You Bought That Game, But You Don’t Own It

Back in 2006, I posted some long comments at Deus Ex Machinatio, an excellent blog that focuses on the development of Alternate Reality Games. Though my posts are a couple of years old, I thought it might still be worth adapting one or two of them here for Elf Needs Food…

When it comes to satisfying both casual and hardcore gamers, team sports games get it right. And they’ve gotten it right since the glory days of the Sega Genesis. With most sports titles, you can flip on the game and choose to start up a quick match from the main menu. The only additional setup necessary is picking the teams — where you can make the matchup as fair or lopsided as you like. For someone like me, who only plays such games occasionally, this all is perfect game design. From startup to completion, I can enjoy a satisfying experience in a matter of minutes.

Serious players, on the other hand, can spend real-time weeks or months simulating entire seasons, micromanaging almost every aspect of gameplay. They can switch team members, alter coaching strategies, design plays, create players, and change game options between (or even during) games. In each season, the individual games are like episodes, which eventually lead up to the big finale, the championship.

Because experiences may vary greatly from player-to-player, team-to-team, game-to-game, and season-to-season, sports games can have storylines as complex and open-ended as any other genre. Or they can just provide a simple diversion for a few minutes in the middle of a busy day. It just depends how you prefer to use them. Designers for other game genres should look to sports games to see what can be applied across the spectrum.

This brings me to the biggest issue I have with the current state of videogame development: ownership. Game companies need to start letting customers own the games they buy.

By this, I mean players should not only have the right to play a game “correctly.” They should be allowed to do just about whatever they want within the context of the game world.

If they want to be invincible, have super speed, or even fight the final boss right away, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so? Players who enjoy only the battle system in an RPG are often allowed to skip the cutscenes, so why aren’t the players who care only about the story allowed to skip the battles?

For a real world case, I submit The Warriors, the game based on the 1979 movie.

I wanted to play the game to experience the events in the movie. Problem is, that section is at the end of the game. I can enjoy the Rockstar GTA-type of game in small doses, but I rarely feel like playing them enough to make it all the way through. However, I would still have felt that I’d gotten my money’s worth even if I could just play the sequences pulled from the movie.

I couldn’t.

The opportunity to play the movie is the main sales hook of The Warriors. Yet, despite being willing to pay $50 for the game, I wasn’t allowed to skip to that section. Without a cheat device or someone else’s PS2 save card, I’ll probably never see it. I’ve found I don’t care much about the storyline that Rockstar wrote to lead up to the movie’s events, so I haven’t advanced very far.

When creating a series of games based on another movie franchise, The Lord of the Rings, Electronic Arts fell into the same trap as Rockstar. A good chunk of LotR completists — including non-gamers — were interested in EA’s games for the movie interviews and other video features added onto the game discs. But access to the full collection of these videos was restricted to that minority of players who were good enough and dedicated enough to complete the games.

As a result, many fans of the movies paid money for something that is, in large part, worthless to them. Other fans avoided buying the games altogether, knowing they had neither the time nor the skills to see the content they really wanted. By making the special features accessible to all purchasers, EA could have expanded their audience for the game.

EA, Rockstar, and other companies often offer their most valuable content to reward good gameplay, when they should consider using this content to reward the customer’s decision to spend money on their game. For most serious players, winning the game is the best reward for good gameplay. It can be good to offer these dedicated players some other rewards, too. But don’t hide some of your best selling points and most entertaining gameplay options from a huge contingent of your potential audience — the ones who will likely never play every aspect of your game through to completion.

The current design practice of withholding ownership is illogical from a customer’s standpoint, but the industry has yet to figure that out. Their take is this: if you want to see the cool shit, you have to earn that right.

I already earned it. I paid for the game.

The industry’s practices may have made sense 20 years ago, during the arcade game’s heyday, when companies wanted players to keep pumping coins into machines to continue their progress. But when the company’s already got my money, there’s no excuse not to give me full control over the experience.

