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When Common Sense Met Kotaku

Kotaku did something interesting yesterday. Which is not to say that they never do anything interesting, in fact, since Stephen Totilo took over, I’ve quite enjoyed the changes to the site, but yesterday’s event, in which they invited an anonymous employee of a major video game publisher to answer reader questions, was particularly interesting.

There were no huge bombs dropped, nothing scandalous announced, no earth shattering revelations, which is why it was so damned compelling. It was nothing but common sense answer after common sense answer, yet what I found so interesting about the whole thing, was how it appeared that the people asking the questions never thought of these answers themselves.

If you were to come up with a list of questions you would expect the readers of Kotaku, or any big gaming site, to submit to a big time video game publisher, chances are your list and the questions asked on Monday would be similar. People wanted to know why publishers do day one DLC, why publishers place DRM on PC games, why publishers don’t take more risks on new IPs. Now, I could have answered those questions myself without the input from the publisher person and they would have looked something like this: money, money and money. Amazingly enough, the “official” answers weren’t that far off of the mark.

Now, I’m not saying that publishers are always making the right decisions, but I simply can not fathom how the answers provided by this person are not blindingly obvious. Video game publishers are in business to make money. In many cases, these are public companies, beholden to shareholders as well as to themselves. They do what they do because they make money off of it. We can argue the merits of the long term effects of their current strategies at another time, but for right now, they’re looking to make money and their decisions are based on that goal.

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Let’s take Day One DLC, for our first example. The question was basically “Stop making it, it sucks. Why do you do it?” The answer:

Then stop buying it.

Look, it’s simple. One team puts together a rough estimate on how much they expect the company to make from DLC. Let’s call that “A”. Then another team puts together an estimate on how much it will cost to develop that DLC. Let’s call that “B”.

If A > B, you get Day One DLC.

Seems pretty simple to me. But, let’s not cherry pick. Here (s)he is on new IPs:

You don’t spend your money on new IPs, at least not at this stage in the cycle.

And:

I’ll say what I said earlier: you’re not buying new IPs. You may feel like you are, but trust me, I’ve seen the numbers, and with very few exceptions (which unfortunately get trumpeted in the media the loudest), you’re not.

My absolute favorite quote, though, had to be in response to a question about Call of Duty. Sorry for posting such a long question, but I think it’s important to read the whole thing:

Question:
How come there seems to be such a big gap between customer and publisher? It’s something that’s been bothering me for a while, but gamers voice their concerns when they get something they don’t like. Sure, they don’t always have good arguments, but a lot of times they do.

Call of Duty is the obvious example here, and I’m sorry for being ‘that guy’ and bringing it up. Sure, it sells like… I don’t know, something that sells really well, yet thousands of customers complain literally everywhere about how much they dislike the whole ‘let’s release the same game over and over’ (and let’s not trick ourselves, that is what is being done, regardless of how many times one makes a new story about nukes).

Why aren’t their opinions taken into consideration? I hear publishers saying that they are, but looking at the games they keep pushing out, it’s pretty obvious that no, no one is listening to the customers, or at least not the ones who doesn’t just buy the next game because ‘it’s the sequel to that other game I bought because it was a sequel!’.

Personally, this isn’t a big of a problem. I don’t mind CoD, and I can enjoy it. But what does bother me is that everyone is talking about how much the customer – the gamer – matters, yet absolutely no one is actually listening to what they have to say. Sorry for the whole novel-thing I’ve got going on, but that’s my question. Why?

Also if you took the time to read (and possibly also answer), thank you.

Answer:
Ah, here is where you went wrong: on CoD, the customer is not necessarily a gamer. Activision constantly does research and listens to their fans. In fact, many of their decisions are guided by those reports. It may feel to you that thousands of people feel X, but the truth is, based on hard data, that millions of people feel differently from you.

