Gone are the days of simply buying a new game with a specific game publisher logo on the box and knowing you will enjoy the game when you get home. Since the addition of storage and internet connectivity to game consoles occurred, buying a AAA game has become more of a crapshoot. Games will often launch in an incomplete state needing patches for bug fixes and feature adds down the road. Sometimes a game launches with the bare minimum feature set and asks the player to open their wallet again to unlock more features or items. Any way you look at it, AAA games have become a bit of a nasty business in 2019. So am I proposing you never buy a AAA game again? That would be insane! Instead, I’ll cover some of my thoughts toward buying AAA titles, refraining from buying into any pre-launch hype, and navigating the landscape of big game publishers.
EA Ain‘t What They Used to Be
Let’s just hit this one head on! EA used to be one of my favorite publishers and developers. I remember first seeing their logo when starting up John Madden Football ‘92 for the Sega Genesis. After that initial encounter, I associated the EA logo with quality games as the logo appeared on Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, Rampart, Marble Madness, Road Rash, the best sports titles, and many other games. While this is about the time in gaming I recall seeing the EA logo, they were actually releasing big title all the way back to the early ’80s on the Apple II, C64, Atari, and more. EA left an impression on me at a young age and become a publisher and developer that I and many others trusted.
Throughout the rest of the ‘90s and into the 2000s, EA became best known for their sports titles. They still had their hand in many other great games from other genres, but sports games seemed to be where they shined. I’m not entirely sure when their “EA Sports. It’s in the game.” marketing campaign started, but I feel that anyone old enough to remember that slogan knows that it was all over TV ads and in the intro of their games for quite a while.
Every gamer that enjoys football games knows that the Madden series is hands down the best and longest running football game series there is. This is partly due to the fact that in December 2004, EA signed their first exclusivity deal with the NFL and its player union making it the only series able to use official team names, logos, and player names. You might think “well, at least this power is in good hands”, but I would argue that this killed off the competition and gave EA too much power. How was any other developer or publisher to compete? Lack of competition usually winds up creating a lack of innovation, and while the Madden series continued to improve for several years, it eventually became nothing more than a roster change from year to year. Who knows where football games could be if there was competition to drive innovation all these years? This was the first thing EA did that left a bad taste in my mouth.
Here is a list of exclusive deals EA has with other companies, organizations, & franchises:
- Arena Football League (2005—2009)
- ESPN (2005—present)
- English Premier League (1998—present)
- Bundesliga (1998—present)
- NASCAR (2004—2009)
- NCAA (2006—2011)
- NFL and NFLPA (2005—present)
- Porsche (2000—2016)
- Def Jam (2003—2007)
- Star Wars (2013—present)
- The Simpsons (2005—present)
If it seems that EA sought to dominate by throwing money around, the drama doesn’t stop at just landing these kinds of exclusive deals. Oh no, EA acquired and/or shut down several other developers and publishers too, many of which were loved by many. You can also find a full list of those in the link above, but just to list a few that really irked me:
When presented with this evidence, you really start to see that EA has become more and more interested in dominating the market by spending money to get exclusivity and shutting down the competition. Greed has continued to run the company for years with the list of offense growing longer each month. As internet connectivity on consoles became widespread with the 7th generation of consoles (PS3, XBOX 360), EA released more and more DLC and placed micro-transactions into their games. This has caused outrage among gamers for years and seems to get worse as time goes on.
In recent years, EA has had the most hated comment on Reddit, been voted the worst company in America 2012 & 2013, mishandled the Star Wars franchise releasing 2 Battlefront games lacking in content and full of aggressive micro-transactions, and so much more. Most recently, they released Battlefield 2 and Anthem to underwhelming response, in a seemingly unfinished state, and like always, full or ridiculous micro-transactions.
Now, when I hear about a new game coming out that seems interesting, the first thing I do is see if EA is involved. If they are, I pass on the game. I wait until it has been out long enough for the price to drop. This gives me time to take in some reviews and asses whether it is too full or micro-transactions, too buggy, or even worth my time. I have grown to hate EA and wish they will continue to drop the ball eventually resulting in their demise.
Even the Loved Developers & Publishers Sometimes Drop the Ball
I think calling EA out as an example of a Publisher to avoid or, at least, one to take caution with is low hanging fruit. Most of the gamers out there are fully aware of EA’s crimes and share at least some hatred for them. I shared my feelings on EA because it is relevant to the topic.
