I have a question, readers, and like the true shithead that I am, I’m going to ask it and then ramble on for a page or two, drowning out all attempts by the audience to answer my question because I never wanted it answered in the first place, I just wanted to hear the sound of my own voice. So here’s the question: Is it acceptable for a game to arbitrarily withhold content from its paying customers?
Rhetoric deployed, commence ramble. Obviously games have always withheld content until certain conditions are met; you can’t play all the levels right from the beginning, you have to prove yourself by completing all the ones leading up to the next. I’m not talking about that, because the player still has total agency over their capacity to explore the game world. I’m talking about locking off content until time has passed or some other arbitrary event triggers that is entirely outside of the player’s control.
It’s something of a sticking point for me that Splatoon‘s central online mode only has two maps playable at a time, changing them every few hours regardless of what the player does or how much they familiarize themselves with the available areas. It raises the question (another rhetorical one, so sit down): How exactly does this benefit the player? You could argue that it gives them a chance to fully familiarize themselves with the two levels they’ve been given and prevents them getting overwhelmed by too much at once, but surely that would be something better gauged through player achievement (say by unlocking more maps after the player has completed a certain number of matches on the starting maps) than by the passage of time.
Besides, no-one’s going to get overwhelmed by the grand total of five maps the game launched with. No, I don’t believe this measure is one designed for the players’ benefit; I think it should be obvious that the online mode is a bit slim on content (though I’m sure they’ll patch in some more stuff Real Soon Now) and the dribbling out is a measure to disguise that fact. Same is true of the slim range of cosmetic items changing every day.
It’s nothing new, of course, it goes all the way back to Animal Crossing, when there was a limit to what you could do in a gameplay session and you’d eventually have no recourse but to wait in real time for the game to begrudge you more stuff to do. See also Tomodachi Life. But this was mostly outside of any online component, and it was easy enough to implement Baby’s First Hack, that is to say, changing the date on the system clock. It was much more insidious when the same sort of thing was taken up by the Facebook games of the world, with their real-time-based energy systems.
What it is is a measure to space out the time the player spends with the game. It means they can’t see all of the content in one big session and need to come back tomorrow. It adds an element of routine, thus worming its way into the reptile brain. If you’re allowed to play and play until you’ve burned yourself out, you’re less likely to come back. It’s the carrot dangled slightly out of reach that keeps the donkey walking. That’s entirely justifiable for a free to play game, you’ve got to make your money somehow. It’s a bit evil because people can theoretically spend indefinite amounts of money on the game, but still justifiable. In a ‘Stannis burns his daughter alive’ sort of way.
Withholding content for a game that the player has already paid full price for, on the other hand, through an online system entirely separate from the user’s console that can’t be cleverly circumvented with date tampering, that’s a different story. Yeah, maybe the players might burn themselves out if they’re given the content all at once, but maybe they want to. Who are you to dictate how someone can enjoy your product after the money and the disk have changed hands? Because there are plenty of creators in the world who have tried, even before the age of online post-sale tampering. The mediocre authors, directors and game designers who answer criticism of their work by declaring that the critic “didn’t get it” or “weren’t reading/watching/playing it the right way”. And you know what we call people like that? Absolute cunts.
Nowadays absolute cunts can forcibly ensure that their work is played ‘the right way’, by such tactics as artificially restricting the available levels to two maps for a fixed amount of time. The intention is not to engage with the audience but to treat them as a huge, identical, monotone mass, all flattened out, perfectly level and manageably acting as one. None may excel; those who have played the available levels at length and become experts will be waiting exactly the same amount of time for the next pair of levels as the ones who got bored and ended their first session three matches in. No emergent gameplay or creative thinking will be tolerated.
In this age of digital downloads, DLC and post-sale patching, games have become ever-changing, nebulous entities that can’t be contained within a single disk or cartridge. For that reason, the concept of exchanging money for ownership of a solid product of appropriate value is getting lost. We no longer use our money to purchase games to do with as we please; now, creators demand our money as some kind of demonstration of loyalty, as a corrupt priest might demand money to wash away our sins, so that we may be considered worthy of joining their mewling congregation and receiving their sacred gift of piss into our cupped hands and open mouths.
Maybe I feel threatened by this new age of amorphous games because I’m a game reviewer and my job hinges on commonality. I need to be able to reference things in the games I talk about that the audience can recognize, so that we can all share a jolly good laugh at its expense. But increasingly I find I am only able to review a single state in which the game temporarily exists, and which it will no longer exist in by the time a new viewer catches up and watches the review years, months, or weeks down the line. All I’m saying is, I wish games would be polite enough to remain still and in one form while I’m standing on its neck and jabbing it with a pitchfork.