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November 7, 2014 Why we pay too much for not enough

This article is part of a series called Technology by Compass.

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Being a gamer, much like drug addiction and building rockets out of gold, is an expensive habit. The main difference between gaming and those other two things is that with them, you mostly get what you pay for.

Oh, and I guess the other things are also illegal? But I digress.

Originally, this was going to be a piece about how grossed out I am about the price of videogames in Australia. Sure, even in this glistening modern era of ours, the old “Australia tax” is in full swing when it comes to most things imported to these sandy shores, but the case of videogames is a sad and special one. Game prices are inflated even on direct-download services like Steam, where there is absolutely no shipping overhead or other justifiable reason for the hikes.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: that’s the case for all media products for sale in Oz! Why do songs in the iTunes store cost more? Why do movies on Google Play cost more? It’s just old Rupert Murdoch up in Saruman’s tower lining his pockets, right?

Probably. I assume he’s a wizard, with a name like that.

But the reason I’ve had to reframe the topic of this article a little is that I took a long hard look at my festering inner rage, and realised that it wasn’t really the prices of games that bugged me the most. It’s what you’re getting for that price.

Now, this is an issue that is currently afflicting the video game industry at large, not just here in Oz (though Team Bondi did make a game called L.A. Noire which definitely fell victim to this), but it stings all the more when you’re paying premium prices for your software:

That software is unfinished.

Of this spring’s roster of must-own triple-A releases, here is a highlight reel of games that have been so crippled by bugs and service interruptions that they have been sporadically unplayable: Destiny, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Assassins Creed: Unity, World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, and and Far Cry 4.

A nightmare made flesh.

That leaves, what, Call of Duty, and Dragon Age? And those games do also have their share of acknowledged glitches, bugs and garbage, they just don’t Ruin The Game!

So what does all this mean? That we shouldn’t put colons in the titles of our games? No, stop interrupting, what’s the matter with you.

The ugly truth is that the corporate demand placed on the poor, benighted teams rushing to get these games out and into your X-station U or whatever is just unreasonably high. Developers are literally not being given enough time to finish their games.

This has led to phenomena you may be familiar with, like the “massive day-one patch”, requiring you to download a file for like four hours before the game you just bounded joyously home with can even be started up.

Or the “massive dearth of identical fetch quests” in a game that boasts about how long it is. If you’re like me, and sit like a buffoon through all nine hours of a game’s closing credits, you’ll notice that Ubisoft (for example) has changed the name of its Quality Assurance departments to “Quality Control”.

Telling, given that nobody is actually assured of any quality anymore. All they’re doing now is trying to control how much garbage and faeces arrives on your install disk.

In Australia, we’re paying through the nose for the pleasure.

So, what can be done? The usual battlecry is “vote with your wallet!” “don’t buy these broken games!” “show those corporate fat cats where the power lies!” – but I think we both know that the reason we’re in this mess to begin with is that the only thing that keeps being broken more than these games is their sales records.

The wheels of the machine keep turning. All we can hope for is that eventually enough of these games will come out so broken that the following year people will somehow manage to snap out of it, and give the latest Call of Battlefield 17: Brothers in Destiny a miss. Maybe that will cause some of these studios to let a developer actually finish a game.

If that doesn’t happen, and we continue down this road of hundred-dollar beta tests sold as products, you may some day find yourself telling wistful stories to your grandchildren about a mystical time when games and the commercials for those games were even remotely alike.

It already sounds a little fanciful, doesn’t it?

This article is part of a series called Technology by Compass.

Read the series >