Thursday, April 06, 2006

Horse Skins! Getcha Horse Skins

Ok, there have been rumblings on the internet, and it’s time for me to throw in my 2 cents.

Here’s the deal. Bethseda Softworks have released more in-game content for “The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion.”

Not such a big deal, right?

Well, no…but kinda.

This is not a new thing. It’s never been unusual to have an expansion pack released for a game. You buy the game for $40, and a few months later, you go buy the expansion that gives you extra levels, weapons, characters etc, for about $20.

Well, Bethseda are taking advantage of the instant download delivery system, and are selling extremely small pieces of extra content for a couple bucks a pop. The one I’ve heard most about is a new horse ‘skin’ for $2.50.

(For those that don’t know, a ‘skin’ is how an in game character is ‘painted’. You already have the horse in the game, and the new skin alters its look).

This has been met with controversy. People are objecting to being asked to pay for such a small add-on. Many are saying it’s pointless and are objecting because small mods like this, in many other games, are given away for free.

On the one hand, we have people like Tim Buckley, the writer and artist for the excellent online comic “Ctrl-alt-del”. His attitude to this is summed up as: ‘People are cheap and think they deserve free stuff…this is a business.’

This is half-way true. The business model has already been proven with people willing to spend a buck a pop on mobile phone ring tones and wallpapers After all, if you don’t want it, don’t buy it!.

On the other hand, free stuff like this is a great marketing tool. It keeps people coming back to the website for these updates and keeps eyes on advertisements, so why charge? There’s also the whole good will thing. Games are getting very expensive. If a company is willing to throw in a few freebies for owners of the game, it keeps you coming back. If I buy a game and the developers throw me a few freebies, I’m more likely to buy their next game.

Gabe, a character from the also excellent ‘Penny Arcade’ comic strip looked at the whole idea differently. Not just the price issue, but why you’d actually want the new horse skin in the first place:

“No one is ever going to see it, you can’t ride that shit through Ironforge.”

(IronForge is a location in the online multiplayer Role Playing Game ‘World of Warcraft’)

Which now leads me to my two cents.

I agree with Gabe, and think this kind of ‘extra content’ has been mired by the rise of massively multiplayer role playing games (Oblivion is single player only).

You see, people are willing to spend a small amount on a trivial or cosmetic upgrade, because it sets them apart from everybody else. You don’t spend a dollar on a new ring tone to listen to in the privacy of your own home. You buy it so that people will say: “Is that (insert song title here)? That’s great! Where did you get it?”

Today, no one really likes the plain vanilla version of anything. You want the bells and whistles that say “This is mine, it’s different that the regular version everybody’s got. Mine’s better.”

This is why people spend millions on press-on fascias, ringtones and wallpaper for their mobiles. It’s why they fit spoilers, ground-effects kits and neon lights to their cars.

The point is to be noticed.

So what is the point of buying a cosmetic upgrade only you are going to see?

The only time you could show it off is if you have a friend at your house, who also owns Oblivion, but hasn’t bought the new skin. If they don’t own the game, they’re going to assume that new horse was always in the game.

Also, just flat out buying something like this is contrary to the way role player’s think.

For example, take an MMO like World of Warcraft, a game you play with thousands of other players at the same time.

In this game, the better you do, the more quests you complete and how good your reputation is determines what sort of ‘ride’ you can get. Basically, the better you are at the game, the better your horse is.

So picture the scene. You’ve just started out playing World of Warcraft. You’ve got no money, a rusty sword you found on the ground, crappy armor that you also found on the ground and you’re walking through a town looking for a way to raise a little cash.

Suddenly, a player turns a corner in front of you. They’ve played the game for a good long time, completed lots of quests and have advanced really far. They’re wearing a full matching set of ultra-expensive armor, including some ‘exclusive’ pieces you can only get by beating the really advanced difficult quests, and they’re riding on the back of a noble steed.

It makes you pause. Their armor and horse are a status symbol. Everyone notices them.

That’s why players go out of their way to own ‘exclusive’ and rare items, so the other players notice them. It’s the equivalent of cruising down the street in a pimped-out Cadillac. Other players look at these people as something to aspire to in the game.

How this is different to how role-players think is that they actually worked to get all this stuff. They’re riding that horse and wearing that armor because they’re really good at the game. Their cool stuff is a representation of the amount of effort, skill and time they put in. They work for this stuff so people will look at them and say: “See that sword he’s carrying? You can only get that by defeating (X)! I tried that once and got creamed before I shot my first arrow! Wow!”

