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Bad Company's Big Idea

Written By mista sense on Wednesday, April 9, 2008 | 7:39 AM


So, maybe you've heard, maybe you haven't. EA's Battlefield: Bad Company FPS is going to have tons of unlockable weapons, a small portion of which are "premium" content. In other words, you pay to unlock them. Stating clearly that I've never actually seen the game nor talked to anyone at EA about it, my understanding of the situation is that of 20 guns, 10 are unlockable through play, 5 are unlocked through promos, and 5 can be bought either with a special "Gold Edition" of the game or over Xbox Live.

So if you aren't that big into Battlefield or you don't really care about how many guns you get, you get the standard edition of the game and party on. If it's a bigger deal to you, you can buy the extras. I don't know how much it'll cost, but I can't imagine unlockable weapons are saleable for any more than $10 bucks altogether, and that is a generous assumption.

However, though, this doesn't stop obnoxious dweebs from getting all up in arms about having to pay for DLC, about getting an "incomplete game," and how this is the END OF THE FUCKING WORLD and they absolutely won't stand for it. Really, dudes? What's the big deal?

I actually think that games that offer a lower-priced "basic" experience while offering fans the opportunity to pay for extras are the future. That's the only way they do it in greater Asia, for example -- as a failsafe against piracy, actually, the basic game is totally free and users who really care have the opportunity to buy add-ons and expansions, as few or as many as they want.

A system that lets users pay exactly what an experience is worth to them -- a little bit if they're curious, ambivalent or casual, and a little bit more if they're engaged and hardcore -- is a win-win situation for everyone. Games are getting expensive, man. What if they start costing $70, $80 bucks by next year? When's it gonna stop? How much are you going to pay just to check something out? Wouldn't you rather pay less at the register and then pay more later only if you feel it's something you're personally invested in?

And doesn't that incentivize game companies to give you a game you can really hang with for a long time, that you'd be interested in continually adding onto?

If you feel you're being "nickel-and-dimed" after you've already paid for a game, would you rather pay more up front to get the whole thing? Oh, wait, in this Bad Company scenario, you can. Just buy the premium version. Or only buy one or two extra guns instead of all of 'em. Content costs money, kids; sorry. And the only way to reduce the price of games -- or even better, customize cost to the level at which you value the experience -- is to be open-minded to alternative revenue streams.

Really, I think this Bad Company boycott is a knee-jerk reaction from the ignorant kids. But if you have a tough time choking down this biz model, I'd hazard to say you ought to get used to it; I hear WiiWare titles like My Life As A King will allow you to buy additional classes beyond the basic four it comes with, and I'd be willing to make a bet right now that the next big MMO to approach WoW's level of success will either be free with microtransactions, or offer a free experience with a premium subscription model.

Anyway, here's another example. I'm a big Pokemon fan. You can only get certain Pokemon from Nintendo events -- in other words, a little something extra for the people who are geeked enough to go to Toys 'R' Us on their Saturday and download Manaphy. What if you could get a new rare Pokemon every month for two bucks? Some people have a few Pokemon games, they play a little bit, but wouldn't pay more beyond what they've already spent at retail for it. A fan like me probably would.

So should Nintendo bump up the scale of Pokemon games and make everyone pay more for above-and-beyond content? Or should they make the extra content, keep the price the same and allow it to be bought only by those who really want it? The option that these protesters want -- more content at the same price -- is not a possibility as development costs continue to rise.

Pokemon's probably a bad example, because its core audience -- kids -- don't tend to have credit cards they can whip out for microtransactions, so it's highly unlikely that friend code-loving Nintendo would go this way. But Nexon (MapleStory, KartRider) has a strong youth core userbase, and gets around this by selling little prepaid cards in denominations like $10 or $25 or something, that you can buy at Target, and that let kids buy items in their games in the amount for which the card provides. It's a really good biz model for them -- they make money even though their games are free. And it's good for their players -- some of its users pay $25 a month, some of them pay $5 every couple of months, and some of them pay nothing at all.

The free thing applies mostly to online games; I doubt if console games could ever be free. But they could be cheaper -- and that's the key.

Why is our audience so hostile to this? Imagine if your games ranged in base cost from free up to maybe $40, and then you had yourself a little monthly game card in whatever amount you chose to spend on additional content. In some cases, you'd probably end up paying just as much for the games you love as you do now. But in other cases -- with games where you don't give a damn -- you pay significantly less.

Anyway, the point is that making extra content costs developers money, and they can't keep raising game prices forever. There's a point of consumer resistance that they just won't make it past, and some people -- like EA's John Riccitiello -- think we might already be there. So to stay competitive, game companies have got to start exploring alternate ways to monetize content.

The major caveat, of course, is that microtransactions will only work well if they can reduce the price of the basic experience. But companies like EA cannot cut prices until they see how consumers react to paying for extras. My guess is this Bad Company thing, like EA's upcoming free-to-play Battlefield Heroes, is the company's way of testing the waters -- too bad so many people are missing the boat.

One more time -- more content costs more money, period. At least you're being given the choice.

I'd also hate to think that certain "members of the media" are rather unethically capitalizing on people's ignorance and reactionary nature to cause a fuss and raise their profile in "games journalism" on the strength of selfish sensationalism. Way to help out the medium, guys, you are WINNAR!

-- Hokay, back to my vacation.

[Update: Okay, maybe "dweebs" was harsh. Sorry. But I stick by "obnoxious"!]

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