Some of the most beloved developers and publishers drop the ball in ways too. Rockstar is my example for this scenario. With series like GTA, Red Dead, Midnight Club, Max Payne, Manhunt, & Bully, it is easy to see why Rockstar is one of the best there is in gaming. Remember how bad GTA V’s online experience was for way too long? How about RDR 2’s online experience being called “beta” for way too long and being a bit of a shit-show? Even the best publishers are not immune to the occasional misstep.
I try to keep these types of things in mind when buying a new game. Regarding GTA and RDR 2, I didn’t buy them for their online experiences. I am way more interested in their single-player campaigns and that is why I have forked over my $60 for each of those titles. I feel like if you give some thought to why you are buying a certain game, it can prevent you from being disappointed as often.
Greed Has Taken Over & Companies are Out of Touch
Let’s look at another huge game franchise for some more examples to support my points. Star Wars: Battlefront II was the disaster that should have woken up the industry a little. Let’s review what happened after this game launched.
- 1 month before BF2 launched, EA closed another beloved studio, Visceral Games
- EA suspended microtransactions in BF2 after reviewer backlash & multiple governments question legality of loot boxes
- Belgium declares loot boxes to be illegal under gambling laws
- EA posts tone deaf comment on Reddit that becomes most downvoted comment in history
- Hawaii proposes bill to consider loot boxes a form of gambling and prohibit sale of games with loot boxes for people under 21
- EA brings back microtransactions regardless of backlash
- BF2 which should have been an easy hit for EA ends up with a 68 on Metacritic
- thousands of gamers petition to have EA's exclusivity over the Star Wars franchise to be revoked
BF2 sold much less than EA anticipated. Gamers seemed to finally be saying “Enough is enough”. The predatory nature of loot boxes in BF2 was so bad that a global discussion began over the legality of loot boxes. EA executives kept making very out-of-touch remarks about how games cost too much to make and gamers are paying a dollar or 2 an hour to enjoy great games and should be happy about spending so little for that kind of entertainment. From the outside, it really seemed like the whole ordeal was such a disaster that EA was going to have no choice but change their ways. A few months ago Anthem was released by EA in an unfinished state with a ridiculous pricing structure, too many microtransactions, and poor reviews. EA learned nothing.
Blizzard made a decision to release the next Diablo game, Diablo Immortal, as a mobile game full of microtransactions. The announcement was made at BlizzCon 2018 and was immediately booed by the crowd. The presenters responded by saying “Do you guys not have phones?” How unbelievably tone-deaf is this comment? PC and console gamers don’t usually care too much about mobile games. Diablo fans have been waiting for years to hear about the next Diablo game. How on earth could Blizzard be so out of touch? I don‘t believe they really are THAT out of touch. I believe they knew it wouldn‘t be received well from their hardcore fans, but they want some of that mobile gaming pie so badly that they don‘t care. Greed at its finest. They were willing to alienate their fans to make an easy buck.
Greed in the video game industry shows itself in other ways too. Regardless of the fact that the video game industry continues to grow and makes more money than any other entertainment-focused industry, game developments studios keep closing and developers are being laid off left and right. In recent history, these companies have closed:
- Motiga (75 employees)
- Visceral (at least 80 employees)
- Telltale Games (at least 275 employees)
- Boss Key Productions (about 60 employees)
- The Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency
- Wargaming Seattle (about 150 employees)
- Capcom Vancouver (158 employees)
- Gazillion Entertainment (about 200 employees)
More recently, Activision Blizzard and EA’s Firemonkey’s Studio went through a round of layoffs. Game publishers are selling more, making more, but continue to restructure and lay-off people to make another buck. Meanwhile, there are reports of game developers working insane amounts of hours under colossal pressure. Oh, how the mighty dollar makes all the decisions for these companies. Don‘t get me wrong, the point of having a business is to make money. At a certain point, these companies crossed over the border of what can be considered ethical in so many ways just to maximize their profit and make the shareholders happier.
Is $60 Still Enough for a AAA Game?
Should the price of video games be raised? I mean, they’ve cost that much for over 10 years now. Wouldn’t you think that they should cost more as time goes by to match inflation? Well, the answer to that isn’t a simple one.
Let’s ask ourselves one simple question: “Would I pay more than $60 for a regular version of a new game?” Some of you might have said “yes” to that, but I feel like most people wouldn’t. Publishers know that simply raising this price point would likely scare away some gamers from purchasing a new game so that figure isn‘t likely to change for a while. $60 is still a decent chunk of money to spend.
