Tobold's Blog
Monday, April 08, 2013
Are the games we buy the games we want?

I have always argued that subscription numbers of a MMORPG six months after release do allow us to say something about the quality of a game. If people are still playing then, they must be having fun. It is very hard to argue that they got lured into the game by false advertising and haven't found out about it half a year later. But that is subscription MMORPGs, a dying species. If we look at single-player games, it is a lot easier to imagine that people bought a game they ended up not wanting, and thus the sales numbers that state which games people buy aren't necessarily an expression of which games they want.

Case in point: SimCity. It apparently sold over 1.1 million copies over its first two weeks. How many of these 1.1 million players regretted that purchase? How many got the game on pre-order, or bought it based on hyped previews, before the significant flaws of the game became apparent?

The perverse consequence is that probably the *next* EA Maxis game will sell less well, regardless of quality. But somebody who tries to find out "what gamers want" based on sales numbers would think that SimCity was an excellent game to emulate. Even if you don't look at the game itself, but only at the server issues, somebody looking at the sales numbers will conclude that people don't mind buying games with always-on DRM. Because the SimCity server debacle is more likely to hurt the *next* games sales.

Although I am not a big fan of Kickstarter from a customer protection point of view, I would say that Kickstarter might actually better at measuring "what gamers want" than sales of triple-A games. There is less influence of hugely expensive advertising campaigns or lobbying to game journalists on Kickstarter numbers, and more of an explicit expression of desire for a certain type of game.

I find it quite likely that in the case of single-player games the usual economic consideration of the "homo economicus" who buys what is of use to him isn't true. People buy what they *think* might be a great game, lured in by pre-order bonuses, advertising, and hype from game journalism. Quite often they want to buy the game on release, to be playing the game everybody is talking about, to be with the in crowd. By the time they notice that the game they bought isn't the game they wanted, it is already too late. Sales numbers are in, there are no refunds, and beyond not buying the next game(s) from that company there isn't much they can do.

Might I suggest watching this:

about Kickstarter replacing Hollywood for movie funding.
One reason "Homo economicus" doesn't work is an important kind of market failure: missing transparency.

Government regulation can often help here. If it cannot or doesn't want to, the market is less efficient, meaning: we get too little supply of the goods we want and too much supply of the goods we don't want.

If you think about it, only very few markets are actually 100% transparent, btw.
> probably the *next* EA Maxis game
> will sell less well, regardless of
> quality

And then it came Battlefield 4...
You have a very limited definition of "use". " be playing the game everybody is talking about, to be with the in crowd" has enormous utility for many people. Social capital has value.

That the game is poor isn't that important. Being part of the group that experiences just how poor is.
It rather seriously depends on the situation.

There are more direct punishments, short of MMO subscriptions. SimCity games have historically had expansions/DLC, and EA is very quick to like that sort of add-on sale. Purchase numbers for expansions and DLC do require people to keep playing the game and want to pay more for it. These aren't always great metrics -- Mass Effect 3's Extended Cut sales were probably better than the game's ending justified -- but they do mean something.

Moreover, first-week and first-month sales are only the starting number. While it's a more meaningful effect at the indie side of the market, people buying games down the road do matter, and they'll be influenced more heavily by reviews and scores and things breaking.

And, on the other side, having a terrible reputation hasn't been reliable when it comes to hurting the next game down the line. NCSoft closed City of Heroes just as they opened Guild Wars 2, and for all the bloggeratti justifiably complain and be concerned about GW2's treatment under the company, it didn't exactly have some sudden drop in sales (even in-game sales). I'd be very surprised if Wildstar has a lot of problems, either. EA's has a long-term reputation for monstrous DRM and terrible support, and EA-Maxis has as recently as 2008's Spore -- but they obviously didn't devastate SimCity's sales numbers. Reputation matters a lot for small publishers, where word of mouth gets a lot of sales, but it's not clear even there that negative reputations are that bad. See the RPG industry, where WhiteWolf's notoriously bad editing and terrible math systems are still making major sales even as CCP continues to treat the paper side worse and worse.
I don't think Kickstarter represents the mainstream. The average player has probably not heard of it. Most players who have heard of it don't want to take the risk that they fund a game that never gets released or goes in a different direction than they expected. No, I think the best marker of a game's success is the Steam stats/ranking. For non-Steam games there's Xfire and Raptr, though it's true that mostly enthusiast gamers use those programs. That's the best we can get until NPD can get digital sales (if that will ever happen).
Ideally we'd be charged not on whether we decide to buy it, but by how much enjoyment we experienced from it. But this is very tricky to measure, and privacy issues make it entirely impractical. It's not a transparency issue, it's that there's no way to know how much your future self will value an experience you haven't reached yet.

