Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Pay To Win (But Also Lose)

Following on from my somewhat less-than-favourable thoughts on EA's Katy Perry and Diesel-themed expansion packs for The Sims 3, it's interesting to see what the GTA V Collector's Edition contains, according to Amazon.

Aside from the GTA V-themed snapback cap, money bag, "SteelBook" (a book with a metal cover, presumably) and fancy packaging, the £150 Collector's Edition also contains an abundance of additional in-game content. Just to run through it:

  • Custom characters for GTA Online,
  • Unique vechicles and garage property - a free garage to store vehicles at the start of the game, stocked with a sports bike and 30's-style hot rod,
  • Another unique high-end car for use in GTA Online,
  • A blueprint map of the game's world containing hints for things of interest, such as making fast cash,
  • Boosted special abilities for the characters - each character's special ability will regenerate 25% faster than in "standard" GTA V,
  • Stunt plane trials - additional aerial challenges to complete,
  • In-game store discounts - items throughout the game now cost 20% less than "standard" GTA V,
  • Bonus outfits and tattoos, and finally
  • Additional weapons, available for free within the game.

It seems to me that the above list basically separates into two main categories: extra things to do in the game and things that make the game easier.

While I could argue that the content that fits into the first category (the custom vehicles, bonus outfits etc.) could really just have been included in the standard edition, much like the expansion packs for The Sims, I guess it's a fairly easy way for Rockstar to bit of extra profit with relatively little effort. Having this extra content will probably squeeze a little bit more fun out of the game for those willing to part with the money for the privilege, so I guess in some ways, it's worth it.

It's the second category of extra content that bugs me though - by paying to make the game easier for yourself, it feels to me like you're shooting yourself in the foot somewhat. Games are supposed to be a bit challenging - that's what makes them fun - so by making it that bit easier, you're reducing the core playing experience ("this is a challenge") in exchange for a quick-fix sense of satisfaction ("I won").

When I bought Deus-Ex: Human Revolution a year or so ago, I bought the "Augmented Edition", which contained all the previously released DLC and special edition content in one pack (the Augmented Edition was actually cheaper than buying the standard game by this point). This consisted of a pointless "art book" and some extra in-game weapons, as well as a bonus 10,000 in-game credits and a new device that made it easier to unlock doors in the game. Fortunately, in order to unlock the extra content, you had to enter a special code into the game's menu screen, so I actually just ignored the whole lot and went with the standard version.

For me, paying to make a game easier for yourself is a bit like loading it up and playing with all the cheats enabled on your first go - it's probably still fun, but makes it kind of pointless. I'd rather not be given the extra advantages, the free guns or the map telling me where the fun's at - I'd rather play the game myself, struggle where you're supposed to struggle and enjoy those serendipitous moments as and when I discover them.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

"The Consultants"

Good news time, team! I'm pleased to say that the recent piece I wrote for my good friends at mat.zine - a collaborative architectural zine with lashings of art, poetry and the like - is now available online in their latest edition, Jargon. Best of all, it's completely free!

All contributors were only given the edition's title, Jargon, as a brief and so each response is as markedly different as the backgrounds of the contributors, with poems, essays and short stories clashing together with technical diagrams, photos and artistic works. Despite the differences, the whole thing still fits nicely together and provides a loose narrative on the use of jargon in our lives.

My piece takes the form of a short story about my own experiences with those notorious purveyors of jargon, management consultants. While there's obviously something that sets the consultants in my story apart from those I knew in real life, hopefully there's enough of a twinkle of reality in there to raise a wry smile on the face of anyone who's been in the same boat.

