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1. Getting In - 2. The Game Experience - 3. Visual Style - 4. Business Model - 5. The Community
4. Business Model
Online multiplayer games today are fortunate enough to have many ways to handle the distribution of content, as well as the method of payment. The wide availability of credit cards combined with services like PayPal makes the question of how to generate profit in exchange for downloadable stuff easy. The question, then, becomes what kind of business model is best for your game. This part looks at the content-versus-payment models for both Metal Gear Online and Team Fortress 2.
Metal Gear Online
For Metal Gear Online, the promise of future content was obvious from the beginning, as was the business model that would go with it. The fact that the version of MGO bundled with MGS4 dared to call itself the “Starter Pack” left no doubt in my mind that the mercenary instinct of Konami was strong as ever. Whatever the thought process behind the name was, it certainly wasn’t being coy. You will buy Metal Gear Solid 4 when it is released; you will complete the arcane blood ritual required to access the multiplayer; and then you will wait, with wallet spread eagerly before my feet, as I unveil the tiny new scraps of content labelled as “packs”, which you will then beg me to sell you. This it says, pausing to tilt its head back with evil laughter. You wouldn’t be the only one to give it a funny look at this point.
Online or Bust
Like everything about Metal Gear Solid 4, the business model of Metal Gear Online was arrogant and stubborn in its execution. Did people even want to play a multiplayer version of Metal Gear that badly?
We know that videogame journalists, in all of their senseless frat boy wisdom, have loudly and continuously shouted about the serious necessity of including a fully fledged online multiplayer mode in every game – no matter how ridiculous or arbitrary – ever since they all bought subscriptions to Xbox Live in unison back in 2002. To me at least, this accounts for the sudden and obnoxious rise of demand for online in the game media; when you’re paying for something, you want to get your money’s worth.
But that hardly speaks for the traditional Metal Gear fanbase.
Not only was the PlayStation 2 unqualified to be thought of as an “online system”, MGS2 clearly wasn’t going in that direction. And yet, rather than taking it as a hint that Kojima wasn’t interested in Xboxes and online modes, people took it as a hint that Kojima was simply an idiot who didn’t know what people wanted in the first place. Go back in time, if you will, to the release of the game. Remember the enormous, mysterious hype as it encountered the knife-in-the-back twist of Raiden, and suddenly it’s easy to see how the supposed “failure” of MGS2 precipitated an outcry of “suggestions” for how to make the games more “acceptable” in the future. Multiplayer was just one of many. A simpler story was another, along with more guns and cooler environments – hence Snake Eater.
I still remember reading a review of the game at the time and questioning it for including friendly snippet about how “nice” it would be if there was some kind of multiplayer. This wouldn’t have made sense to me if I hadn’t already tapped into the growing idea that all major action titles should simply pander to the endless competitive bloodlust of the American college “bro” (who were known as “dudes” at that time), and forget about artistic sentiments or visionary rebellion. The online console fixation, which was still in its infancy then, easily fed into the desire for the series to spread itself to the Xbox as well.
But the most unambiguously “solo” experience in gaming, which emphasized over and over the feeling that you were isolated and all alone on the battlefield, was certainly not going to translate into online multiplayer easily. Regardless, the idea was already in wide circulation, and it must have struck Kojima’s team strongly – as so much criticism did. So despite the sloppy functionality of the console and the series’ heavy emphasis on being solitary sneaking/anti-war, MGS3: Subsistence tried to meet the confusing demands of gamers with the first iteration of Metal Gear Online. Whether it was ultimately a success, even within the hardcore Metal Gear fanbase, is questionable, but it was enough to silence some of the critics, with many celebrating as a step in the “right direction”. Nobody could dispute that Metal Gear had an online mode now. So there!
And yet, the online lust had not been satiated. If anything, it had only been aroused. It was still a PlayStation exclusive, and it still didn’t have any kind of neat cooperative campaign mode or whatever it was people were really after, which meant that it was a limited, lousy experience. What Kojima didn’t realize was that such a concession, intended to shut people up, was only inviting everyone to beg for more stuff. As history has proven, Kojiima would be forced to try again.