I do think that present performance does have an impact on future sales, even if not as large as some would wish. If 80% of the people who express disappointment in a game will buy the next one regardless, at least there's the 20% who won't. No single purchaser has much impact, but in aggregate there's pressure to make better games if you want future sales.

You can say that developers have their week 1 sales, and don't care about lasting appeal. But you hear stories about bonuses and layoffs depending on metacritic scores, so clearly some companies do value these things.

It's all very individual. There's a good chance I'll still buy future EA Maxis games, hoping that they'll have learned and perhaps that they'll aim for a target audience I'm closer to. I'll still buy blizzard games, even if the latest wow expansions have left me cold and d3 was disappointing. Final fantasy? Well.... probably not, unless everyone goes nuts over it. So there's my line. Everyone else has their own, probably at different places.
If one is scoring a game as good, then how much should you count off for someone who is disappointed in the game, but will also be disappointed in the next six games they buy. Is the disappointment indicative of the game or just the special snowflakes that haunt fora?

If you are in the business of selling games, then the games that players want seems of much less interest than the games that players buy.

If the game sells less because the corporate parent runs out of money for advertising, of does a poor job of it, then the sales will be down even if the game is the same.

Re "somebody looking at the sales numbers will conclude that people don't mind buying games with always-on DRM" Even with DRM (arguably because of it), the Apple is paying iOS developers a billion dollars a month.

It appears that Microsoft is at least considering that the complaints of people about DRM are not enough to outweigh their dishonesty. Once almost all MMOs and most online games are F2P and always-on is also the norm, the next generation of gamers will not QQ near as much since it will be normative for them.

Is it at all whether Sim City is a bad game, or is this just about the DRM?

If the problem gets sussed out, then people will happily overlook the bad for remembering the good times they had in the game. Some individuals may never buy a Sim City game again, and others may boycott all EA games from now on.

Also, we can't see DLC sales. So our only hope of enlightenment on the subject is to wait for the next Sim City game to come out.

By then, most people will have forgotten the DRM debacle.
I never buy games on release. Not even the one series I really do trust, Forza Motorsport. And not even the Bioware stuff, whom have not as of yet, let me down.

I wait afew weeks and watch the nets.

Now as far as SimCity goes, I was actually looking forward to it. I still have SC4 installed and I like it, every now and again.

But the current SC? My goodness. The nets are clear, it is crap. The one person I know IRL who got it, regrets it. Yes it looks pretty. But there's no substance there whatsoever... Big failure for games, sadly though good sales numbers and so EA may be thiking, yup this is what we need...
re "Ideally we'd be charged not on whether we decide to buy it, but by how much enjoyment we experienced from it." isn't that the premise behind F2P games?
In response to your question, yes in my case. When I buy games I make sure to research it first to ensure it's worth the coin I'm spending.

Ofcourse I haven't bought a game in years now. This is because I feel my money has better things to be spent on (like the house). I still buy other people games, and get my supply from gifts from other people. This also makes it easy for people to get gifts for me as the games I want can be years old (and cheaper) by the time I get them. ;p

As for free to play stuff I don't research at all. :P
You buy the game that's available, not the one you wish that was. Unfortunately the cost of AAA games means that if you want the shiniest incarnation of game genre X, your choice boils down to one or not playing at all. AAA Fantasy MMO market seems like a cornucopia by comparison
Do not pre-order. Wait for reviews. Otherwise, you are just asking for disappointment.

That is all.
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