days, Wester thinks Facebook games might be “evil” or at least “anti-social.”

Fredrik Wester, Paradox Interactive

Let us begin.

Exhibit 1: Battlefield HeroesEA

Now, I’ll warn you. I’m not even going to try to be evenhanded here.

This game is… terrible. The only good thing I can come up with to say about this thing is that it may have sucked the worst of the barely-post-pubescent pubbie mouthbreather crowd away from TF2. It is a retard honeypot. It is a holding pen for brain-damaged children. If you play it you should feel bad for encouraging EA, and if you had anything to do with developing it, you should repent now and beg forgiveness. It utterly misunderstood what was good about Team Fortress 2, then breathlessly copied the not-very-good bits because clearly things like micro-purchasable rhinestone jockstraps and digital dildos are What Gamers Want. Somehow, in the intensely creative development meetings that apparently consisted of looking at screenshots of TF2 and deciding how little they could get away with changing without getting pelted with rocks and garbage, they somehow left out considerations like good game design or… fun.

OK, wait. I can think of one positive thing, which seems to have flown under the radar somehow: this game strikes a brave and unequivocal blow in support of gay gamers. With so much casual homophobia out there in gamerland, to have not one or two but every single one of your player-characters be flamboyantly gay — well, it was admirably subversive to sneak in such a huge subtextual cultural payload into a game clearly aimed at children and the mentally deficient.

Sure, it’s all very over-the-top and tastelessly cliched gay stereotypes that are parading their long, long guns, oiled pecs and bristling Village People moustaches on-screen, but it’s a step in the right direction, maybe, at least. I don’t know how the designers slipped it by the suits at EA, but there are legions of 11-year-olds out there who have been memetically innoculated against homophobia without even knowing it. Or there would be, if there were that many people playing this thing.

But all that that doesn’t excuse the sheer cupidity of the micropayments system they built into this ‘free to play’ thing.

Said Ars Technica

It seems gamers simply weren’t spending enough money, though, as a recent price restructuring destroys the ability to play without spending real money. The cost of all items in terms of the free VP has been increased substantially, while the cost of items in “BattleFunds,” which you buy with real money, has been decreased. In other words, it’s now impossible to earn or keep decent equipment simply by playing; you’re going to need to get out the checkbook to stay competitive on the servers. The game’s player base is, to put it mildly, enraged.

While you’ll never be stuck without a gun, upgraded weapons and gear give players a huge advantage in practical terms. The new pricing structure ensures that no one will be able to play enough to earn gear in the game.

So EA set the hook, then they reeled in what flopping teenage bi-curious fish they could. A classic and cynical bait-and-switch, and one we will see again shortly. Read on, friends.

Exhibit 2: Battlefield Play4FreeOh hey EA again, isn’t that odd?

One can only assume that EA kept enough of those poor dumb fish on their hooks with Battlefield Village People that they recently decided to throw another line in the water. If anything, though, it’s an even sadder and more obvious cashgrab this time around — they’re not even bothering to pretend at the outset that the game will be playable without ongoing payments.

Because that’s what this is all about: ongoing payments, at any cost. Alienating and disappointing your customers? Well, who gives a damn, as long as they keep paying, right?

Ah, it’s too depressing to stomp this turd any flatter. Go read the Ars Technica article, and I’ll save my stompin’ boots for the one that really disappoints.

Exhibit 3: Quake Liveid software

Those of you who remember other things I’ve written here know what a fan of id software I am used to be, and how big a part their games have played in my gaming life for two decades. I still play Quake 3/RA3 with Mefight Club members every week, and fire up Quake 1 for some single player fun at least a couple of times a month.

I wrote a long rant about Quake Live before, but a recent announcement from the developers has made me turn a corner from annoyance into outright antagonism. Before I explain, let me recap a bit on the shockingly clumsy and user-hostile way this game has lurched along in the last couple of years.

