Specials: This is like a virtual strip-joint. You got twenty bucks baby??
The Xbox Live Marketplace is, in many ways, a wonderful thing. Loads of great content: the arcade games, high definition trailers and game documentaries ? not to mention some excellent free demos of upcoming 360 titles - make for a nice boost to an already great online service. Microsoft is to be commended on really penetrating the home turf of broadband connected gamers, bringing great products and services right into the living room. However, as with any good thing, there's a dark side to the Marketplace, which comes in the form of micro-transactions. Now, I'm not one to complain about paying for content ? in fact, to the contrary I've generally believed that it's completely worthwhile to spend a few bucks on new material. However, there has been a disturbing trend recently where some developers (and Microsoft) have positioned product updates at ridiculously high prices. While game makers should certainly be compensated for their hard work, there's a fine line between ?worth it? and ?complete rip-off??
First things first, let's have a look at the initial downloads for Bethesda's Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. 200 points for horse armor? That is completely ridiculous and in fact, totally insulting to gamers who support the company. Now, I'm not saying that some content isn't worth 200 points (or more) but in this case it was clearly an example of ?price the stuff high and see if people will pay it?. Of course, after the angry reaction from the gaming community subsequent Oblivion downloads have been priced more reasonably. Now, there is a certain faction of the gaming masses who feel that everything should be free, and any attempt to garner payment for the effort that developers put into additional content is wrong. Of course, that's the opposite extreme ? nothing in life is free, and if it is there's likely some pretty long strings attached. But I digress ? the point is that reasonable fees are ok, just don't take the low road and try and sell overpriced garbage and call it chocolate cake.
As well, the other problem is the fact that no matter what price the new material is, some players won't buy it. When this material comes in the form of new multiplayer maps (GRAW, Perfect Dark Zero and Call of Duty 2 come to mind) it tends to splinter the online community. Since I purchased the GRAW download package, I can't play the game with friends if I'm running any of the new co-op missions or multiplayer maps. Frankly, that sucks, though I really don't have a solution unless it's to take a cue from Bungie and ultimately make all the content free after a specified amount of time.
In the end, it will be up to the individual to decide if they want to pay to play. Is it worth a quarter of the full price of the game for a handful of new maps? Probably not, but it seems to be an unfortunate reality in the new generation of gaming. If fees could be held to a reasonable amount ? say, no more that five bucks for new map packs and skins, weapons etc ? then perhaps more gamers would be inclined to buy it. Another unfortunate fact is the tendency for games to ship with bugs, while developers remain smug in the knowledge that it can always be patched at some later date. I realize the incredible amount of work that goes into creating games and making sure that it all runs smoothly, but there's always the danger that we'll be receiving more and more ?broken? product that will be patched sometime after the initial release. And as I mentioned previously, that sucks. Ultimately, we'll vote with our wallets, and if developers see that their bottom line is affected drastically by overpriced crap or returned product, they'll perhaps be more apt to fall into line and present more reasonable fare.
Glenn Wigmore adds...
There's no debating the success of the Xbox Live Marketplace to date ? it has easily met, and in many ways surpassed, the expectations that Microsoft had pegged for it. Still, much like Xbox Live's initial birth back in 2002 promised a new way to play console games, the Marketplace promised a steady flow of content and varied ways in which people could ?do more? with their console, and it seems to be paying off in spades. Millions of downloads later, people are still extremely interested in the next pieces of content coming out in a week, with many message boards and blogs reaching fever pitch as a highly anticipated download approaches ? the recent Prey demo comes to mind. Still, success can easily breed arrogance and MS has some important choices to make in shaping this online marketplace ? chiefly from a financial perspective.
The obvious standouts of the Marketplace have been the game demos and Xbox Live Arcade releases, even though both of those areas have recently been a little rocky with a lack of available content. It was encouraging to hear about ?Live Arcade Wednesdays,? especially since this promises some reliable release dates for casual content in the coming five or six seeks (MS has said that after August 9th, the content won't show up every Wednesday, but should be at about one game per week). Even with these hiccups, Live Arcade content has been a total blast to play, especially with cheap yet wildly fun games like Geometry Wars, Uno, and Marble Blast Ultra. Pricing for the Live Arcade games has been acceptable so far, with Bankshot Billiards 2 being the only game priced at $15 (and this can be overcome if you purchase a 1-year subscription kit which includes the game ? essentially for free). Paying $5 or $10 dollars for online enabled retro experience with achievement points is totally agreeable, and slapping down around $10 for a fully featured independent game seems like the right amount of scratch as well; it's not hard to stomach that sort of investment when you're getting new and interesting experiences that utilize achievements, online, and high-def visuals in original ways.
