Sunday, 4 March 2012

Non-linear Games and the DLC World of EA

I was going back over some DICE coverage (finally catching up with the talks this year I hadn't had time to check out) and walked right into this piece (24 mins video) only hours after reading this post.

Unless I completely got the wrong end of the stick (but I think it was sold quite clearly in the talk), can you see how linear stories with psychological hooks (story arcs which create incomplete purchases from each bit of DLC you buy) to get people to keep buying the new DLC are being sold (by the EA guy) as a great driver of an open world environment. The real non-linear content comes from the emergent gameplay (with systemic game design) that has nothing to do with constantly trying to sell a person the next chunk of linear content for your world.

Building an open world with linear story (GTA, Elder Scrolls being two great examples) are narratively linear when you're writing the story (even if you can approach a lot of the content in the order of your choice). The non-linear content is the emergent activities, walking the earth or enjoying the city simulation. That is where the players craft new stories that the designer did not build and yet the guy from (DLC fans) EA gives a big talk about how getting a writing staff around to constantly pump out paid content with story arcs as episodic content is non-linear.

I'm starting to get a deep understanding of why EA moved off Steam and it wasn't just Origin was ready to release (EA have no issue sharing sales revenue with any other digital store, as long as those stores don't force them to offer the choice of buying DLC from that same storefront). They see the boxed game as a traditional revenue source for getting the game out the door and are happy to give away some of the money to distributors (digital and retail) because they just got a customer for that product 'platform'. The game (a platform to sell more piecemeal linear story) is their conduit to far more revenue generation by selling DLC to expand the experience. Boxed copies drop in value over time but by enforcing all DLC via Origin they can keep 100% of that new big revenue stream and avoid a traditional price depreciation. That's worth losing any sales through Steam for on PC. Mass Effect 2 is £5 retail but you have to pay £30 on top to get all the DLC (if you made the mistake of buying Me2 used then it's a £40 cost to buy all the DLC including the stuff that comes with the new copies) and complete the story and all that money goes direct to EA. Imagine if all that DLC was critical to your full understanding of the story arcs of the game and they all chained together so buying one meant a sunk cost pushing buying the next one to see that multi-DLC story arc blossom. It has nothing to do with emergent non-linear stories, non-linear is only true in the strictest sense that you can do a lot of content (especially with a Elder Scrolls style many-linear chain design) in an order of your choosing. Like reading 3 books about the same character at once and picking where you go for the next chapter as you flick between them.

This ties in to a longer conversation about the ethical issue with 'whales' (the F2P term) and how we move with episodic content without abusing the customer and creating a drop-fed, unhappy consumer who ends up leaving the industry and spending their money on DVDs, books, and other entertainment if we treat them like something to maximise our cash intake from. While a game and traditional expansions had a classic price depreciation to pick up a long tail and let gamers buy when they could afford it (limited only on peer pressure to consume the latest talking point game), are we shooting ourselves in the foot with 30-60 minutes DLC missions for the price of a classic release (say 36 months after game launch) of a full game (or even an indie title at launch)? Are we offering a suitable value and is there a problem when a game that you can buy for £5 with lots of content can grow to 125% of that total content only by buying £30 of additional DLC, especially if we start to look at tying that content into arcs and hooking into the desire to follow threads (as discussed in the video).

When we grow to a TV model and have masses of DLC, two games worth of quest chains (four 12 episode seasons of content? At £5 an episode that would be £240 of content sold bit by bit as DLC but two games new only costs £60) then how to we price fairly? If we try and take every penny today then we'll end up stripping the customer base for gaming. And why did the guy from EA decide to try and pass this off as a non-linear discussion? Was that just a lack of a good term for this episodic content without using that phrase (because episodic content is something associated with some mild failure stories of timetables and popularity) as he pushed DLC? Does the not-technically-fixed-order way that Elder Scrolls does content make the dev think non-linear somehow?

Jan 2017 Update: video url stopped working, fixed to now point at current location.