Publishers and developers already figured out a way to get more money from you without raising the price of the game directly. Do you want to unlock the upgrades for that gun more quickly? That’ll be $7. Here’s a bunch of new multiplayer maps or a new area for the campaign. $16 please. Look at this rad skin/outfit for your character. You can spend .$99 per piece or $10 on the whole thing. Worst of all, here‘s this ridiculous upgrade that costs WAY too much but will give you a sense of superiority because hardly anyone will have it. That’ll be $20/$50/$100! There’s no need to raise the price point of a game on the shelf because they try to milk you for every dime they can get long after you’ve paid the original price.
I’ve thought that maybe I would rather pay more upfront and not be nickel and dimed to death later. At some point, publishers started to release “Gold”, “Platinum”, “Ultimate”, “insert-fancy-buzz-word-here” editions of games that come with a lot of extras bundled in with the price. This idea seemed decent even though I still am not a fan of paying this much for a game most of the time. Still, there is some merit to the idea that you can pay one price and get a chunk of the extra stuff. The problem is that the extra stuff isn’t always worth the cost. I usually just ask myself “do I really need these extras?” If the items included are artwork, the soundtrack, or a special outfit or skin I usually just pass. If there is a special weapon or level included, then I start considering buying a better version.
Then they started selling a “Season Pass” that basically gives you all of the DLC for a game that is out now and will come out in the future. I HATE these! The idea seems ok at first. You fork over $50 up front and get whatever multiplayer maps or campaign level have been released and will continue to get the new ones as they come out without spending more. One of the big risks you are taking in this scenario is regarding how much more DLC actually comes out. Maybe the game doesn’t sell nearly as well as the publisher liked so they scrap development of a bunch of the DLC. Then you paid an extra $50 and maybe you got one extra map pack out of it. Plus, $50 is kind of insane. This means you’ve paid at least $110 for a single game. If you don’t sink a ton of time into that game then it just isn’t worth it. I’ve bought the Season Pass before then felt obligated to continue playing the game after I grew bored with it just because I spent so much on it. These days I just don‘t buy the Season Pass at all. I have found that about 60 hours is all I will put into a game any more before I want to move onto something else. Some people will dump hundreds of hours into a single game so spending the extra makes sense. That’s not how I do things.
Of all the ways you can spend extra up front to receive a bundle of add-ons, the new practice of releasing different versions of games with different perks and different release dates depending on what extra memberships you have is by far the most vile. Let’s pick on Anthem again because it is an easy punching bag right now. Above you will see an image of the Anthem release table. When a video game release is so complicated that you need to create what is basically a spreadsheet to inform potential buyers of which pre-order edition or membership has what features and is being released on what day, you are doing something terribly wrong. You will notice in this image that there are basically two different pre-order tiers, a row for EA Access, and two different releases for the two tiers of Origin Access. Now publishers want us to pay monthly or yearly fees to have a membership to get things early? This practice is disgusting and I will never buy a game on day one if this is the publisher’s approach. I feel like the publisher is simply trying to build hype and manipulate you into spending more to get the game early or with whatever special add-ons. In the case of Anthem, considering how horribly it was reviewed and how poorly it sold, how would you feel if you were one of the people that dropped an extra fee for a ridiculous membership so you could get the game a couple of days earlier? Now you‘re stuck with a game that is pretty much already dead and a membership that gets you a whole lot of nothing until there is another big game release coming up. Even then, who is to say that the next game you get early with that membership is worth it?
As long as publishers and developers continue to dream up more awful ways to nickel and dime us, the $60 price point shouldn‘t go anywhere. If they suddenly decide to stop trying to milk us after we buy the game and want to tack on more to the initial cost of the game then I am ok with that in theory. The only problem there is that a lot of huge titles from industry juggernauts lately have been terrible flops, and I’m not even interested in spending the normal $60 on those games.
Not All Publishers & Developers Suck
There are still plenty of developers and publishers out there that aren’t the epitome of evil. For starters, the first party games published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, Microsoft Studios, and Nintendo are often great games with little to no microtransactions or extra add-ons. When you buy DLC for these games, you can usually rest assured that you are buying quality content for a game that will receive updates and have active online multiplayer servers for a long time. Granted, first party games aren‘t always guaranteed to be a home run (I’m looking at you Crackdown 3). Still, game series like God of War, Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Mario Kart, Halo, and Gears of War are some of the best out there and are top sellers for their platform with good reason.
