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Call of Assassin's Horse Armour
by Tom Battey on 10/30/12 01:16:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


When Ubisoft announced that Assassin's Creed III will include free-to-play style micro-transactions, my first though was 'seriously?' followed by 'argh, Ubisoft, God, you awful money-grabbing reptilians.' There is little to be read into this - or into Ubisoft's chief financial officer's blatherings about 'benefiting a game's profitbability' - other than that Ubisoft clearly thinks that they deserve to earn more money for ACIII than the game's price tag allows.

I do not have an issue with the F2P model in general, although admittedly I've had little exposure to it on account of not owning any sort of 'smart' device. I think if used correctly it's a perfectly valid business model that clearly benefits certain types of games.

What Ubisoft is proposing, however, isn't free-to-play at all, it's expensive-to-play; now-with-added-expense. ACIII is a full price, £40/$60 game, not an accessible MMO or pick-up-and-play iOS game. If the budget of ACIII is really too big to be covered by the usual £40 price tag then Ubisoft, really, you shouldn't have made a game that's that expensive. Seriously.

Now it's worth dialling back the rant a bit to consider that we don't know what these nebulous 'Eriduto Packs' are actually going to be used to purchase. When discussing the F2P model in general, people live in fear of 'pay to win' items, where players willing to spend real cash have access to better, higher-level equipment and such. Quite why this would matter in a primarily single player game I don't actually know, but it's more than likely that the ACIII will packs offer little more than the chance to pay for some cosmetic additions for the multiplayer mode.

But if this is the case, it still doesn't make it fine. I thought we were long past the point where paying real money for cosmetic enhancements in a full-price game was considered fine. But Ubisoft, desperate to shoe-horn F2P elements into AAA development so they can take more of people's money, are quite possibly going to try and repackage Horse Armour as a hip new business practice for the next console generation.

Still, much as I may loath Ubisoft's business practices, I'm still going to be playing Assassin's Creed III over the coming months (I will not, however, be purchasing any Eriduto Packs, just in case the above paragraphs have not made that clear.) All this pondering on the topic of F2P brought me to consider way the business model could realistically be applied to the AAA scene, which brought me to consider a game I likely won't be playing in the next few months.

Specifically, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.

Now, I usually do like the Call of Duty games, with one major caveat; I only ever play the campaign mode. The campaign mode is fun, providing you stick firmly to the designated rails - a roller-coaster ride of ridiculously bombastic set pieces and satisfying shootouts. But I won't touch the competitive multiplayer - unarguably the real meat of the CoD package - nor am I likely to partake in the co-op missions.

This leaves me with the rather unappealing option of shelling out £40 (okay, more like £45; I never said Ubisoft were alone in over-valuing their own product) for a 6-hour-if-you're-lucky campaign which is fun exactly one time through. Which basically means I'll be playing the game next year when I can borrow a friend's copy, and Activision won't be seeing any of my money.

But what if this weren't the case? What if I didn't have to buy either the whole game, or none of it? What if Activision sold the campaign as a stand-alone for, say, £15, the multiplayer for £15 and the co-op components for £10? Now I have actual purchasing options, and £15 to blast through a campaign sounds a lot more appealing than £40 for the same. And then Activision would have 15 of my pounds, and it seems that if there's one thing publishers really enjoy, it's taking my pounds.

It works the other way around as well; I know lots of people who only play multiplayer, never touching the campaign that they have unnecessarily paid for. So why make them pay for it?

Now obviously publishers want people to purchase the whole package regardless - they make more money this way. So incentivise people to do so. Perhaps make so that if you buy the whole package at once, it only costs £35 instead of £40 (alright, this is Activision we're talking about, it'd be more like £45 instead of £50, but Activision can do one.) Now those people who were always going to buy the full game are certainly still going to do so, and you're making extra sales from all those people who only want to play one, or a few, elements of the game.

This business model could apply to every game where single- and multi-player elements are separate components, which these days is almost every AAA title. It means that games like Spec Ops: The Line wouldn't be weighed down by a multiplayer component that most people won't play, and can launch at a more competitive price point as a result, but equally, for those that do want to play this content, then it's available for purchase. Developers are still building the same amount of content, but players have more control over how they access it.

And if the success of the free-to-play model has shown anything, it's that players like to be given control over how they access content and how much content they access. In a market where the £40 AAA business model is looking increasingly precarious - largely as a result of successful new models like F2P - publishers are scrambling over each other to find way to ride the F2P gravy-train to mega-bucks city.

Bolting micro-transactions onto a game whose price of entry is already difficult to justify is not the way forward. But perhaps giving player the freedom to identify why they play games, and greater control over how they access these games, could be way forward.