It never ceases to amaze me how insular the gaming community is. We go on sites with other people who love games as much as we do and we all bitch and moan about the same things and wonder why, in most cases, our complaints aren’t addressed, never once considering that most of the people buying Call of Duty and Madden and “insert popular franchise here” every year don’t give a rat’s ass about DLC and story endings and what have you. They go into Best Buy or Walmart or GameStop, buy their game, leave happy and stay that way. Does that mean that publishers should ignore the dedicated gaming communities? Certainly not, but we shouldn’t expect them to change their plans specifically for us. They’re looking at numbers on spreadsheets and our numbers simply aren’t large enough.

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If you haven’t read it already, you should definitely check the piece out. The person answering had a pretty good sense of humor about things, at one point answering the pointless question of publisher evil by remarking that they’re closer to the “don’t tip your waitress” evil than the “genocide” evil, and gave some other insight into things like piracy, the PC being the preferred target platform due to the lack of licensing fees, and going with your gut when it comes to pitches. The best line, by far, though, was this one, which hopefully (s)he will get to expand on in a future Q &A:

DO NOT GET ME STARTED ABOUT KICKSTARTER.

Now that Q&A ought to be a hoot.

Brandon

Brandon loves games, which shouldn't be a surprise given where you're reading this. He has written for GameShark, The Escapist and G4, and made them all less relevant as a result.

39 thoughts to “When Common Sense Met Kotaku”

  1. “Then stop buying it.”

    I have told this to every soul that has ever complained to me about DLC, the cost of DLC, the value of DLC, or whatever. Your complaints are meaningless if you buy it. It’s like wearing a “Ron Paul Suks” T-shirt and then voting for him for President. Your actions speak FAR louder than your bitching.

    1. Exactly. Same with new IPs. I bought Gravity Rush and Heroes of Ruin, two games that I could have very easily rented. I bought them because a) I want to support new IPs and b) I want to support the consoles they’re on. I can’t complain about publishers not making new IPs and then buy nothing but sequels.

    2. But it doesn’t do a whole lot of good when for every person that doesn’t buy it out of principal there are dozens that buy it ASAP to go with their collector’s edition they pre-ordered six months in advanced. It can be frustrating, and complaining on the internet is really all they have.

  2. At least half the people on my XBL friends list will bitch about how much the CoD series has declined. They complain about the DLC. They complain about game mechanics.

    But they buy it, and all the DLC. Every. Year.

  3. That was a refreshingly honest take on some questions that have very apparent answers. Some of the user questions/responses just leave you shaking your head though.

  4. Something else pretty telling from that Q&A about the PC being the preferred platform.

    “The margins are significantly higher on PC, once we figure out how to get there (Origin, etc.)”

    No Steam shout out !? What’s the beef with steam ? … I thought. Further down the list of comments I found from AnonPublisher;

    “Steam currently has something like a 90% monopoly on PC downloads. That’s a lot of power in one place.”

    (foreshadowing)
    The next 10 years of gaming is gonna suck with publishers trying to make their own distribution service. Battle.net sucks (was hoping for XBL/PSN maturity) & Origin thinks it’s cool to re-live 2002 (impersonating Steam beta). I pirate any game using Ubisoft’s DRM (Uplay) just on principle.

    Ugh, the future sucks, where is my jet packs & flying cars ?

      1. That statement implies I’m keeping the dubious loots to myself. I share the booty with my crew mates, hence the word “pirate”.

        1. The statement makes no implication regarding distribution of said stolen goods. Dress it up all you want, you’re stealing. I’m not your mommy and not here to wag my finger disapprovingly at you, but at least nut up and admit that you’re stealing and not living the life of a swashbuckler. You’re not a hero or a misunderstood sea captain, you’re stealing video games.

          1. To be fair actual pirates robbed and raped people. Destroying lives as they went. So the name pirate is not quite appropriate but it’s still about ruining people’s lives.

          2. Joking aside, pirate was an incorrect word to use (even the modern colloquialism). I was being low brow. Passive retaliatory acquisition is not “stealing” by definition (did Walmart “steal” customers away from the local Joe’s Hardware store?). I consider it a modern interpretation of “commerce raiding” (to borrow another maritime phase), because of the actions, intent & effect. Suffice it to say, it is all a gray area (within the human limits, good & bad, etc…). When another IP property article is posted on NHS, I will definitely elaborate on my perspective.