Imposing restrictions on the customer would be unacceptable in tabletop gaming, traditional media, or software design. If I start a game of Monopoly and want to begin with my piece on Boardwalk, it’s possible. Anytime I want, I can break open the Trivial Pursuit box and read the cards. When I buy a DVD, I’m not forced to watch the movie before I can check out the special features. If I want to try making tables in Microsoft Word before even learning how to change font sizes, nobody will stop me. Most of the time, I’ll use these things in the standard way. But if I don’t want to, I have that option.

Look, I’ll always play most of the games I buy as they were designed to be played. But if I don’t want to obey the rules of the occasional game — so long as it’s single-player and offline — I’ll be the only one who stands to gain or lose anything from cheating.

If developers start to offer more game ownership to us customers, I promise I won’t run to the GameFAQs forums and lie about winning games in record time. The hardcore gamers can still feel superior for having beaten the game properly. Others will just be glad they got to do and see what they wanted. And the game companies will have increased their chances of selling future games to both of types of players.

I hope the first development team to successfully execute this new pattern in a major title makes a killing. And I hope that success helps establish a new trend in game design.

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21 thoughts on “You Bought That Game, But You Don’t Own It

  1. Guild Wars makes an attempt at this by letting you choose to play through the roleplaying part of the game against the environment (storyline, etc) or start with a max level character that can jump right into the other half of the game, Player versus Player. Overall it doesn’t work perfectly, but I do believe it is a step in the right direction.

  2. I have to disagree with this sentiment. Yes, I am a hardcore gamer, but please don’t jump to the conclusion that this is the reason why I advocate against what you propose.

    For a single player game, one that is exclusively single player in every conceivable context of the word, then by all means, have your “I’m Awesome” mode. Infinite lives, skip through story/battles, whatever you want. Just don’t get the same perks that I do. If there’s an achievement on Xbox Live to say “You beat level 1,” beat the stage legitimately to get that gamerscore. The whole point of a gamerscore system is to establish some sort of comparison with other gamers, and for the system to work, it needs to have an objective comparison. Users can’t be assigning gamerpoints to themselves left and right.

    Beyond that, I must say that in any multiplayer game, someone’s insistence on having fun in their own way may very well be a detriment and an infringement on my fun. Hear me out before you get all angry at that comment.

    Games don’t only offer progression so you can see everything that a developer put effort into. Many times they help to ease a user through a learning curve. Whether that curve is sharp enough to require a tutorial stage, or easy enough that as you pick up new items, they explain their use…that’s irrelevant. The point is, by allowing someone to throw themselves into the last stage with all the possible acoutrements, the game is breeding players that has no idea what they’re doing and will have no incentive to learn. Then, when they take it online, and people who have spent the time to learn the game properly are playing by the rules that a standard multiplayer match binds you by are playing with the original “cheaters” (for lack of a better term), the people in the latter group become increasingly frustrated.

    That may have been a bit wordy for some, so to sum it up: It’s the Learn2Play issue you find on so many MMOs. A lack of skill should only get you so far. You should very well be disallowed content for not knowing how to play, and if you’re not, then you shouldn’t be able to go online with your game.

    The problem lies in the fact that you’re comparing video games to board games. To someone who’s been gaming for 20+ years (I’m not yet 24, that should give you an idea of how big gaming is in my life), video games are an entirely different medium. They’re certainly not at an official competitive sports level, but they’re not on a board game level either, they’re somewhere in between. Sure, anyone should be allowed to play the game. But not everyone is going to get into college on a basketball scholarship, and not everyone is going to get to the last stage in Halo 3 on Legendary. It’s a fact of life. Buying a spot in a local baseball league is not going to mean you’re able to play in the majors. You can have your fun to the extent that it doesn’t detract from other people’s fun, and if you look at your expenditure as an investment to encourage you to practice, you’ll be much better off than viewing it as an entitlement and being let down.