Now, How to Make a Dollar
So that’s explains the arrogance, I guess. As a franchise, it must be difficult to tell where dissatisfaction stops and demand begins. People dreamed of all sorts of possibilities for the Metal Gear series ever since MGS1, but those dreams have been evaporating or otherwise reiterating themselves as technology and standards evolve. Konami knows that there’s still a goldmine somewhere, which is why they gave Kojima the reigns of his own production offshoot company, but what they don’t realize is that he’s simultaneously the hero and the villain of the story, turning himself into a Big Boss-like figure by selectively balancing the demands of the “times”. Fans on one hand, corporate suits on the other, and no room for his own creativity, he is left to insert meta-stories into fanservice and beg people to let him move on. Oh, that and whoring out games to cross-promotion and greedy business models. And hey, we made our way back to Metal Gear Online!
Let’s look at all those scraps that us lucky folks are allowed to purchase from the Konami Store, shall we?
Don’t forget to log in with your Konami ID first, though! Man, just look at that beauty. Don’t you find miniscule, light gray font on a sterile white background to be inviting? You can almost make out what it says! Once we’ve let the TSA agents give us the enhanced pat down, we’re cleared to look at the options available. The first thing that will hit you is the whopping number of choices: five, to be exact. These, we shall lovingly examine:
5. MGO Codec Pack
Here we can buy a set of small sound files recorded by completely unknown and uninteresting voice actors, pretending to be emotionless brain dead soldiers. Half of them sound retarded. It’s only $4.99. But before you see the “interesting” lines of dialogue, check out the sales pitch:
Ever wished you could make your character a bit more interesting?
Umm, yes? Yes, all the time, actually. Maybe you should fix that for free. The sales pitch continues…
Well, now you can with the all new "MGO Codec Pack" featuring 32 additional voice tracks ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Whatever you do, they are sure to make you the life of every party!!
Will they really, Konami? Will they make me the life of EVERY party? You can just smell the moronic Japanese marketing ooze through every word, insulting your intelligence. What the hell does “sublime” even mean? Here’s an actual sampling of these sublime and ridiculous phrases:
I'm on the attack!
And my personal favourite:
Wow, way to swing for the fences there! I’m really excited to become the life of every party(!!) by showing everybody that I was stupid enough to spend five real US dollars on this insane shit. I'll be walking up to people and saying "Hey." and they'll just instantly know that the party has started. Actually, I'm worried that somebody else will buy it besides me, and then there'll be this awkward moment where there’s more than one life of a party, and we spend the rest of the time swapping sublime phrases in order to impress everyone else on the server.
4. MGO Extra Character Slot
The second option, this time at a generous price of $6.99, allows you to do what every gamer has dreamt of for years: create a second, equally boring digital avatar to play as. Rather than simply allowing you to customize your original character’s name and appearance whenever you want for free, MGO opts to withhold freedom and then sell it back at a ridiculous price.
Get yourself a new partner for a whole new MGO experience.
The MGO Extra Character Slot allows you to create an additional Player Character. Why not give your new comrade-in-arms a completely different set of skills? Create specialists in each field of combat!!
Join up to a different Clan!! Play MGO from a fresh perspective with every new buddy you add!!
A whole new MGO experience, they say. Those double exclamation marks really get me hyped for the chance to play MGO from a “fresh perspective”, and maybe even join a different clan! I can understand paying maybe a dollar for a new character slot if there were an enticing number of customization options and simply too much variation to be contained within single character, but that’s hardly the case here. This is just silliness.
3. Metal Gear Online Pack #1 GENE Expansion
The first expansion pack includes three new maps, two unique characters, as well as the ability to create female characters and access Survival Mode. But that’s not all: those who buy the expansion pack are segregated from the rest of the community, dividing the userbase and inspiring envy. The GENE Expansion Pack was released a mere 42 days after MGO, on July 17, 2008.
