A recent announcement on DICE's Battlefield Blog exclaims, "Alright Ladies and Gentlemen! New Map pack 4 is out so my suggestion is you turn on your machines, download it from the in-game store and get right into the action!" I'm not sure why it bothers me so much, but I'm starting to find this really insulting. These maps are, of course, on the disc itself, and if you've entered the VIP code that came with a new copy (or bought one from XBLM) you needn't even "visit the in-game store" before "getting right into the action". All you have to do is wait for the date when EA decides to unlock them. Calling a disc unlock signal a "download" is disingenuous in any case, but it's far more egregious when publishers have the temerity to charge an additional fee for it. That's exactly what EA does if you want to outfit your Bad Company 2 character in a "special activities" costume (and didn't get in on the limited time, US only, Dr. Pepper promotion).
Setting aside the paid unlocks for just a moment, I suppose I can see why they wouldn't want to hand out all the VIP maps up front. The BF:BC2 VIP code is part of EA's Project Ten Dollar program to discourage the used game market they revile so often, and I actually applaud publishers who try to do something proactive beyond whinging to GameStop to cut it out. And sure, they want to increase the perceived value proposition of this incentive by spreading the dividends it pays out over time. And sure, time-released multiplayer maps provide small spikes in renewed community interest, which is nice. But why must they take that extra step of condescending our intelligence? The only thing I can figure is that they still think the concept of "downloading" something is hip and fresh and attractive to young people. But duders, we're over it. We download all kinds of stuff every day; it's mundane now.
Ultimately, a (free) time-released unlock of on-disc content is no different than a traditional task completion based one apart from being out of the player's hands. When I'm playing through a Professor Layton game on DS, I unlock new puzzles by solving puzzles. At some point though, I solve all the puzzles in the "game" and have to wait around for Nintendo to send WFC unlock signals out before I can tackle the last dozen or so puzzles that reside on the cart I bought. I'm not trying to brand that as indefensibly evil or anything, but I do find it inconvenient and insulting.
Oh, and back to charging me extra cash to make use of bits on my original game medium: that shit just needs to stop! I'll pay for DLC, but it had better be new, and truly optional content that you finished after shipping the game at additional development cost to you. If you need to charge more than $60 for your game to recoup your costs then just do it, but be honest about it.
Listening to this week's Bombcast, I was reminded of an increasingly pervasive trend among gamers that I just can't seem to wrap my head around. The guys were teasing Vinny for buying a bunch of games in the latest Steam sale that he'll never play (though they've all admitted to the same behavior at various points in the past). While he laughingly acknowledged that he probably will never play most of them, it seemed not to require further explanation. I frequently hear similar stories from friends and on other podcasts and see them on message boards as well. As a Mac user, I am new to Steam. But Microsoft have finally started to see the brilliance of this digital distribution pricing model and have begun offering time limited XBLA sales, and still I've managed not to buy a bunch of crummy arcade ports and tower defense clones I know I won't touch.
However, it's not just fire sale priced digital content that is causing this effect on gamers. One guy I know buys a new copy of pretty much every AAA title for all three of the main consoles at MSRP on the day of release and then consigns a large majority of them to permanent stacks of shrink-wrapped DVD cases on a desk (his gamerscore's in the 30,000s after 5 years of 360 titles). That's an extreme case, sure, but how many games have you bought (on sale or otherwise) that you "just haven't gotten to yet"? Just this morning I saw that GoGamer has Left 4 Dead 2 for $20. I did want to play that one. And that is a great price. But I missed it. And I know if I buy it now I won't be able to play it before something brand new is released that I want to play (nor will I be able to find co-op companions, for that matter).
So what am I missing here? Is it fun just to own a game beyond the enjoyment of actually playing it? Maybe people think they will eventually "catch up" and dip into their back catalog, but if we're being honest this just isn't likely. The frequency with which quality games are being released has never been greater. And while that is essentially a good thing, I think it will necessitate a fundamental shift in our expectations of players' (and even critics') breadth of experience. We can't really assume that every gamer has time for every game anymore. So maybe it's time to stop fooling ourselves into buying all of them.
Today's release of the special edition remake of Monkey Island 2 reminds me that there are two distinct approaches being taken to all these remakes we've been seeing in the last few years:
Lovingly recreate a masterful classic in a modern style so that it can be enjoyed by a new generation of players
Throw together a quick and dirty, up-res port of a fondly remembered title so that its original audience can be tricked into a nostalgia-fueled cash grab
The re-release of LeChuck's Revenge, like that of Secret of Monkey Island last year, features completely new graphics, animations, music, sound effects, and voice work by the actors who first made these characters heard later in the series as well as the ability to switch between the new and original versions on-the-fly to see just how much work was put in. This latest one goes even further to include a revised look for the main character (based on fan feedback from the first SE), direct movement control of the player character, and even a full commentary track by the original creators, who'd all gone their separate ways in the time since the game's original release. If you're too young to remember the original PC adventure gaming landscape but are into checking out downloadable games on PSN, XBLA, or Steam now, chances are you demand things like voice acting, modern controls, and attractive HD graphics. I highly recommend you download these Monkey Island remakes and see for yourself what we olde timers are always going on about.
On the other hand, let's say you are too young to remember Perfect Dark, Rare's N64 followup to their console-FPS-redefining smash hit Goldeneye. Will you enjoy checking out the remade classic on Xbox Live Arcade? I kinda doubt it. You've probably played some modern first person shooters recently, and nothing was done to Perfect Dark to help it appeal to your gaming perspective. It's most likely going to feel old and janky to you and still look pretty bad despite the minor graphical touch-ups that were done. Dæmon Hatfield said in his review of the remake for IGN, "this wasn't brought back for the uninitiated -- this is for the fans". Well what's the point of that, exactly? Those fans probably still have working N64s (they're only ~12 years old). OK, achievement points and elevated resolutions are nice, I guess. But those fans are basically just being soaked for another fifteen bucks here. That's not nearly as noble a goal, to my mind.
It always makes me sad when a fun game's multiplayer community fails to reach critical mass in the early stages of its release and then dries up almost entirely, thus killing the lasting enjoyment that could have been had by those who did get into it. This is a near constant on services like Xbox Live Arcade, but it occasionally afflicts a solid retail release as well. Transformers: War for Cybertron, released just two weeks ago, is quickly becoming one such title. My interest in this game was initially piqued by Arthur Gies' discussion of the multiplayer on the RebelFM podcast. While I'm 30 and remember watching the G1 cartoon as a kid, I've never been a huge fan of this IP. But Arthur's descriptions of some of his early game play experiences sounded really exciting. After eventually reading his review I was sold. I pre-ordered from Amazon, played through the campaign co-op with two friends, and then dove into multiplayer.
I immediately noticed that on a weekday night at 9:00 PM there were barely 10,000 players online a week after release. If I sneak a few matches before leaving for work in the morning it's about 1,200. I don't know if the blame lies mostly with Activision's lack of marketing for the title or the poor quality of previous games on the license or where, but this tremendously fun arena shooter is going criminally overlooked. Ah well, I guess I'll go back to Bad Company 2 soon. What a shame though. Regarding XBLA multiplayer communities (on rather, the inevitable lack thereof) I have heard it said that there are just too many releases for any one game to hold a player pool. I realize not every game is Halo 2, which had 3,000 daily players when the servers were decommissioned six years on, but it makes me sad that I can't even enjoy the awesome and original "Countdown to Extinction" game type in T:WfC a mere 14 days after launch. We just came out of a 2xXP weekend, and that mode was averaging about 100 players throughout. The last time I turned the game on, there were 0.