    I don’t know why or when it started coming up that we equate an exchange of money to entitlement of things that are not explicitly stated, but it has to stop. I’ve seen the argument come up many times in forums for games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero too… “It said ____ song was in the game, and I started it up, and it’s not there, WAH WAH I QUIT I’M RETURNING THE GAME.” If you would actually play the game, you’d find out it was there, in a more difficult tier, and not accessible immediately because the game wants to make sure that you’ll be at a level to actually enjoy the song when it comes up.

    It’s getting to be a very long-winded rant. Not my intention, but oh well.

  3. @above: I don’t think you really needed to say that video games have been a big part of your life. It’s pretty obvious.

  4. Does ‘owning the game’ including cracking it, duplicating it, modding it and reselling?

    Thought the games industry frowned on that kind of thing…but hey..I bought it…why can’t I duplicate it?

  5. As a former game tester for a 2KSports subsidiary I have certain understanding about what you were saying about customizing franchises or just doing a quick game. I was always a quick game or even just a mini game in the skybox kind of guy (the Wii is perfect for me). But they guys that tested the franchise part of the game making sure percentages were just right were either a little too into their fantasy league, really sucking up to become a PA to move up the ladder, or being punished. I was glad to be put on the Standards team.
    I did find it weird how we charged extra for the ability to edit the replays in the game. It was always one more feature that was totally just tacked on , but hey more money in the bank.
    I hope the wii titles find the balance you are talking about in a way that doesn’t make it look too much like wanting to be garage band.

  6. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. Though I still hold the basic sentiment in this post — the text of which was written a couple years back — I could have made my case more persuasively to those who disagree. Either way, I think it’s an issue worth discussing.

    I hadn’t heard about Guild Wars allowing you to customize a character’s abilities from the get-go, Daniel.

    Thanks for the interesting info about QA at2KSports, Paul. If you don’t already, maybe you should blog about your time there.

    And I thought your “long-winded rant” was anything but, Shoombabi. It made sense to me, and I appreciated you taking the time to write it. I doubt most other hardcore gamers would agree with this article, either.

  7. Shoombabi:
    I think you are much too concerned with your e-peen. The fact of the matter remains that not everyone is a hardcore gamer that insists we all drop trou and compare. Some of us casual gamers may even still play games for fun rather than to browbeat peers whose score isn’t as high as ours.

    In fact, no, I do not believe playing in Awesome-mode should allow people to acquire your precious, precious accomplishments and I do not believe anyone is suggesting such a thing. Perhaps, as has been the case in an older generation of games, when one uses a code, their score is replaced by the word, “Cheater!” and the knowledge that, if they want to score points, they have to be legit about it.

    Your argument for the learning curve is rubbish. Perhaps all games should force players through a tedious, unskippable tutorial. Perhaps Halo 3 should force the player to beat the game on the easy and normal difficulties before they are allowed to actually challenge themselves. If someone jumps too far into a game and gets squashed—having to humbly return to the earlier levels and practice—what’s that to you?

    Again, while this is all to do with single player games (or multiplayer given 100% consensus during that instance), the original post is absolutely spot-on. Designers have indeed become arrogant in insisting we play their visions precisely as they intended rather than, gasp, simply have fun. Perhaps I will beat a game in half the time it would have otherwise taken but—guess what?—that means I’m going to go buy another game early and thus support the industry better.

  8. Thanks for the well-argued response, Jeffrey. I think your last point is especially interesting:

    “Perhaps I will beat a game in half the time it would have otherwise taken but—guess what?—that means I’m going to go buy another game early and thus support the industry better.”

    That’s a great financial incentive (the only kind of incentive in business) for someone in the industry to consider giving this idea a trial run.