            Segue back to the article, AnonPublisher talks about “piracy” as a “tide” the needs to be managed rather than ignored or attacked. That is reassuring, but his talk about DRM as an “escalating arms race” getting worse is bad news.

          3. I consider it a justification – which is something that criminology shows that all non-psychopathic criminals have.

            If you have a job at a gas station, and your boss is an ass, or you didn’t get that time off you wanted, you might steal sixty bucks from the cash register and tell yourself you deserve it. This is actually three issues: your boss is an ass, someone didn’t take your shift, and you stole sixty bucks. But since you like having sixty bucks, and being right, you lump the things together in your head. Bob’s your uncle.

            I’m not trying to take too much of a high horse on this. Everybody does little stuff like this every day. And not all of the people you’re stealing from are nice people.

            The difference between what you’re doing, though, and anything noble, is that your behavior requires no sacrifice on your part. The game still gets made, and you still get to play it. And even better, you get to play it for free while clapping yourself on the back about how right you are.

            I’m not even necessarily suggesting you stop. I’m offering you some perspective, which you can take or leave.

  5. The big question for me is when Kotaku is going to get back to reviewing McDonald’s Snack Wraps and gas station hot dogs. Game journalism doesn’t get any better than that.

    1. That, along with the frequent political rants and endless editorials on how boys are mean to girls online, are what contributed to the removal of kotaku from my bookmarks. I rely on you guys to let me know when they actually have a good article, like this one.

  6. It’s so weird that gamers complain about things like Day One DLC. If you are a bit of a savvy gamer, you wait for deals, you wait until some kind of bundle, complete edition or other discount comes along and you get your content. If you find it super important to always be playing the latest COD, then do that, but don’t act like paying the price for being on top of the hottest new thing is unfair. Some of us wait, some of us have simple wishlists, some of us leap-frog.
    But damn that Uplay though, it’s absolutely awful if only for the fact that it can seriously mess with your saves if you take it offline just once. They should have asked the publisher why they allow horrible crappy systems to exist that have no bearing on money (anti-piracy is useless) and only make the paying customer angry.

  7. The answers may be obvious but they’re hardly satisfactory. Surprisingly enough, smart customers don’t like being treated like walking wallets. The non-gamer/casual gamer market is unstable, and is eventually going to shift away from AAA titles toward the mobile platform.
    It’s already starting to happen now. When that shift takes full effect, the big publishers are going to be in big trouble, as they’ll have lost their primary means of revenue, and also alienated the core gaming groups too.

    1. You obviously have a lot more faith in the average gamer than I do. In the eventuality that you describe, I feel the publishers will return to marketing to core gamers and they will eat it up; haven’t we learned by now that gamers don’t have much willpower? Remember the hilarious Modern Warfare 2 boycott?

      The only way the message can be sent is if gamers lose the NOWNOWNOW mentality, but it seems like that, at least to a certain degree, is seriously tied to the gaming community.

  8. I really liked this article, and was brought here from the ECA newsletter.
    the only issue I have is the lack of a link! Your witty summation has me wanting to read more, but the one link you post does not take me to the article in question.

  9. There might be a “crossover” issue at play here, too. The “not-gamer” alluded to in the last answer, who buys CoD every year and goes home happy, does not give much of a damn about Dark Souls. But a gamer will play both games.

    In a world of limited resources, it makes a certain kind of sense to favor the broadest audience.

    It may be time for us, the hardcore gamers, to accept that AAA budgets are not for us, just as film nerds are not the target of the Battleship movie. If we want deep gameplay, we have to trade something for it. A graphics drop. A monetized but optional shiny hat store.

    I’m waiting for the price drop on Mass Effect 3. I’m never going to play Diablo III. These aren’t the principled stands I believed them to be – I’m just developing taste. Others are going to like what I don’t. The casual gamer is never going to appreciate games on the level I do. The world will spin on.