There are some fantastic 3rd party developers out there as well that haven‘t been acquired and destroyed by EA or Activision yet. Insomniac games has given us series like Ratchet & Clank, Spiderman, Spyro, and Resistance. I listed off some of the best Rockstar games earlier and mentioned how their multiplayer experiences aren‘t always the best, but who really bought Red Dead Redemption 2 for the multiplayer experience? Square Enix, Take Two, Bethesda, Team 17, and others are cranking out some great games and aren‘t as big of fans of overusing microtransactions and predatory pricing models are the EA’s and Activisions of the world. The game development world isn’t all evil.
How All of This Influences My Game Purchasing Habits
I know I’ve mentioned how I buy a lot of retro games from Goodwill, flea markets, eBay, and retro game stores. I don‘t usually have to give too much thought to anything I’ve mentioned here when buying those types of games. When buying a newer game for a current generation console, I absolutely consider who developed and published a game beforehand. It’s part of a list of factors I consider.
If I am considering a new game from the EAs, Activisions, and Ubisofts of the world, I first think about the previous games in the franchise, if any. I bought Assassin’s Creed: Origins when it first came out because it was reviewed well and I like a few of the previous entries in that franchise. I wasn’t disappointed and I even bought a little of the DLC. Conversely, I passed on Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey because it seemed like more of the same and, frankly, Origins has enough content that I can still pop that disc in and have plenty of things to do. You are not always safe buying a game from a reputable franchise, though. Think of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 or Mass Effect: Andromeda. Both game series had good reputations and include some of the most popular games ever made, but those two titles are garbage.
I’ll admit, I straight up wait for reviews for EA games these days because they are just the worst in the business when it comes to putting out unfinished games or games lacking content then stuffing them full of in-your-face microtransactions and I’m not having it. I was somewhat excited and hopeful for Anthem. Then the reviews started hitting YouTube. Needless to say, I haven’t bought Anthem and likely won‘t. I actually canceled my pre-order of Star Wars: Battlefront II after some reviews came out and still haven’t purchased it even though I’ve now seen it for less than $10. I almost picked up Battlefield 5 when I saw it under $30 and likely will get it once it is under $20 just because I like the series and wouldn’t mind playing the single player campaign, even though I’ve seen it called short and uninspired. Buying an EA game is like playing a carnival game; you might have fun for 5 minutes, you will likely spend too much money, you will definitely spend too much money if you want to “win”, and you are likely to regret it later.
Online reviews are something I consider very heavily, but not without caveats. First, I don’t give too much consideration to beta reviews or reviews done by people that get early review copies. Betas for games don’t tell the full picture as they aren’t yet weighed down with microtransactions. Plus, reviewers expect bugs in betas, but all too often those bugs end up in the retail release and stick around for too long. Reviews done with early review copies aren‘t something I trust as the reviewer often feels pressured by the fact that they want to continue receiving these early copies so they are hesitant to say anything negative about a game. If you are unsure about a new game, wait until the regular retail version is released, then watch a lot of reviews from different sources to really get a realistic idea of whether or not the game in question is something you really want to spend your hard-earned money purchasing.
There is also word of mouth to consider. I have a friend of 30+ years that I lift weights with 4 days a week. When he picks up a game and likes it well enough to tell me about it, I usually feel like it is safe to assume I will also like that game. If he says it is garbage, I let that weight heavily on my decision to buy it or pass it over. I know his tastes in games and how they align with mine. On the other hand, I work with some gamers that are quite a bit younger. When one of them told me that he has played Overwatch obsessively for years and it is still worth getting, I laughed it off. On the other hand, when they were all telling me how amazing RDR2 is and I had already heard that a million times, I went out and purchased it immediately because I already knew I would enjoy it and it would be something we would all talk about here and there for the next several weeks. The best reviews are from the folks you know.
Forking over $60+ for a new video game is something we all do from time to time. Some more than others. It has become apparent over the past few years that you can no longer trust that a game will be good just because it is from a certain developer, publisher or franchise. We, as gamers, have the power to tell the industry how we feel about unfinished games, predatory microtransactions, etc by choosing to wait when purchasing new games, or passing on them all together. The video game industry has had more than its share of scandal and missteps in recent years, but our wallets have the power to let the offenders know how we feel about what they are doing.