Online Gaming: You Expect Me to Pay for This?

by Randall Cleveland

Video game enthusiasts, we are officially careening headfirst down the slippery slope we've all worried about for years since the first downloadable content purchases were offered. Activision Blizzard Inc. has announced that with their next game, "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" (due out in November), gamers will have the option to pay a monthly subscription fee for "elite content" (EDIT: As many vitriolic internet users have pointed out, as of right now you won't HAVE to pay a monthly subscription to play the game. You'll have to pay it for access to additional "elite" content. The spirit of the argument stands: right now it's only "elite" content. When enough people go along with these microtransactions, eventually we'll be paying just to get a code that makes the game work in your Xbox.)in addition to shelling out $60 just to buy the game. If you're not familiar, the Call of Duty franchise is already widely reviled for having the audacity to charge gamers $60 a year for the latest incarnation (reminding some of EA Sports' yearly installment of Madden, which tends to offer nothing more than updated rosters as far as new content) AND charging them $15 a pop for "map packs," new areas for you to play the multiplayer mode on. Because getting called a homophobic slur by a 12-year-old is for losers; pay $15 and you can get called a homophobic slur by a 12-year-old ON A TOTALLY DIFFERENT PATCH OF DESERT.

Not surprisingly, a huge number of gamers have reacted with shock and outrage. VERY surprisingly, some people are actually defending the strategy. Presumably these are the same types of people who take to sports web sites to declare the NFL lockout is the fault of the players; that is to say, either A) uninformed, highly-opinionated jackasses, B) contrarian internet trolls just wanting to foment nerd rage, or C) plants paid by the people they're defending. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt and examine the argument...


Xbox 360 game collection
"Oh, you want the BOXES, too? That'll cost ya."


"Of COURSE we should have to pay! It's simple economics," these people say. "You want a game with fresh, new, interesting, and updated content? Well it costs money to pay programmers and designers to come up with that stuff. Ditto for the servers and hosting needed for those epic online multiplayer games." Well, no. See, that stuff should already be billed in to the game price I'm paying at the store. Because the thing I'm buying? It says "GAME DISC" on the package. Nowhere does it say "DISC WITH ROUGHLY 75% GAME CONTENT AND A PERSONAL LICENSE ENTITLING THE OWNER TO PURCHASE THE REMAINING 25% OF GAME CONTENT VIA EXORBITANTLY-PRICED ADD-ONS." People who support this must also buy Personal Seating Licenses, an idea conjured in the foulest pits of capitalist hell where you spend thousands of dollars for the right to pay more money to buy a seat at a sports stadium.

Video games with the boys
You can practically SMELL the disposable income on these guys.


And that "new, interesting, updated content?" So far it's just been maps. Maps, by the way, that still feature the same brown, mottled, boring level design. Sure, Activision Blizzard swears up and down that they're going to present something totally new, a groundbreaking, earth-shattering way to shoot people in brown environments and desensitize them to a foreign policy predicated on blowing people up. What else are they going to say, "Uh, so we're really excited to see how many morons we can squeeze for another $10 a month, as opposed to just dinging them $15 once or twice for new maps?" Of course not! So instead it's all "player tools" and "performance analysis," like you're a day trader all of a sudden and not a burnout sitting in your parents' basement.

"Plenty of people already pay monthly fees for their games," supporters will chime in, "just look at all the MMORPG nerds whiling away their days on World of Warcraft and similar titles." Sure they do, for upkeep on servers they use. If a game company wants to speak to its target audience and explain that for proper enjoyment of the game and to make sure things work like they should, they have to charge an upkeep fee, I'll hear them out. I still reserve the right to decide it's not worth my time (and I'm never looking back, Final Fantasy XI). But don't sell me a game and then tell me if I want the other half of it I have to keep paying every month indefinitely. 

Game Night
"Sorry. It's $20 a month if you want to be able to roll for sheep."

"They've got to make money." Of course they do! I'm not so disillusioned as to think a company, ANY company, operates out of some philanthropic desire to make the world a better place. No matter how groovy the packaging is, no matter how earnest their pleas of saving whales or donating to protect rain forests are, no matter how much they say they want to help make the world a better place, companies exist to make money. So I don't begrudge Activision Blizzard and their ilk for wanting to squeeze me for every last dime they can. That's what companies do: they find the line the broadest range of consumers will tolerate and nuzzle right up against it. But if your game company can't make money putting out a game, if your game company has to result to "innovative" new ways to put the screws to your customers, you're trading a short-term boost in profits for long-term brand loyalty.

Because now I'm not just in this for $60 (or, much more likely in the case of these Call of Duty games, $25 on the Used shelf a few weeks after release), the same as most any other game. Now I'm in this for $60 and counting. The tab just runs. And I'm much more likely to judge your product much more harshly for its value when it goes from one-time investment to rotating bill, and suddenly it's not something I saved up for and splurged on, it's competing with my rent, my phone bill, my car payment, my groceries, etc. It's one thing to buy a game, be disappointed with it, and trade or sell it away after awhile. I'm much more likely to harbor resentment as a consumer towards a company that charged me full price for an incomplete product and then billed me monthly for access to the full package, only to be let down by the quality. So when the next one rolls around, instead of thinking, "Maybe it's better than the last one," I'm more apt to think, "There is not a chance in hell I'm letting those fat ticks attach themselves to my wallet again."

In the end, no amount of internet grousing will change anything. There are more than enough kids with unfettered access to their parents' credit cards that this scheme will no doubt net Activision Blizzard a windfall; more and more game companies will take notice and the practice will likely spread. At least we'll still have single player gaming. Oh, wait.

Are you willing to pay monthly fees for "bonus content" on your console/PC games? Let us know in the comments!


Flickr photos (in order): Xbox 360 game collection by mroach, Video games with the boys by ryaninc, and Game Night by Randy Robertson used under a Creative Commons License.