What I never see in these arguments are all the things gamers have been getting for no additional cost for years. Going all the way back to split-screen play and rumble support up to online co-op and 5.1 surround sound, every developer in the world has had to cram more and more features into their games with every successive generation, in the same amount of time and with no extra budget. Where do you think the money for this is coming from?
Let's take the example of something dependable, like FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer. These games come out like clockwork once a year, and sell millions of units with no sign of the audience ever tiring of them as they may one day a Call of Duty or Halo. What could be simpler than to push out one of these a year?
One little problem: Just over 10 years ago, you could have made the latest entry in these franchises for $2 million and still had a lot of change left over. These days, you would be doing very well to get the basic product out for $20 million, while the potential number of customers has stalled or decreased due to the middling popularity of HD consoles. Factor in the costs of multiplatform development and increased competition, and perhaps you can see why publishers are increasingly desperate for any extra revenue stream they can find.
Gamers will surely retort that if the shuttered studios I listed above had only made more good games they would not be in trouble; but sadly, making good products guarantees nothing. Games like Dead Space and Mirror's Edge might just have made their money back, but that is not what companies like EA are in the market for anymore. They need franchises, games whose assets they can reuse again and again in a much more successful way than Dead Space Extraction. It's easy to see where that leaves the Okamis, the Beyond Good and Evils and the Zack and Wikis of this industry.
While a CEO like Bobby Kotick may be individually rich, the idea that games developers are laughing all the way to the bank by ripping off poor consumers is a complete myth. Game development is not a particularly well-paying profession, and despite the high visibility of a few big-name developers, it's nowhere near the madness of Hollywood paying $20 million for a few months of a director's time. For every Modern Warfare 2 there is a DJ Hero - by all accounts a genuinely good game, and one whose developers no doubt worked just as hard to create. But MW2 has sold nearly 6 million units in a week, and DJ Hero, for the moment at least, has flopped. Those are the risks in this business. The millions Activision spent on DJ Hero will have to be absorbed from their MW2 profits (and, of course, its reliable World of Warcraft revenue stream). Activision has that luxury for the time being - few others do. But if we want other publishers to be able to continue to take risks on new IPs, we are going to have to start dialing back the hate for new payment models.
One final word about the boycott: Ironically, even though the gaming news cycle was consumed for weeks by the story, the fact that the protesters have failed to have even the most negligible impact on the sales of Modern Warfare 2 is all the proof publishers need that the PC gaming market doesn't matter. Screw you Activision, said the boycotters. You can't do this. It is now overwhelmingly evident that they can.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and was a lot more affected by the terrific snowmobile scene, to be honest.