Quake 3, like the id games before it, inspired the gamer community to create a thousand mods and bewildering array of maps. People are still making them, ten years later. Like the games before it, it was engineered to encourage this engagement by fans, and it wasn’t just out of altruism — it was good business. Games from id software would arguably never have become as popular and influential as they were, and id wouldn’t have become the powerhouse it once was, without that grassroots support and engagement. You’d have thought that the dotted line was pretty clear there between ‘community support’ and ‘making money’, but it seems that lesson has been forgotten, or at least ignored. Read this interview with Rage producer Jason Kim for a depressing full frontal blast of utterly meaningless corporate bullshit to see how far they’ve lost their way.

Now take a shot of whiskey, if you have any to hand, to clean that lexical crud out of your brain, and stick with me here.

Quake Live was a brain fart that Carmack had a few years ago: what if we brought back Quake 3 as a software service? What if it were free and paid for with website and in-game advertising? That seems like a pretty cool idea!

And so, with that, an internal group was created at id, and they got to work on it. A long private beta and a year or two of public beta later — an surprisingly long time, given that the game was ten years old and all they were doing was building a web-based backend infrastructure for running it — and hooray! they’d reinvented Steam, but, you know, only for a single game, and a lot clunkier and uglier in the bargain. A lot of investment, clearly, in time and money, though.

Still, given that there was no pressing need for them to do it, other than id’s long-time inability to do anything but recycle its old intellectual property on new Carmack engines, it felt like a boon. A nice gesture to the gamers who made them what they are. Even an old ad-wary curmudgeon like me was willing to endure some ingame billboards for Pepsi and Astroglide and Depends Adult Undergarments to be able to play Quake 3 easily with pals, without having to deal with the hassle of a private server.

But things went sour pretty quickly, and it’s an object lesson on How Not To Do It. It’s a quick primer on bad planning, poorer expectation management, and contempt for your userbase. Granted, a fair chunk of the userbase is illiterate, foulmouthed 14 year olds, but that’s gaming for you. When the average age of gamers is 34, as it is these days, there are also a large number of adults who understand business and the cost of doing it. And who know when they’re being sold shit and told it’s shinola. Here’s how it played out, at least as I recall:

0) “Hey guys, it’s going to be free, and ad-supported, and awesome!”

1) “Sorry, guys, ads just aren’t going to pay!” I don’t know — all I saw on the Quake Live site (because I’d disabled adblock for it, figuring that was the right thing to do to support their efforts) was Google ads for Asian Dating sites, and an annoying interstitial on game launch for Fallout New Vegas. Which has been there, unchanged, for more than a year. And is still there, six months after the game actually launched. None of the surfaces added to maps in-game, presumably to show ads, ever showed a single one, as far as I could tell. I’m calling bullshit on the ‘we can’t do ad-supported’ — they didn’t even try, apparently.

2) “Hey — good news! We’re going to add community maps from back in the day, and even some new ones! Awesome!” Given that the stock maps that shipped with the game 10 years ago are so played out, that was welcome news indeed. I mean, we used to be able to play any of those freely-downloadable maps in practice mod with bots or online on any server that had them, so this is a step backward from the original game, but hell, more maps is always nice.

3) “Hey guys, we’re going to add premium accounts for stuff you don’t really want or need, but free players will still be able to play the whole game.” Well. OK. I understand coders and web dev resources cost money, and some sort of revenue stream is necessary. Saying the game would be completely free, then backtracking? That’s kind of shitty, but: OK.

4) “Hey guys — sorry, but you can’t play with all those ‘new’ maps we’re adding during online play. You’re going to have to cough up regular monthly payments for that. But good news — you can still play them locally against bots.” Well, fuck. That’s seems just greedy, and a clear play to try and get more people paying for this thing that was announced as a free thing — especially when we’ve been used to downloading and playing those very maps for free for the last ten years. My goodwill: it is fading.