Mat.zine issue #13 'Jargon' is available for free via the following link and my contribution can be found on page 16 of the PDF (or page 30 if you print it out). I highly recommend giving the whole thing a read:

ps. Along with the Jargon edition, mat.zine also ran a debate discussing the use of jargon, for better and worse, in the communication of architectural design to the public. You can listen to a complete audio recording of the debate here, while feasting your eyes on a selection of photos from the event. While this is obviously a lot more directly architecturally focused, I still found the whole thing pretty interesting, although I'll confess to not knowing what either "praxis" or "liminal" meant beforehand.

pps. It's probably also worth mentioning that I also wrote a piece for mat.zine #11, 'Resilience', which can be found here, if you want to give that a read too.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Gaming: Continuing To Scrape The Barrel

In a world where ad-funded mobile gaming, purchasable downloadable content and the fact that people seem perfectly happy to pump millions of pounds into Candy Crush in exchange for extra lives compete for the last pennies in gamer's wallets, perhaps it was naïve of me to think that we'd hit the bottom. However, a rare trip into an actual physical shop that still sells PC games introduced me to a range of expansion packs for EA's The Sims 3 that actually managed to horrify me.

Expansion packs are nothing new to gaming and their quality often walks a debatable line between legitimately worthwhile extra content for a favourite game, or more likely, a combination of things that should have been included first time round and a ragbag selection of bonus features and in-game items. It's not unusual for new games to be released one month, along with some "limited edition" downloadable content for an additional cost, only to be followed up six months later with an add-on pack or two. In most instances, after the initial sales have started to die down the whole lot is then repackaged into a single "Game of the Year" edition and re-sold at premium prices.

In it ability to sell additional content, The Sims stands head and shoulders above its fellows. In the game, the player must control the day-to-day life of their avatar, or sim, and steer them to success or failure in their career, society and love life, while buying them products and furnishing their homes with an array of furniture. While it doesn't float my particular boat, the formula is incredibly successful, with The Sims 3 selling over 10 million copies worldwide, making it one of the most successful of all time. Even after the first game in the series, it didn't take EA long to work out that they could continue to profit for the game's success by creating a steady stream of purchasable expansion packs adding new sim models, career options, clothes, furniture or new ways and places for the sims it interact. To date, nineteen add-on packs have been released for The Sims 3 alone, with a twentieth scheduled for later this year.

It was three of those expansion packs that I chanced upon earlier. The first two, Showtime - Katy Perry Collector's Edition and Katy Perry's Sweet Treats are bad enough:

It's not that the idea of a computer game involving Katy Perry in itself is a bad thing - there are plenty of games that have involved musicians in the past, ranging from the various Moonwalker games (all pretty good) to the slightly less appealing KISS: Psycho Circus - The Nightmare Child - but that after reading through the actual content of the expansion packs themselves, there seems to be very little content actually involving Katy Perry. While Showtime does at least involve some musical content, such as a karaoke bar and stage-based career paths, Sweet Treats only lists Katy Perry-inspired items, like a cupcake-shaped guitar. As far as I could see, apart from the fact that Sweet Treats contains a "simlish" version of Perry's Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), it looks like they've just slapped a (somewhat bizzare looking) picture of Katy Perry on the box to bump up the sales.

If you think I'm being overly cynical with the Katy Perry expansions - after all they are clearly aimed at kids and I suppose if it make them happy, then what the hell - it was the last expansion pack that really horrified me, the Diesel Stuff Pack:

In this pack, you're adding a range of Diesel-themed clothing and furniture items "showcasing the trends that are all the rage this season", which to me sounds like a translation for slapping the Diesel brand name all over your in-game world - for successful virtual living, perhaps. While I confess to be criticising without having actually played it, if you have any doubts, just read the product description on Amazon.

What annoys me about this, is that adding the Diesel brand name into the game, while presumably a profitable act for both EA and Diesel, is that you're adding very little to the actual game itself. Fine, releasing more items may improve the game for players and it's up to them if they want to pay for it, but is living in a Diesel monoculture actually any more fun? In buying this expansion pack, you're essentially paying to advertise Diesel to yourself. We've long seen product placement in other media and know how little value it adds - do the lingering shots of James Bond's Omega watch improve Casino Royale? Is it important which fast food retailer Tony Stark visited for his "American cheeseburger"? Will we really benefit from knowing Lara Croft wears a Wonderbra or that in Gears of War, real heroes drink Budweiser? I doubt it, but if we keep buying it, they're going to keep making it.

On a related note, a friend of mine used to work for Microsoft and told me that the day they introduced a purchasable Darth Vader mask for your X-Box Live avatar, they made about £10million in 24 hours.

I guess I'll look forward to Pokémon Apple and Pokémon Android, then.