The expense of video games has always had a tenuous relationship with what the consumer is purchasing. Sixty dollars is no small amount of money and it’s not unreasonable for a gamer to expect quite a bit of bang for their buck. A game needs to have a great solo experience, fun multi-player, generate a lot of playtime, and appeal to a wide audience to garner much critical acclaim these days. Hell, it had better jump through hoops and entertain the whole family for that kind of cost. Yet some games are definitely worth that kind of money. The sixty dollars you pay for Call of Duty 4 is going to be repaid tenfold when you go online and get absorbed into the matches. Like buying a set of golf clubs or a croquet set, you know this is a game you can play over and over again. There’s long term value in that, there’s a sense of getting your money’s worth. But for a game that’s purely single-player, that’s trying to give a tight plot and precise experience, it’s much more difficult to justify the cost. Sixty bucks for a game I’ll play once or twice is asking a lot. In a consumer culture where I can rent a series for a monthly fee or buy a long book for a few dollars, it can be hard to justify the sixty dollars for a plot-heavy Third-Person game. How do we make video games that are just about the stories work for the consumer?
The biggest solution going on right now is downloadable content and episodic game formats. TellTale’s Sam & Max games are doing well financially and have even been breaking into the green on metacritic. At ten bucks to download and averaging about 3 to 5 hours of gameplay, that seems like a fair deal. It’s just the right length for a lazy afternoon or spread out over several days without putting my wallet into a world of hurt. It makes the story flow a lot better as well; a game that runs ten hours suffers because the narrative ends up lagging somewhere. Your favorite book or movie still adheres to a basic formula of introduction, rising action, climax, denouement, and resolution. But when a video game tries to apply that formula, it usually stalls somewhere because it has to drag one of those elements out. You’ll spend five hours on the rising action, only to blister by the climax and have the resolution be a two minute pop song. Episodic content isn’t just a good value for a game, it’s better suited to keeping the narrative flowing properly. Portable games have also been adopting this style, with the average level or episode taking about 15 minutes to an hour to beat. This helps people who play in quick bursts on the subway, but you can also see how, inadvertently, portable games tend to have better story pacing.
But how can we use this design to maximize the income of a Third-Person game? Sam & Max uses a lot of great concepts like the season pass or the full season purchase, but I can’t help but wonder if the economic model is at its full potential yet. If episodic games are going to be as appealing as T.V., you’d need to distribute the games episodically for free for a limited amount of time (to get people hooked) and then recoup on advertising and season passes. As flash players become more powerful, the lucrative options of this model will soon be a reality. Little downloading, minimal hardware demands, and the necessity to stand out amongst the competition should all help drive narrative games into new and creative territory. Consumers have consistently shown their willingness to play a free game in exchange for seeing an advertisement, but people are just now beginning to offer more complex games in this model. Why not play a commercial during the load time between games? Or do as Rainbow Six Vegas did and fill the world with in-game billboards and ads. With companies producing prototypes like this for Flash 10, it’s only a matter of time before this is feasible. Graphically complex episodic games could find a home in a few years when my web browser can produce graphics as cutting edge as consoles today. But is there a chance for more? If including multi-player can expand the value of a product, what other options could be given to the player?
One of the most interesting things to come from gamer culture has been the mod community, and it might be in the best interest of developers to embrace that community more fully. Why not throw the gates wide open and actively try to make creating games with the engine as easy possible? With so many brilliant mods and games coming out from the likes of RPGMaker or Garry’s mod, by letting people make outside games and hosting them on your server you could get no-risk content. Work out a licensing agreement with people who make good games, divide up the revenue, and suddenly you’ve got an army of potential narrative games to offer your consumer. I don’t mean just leaving the door unlocked, this is about making in-game tools easier to use for the player. Software that lip synchs, incredibly easy animation tools, and editors that even my grandma could use. Furthermore, you don’t even need to hand people a blank slate. You would include all the in-game art and animations and consistently add new ones as you create a larger body of work. It would be a huge boost to the Machinima scene as well. Naturally, anyone who downloaded all of this and tried to make money without the owner’s consent would be subject to legal measures. People would still be able to distribute their work for free, but perhaps by offering to sponsor a good game with professional voice work and editing you’d give them an incentive to work with you. If narrative games are eventually going to migrate to the internet to reduce costs, it is not enough to just start posting brilliant narrative games. Developers must continue to innovate in multiple fields to stand out.
There are plenty of other applications for video games that could generate revenue. What about a Victoria’s Secret catalogue that uses the Unreal 3 Engine to let people have their customized avatar try on clothes and see how they look? Architects already use game engines to demonstrate their designs to potential customers, why not let people check out hotels or explore national parks before they even make the trip? A lot of this article has turned into speculation and wild business proposals, but it’s important for those who enjoy plot heavy Third-Person video games to be mindful of the economics going on. It’s very hard for any story, no matter how brilliant, to get much of a chance when the gamer has spent a fortune on it. All that cynicism and irritation melts away when you’ve only spent ten or twenty bucks on the game. In those kinds of conditions, the plot is given a chance to really shine. Short of the game being perfect in every regard, would we even notice the ‘Citizen Kane’ of games after it ripped us off sixty bucks?