The Value of Nothing

In for a penny.

Money makes the gaming world go round. Pre-owned prices, Kickstarters and Steam sales: I miss the days when Santa Claus brought all my games for free. He never complained about the price, but my Dad often grumbled on his behalf.

Many games can now be played for free: not just by copying your friends’ discs or getting your Xbox chipped, but because of funding from advertising. ‘Freemium’ games have also become popular, where the game is free but you can pay for extra features. Although it’s a relatively new concept for gaming, anti-virus companies AVG and Avast have used this model for years, and Dropbox operates on the same principle. There are many freemium success stories: World of Tanks has attracted over twenty million players since launch and continues to expand.

Freemium and ad-supported games reduce the entry barrier to zero; even your grandparents can have a go without investment. Yet, there’s a different cost here: as they become more popular, where’s the incentive to buy full-priced apps or retail games? Just like supermarkets have lowered our expectations of the cost of food to unrealistic levels, ‘loss leaders’ enticing shoppers at the expense of farmers and manufacturers, free games generate an unrealistic idea of their underlying costs. Free games aren’t made for free. Developers need to be paid for their time: even with free and open-source software, such as the Linux kernel, 75% of developers are salaried. Working for nothing is the exception rather than the rule, unless you’re writing about video games, of course.

Take the hit game Draw Something. You can download a free version with ads that display between rounds. In my experience, the only thing worse than my infantile scrawlings were the terrible videos popping into view after I’d sent them: after a few games, I bought the full version of the app. 70p for an ad-free game, and they even threw in some different coloured pens. That’s cheaper than a packet of felt tips!

Draw Something developer OMGPOP were purchased by Zynga, chief orchestrator of the social gaming apocalypse and shameful cloning outfit. OMGPOP CEO, Dan Porter, then made a massive fool of himself by drunkenly deriding an ex-colleague. All around me, the indignation was tweeted: “I’ll never play that game again; they won’t get my ad money!” But I had paid my money and made my choice.

Paying money and making a choice: that’s what separates the casual from the collector, the invested from the disinterested. Paying customers can complain about bugs in their game or Xbox Live downtime. If you’re getting a free ride, you have no grounds for complaint if Twitter deletes your messages or Zynga sends a plague of locusts upon your virtual farm. “You get what you pay for”, as the vapid old adage goes.

Without expectations, you get poor quality products. Ad-supported apps can often be terrible, but it feels wrong to complain over something that’s ‘free’. Yet no money spent doesn’t mean no cost: as the Verge report, ad-supported apps use your phone’s data connection to download more adverts while you use them. You’re paying with battery life instead of money.

Draw Something- a freemium successIs Dear Esther good value for money?Are we heading for a world without The Witcher?

If we can’t demand more from our software- bug fixes, feature enhancements and even rewritten endings- then we are doomed to inferior quality. It’s the iOS vs. Android argument again: iOS users pay more for their hardware and purchase (i.e. pay to download) more apps than Android users, leading to better quality apps and higher expectations. When iOS 6 is released, my iPhone 4S will definitely be compatible, but Android users can’t say the same of ‘Jellybean’. I’d be surprised if my three year old iPhone 3GS didn’t make the cut, either. When ever Apple make a mistake, people get annoyed and complain vociferously- paying a premium for a product creates an expectation.

One of the wonderful things about the current state of gaming is indie development. Fez was released yesterday for just 800 Microsoft Magic Beans; Dear Esther was originally a mod that became a commercial release through Steam. I played through Dear Esther in around two hours, which is slightly better value than a trip to the cinema in hours-per-pound. Yet, I feel… dirty thinking about it in those terms. Isn’t it ultimately self-defeating to try and pin a commercial value on an experience like Dear Esther? Shouldn’t we be looking at the quality first, regardless of price? Would you describe a music album as better value because you listened to it more than another one?

Despite this absurdity, we do it all the time- particularly with games. How many times have you read things like “I’ll buy it when the price is reduced” or “I’ll buy the Game of the Year edition with extra content” in review comments? Skyrim is better ‘value’ than Rez because one can be played through in an hour, the other closer to one hundred. Clearly, these experiences are not comparable: yet I paid the same amount for Rez on Dreamcast as Skyrim on 360. To me, Rez is worth much more than that.

Money doesn’t matter as much as we think it does. Entertainment matters. Experiences matter. Advertising compromises that experience, draining our phone batteries and our enthusiasm, betraying our personal details, breaking the flow of everything from movies on television to albums on Spotify. In fact, advertising compromises the value of human culture, but that’s somewhat beyond the scope of a gaming opinion piece. Why do you think we removed adverts from Split Screen? They made the site uglier, slower to load and didn’t generate any revenue. That doesn’t benefit anyone.

Worse for games, freemium-ism disturbs the notion of egalitarianism that I find so appealing about the medium. I hate that you can buy a bigger gun that others ‘worked’ to attain, or when fun is locked out by a series of paywalls and promotions. I don’t want to think about a future where The Witcher doesn’t exist because the developers are unable to sell it for a reasonable price, because the value of software has been undermined. Quality software is worth its weight in gold.

Gamers know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. It’s time we learned the difference.

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