In keeping with the strategy of withholding content only to sell it later, this expansion attempts to make playing as a woman a selling point, as if this shouldn’t have been available from the beginning. To me it’s like selling the ability to make black dudes. Wow, I can really play as a black guy?! Awesome, I can’t wait to dress him up in some little clothes and show him off to all my friends! More interestingly, the greedy bastards don’t even give you an extra character slot to go with this basic feature! “While purchasing it will give you the ability to create female characters,” the site notes, “you will need to either delete your current character and then recreate is as a female or purchase an additional ‘MGO Extra Character Slot’ if you wish to retain your current character too.”
Truly, they have no shame.
As for the unique characters, Meryl and Johnny, they aren’t even selectable, which means there’s no guarantee you’ll play as them. It’s a great way to not only balance the new feature, but avoid having to actually design a multiplayer game at all. Players are randomly assigned the characters every round, ensuring that most of your time will be spent waiting while everyone else gets their turn on the swing set. Much like their Reward Point and levelling systems, special characters are cynically designed as a carrot to be dangled in front of your face. What a rip off.
Survival Mode, meanwhile, was obviously conceived as a way of getting all the lab rats to squabble over vain bullshit at the same time. The Reward Shop was (supposed to be) released at the same time as the GENE Expansion Pack, and Survival Mode was the way to get the points necessary to buy gear. You can easily picture the ignorant Japanese boardroom executives explaining to each other how this was going to translate into a videogame equivalent of crack cocaine. Try not to be shocked that this turned out to be an embarrassing flop, plagued by server downtime and maintenance issues. Gathering a group of friends on the weekend and playing against other teams for points sounds like a fine idea, but why should I have to pay for it?
2. MGO Codec Pack 2
This is like the first one, except they actually bothered to make the dialogue stuff you’d actually use. Still, you should never have to pay for something that’s just severely lacking in the original. So no thanks.
1. Metal Gear Online GENE & MEME & SCENE Expansion
For the ultimate deal hunters, this is it. For just $17.99 you will get: nine maps, the random chance to play as six unique characters in servers that have them enabled, the right to participate in Survival Mode and tournaments, the ability to make female characters, and various silly pieces of character customization that don’t make any real difference. That’s getting close to 20 dollars for just these three expansion packs, whereas the complete and packed-with-huge-updates version Team Fortress 2 is frequently on sale for much less than that. It’s all relative, you see.
How much is this worth in real dollars?
Konami’s business model, I believe, adheres to the People Are Idiots So Let’s Rob Them Blind school of economics, whereas Valve is from the People Are Smart So Let’s Be Cool To Them school of economics. Imagine if Metal Gear Online was released as a standalone tomorrow, separate from MGS4 and sufficient by itself, and came complete with all three expansion packs, all 8 character slots, and the voice packs (for what they’re worth) for only $15. Don’t you agree that they would make a lot more money than they are with the game now? Not only would it generate a ton of new interest by making headlines, it would flood the game with fresh blood and revive whatever is left of the community. You’d also have to get rid of the requirement to create a Konami ID, and promise to actually patch it more than once every two years, of course. MGS4 itself is being sold for less than $20 nowadays, but somehow the online bundle found in the Konami Store has remained at an absurdly high price, begging the question of just how clueless and lazy they are.
It’s not hard to see that squeezing $20 dollars out of a hundred people is less profitable than getting thousands to pay $10, but it’s almost as if they still believe in their hearts that, if they just wait long enough, people will learn to see the enormous value. Or maybe they’ve got Bobby Kotick Syndrome, and believe that deceiving stockholders and bullying customers is a viable long term strategy. Who knows? The point is that their business model sucks.
Team Fortress 2
With Team Fortress 2, Valve carried out an experimental business model the likes of which the videogame industry has never seen, before or after – something that must have seemed like a joke to other game developers at the time. Here’s what they did:
They spent nine years developing a sequel to a game pretty much everybody forgot about, and instead of doing something easy and disappointing like making it a contrived inside joke with nothing interesting to offer propelled by nothing more than cheap marketing and morbid curiosity, they ended up taking it in a totally different direction than anyone would have expected, while still made it genuinely exciting on its own terms, then bundled it with a bunch of other equally important and valuable stuff, and still sold it for the same price as one normal, shitty game. This was called The Orange Box.
But that was only the first part of their plan.
