“Rip-off. Why should I have to pay for Cranky levels? You have lost a customer,” reads Coolcoco’s one-star App Store review for Where’s My Water on January 30. “I love Swampy. But having to pay for an update is a bit greedy,” agreed Spence582 the same day, also awarding it just one star.
Disney’s smartphone puzzle game smash received an update last week that added the chance to purchase Cranky’s Story, a bundle of 50 new levels and four challenge packs (a total of 16 special levels), all for 69p/99c. That’s a significant chunk of new content; the game originally released at 69p/99c with 80 levels, with a further 60 being added with free updates, making for 140 levels in total until the advent of Cranky’s Story.
And yet players like Jal1233222 (“Love it, but paying 4 updates is rubbish!” Three stars) seem to think that the in-app purchase is unfair. In fact, the fear of one-star reviews making a dent in Where’s My Water’s five-star average has apparently become so great that Disney released an update yesterday that among its bug fixes includes the following capitulation: “Coming soon – more free updates to Swampy’s Story”.
Bowing to such public pressure is a PR necessity in the face of public expectation and the noise and turnover of the App Store. But it’s also another step to reinforcing a dangerous sense of entitlement in players who are increasingly used to the idea of playing for free, or for tiny amounts of money. It’s a situation that throws the immediacy of contact between game makers and players that the internet affords into sharp relief. In fact, it almost turns the relationship between consumer and producer on its head – the consumer selling time and attention to a hungry market of producers.
Where’s My Water illustrates the delicate line that exists between game makers being able to invite and use player comments to make a game incrementally better and bigger and hold its relevancy among its playerbase, and for players to demand that it's made entirely on their terms. In the best case everyone wins, but Disney's experience shows that player expectation can come back and bite poor Swampy on his scaly rump.
Protesting over Valve
Coincidentally, one of gaming’s biggest proponents of this two-way relationship between developers and players is experiencing similar pressures. This weekend, the more than 40,000-member strong A Call For Communication Steam group will play Half-Life 2 to protest Valve’s lack of transparency regarding Half-Life 3.
Arguably, Valve has to shoulder some of the responsibility, having dropped hints and references to Half-Life canon in Portal 2 and therefore whipped up a froth of speculation which culminated in assumptions that there were encoded H-L3 messages in its acceptance video for one of Portal 2’s VGA wins.
You could try to claim that Valve’s playful history of ARGs has produced expectation of added dimensions in everything it makes. But, as politely worded as the Steam group’s manifesto is, its line is that, as if it were a public body, Valve is entirely accountable to its games' fans. It’s hard to imagine Gabe Newell, given his player-centric doctrine, disagreeing with that argument per se, but in the cut-and-thrust of game marketing, factoring in E3 and release dates and having something substantial to show off, it’s also hard to imagine him abandoning everything to appease their desires.
Valve won’t have forgotten, of course, about the 2009 protest over the release of Left 4 Dead 2, which gained over 16,000 followers who feared the sequel would freeze development of the first game, insisting that Valve hold "to its promise of free, continual updates to Left 4 Dead in order to build and sustain the community.” It took careful public communication from such figures as one of its lead developers, Chet Failszek, to talk the protesters down, as well as inviting the protest’s leaders to the studio to discuss what could be done. It poured water on the flames of disgruntlement, but it also surely bit into the creative process of actually making games, which is what developers are primarily for.
But most game players don’t know – or fundamentally care – about the realities of game development. In a market awash with high quality cheap entertainment made by developers running over themselves to show their dedication to their audiences, it seems inconceivable to players that the realities of funding a studio might get in the way.
It also seems inconceivable that a studio that’s famous for its close relationship with its fans might be silent about its biggest and most celebrated property. And yet the Half-Life series is notorious for protracted development cycles, through which the games underwent sweeping changes, with Half-Life 2 costing an at the time unfathomable $40 million to make. Given the flack Valve came under for the delays to that game, surely it can be forgiven for being more careful with a new one.
What’s ownership anyway?
More than ever before, it’s easy for players to feel they own games, because they can engage with them on so many more levels. They can join communities focused on them, speak to their makers and influence their ongoing development.
But as much as all this helps to make games seem more alive, it’s disguising the simple fact that games, more than ever before, are technically the property of their makers, not their players. After all, games now operate in a tangle of digital rights and EULAs. Players merely own rights to play them – and even then, these rights are carefully curtailed beneath a pile of caveats.
In practice, the truth lies somewhere in between – players can’t play without game makers maintaining control over them, and games can’t exist without players taking a form of ownership over them. But while much attention is trained on the first point, with scrutiny on DRM and abuses of EULAs, we also need to think more about the second point.
Game makers need to make clearer the value of their games and what players are really getting for their money. Keeping up the illusion that they own more than they do breeds entitlement that brings with it the risk players might smother their favourite games with their love.