MS had to learn some hard lessons when it first launched Live Arcade on the original Xbox. The pricing scheme for that iteration (only available on disc format) was extremely exorbitant and was not conducive to mass consumption. Admittedly, that foray into casual pay-for-play content was likely more of a test, but MS were still throwing darts at a board to see what people would be willing to pay. Lessons were obviously learned, as they wisely included the base software within the Xbox 360 interface, but also skewed the pricing so that retro titles would be $5, independent or original content would be $10, and the occasional piece of high-profile content (Lumines) would be higher.
The unfortunate developments in recent months have been MS' (and their third-party partners) odd pricing schemes for additional game content. By now, everyone knows of the silly ?Horse Armor? fiasco, but to sum up: MS/Bethesda was charging $2.50 for a new skin for your in-game horse for Oblivion ? an animal that was scarcely used by some and only occasionally used by others. Bethesda and MS did respond to this particular instance and all subsequent content releases for Oblivion have been the same or even less expensive, and, more importantly, have been more substantial additions to the game. Of course, this was a great little case study of people voicing their opinions and (hopefully) voting with their wallets in order to institute change. This was encouraging to see, but other content released on the Marketplace indicates that adjustment to pricing hasn't become status quo.
The recent Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter download added some new camo skins, a few new guns, four new co-op maps, and some ?re-lit? original maps for the hefty sum of $15. People were instantly taken aback by the steep pricing scheme, and many observers quickly compared the pricing to that of previous ?expansion? discs that usually ran for $20 to $30. The problem with this piece of content being $15 isn't the monetary amount ? it's the principle. People want to feel like they're getting a return on their investment and something worthwhile to add onto their gaming experience. In many ways, this piece of content seemed like an $8 or $10 item that was just bumped up to 15 clams because, well, they (Ubisoft and MS) could.
Honestly, how much is one going to use a few new co-op maps and some other small additions to the online? Is it worth $15? Would you really get that much use out of a fairly average offering of maps and skins? On top of these questions lies the obvious fact that this type of pricing fractures the online community. Some users are going to buy the content, but others are not. Games will become harder to find because some will be using a host of options that aren't available to others. Add onto this the fact that PC users will be getting this content plus additional patches and map editors for free, and you've got some serious questions to be posing about console commerce.
Using another example, the upcoming five Call of Duty 2 maps for $10, we can see another murky scenario. Not only is there community fracturing, but also there is a question of whether five maps are worth 1/5 or 1/6 of the game's sticker price. Certainly, those who play this game on a regular basis may not quibble at the price, but should people just accept this pricing as is and not think about whether it is appropriate? This example could easily be related to the Halo 2 maps that were released in the same fashion ? two free, two for $5, and five for about $10. There are some key differences to take into account when comparing back to what Halo 2 did: not only was that the original Xbox, meaning pay content had to be viable since credit cards were being used and there needed to be many transactions to be profitable, but Halo 2 had a huge built in audience of people who would use this content and buy it up, and ? most importantly ? the content eventually was free. Bungie and MS had their bases covered: the content could be bought up for a stated price or you could wait until was free. The monetary option was fair, and the community wouldn't be fractured since everybody could eventually have the maps ? not to mention Halo 2 was a phenomenal online experience.
With these current scenarios on the Marketplace, some of the pricing doesn't even pass the giggle test. Looking at ?themes and picture packs,? we run into the same sets of problems. Now, of course these pieces of content are totally optional and based on personal interest, but charging 75 cents for a .gif that someone could have easily made for free is absurd, as is charging a couple of bucks for themes that are poorly produced or purely introduced with profit in mind. At least the themes can be tailored by using a computer, and the upcoming web cam will introduce some freedom to the pics, but the pricing still seems to fall into the ?they do it because they can? mantra.
But the pics and themes' pricing raise even more questions about some of the game content and its entry fee. Why doesn't MS allow for a sliding scale on the MS points for game content like they have for pics? If a pic can be 40, 60 or 80 points, why can't a new piece of game content be $7 or $8? MS had no problem abstracting the currency to disassociate money from the Marketplace so why is it hard for them to break the $10 for this, $15 for that mentality? Heck, why aren't pieces of content discounted or bundled at some point? Take the Bungie approach and make the content more accessible down the line. This type of business model would be great for Live Arcade, too ? hey, why throw away more money when a game is dwindling in sales? You can't tell me Outpost Kaloki is still selling for $10 bucks and getting downloads ? knock it down to five and properly promote it when doing so.
It's hard to look at the faults of something that has been such a successful component of what has made up the identity of the Xbox 360. But, these are important questions for moving forward, especially in the wake of ?episodic content,? and also with the other two hardware manufacturers talking turkey about their plans for online distribution. The Marketplace has done many things right so it's critical that it moves forward in ways that keep customers informed, give them choice, and treat them with respect when they're laying down money on product. Essentially, it's a marketplace so live up to that name and show some flexibility.