It’s the difference between the guy who bought a junker classic car and spent the better part of a decade restoring it back to mint condition… and the rich brat whose daddy opened his checkbook and just bought them the car.

So, the whole point of owning the bells and whistles is to show them off, and this is something you simply can’t do in a single player game, but not being able to show it off is only part of the story.

I haven’t played Oblivion, but I’ve played the previous Elder Scrolls game (Morrowind) extensively. (A lot of the following may not make sense if you’re not into gaming, but I need to explain this to make my point)

Now, in this game, my character owns one absolutely shit-hot magical battle axe.

I ‘bought’ the axe (with in-game money) absolutely dirt cheap. It was wrecked, and I only bought it to practice my armorer skills. It took a while, but I repaired it to 100%. At that point, I could have sold it for 10 times what I paid for it, but for some reason I hung onto it.

Then, after lots and lots of quests, (we’re talking about 50 combined hours of gameplay…spread over a couple months) when I had lots of money, I captured an uber-villain’s soul with an expensive magic scroll and an outrageously priced soul-stone.

The soul stone can be used to enchant objects, but my enchanting skills were crap, so I went to the head of the Mage’s Guild, and paid her an absolute bundle to enchant the axe for me.

Once enchanted, my axe, as well as the physical damage, drains an enemy’s strength as well as their health when I hit them with it. Basically, after I hit them once, they become weak as kittens and can’t do me much damage,

This is what I mean about how role-player’s think. I have that axe because I worked bloody hard at the game. Creating that axe took over 50 hours, a few chance encounters with various characters and a lot of hard slog. It’s something to be proud of.

Now, if I could have just gone online, and paid two and a half bucks for it, I don’t think I’d like it nearly as much. Also, if a friend comes over who also owns Morrowind, they’d ask about it and where I got it. Explaining your heroic in-game exploits is a lot more fun and satisfying than saying “It was two-fifty from Elder Scrolls dot com.”

The whole point of a role-playing game is that you suspend disbelief and actually play a role. It’s escapism at it’s finest. You’re given an absolutely massive play area, and you can do whatever you want, but you play by the rules.

I don’t mean your in-game persona can’t be a devious criminal. You can steal all you want, but you might get caught, and have to pay the consequences. Jail, fines etc.

By simply putting in a credit card number, and receiving and in-game object, it takes you out of the game. It’s like watching a movie, or reading a book…and when the hero is told that the evil sorcerer can only be killed with a particular magic sword, you read:

“The path before you is a dangerous one.” Said the Old Man. “ First ye must climb the mountain of fire, defeat the evil Dogbroth the Bearded and return with Dogbroth’s magical amulet. This amulet will open the dreaded Doors of Doom, where ye will face the Dragon King. Once the Dragon King is slain, you will take from him his Magical Sword of Demon’s Kiss, which is the only weapon that can cause hurt to the evil Bob the Sorceror”

Justice McHero thought hard upon the old man’s words. Before him was a path filled with peril and almost certain death. He meditated upon this problem, and after one week of meditative prayer, he decided it would be much easier and safer just to buy a Magical Sword of Demon’s Kiss from Ebay.

Dogbroth the Bearded was a little disappointed, he was looking forward to chopping McHero’s head off.

Bob the Sorceror thought the whole thing was cheating, and complained to the Evil Council…they told him to get some Sword of Demon’s Kiss repelling armor…also from Ebay.

Bethseda Softworks. If I can give you any advice, forget the horse skin. Instead, write a few new quests, sell them as an expansion pack for $10-$20, and put the new horse in there as a prize for beating the quests. That way, we don’t feel like we’re ‘cheating’ and get some actual value for our money.


MC Etcher said...

Hmn, I'm torn. They're trying out a new ploy to see what happens.

Since it could take a very well-paid 3D artist a day or two to make a really sweet horse skin, they're not cheap.

If even 100 people bought the horse skin, the company made money.

I fear that paying for individual add-ons will become pretty typical. It depends on how much pissing and moaning there is.

Paulius said...

It depends on the add on. I'd be more than willing to pay for games online on a 'per-chapter' basis. It's a great way to see if you like the game, before shelling out $60 for it.

The horse thing is just stupid. They're hoping people will start paying tiny amounts of money (But pay that money lots and lots of times), for the smallest, trivial things.

Oh, and it takes a long time to make anew skin from scratch...what are the odds they didn't just alter one of the existing skins? I think the new one was a plain old horse, but with horse-armor on.

Not very hard to do. Probably got the intern to do it over lunch.