Until recently, if you bought Ubisoft’s historical action adventure Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and came across a blue chest while exploring the game’s luscious depiction of revolutionary France, you wouldn’t have been able to open it.
At least you wouldn’t unless you downloaded the special companion app on your Android or Apple phone and synced it to your PC or console.
The Assassin’s Creed: Unity app also provides a range of puzzles and a heat map showing how players have competed levels in the main game. But unlike other companion apps recently released for games like Call of Duty, Titanfall and Battlefield, it’s not free. Well, not strictly. Players who download it either have to pay to unlock certain features, or pay for the completely unlocked premium edition. On Wednesday, however, Ubisoft announced that it was unlocking the chests for all gamers. A look at the app’s Google Play page tells you part of the reason why: dozens of players complaining that they couldn’t get the app to sync with their console, or who had updated the app only to lose data.
This time, the experiment failed for Ubisoft, but we won’t have seen the end of it. Increasingly, major publishers are seeking to extend the revenue possibilities of benchmark releases, way beyond the £45 that players pay for the game itself.
Downloadable content (usually shortened to DLC) is the obvious example. Very few major titles these days come without extra features and content that can be downloaded after launch – at a price. First-person shooters such as Battlefield and Call of Duty offer extra multiplayer maps, action adventure titles like Far Cry 4 provide new weapons, role-playing games open up new areas of the open world environment. Players are often given the chance of subscribing to regular DLC drops, or pay a one-off discounted price for a year’s worth of updates.
The reasoning is obvious. In 2013, the head of Sony Worldwide Studios, Shuhei Yoshida was asked by Kotaku whether the average costs of development on PlayStation 4 would be the same as the last generation’s $20-60m. “Slightly larger,” he responded. Add in the massive costs of TV advertising and other marketing, and companies are now having to sell several million copies of a game just to break even. It’s no wonder they’re looking to maximise revenue from customers who have already bought in to the product.
Games as services
But of course, “product” is no longer the right word for games. Most publishers now see them as services or platforms, designed to generate revenue across their useful lives. The epic Activision sci-fi shooter Destiny’s expansion packs cost £20 each, adding new quests and raids, and it’s likely future content will be closely designed around how gamers are already interacting with the game. Developer Bungie will be closely monitoring activities, working out what dedicated gamers crave, then offering more of it in subsequent content. It’s all about iteration, refinement and engagement.
“Companion apps are part of this service-style supporting of games,” says Steve Bailey, an analyst at IHS Digital. “There are numerous avenues for deepening engagement with a certain segment of the userbase. The format of companion apps varies wildly, too. Where massively multiplayer gamers are concerned, the value they can add is significant and obvious, often representing a great Filofax for content browsing, stat calculators and social arrangements that help keeping the player tethered.”
“Tethered” is the perfect word here. As publishers move into a new service economy, retention becomes a key focus – it’s not just about great opening weekend sales, it’s about keeping those customers for 12 months or longer. This may mean “free” companion apps that quietly make the game experience habitual and pervasive, or it may be free DLC that regularly rewards loyalty. Even better, paid DLC can aid retention and revenue – it’s a double win.
Gamers are so used to this, it’s become part of the fabric of playing, but sometimes publishers stretch the concept to breaking point. When the much-anticipated multiplayer alien hunting game Evolve was launched in early February it offered a $25 DLC season pass complete with an exclusive alien monster and new hunter types, but there was also over $60 worth of extra downloadable content, mostly “skins” used to modify the look of characters. Some gamers were furious that only three huntable aliens were included in the main game, with one available only as a monetised extra – effectively 25% of the possible options.
“It’s important not to reject non-participants,” says Bailey. “Service-style support of games can ameliorate this, but it’s a balancing act – and an extremely fragile one. When you’ve already asked someone to pay premium ticket for a copy of the game, it’s understandable that they then be cynical about being hassled to make follow-up purchases. A keen sense of loss aversion has been triggered, and understandably so.”
The problem with pre-orders
What gamers are currently most annoyed about, however, is how this process is being moved further forward in the pipeline between pre-release hype and after-sales monetisation. Many titles are now being advertised with exclusive content that can only be unlocked if the game is pre-ordered. The most high-profile example has been Sega’s critically acclaimed Alien: Isolation which initially offered two special missions featuring the cast of the original Alien movie – but only as an extra for pre-order customers. Sega later made both missions available to all in a post-release DLC package, but Alien fans were annoyed that before release they were effectively being coerced into laying down money.
Again, the economics make perfect sense. For retailers it’s about working out how much stock they should order in, but for publishers it’s about convincing retailers to order in as much as possible. And in the increasingly complex games retail market, where high street stores have to battle with supermarkets and online retailers, exclusive pre-order bonuses are a way to tempt customers back into shops. For the UK release of Nintendo’s fantasy battle Hyrule Warriors for example, Amazon got an exclusive Skyward Sword costume set while Game offered a Twilight Princess alternative. In this way, publishers ensure a variety of stockists are buying in more enthusiastically, while also encouraging fans to commit their money sooner.
However, increasingly, committed game buyers are becoming tired of being used as pawns in the stocking manouveres of huge companies. So many modern titles have collectibles built into the design mechanic; worlds are now filled with trinkets to pick up. Discovering and completing these collections has become a heady compulsion loop – like football sticker albums, it feeds into that completist instinct. But when those loops seem to be exploited by hiding loot within pre-order bonuses, DLC or companion apps it feels ... wrong. The biggest challenge publishers face over the next five years is creating games that work as services without alienating the very enthusiasts they desperately need to secure and monetise.
“Pre-order bonuses, companion apps, DLC – all these things can and have worked, but the value proposition needs to be handled deftly, or else all they’ll do is generate more pain points,” says Bailey. “We’ve spent much of the past generation of console gaming exploring this. The industry is still iterating and refining, and gamers are voicing their concerns, and we need both of these things for a healthy push-pull to help the ideas take shape – even if publishers sometimes seem cynical in their actions, or gamers sometimes seem overbearing in their response, when regarded in isolation.
“The games landscape has become incredibly complex, and if dedicated consoles are to persist, they have to explore the opportunities presented by connectivity, the service ideal and new business models, and so on. But the difference between actual and perceived value wrung from video games has always been in turmoil.”
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Friday 20th February 2015 14.40 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010