The gaming year 2014 in review

Quality vs Controversy

Looking at how divided our team's votes for 2014's Game of the Year came out of the first voting round, it didn't take Matt and Marjolein long to put a finger on the sore spot; this year has produced no single, hands-down, standout game. Don't get me wrong, there have been some absolutely great games - as illustrated by our category winners - but no single game towered over the others as was the case in previous years.

But while things were fairly uneventful when it came to the games, the industry itself stumbled on a number of controversial issues such as journalistic integrity (yes, we are part of the industry too), the buyout of fan-favourite 3D headset Oculus Rift by Facebook, the pulling of Hatred from Steam - and of course the dizzying new heights of ridiculousness reached in DLC.

The true cost of your game - $158, not $59

The wind will blow over soon for most of those topics but the DLC conundrum is likely to remain a topic of debate for the foreseeable future. This year, it was Ubisoft who fueled the fire, and many wallets got singed. Apparently, the yearly instalment of Assassin's Creed wasn't pricey enough at $59. The cash grab went beyond what is reasonable, when the game was shackled by the 'need' for $99 worth of DLC right from the start, in order for fans to - arguably - get the full experience of the game.

I can only surmise that Ubisoft - seeing the success of 'Free to Play' games on mobile platforms - thought to capitalize on the trend that a handful of gamers are willing to pay top dollar to play and see everything. But they forgot to factor in the genuine dislike of the average core gamer towards DLC and micro-transactions, and thus grossly overestimated fan willingness to pay $158 to play their favourite game. Overnight, Ubisoft's most dependable money making franchise became a symbol for everything that is wrong with the "make gamers pay through the nose on DLC" business model.

Marketing with the wrong bait

The scary thing is that we might just have swallowed it whole - had they just packaged and worded it that little bit differently. Just look at Civilization V, for instance. Anyone who bought every Civ V DLC as it became available more than equalled the spend required for the Assassin's Creed DLC; the difference is that it didn't all come at once. Ubisoft could have joined the "season pass" movement, in which gamers are promised "free" access to all future DLC. Usually priced somewhere close to the base game's cost, there is no guarantee of what you will receive. Yet some of us are obviously willing to trust publishers to deliver digital goods worth such a hefty sum, sometimes even despite sketchy track records in this area.

The painful truth is that it is our own behaviour that enables publishers to act the way they do. If publishers find the right marketing tool, we will thank them for emptying our pockets of our hard-earned cash. In the end, Ubisoft's marketing department simply failed to foresee just how badly fans would respond to their new scheme - and it is likely that their bottom line is now in significant pain over Assassin's Creed Unity. But most publishers are still getting away with such highway robbery; 2K's marketing department got away with Civilization V's wildly out of control DLC scot-free, and so did Activision with Call of Duty's.

Quality vs Quantity

It's actually not the concept of DLC that is the problem. In the "good old days", gamers happily paid an additional ~60% of the price of a game for its accompanying expansion pack. We bought these off store shelves, which meant it came on a disk inside of a box. For a publisher, to validate the intrinsic costs of the physical product and its distribution, the contents of the expansion had to be substantial.

The advent of digital publishing should have changed our perspective on what additional content - in any form - should be valued at. But where you would expect the "value for your buck" to increase with digital delivery, it actually went down by a landslide. Paying $5 for a new nation in Civilization is completely out of whack when you consider that the base game - which costs $50 - includes 18 of them. I don't think I have to spell out how badly overpriced that is. And to be fair - or at least to spread the blame - these ridiculous prices don't just occur for Civilization, they are everywhere.

While I'm convinced the vast majority of gamers will refuse to bow to these extortionate prices, there are a handful of us with enough "disposable income" to make it worthwhile for publishers to continue these practices. Studies have revealed that on mobile, only around 2.2% of Free to Play users pay for in-game content. I suspect those numbers won't be too much higher in the PC gaming realm, at least for comparatively small DLC packs. Unfortunately those 2.2% are at the heart of a $20 billion mobile gaming industry. Faced with such numbers, it's hardly surprising that publishers see opportunities in the DLC business model for PC.

I think Ubisoft is unlikely to repeat their recent marketing booboo. Unfortunately, it is equally unlikely to change its tack - it will just become smarter in how they package it. Next time around they will simply package and word things in a more palatable format, and some of us will pay through the nose in order to feel we're experiencing the game in its optimal form.

The best we can do, is fool ourselves that we're getting a great deal and not feel too bad about it - or ignore it altogether.