  9. Another thing regarding gaming from the hardcore perspective:
    I´ve been an active gamer for about 20 years now (home computer, pc console). Earlier on, some games were frustratingly hard, but then again it was a different crowd playing those games. Those who grew up in this way though paved the way for an industry which now caters less and less to their needs and gives in to the casual gamer, i.e. where the money is.
    The adventure genre? almost gone. Flight sims with instruction books the size of a Noah Gordon novel? gone. Jump´n´runs with extreme levels of difficulty bordering on unfairness? almost dead.
    There are exceptions, games with a steep learning curve that still can be enjoyed by a lot if they get over the first hurdle. Wipeout comes to mind, also the japanese are still producing excellent SHMUPs. The roleplay genre though suffered, Bethesda is currently the only company producing games which give you a truly “free” feeling when playing, the same as Elite II Frontier and its successor did for space sims (X and Privateer were again too restricted, both in terms of the size of the universe, as well as hidden plots to find).
    I would propose a compromise though, and that comes from me having played WoW for three years. The problem with many online games, especcially MMORPGs, is that in order to gain any level of respect/success/fame you are dependent on the actions of other players. The choice of your server/race/profession/skill tree can directly affect how fast you progress inside this virtual world and therefore also affects how much of its content you will see.
    This can be partly neutralised by spending a lot more time inside the game to farm for resources, but in the end if you just don´t instintively react in a given situation like some people expect you are labeled as non-effective and on some servers this can spell instant doom for any future career plans in big guilds. And big guilds are a necessary evil to see the high end content in games like this.
    Ofcourse, there are other players who are perfectly content with not playing “by the rules”, they merely use the game as a slight distraction and as some kind of colorful ICQ to chat with their friends.
    My proposal would be what Blizzard p.ex. is already partially doing, much to the annoyance of those “I´m l33t”-guilds: Open up content after it has been available for a while to everyone and lower its difficulty. That way, you can always still boast that you were first to conquer a dungeon, maybe the people who beat it on hard can even get a special title for it. But those guys who only game then and now will still be able to see what the graphicians, musicians and other artists came up with and be amazed by their surroundings. And I bet, they will talk with much more respect of what they see, partially because they didn´t grind an instance to death.

    Apply this to other games. Let the impatient pay for extras, give them away for free (or cheaper) later on.

  10. Great points on MMOs, Jack. This is so true:

    “The problem with many online games, especially MMORPGs, is that in order to gain any level of respect/success/fame you are dependent on the actions of other players.”

    That and the grinding are what have ultimately led to me quitting most of those games.

  11. I don’t agree. Players need a sense of accomplishment to elicit value from a game. If you permit them to press the I win button without effort, they will do so, and follow up by indicating your game sucks because it is too easy/lame/unsatisfying.

    For this reason, it is crucial to have items players can put effort into unlocking.

    It is extremely difficult to balance a game to providce easy access to all the content while still providing a sense of accomplishment. Sense of accomplishment is the key differentiator between a movie and a video game, so I dont think it is optional.

  12. You’re right that a sense of accomplishment is necessary for a satisfying game experience, Demo. The challenge for game designers is to take into account that what generates a sense of accomplishment is different for each player.

    I primarily play console adventure games and RPGs, and I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that I would consider too easy — although I’m willing to admit that what I find challenging in games might be simple for other players.

    However, I have played a couple of games where some puzzle or task has been impossible for me to complete, and because I didn’t have the option to skip it, I had to abandon the game entirely. Okami is the most recent example (I wrote about it for Elf Needs Food in February). More than halfway through the game, I got stuck on a stupid fishing mini-game and quit playing.

    My goal was to finish the game. I didn’t care about perfecting my virtual fishing skills, I just wanted to see the end of the story. And I wasn’t able to do that, despite the fact that I was good at every other aspect of the game.

    If Clover Studios had simply installed a feature that would’ve allowed me to skip the mini-game after failing at it a couple of times, it would’ve made for an entirely different experience.