    1. I picked up both Diablo 3 and Mass Effect 3 within the first week (technically I got Diablo for free on the offshot I would play enough WoW over the next year to justify it) and can tell you that if there’s a Diablo 4 or ME 4, I’m not interested. They just don’t grab me the way they used to.

      I do however have 115 hours in the Binding of Isaac, so maybe I’m just an Indie nerd now.

  10. Kotaku’s format change drove me directly here. I think Tycho posted a link to NHS shortly below a link of Kotaku’s traffic that week (which when listed day by day was pretty hilarious).

    I’m very okay with it.

    Shame though, I had just gotten my star. People were complaining about how Darksiders 2 was looking like it would be so close to the first one, and my response was (and I paraphrase) “I don’t see why people are getting so upset. When it comes to Darksiders, they may change a lot of gameplay but War, War never changes.”

    Yep. I don’t care if I’m milkin that joke again, I liked it.

      1. Let’s be fair, while you may not like the humor, that was a pretty sweet pun.

        Don’t knock the pun!

    1. I left Kotaku at the same time, too, when PA posted about NHS.

      However, I was already frustrated with them for the star system and the fact that commenting was basically turning into a members-only club because of it…

      1. I was pretty okay with the star system. It had its flaws, but they made it pretty easy if you wanted to bypass it and see all comments.

        For a site as big as Kotaku (was) I think the system had a lot of potential before they changed the blog’s format to an unreadable series of links to slideshows and drove off all their readers.

  11. Their time fueled format is still available. It’s well hidden, but it’s “blog” in the menu that pops when you click the eye near the top right of the screen.

    1. “What’s the deal with kickstarter?”

      I can’t be the only person reading that in a Seinfeld voice.

  12. “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it” is one of the most annoying arguments people can make. It’s such a clever way of passing off an abusive action as the fault of the one getting abused with it.

    No one has a problem with the content. People WANT to play these things. They WANT to enjoy the DLC. You can’t fault them for that. The problem is that it’s sold in a “we’re charing you for this because we know you’re gonna pay so f you” sort of way. It’s slimy used-car salesmanship. It’s one step removed from those Zynga-style skinner box games.

    1. While the practice may be slimy, the solution is simple – whether you like it or not. It’s the old “Money talks…” logic.

      Developers/Publishers make DLC for two reasons:

      1. It gives developers something to do while a game is finishing QA, creating content that cannot fit into the game that is (for all intents and purposes) done and on its way to going gold. This is the more altruistic side of the equation, and lets people who might be let go or (if they’re lucky) moved to a new project, continue working on a game.

      2. It sells. Publishers create DLC because we pay for it. If we stop paying for it, they’ll stop making it. Publishers aren’t known for throwing money at something that isn’t generating a profit.

      So whether you like it or not, the “If you don’t like, don’t buy it” line really is the solution (if you see DLC as a problem). No amount of complaining or fake boycotts is going to change how the industry works. If people keep buying this stuff, they’ll keep providing it.

      1. Then there should be no complaints when people simply find ways to obtain the content without paying for it.

        1. I’m pretty tired of the justifications of paying evil for evil. Dickish behavior *causes* dickish behavior in return, regardless of who started it, or why. Pirating the Evil Publisher is just going to keep this circle going around.

          The only successful remedies to unjust practices in history involve sacrifice. If you don’t want a bad message to be sent with your money, you have to be willing to accept what that will cost you.

          Ordinary folks don’t listen to thieves, no matter how correct their opinions are. Robin Hood doesn’t get Maid Marian in real life.

          1. You’re taking this bizarre moral stance that has no real merit to the conversation. People want to play the content. The way the content is being sold is pretty slimy. No one cares about sending a message. Let me say that again, no one cares about sending a message. They just want to play the content. As a content creator, you can either make that easy for someone or you can choose not to. You have to be willing to accept the fact that if you make a business of throwing obstacles in people’s ways, some are simply going to skirt them and ignore you.

            You can’t tell people to just not engage in the content. They WANT to enjoy the content. It’s no different than arguing that advertisements pay for TV or Websites. No one cares. They’re still going to block the ads and they’re still going to watch the shows or read the sites.

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