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Rabblerousing On CliffyB, Micro-Transactions & EA vs. Valve

You've probably already read this. Just about anyone who follows gaming news sites has read and developed an opinion about ex-Epic design director and video game gadfly Cliff Bleszinski's Tumblr post about micro-transactions. Some sites, like Kotaku, printed the article without comment, which reads like a public co-sign. Other places, like Destructoid, wrote a polite but assertive counter-argument. Comment threads have grown bloated with rage. Fingers have been waggled at people on both sides of the argument. It's a thing.

Regardless of whether or not I agree with Bleszinski (I don't), I do respect the man's candor. Developers and publishers are notoriously squirrely about doing anything openly. The fact that Cliff is willing to let us look behind the curtain at what a AAA game developer really thinks is undoubtedly a good thing. He has a top down perspective of the industry most of us never get to hear about. However, as informative as it can be, it also illustrates how disconnected he and his peers are from your average rank and file gamer.

It's very eye-opening how little sympathy he seems to have for his audience, shrugging off valid complaints as the simple mechanics of doing business and laying blame on the shoulders of the people buying his games for the state of the industry, ignoring that we're only working with the tool they are giving us. At any rate, given that he's stepped down from his position at Epic in his prime, he's also rich enough to not give a fuck what anyone thinks of him.

One of the major points of his argument, about the encroachment of micro-transactions in AAA titles, is not something that's going away. For better or for worse. Nonetheless, where Cliff (and many of his colleagues, I'm sure) see this as some kind of inevitability, guys like me see the kind of myopic, single-minded, fear-based corporate thinking that's hobbling the industry. It's greed, rationalized.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with micro-transactions in games, just in how they're being implemented. Micro-transactions are a tool. Multiplayer is a tool. Basic common sense dictates that you use your tools efficiently depending on the project you're tackling. If you try to install a window using only a hammer, you'll likely end up with a lot of blood and swearing. And no window. Cliff has a history of missing the point on this issue, like insisting that games like Shadows Of The Damned would have been improved by multiplayer despite Grasshopper Manufacture not having a large enough team, funding or any kind of logical in to justify it.

For years now we've been in a vicious circle, watching publishers chase after Activision's omnipresent Call Of Duty franchise in hopes of mimicking their success. EA threw more money than I'd care to count, including a PR blitz that seemed to last for months, at Battlefield 3 in hopes of unseating the champ and still fell short. Yet they keep trying the same tricks over and over again on every franchise under their umbrella expecting a different result. You don't need me to tell you what that's the definition of.

So when Cliff gets exasperated at the terribly low opinion people have about EA, I get exasperated right back because I cannot understand how any intelligent person doesn't get it. This isn't a question of people picking on poor, poor multi-billion dollar corporations like EA over something as ridiculous as marketing... this is people catching on to a company that insists on making the exact same mistakes over and over and over again. No one is blaming EA for wanting to make money, they're blaming EA for being bad at it in the long term. They're blaming EA for introducing cynicism into something they love. For reminding us that the industry is owned and managed largely by giant corporations who look at us as walking billfolds rather than people with brains and the ability to walk away from something we don't like. Respect must be earned and maintained.

The argument against EA is multifacited. EA wants uniformity. They want the same rules to apply to everything, because to approach each property or franchise differently would require thought and long-term planning. Simply sayings "add micro-transactions and multiplayer" is something a bunch of shareholders who know nothing about games can understand. It may mitigate risk but it also results in burning their bridges as they're building them. It gets much harder to build a head of steam when everyone is waiting for the day where someone makes a big tentpole, franchise game that can't be beaten without micro-transactions. Because, based on their history, that is the exact kind of thing EA would do.

The Call Of Duty bubble is going to burst. Every year there are contenders and every year they're knocked out but people will eventually tire of the feedback loop. And right now, the video game industry doesn't have anything else to pick up the slack other than the seemingly evergreen sports franchises. Millions and millions of dollars have been thrown at MMO's that have under-performed and been shuttered. The handheld market has given way to smartphones and tablets that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo don't own. We have a new generation of consoles coming and rumors of Microsoft releasing an online-only, EA-partnered system swirling that will likely hand the console crown back to Sony. A good PR team can dazzle but it only takes one well-informed friend to kill the buzz.

And when the dust settles, Valve will still be there. Not because they are inherently good and righteous people but because, as others have mentioned, they're smart and they're privately-owned. They make bucketloads of money because they treat their audience like people who will leave if they feel they aren't getting a fair deal. Other people have broken down the differences between EA's approach to DLC and Valve's, but it boils down to respect. Valve's Team Fortress 2 micro-transactions do not hinder the game, they personalize it.

While EA is confused at why they're being voted the worst company in America, Valve seems to understand the power of not underestimating your audience. (I quoted Valve head Gabe Newell in a Tumblr post not too long ago that illustrates the kind of thinking EA has yet to grok.) Being a Capitalist doesn't mean you have license to treat your audience as disposable and there's no rule that you can't be richer than God and also well-liked. So long as Valve remains a private company, you can expect their hot streak to continue.

People use the term "vocal minority" like it's derogative. They tend to forget the operative word there, which is "vocal." Your average casual gamer who buys only Madden and Halo and Call Of Duty may not have an opinion about Day One DLC or micro-transactions but you can be sure he has a friend who does. If that friend tells him not to buy the next Xbox because you have to be online at all times to use it, he'll listen. These aren't numbers you can plug into a spreadsheet. It's a human factor and it's an area corporations like EA have a damnably hard time understanding. Get enough people crowing about something and others will listen.

So, while I respect Bleszinski for providing gamers with an insight into how high level suits in this industry think and I admire him for the foresight to take a step back to see how the chips fall before making his next move, his insistence on blaming his audience for his own short-sightedness means that, even after the future of the industry has been written, there will people waiting in the wings to bring that bad old cynicism back. And the whole thing will start all over again.
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About TheDefenestratorone of us since 9:39 PM on 01.16.2013

Brent. Pittsburgh native. Phoenix resident. The, uh, the weather's been pretty nice lately, huh?


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