The second part involved expertly patching, balancing and updating it with truly great content, for free, in a consistent and exciting way for years. For free. For years. Without charging money. Just giving away great, new stuff for years, and listening to players and shaping the community into something altogether magical. It was almost as if they were cool guys, in that special way that only really talented people who honestly don’t need to be nice in order for people to like them can be cool. Perhaps, in a really evil way, this was all a massive long-term plan to soften up players so that they could truly rob them blind! It doesn’t make much sense to give away free stuff for years with a game that you sold for cheap, otherwise.
Part three, then, is where they decided to get clever. Rather than becoming huge assholes (ie. normal business men) they decided to introduce a marketplace where all sorts of interesting content could bepurchased – but would not need to be purchased in order to be obtained – in a convenient, fast, and friendly way. Here’s some of their Q&A that went along with the introduction of this plan:
Q: Are you going to start charging for other kinds of content, like maps?
A: No, we have no plans to do this. Segregating players into groups that can't play together, based on who bought what, is something we'd like to avoid.
CoughMetalGearOnlineCough! Keeping the users playing together instead of dividing them up? What a concept!
Q: Will I have to spend money to remain competitive?
A: No. Any items affecting gameplay, and even most purely cosmetic items, will still be obtainable simply by playing the game.
Huh? Did I read that correctly? New content goes on sale, and yet you don’t need to buy it if you want to obtain it? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of selling it in the first place? What a backwards business model! MGO knows that you’re supposed to withhold even basic stuff from players in order to sell it to them at a high price! This is business blasphemy! Why soften up players and get on their good side if you’re not going to rob them blind?
Even worse, Valve decided to split the profit generated by this marketplace with the fans who designed the items sold!
“[The people whose stuff was being sold] created new items for the game ranging from crocodile hats to jars of milk to sleek black rocket launchers, which players can purchase in-game. Two weeks later, some of these guys are sitting on royalties of up to $47,000 USD.
“Not bad for a mackerel wrapped in newsprint.
“Valve says that royalty payments exceeded PayPal's maximum deposit size, leading two community content creators to fly to Seattle to pick up checks in person.” [- Kotaku]
Question: How would you like to make $47,000 USD from royalties on some little digital doohickies you made in your spare time – in two weeks? That sounds like an awful lot of money, considering the investment. You could do a lot of very real things with that money. And really, it was a totally unnecessary move, requiring a huge faith in the coolness of everyone involved, and a commitment to their school of thought. Since then, dozens of new items have been introduced, and while they haven’t been perfectly balanced yet, they are remarkably solid additions. More importantly, from a business model point of view, they make a lot of money for a lot of people.
Here’s a page dedicated to tracking the amount of money being made through another incentive program, in which players can freely purchase “Map Stamps” in order to voluntarily reward map designers. You’ll notice some huge numbers there, too, with some map makers in a position to make tens of thousand of dollars. Now remember: nobody is forcing anybody to pay anything for these maps – they are completely available for free and downloaded automatically – and yet they’re still making that much money. Are you listening, Konami?
Team Fortress 2 is truly a testament to what can happen when a great developer is willing to get creative, work hard and trust in their players, instead of succumbing to the temptation to take more than they give, and dangle those scraps above our heads. And while it’s true that plenty of TF2 fans are currently complaining about how greedy Valve has become and how they’re screwing up in all sorts of ways, these arguments are quickly silenced when somebody mentions their history of generosity. After years of making one of the best multiplayer games even better for free, it’s hard to truly fault them for offering DLC for a price or coming up with a genius profit-sharing scheme. It’s the complaining of a spoiled kid, not somebody who’s actually been ripped off.
Metal Gear Online had the chance to do something special with its business model, and truly open up the series to new fans – a perfect chance to create a two-way bridge between the developer and the fans. We know that they were willing to give away costumes, podcasts, and music for the single player portion of the game, and yet the online mode has been plagued by arrogant greed from the start. Sad as it is, they deserve the obscurity that they’ve earned for themselves, throwing away a golden opportunity to do something great. Team Fortress 2, on the other hand, has chosen the path of virtue and served as a flagship game for Valve, earning them the favour of hundreds of thousands of satisfied customers.
Part 5: The Community
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