5) “Hey, guys — you know those ‘premium’ maps we were making you pay to play online? Yeah, you’re not going to be able to play them locally against bots any more, either. We just thought the download size was a bit too big, so you know…. cough up.” Really? Really? You know what? Fuck you. No seriously, fuck you, not as much for progressively pulling back on the service you provided, the one you said would be free, the one that through bad planning you ended up having to monetize somehow, the one that was basically a more-limited version of a ten-year-old game with a few engine tweaks, the one that we could mod and extend and run servers for, and have been for a decade, but more for having the outright gall to lie about why to your userbase.

It’s not download size, and you damn well know it. For the love of dopefish, a million people downloaded the 10Gb install for Portal 2 from Steam the same month. No, that excuse was a lame evasion and we all know it — not enough people still were signing up to pay a monthly fee for this thing you made, that’s why. Too much fun for people like me to just play against bots on the ‘new maps’. And you’re desperate to push them, and me, into the pay model, and so you keep whittling away at the free offering.

If you’d only been honest, you know, people would have been OK with it. I would have been OK with it. I know you’re not a charity. We’re not children out here playing your games, not all of us, not any more. But with the kind of mealymouthed corporate robots like that producer guy I linked to up there, it’s becoming pretty clear that telling the unvarnished truth and treating your customers like adults, rather than wrapping bad news deep in layers of shiny naugahyde and bullshit, just isn’t something your corporate culture permits any more. Too bad, id.

At this point, I reckon you should make more than a cursory effort with the ad placement, then just flip the switch and make it a free gift to the community, to try to claw back a little goodwill. But I’m pretty sure you won’t. You’re not that kind of company any more.

Bait and motherfucking switch. So tawdry and lame, and so disappointing.

So, what?

Perhaps you catch the scent of Nerd Rage in the air. That would be fair, I suppose. This kind of thing, which I more or less expect from EA, which from most reports, is apparently a Giant Swirly Exploitation And Greed Toilet, I never expected from id. How the mighty have fallen, how the smart have gotten stupid.

I invite you to contrast what Valve — yeah, back to them — have done with three of their biggest games of the past 4 years. Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead 2 (I’ll grant you there was some resentment that the L4D sequel came so quickly, but that arose merely from high expectations people had developed for Valve), and now Portal 2. TF2 continues to receive regular free content updates nearly four years later, and thousands still play it. The in-game store they implemented to offset expenditures on continuing development offers items that do not change game balance, are merely decorative, can for the most part be gotten through random drops or crafting in-game, and (if you’re like me) can be completely ignored without impacting on the gameplay in any way. Hell, they sold a couple of goody virtual hats and noisemakers for a week or two after the Japanese tsunami recently, and donated the $430,000 in proceeds to the relief effort. I mean, come on. Are you idiots at EA and id even paying attention, here? The same store backend has been added to Portal 2, and free downloadable content has been announced for this summer. Left4Dead continues to have new maps and chapters and content added to it, also for free.

Valve delights in delighting its customers, in those old saws: underpromising and overdelivering. It can be argued that Steam is a walled garden of sorts, but it’s about the most permeable walled garden that can be imagined. Valve makes money hand over fist by respecting the people who play its games, treating them like adults, and understanding the concept of a loss leader.

It’s clear that EA does none of those things, and, in these dark days, neither, it seems, does id. I implore you, game lovers — do not play those games. Avoid them. Tell your friends not to play them. Actively mock them.

Do not encourage these cheap hustlers with their bait-and-switch tactics, because the more money game companies make with these cynical, controlling, cashgrab travesties, the more they will be emboldened to try it again.

Give your money to the indies. Give your money to companies like Valve that treat their customers like people, not cattle. It will make gaming better for all of us.


stavros thewonderchicken has written 125 FGEC articles.

Founder and Chief Ornithological Officer of Wonderchicken Industries™. I run LevelsOfDetail, Gamefilter and MefightClub (the mothership), and do not-gaming internet things at and I love you all.

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