Pay as you play: The future of gaming, or the past…?

March 3rd, 2011 -

The idea of pay as you play gaming has been around for many years, in fact its almost been around as long as gaming itself, thanks to the wonders of arcades. As video games migrated into our homes, the value of a quarter has dropped immensely. Pay for one life at a time versus a one time investment, started to skew heavily towards home consoles. I honestly believe that from a business standpoint, this could have been financially a bad idea for the video game industry. Although, I don’t think anyone saw it that way at the time. When home video game consoles were introduced, it seemed like a new entertainment medium to squeeze another buck out of us. However, I think that they were so blindsided by the initial influx of cash this boom generated, that they failed to see the whole picture.

One reason why arcades no longer exist is rather obvious: it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to just buy a Nintendo, your favorite game, and sit there all day. The overall investment of the Nintendo plus game would be cheaper than stuffing quarters all day at the local movie-plex, thus justifying the purchase. The game developers only saw a profit from the initial sale of the arcade units, all those quarters we were stuffing into them went to the owner of  “Bob’s Pizza Kitchen ‘n’ Bar,” or whatever the case was. So here’s a crazy thought – if home consoles were cheaper for us to buy and play? As well as more cost effective for developers to make and sell… then what’s the problem? It’s a win/win situation… or is it? Could they have gotten more from us?

How you say? If Nintendo owned and operated the arcades, the middle man (Bob, if you will) would be cut out, and Nintendo would receive all the profit. If we’re still feeding quarters, then we are still paying the premium price for gaming, and they can control how much time we get for our money with coding, much like a casino. Obviously, this fact still stands today. As casinos are just as popular as they were when they started many years ago. Luckily for video games, they adapted elements from other entertainment media like movies, books, and music to help distinguish it as a similar entertainment medium. If not, arcades would have slowly turned into underage casinos where chips were replaced with tickets.

So where am I going with this? You’re probably asking yourself “do I really care about a history lesson?” No, you probably don’t, so I’ll get on with it. As stands today, the gaming industry has had its ups and its downs – financially, it’s down in some areas. It’s hard to say it’s down with games like Call of Duty breaking sales records, but remember that’s just one game out of the hundreds that get released every week. So what can be done to spark up a profit in the industry again? Pay as you play gaming. Now wait… isn’t that how this whole thing started?

The missing link here is Farmville (and games like it). It’s free to play, but if you want the premium content, you need to pay for it. Another way of looking at it is to pay for your time. If Activision sold Call of Duty for only $20 brand new, how many copies would they sell?  A shit-ton, right? But then you had to pay $20 for an online pass that gave you access to the multi-player for X number of hours, or a month’s worth of playing. At first you think, “Well, that sucks.” However,  if you are the stereotypical gamer who only plays the game for the first month it’s out, you actually save money, and Activision gets more of it. You spent $20 upfront, and then $20 to play online. That’s $40, 20 less then what they expect from you now. Not to mention if you only played it offline, it’s a savings of $40. It gets more complicated when you start to think about how they would charge you by the hour to play, but I think you can see where this is going. Now I know you’re probably thinking, “Blasphemy! Ryan has lost his mind. Is he seriously considering this?!”  … no, not exactly, let me finish.

From a business (non-gamer) stand point, I can see how this would make sense. But as a gamer, this would shatter everything we know and understand about gaming. Video games have benefited from other entertainment media for growth, but they are still different in terms of value. Movies – you watch it once and you have seen it, it’s not gonna change the second time. Books – the same. Music – the same. Even to some degree, Theatre productions are the same every time. But with Video games, the outcome is never the same. You may think “oh, well Uncharted is linear, and no matter what the story is, it’s always the same. So it’s like a movie.” True, but no matter how many times you watch Diehard, Bruce Willis is always going to jump and shoot the same way at the same time. However, in Uncharted, the story may unfold the same way, but the journey is never the same. With that said, it’s hard to decide if it’s fair to assume that you can charge someone like a movie (one time fee) or expect more cash from the user, because the replay value is far greater.

So this brings up a few good questions. Did the major video game publishers sell the cash cow when we switched to console gaming? Could they have gotten more from us with the original business model? Could they still bring this business model back and start charging by the hour or life again? Would “we” as gamers learn to adapt to this and accept our fate? The answer to all of these, simply put, is No. Video games evolved the way they did because of the opportunity to express ourselves in similar ways to movies, books or music. Because of this, video games became more than advanced slot machines. Arcades are not necessarily dead; the “arcade” that we as gamers hearken back to from our childhood is gone. However, arcades still do exist in the form of skeeball, grab machines, stacker (reverse tetris, for prizes), and other ticket puking slot machines.

The arcade did in fact become underage casinos where chips are replaced with tickets. In any Chuck E Cheese, pizza joint, mall arcade, or miniature golf course you will find nothing but ticket machines and a counter full of prizes to be had, like an Xbox 360 for a cool 36,000 tickets (irony). In some ways this business model could have stayed, and the companies behind the games may have benefited financially from this, but at what cost to the evolution of gaming as a whole? In some sick and depressing way, the death of arcades was one of the greatest things to happen to video gaming. It really pains me to say that. Even though the birth of the arcade started the culture, it’s death took gaming to an entirely new level that was never thought possible at the time.

As far as pay as you play gaming coming to all games? It works with games like Farmville for a reason, Farmville could still exist in a modern day arcade. The simple repetitive nature of the game could easily be a ticket spitting machine at your local Walmart, where as Final Fantasy was built with a different mind set. Farmville’s formula is basically Diner Dash on a loop – take out the loop, and now you have an “insert more coins” screen. Final Fantasy is more like a movie. When was the last time you started watching a movie and then 20 minutes into it, it said “insert more coins”? Sounds kinda ridiculous, right? Now imagine you’re playing Final Fantasy XIII, you have reached the Odin battle, you die, and then it says “insert more coins.” Well, at that point, you just get up and walk away with the understanding that Odin is not worth more of your hard earned money.

So the next time someone says, “I wonder how much longer until Call of Duty is pay to play, I mean look at Farmville.” Look them clear in the eyes, hold your position, raise your hand back and plant some reality right across their face.

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