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Jeremy Reaban
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EA already went down this route with Mass Effect 3, and yet there was far more outcry about the ending.

Like it or not, F2P works not because of the "free to play", but because enough people are willing to pay extra, and in some cases, a whole lot extra.

Tom Battey
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That's true to extent - there are certain games that I'm willing to pay more than the £40 asking price for, but I don't know this until I play the retail game first. Similarly, there are other games that I won't ever play because the asking price seems too high for what I'm getting.

My issue is that AAA publishers are only employing the F2P model in the ADDING VALUE TO REAP MEGA-PROFITS sense, and seeming to ignore the option of using the same model to REDUCE retail price and expand the user base.

Andreas Ahlborn
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So what you`re suggesting is splittering the old one-game paradigm even further as it already is? Not only will I have a Gamestop/PS3 exclusive/Director`s Cut/Join or Die etc. Edition of one game, but I will have a SP/MP, SP+MP Version of all that versions, too? No, thanks.

COD is really not a good AAA-example also, because its maybe the only brand on the market were the SP is considerably weaker (in terms of profitablility) than the MP part. (My sons who are addicted COD Players never even touched the SP-Part).
Then what you are leaving totally out of the picture is the DLC-Strategy most AAA-Titles nowadays calculate ahead. This is my explanation why Ubisoft is now going for Microtransactions:
To justify further development costs of a game that has shipped you need to constantly deliver fresh content. Valve was the first who tried to go in that direction of "episodic" delivery and we all knew how that went. Then in the Mass Effect case we had that Launch-Day DLC which got bad press, and every developer is now under suspicion to purposely "hide" content on his gamedisc for later additionally charging (Epic comes to mind).

So, Microtransactions...they can be a good thing, even in a AAA-Title, because they keep the playerbase together. In Ubisofts case they made the mistake with the last AC-Title that, since the MP part was such a great success with their fans, that they charged -like COD, Gears, Halo, the established MP-brands do- money for their maps. Since their playerbase was no way near as big as the mentioned titles, the MP died rather quick.
So if Ubisoft can circumvent that problem by giving maps to the MP for free (like BW did with the Mass Effect MP) and earn something additional via Microtransactions, this will keep the interest in their game alive.

Instead of separating the MP-Part from the SP-Part I would vote for interweaving them in such a way that both parts profit. The best job with that did in my opinion, Fromsoft, with Dark Souls, the MP part is such a integral part of the campaign, it adds a such interesting layer to your gameplay, that I can`t imagine it missing.

And by keeping the both together a game company ensures that the part with the longer breath will keep the interest in the weaker part alive, also. Example: When ME3 shipped in March nobody was even talking about the MP-Part, now months since the media/fan-rage over the controversial endings are long settled, BW still adds to the MP Part on a regular basis. If not for this I´m sure I would not even have cosidered to buy the SP-DLC (because I would long have gone over to other franchises).

@Jeremy: I honestly believe, that the MP of Mass Effect would long have been dead if not Microstransactions would pay for BW constant content-addition free of charge. Never ever would I have thought a Horde-Mode-Coop would keep the interest in the game up for as long as it did (8 months and counting).

Tom Battey
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I don't think this model could be applied at the physical retail stage - I'd hate being confronted with a whole bunch of different configurations on the shelf as well. Hell, the endless limited editions are already bad enough.

But it's a much more appealing prospect in a digital storefront - just select which parts of a game you want to buy - and people are only going to be doing more digital purchasing in the future. It's not necessarily something that would work right now, but could be viable by the time the next console cycle rolls around.

Now I am all for integrating the SP and MP elements the way From Software did with Dark Souls - Dark Souls is the only game I'm willing to pay for Xbox LIVE Gold to play online, simply because its SP and MP elements are so well interwoven that it feels lacking when played offline.

But a lot of games seem to bolt on a MP mode just to justify their retail price. Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect are good examples. Both were big singleplayer franchises with sequels that feature a separately developed multiplayer mode using the logic that games need a multiplayer mode to be profitable.

That's not to say these multiplayer modes are bad - they just don't add anything to the singleplayer experience. ME3 tried to tie its MP into the main campaign, but I played the whole thing through without connecting to LIVE once and don't feel I missed any part of the real ME3 experience.

Now instead of bolting on a multiplayer mode to justify a £40 retail tag, why not drop the retail price of the single-player game and offer the MP modes as paid extras? This must seem horrifically backward to sales executives, but it's how the F2P model works after all; it increases sales by improving the value to the player, not by just bolting on unnecessary features and charges to maintain a price point that a lot of people are starting to view as simply too high.