    I’m a woman in my 30s — part of the fastest growing demographic of video game buyers. If companies have any hope of drawing women my age away from online games like Diner Dash, they need to make us feel like we’re getting our money’s worth when we buy console games. Why would I pay $60 for a console game that I might never be able to finish when I could buy Jewel Quest for $20 and get a least a few weeks of enjoyment out of it? As much as hardcore gamers hate to hear stuff like that, it’s part of the business.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make both hardcore and casual gamers happy, if only game designers (or the executives who pay them) would broaden their perspective.

  13. Amen. I f*cking hate unlockable content, such as unlockable guns in FPSs and unlockable cars in racing games. I do not want to have to spend 100 hours grinding through content I’m not interested in in order to get to the stuff that I am interested in. As long as the content is for single-player, I want access to it whenever I damn well choose.

  14. My proposal would be this: challenge the industry to release two versions of a game. One locked, one unlocked. All the people complaining they need/want a challenge can buy the locked version. The rest of us can buy the other. I guarantee within a short time, unlocked versions would hugely outsell locked versions. The alternative is to include an “Unlocked” Gameplay option. It’s a simple concept, just offer us these choices on startup: Unlocked Easy, Unlocked Hard, Locked Easy, Locked Hard. I’m pretty sure GoWs had three or four difficulty levels already, so just add an unlocked one.

    All you “hardcore” purists out there can still remain superior to us mere mortals by wasting 25 hours of your life gaming to unlock a pirate costume, while the rest of us will just get it from the beginning.

    And b/c I’m an evil capitalist, I’ll post this idea for economic incentive: the developers could add a $5 to $10 price increase to the unlocked version. Just think, you sell 5 million copies of a game that way, you just made an additional $25 to $50 million.

  15. “Players need a sense of accomplishment to elicit value from a game. ” — can i just say, “whoa!” Your enjoyment of a purchase differs from mine, obviously, and what I value in my purchase differs from yours. My case in point is the various Harry Potter console games: all I want to do is EXPLORE the fantasy world, I want to immerse myself in the atmosphere and walk around the scenes I imagined from reading the book. I do NOT want to struggle with riding a broom. I don’t want to “beat” the game at all, I just want to access the virtual environment. If the publishers would issue a version of the game that was just 3-D avatar exploration, I would buy that over anything that forces a “sense of accomplishment” on me — I get enough of that at the office. Let me vote with my dollars, but let it be a fair election.

  16. edit to my post above, I DO want to ride the broom, flying around the Hogwarts’ grounds is thrilling; what i meant to say was that i hated the difficulty level of the Quidditch matches and other sorts of challenges that stand in my way. And pps, I’m a female in my late 40’s, if that makes a difference, so maybe it’s my slow reaction time or aversion to stress that makes me hand the controller over to my kid to bypass levels for me.

  17. That’s a perfect example, Catherwood. If I bought a Harry Potter game, I would just want free rein to do whatever I wanted at Hogwarts. And I think such an experience would be a huge seller with the books’ core audience. What fan wouldn’t love to take a virtual vacation to that world?

  18. I think that the difference in definition between a game and a toy is that the game has the chance for winning and losing. If there is no opportunity to lose or if there is nothing to win, then it is not technically a game. Defining the role of the win loss condition is the onus of the game designer.

    Since the mechanics of a toy and a game can be so similar, there are means for toy players to derive enjoyment out of games, this is a happy coincidence.

    Call it a sandbox, toy or Second Life. This is not to criticize these types of things. They are certainly needed and enjoyed.

    However the correct targets for this article (and that of the general consensus in the comments) is that software developers are not making enough software toys, and that they are too focused on making games.

    For example, I would LOVE if Rock Band had a Toy mode, wherein the player cannot be eliminated, and may strike any drum or key. My son whom is 4 could then play Rock Band with me, instead of being frustrated that he cannot really participate in the spectacle.

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