Turtle Rock Studios released Evolve earlier this month. The game is built around an intriguing concept: you play as either a Hunter or a Monster on a fictional world populated by vicious alien creatures but colonised by humans. The game permits both solo and co-op modes for the Hunters, and permits those playing as Monsters to level up by hunting down and consuming other wildlife on the planet of Shear. The game won numerous plaudits and awards when it debuted at various game expos last year, and the multiplayer beta was played and reviewed by Reaxxion’s own Steve Alexander earlier this year. The game continues to get glowing reviews and press coverage from gaming journalists working at the likes of Gamespot, IGN, and gamrReview.
Unfortunately, all is not well with this game, or with the industry that created it.
If you keep up with gaming news, criticism of this game has centered on Turtle Rock’s laser-like focus on downloadable content (DLC), its perceived lack of value for money, and its ham-fisted marketing. All of these things served to alienate the user base leading up to the game’s release. If Metacritic user reviews are anything to go by, this game is shaping up to be an object lesson in how not to package and sell a blockbuster title.
Most importantly for gamers, and for readers of independent gaming sites like Reaxxion, the evolving (sorry) story of this game has exposed some of the gaming industry’s worst problems—and has shown us that, despite the considerable victories won thus far by #Gamergate, there is still quite a lot wrong with both the gaming industry and gaming journalism.
Here is a brief rundown of the three biggest problems that Evolve has thrust into the light.
1. Download ALL the Things! (At Exorbitant Prices)
The last few blockbuster multiplayer-focused releases—TitanFall, Destiny, and the latest installments in the never-ending Call of Battlefield Honor Warfighter: Killzone Cry Recon series of interchangeable FPS games—all incorporate DLC into their content generation and payment models. You buy the game up-front, and then you pay money every few months to play new content released by the developers.
There are plenty of gamers who hate this system. Gamers argue, with justification, that if they pay $60 for a game in-store or online, they should expect to get a complete set of content and decent value for money. They see little reason why they should continue paying more of their money to access upgrades, new characters, enhancements, missions, or maps that they felt should already have been included in the original game.
Now, I personally have no particular objection to DLC per se. I see DLC for what it is: a highly effective market segmentation method.
When done correctly, DLC serves to separate out the casual gamer from the hardcore fan, and gives a game developer’s marketing department the ability to tailor content to those who will get the most out of it. A good example of this would be Batman: Arkham City, which was one of the best games that I have ever played, and has a solid shot at being the greatest third-person action game of all time. The DLC, focusing on ancillary characters like Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing, and the Harley Quinn’s Revenge expansion, are all well worth paying for and playing, because they are reasonably priced and deliver great content.
If DLC is done right, the casual gamer will be satisfied with the original game and will likely not bother with downloading various expansion packs and add-ons and gadgets. The hardcore gamer or the committed fan, however, will always seek to get to the next level with the latest weapon, the newest accessory, and the most up-to-date customised maps. These are the people who make games profitable, and game studios are well within their rights to focus on them.
DLC goes completely and horribly wrong when it is used as a lazy cash grab. When you are charged full price for a game that delivers a tepid single-player or co-op experience, and are then asked to fork out yet more of your cash to get basically more of the same, you would be fully justified in getting angry.
Turtle Rock cocked up very badly by doing the latter. Which leads us to the next problem with the industry:
2. Incomprehensible Marketing
Take a look at Turtle Rock’s pricing list for all of the content that comes along with Evolve. Now, I have advanced degrees in mathematics and economics. I solve difficult systems architecture problems for a living. And I can’t figure out what the hell the game’s marketers, 2k, were trying to do.
Here is how it was described in a recent gamrReview article:
For starters, Evolve would launch with three editions: the standard retail edition for $59.99, the Digital Deluxe Edition for $79.99, and the “PC Monster Race Edition” (ugh) for $99.99 (all US prices). Pre-ordering any version of the game gave you access to a 4th monster, the Behemoth (the standard game launches with three monsters). The Digital Deluxe Edition includes the Hunting Season Pass, which gives you access to four new hunters – though you could also buy it separately for $24.99 – but not the fourth monster, which still requires a pre-order. Finally, the PC Monster Race Edition WOULD give you the Hunting Season Pass and 4th monster, as well as two extra hunters (not included in the Hunting Season Pass), and a 5th monster. This is all ignoring the myriad of hunter and monster skins included with the various editions, making figuring out how to actually GET all of Evolve’s content a daunting prospect in itself.
Translation, anyone? Anyone?
No gamer should be forced to try to untie a Gordian Knot of pricing when it comes to figuring out which version of the game he wants to buy. Who wants to have to sit there with a calculator and a spreadsheet to try to figure out which version of an upcoming game to buy? This could only be a good idea to the kind of people in expensive suits who sit in long meetings looking at fancy PowerPoint slides with the letters “MBA” on their business cards. To such people, jumping out of an aircraft with no parachute could probably be made to look good under the right discount rate and financial assumptions!
Overpriced DLC and bad marketing strategies could always be forgiven, of course, if the hype machine that the gaming industry has created—in direct collaboration with gaming journalists—actually matched expectations with reality. But that is not the case, and it is proving to be the single biggest problem with the entire industry:
3. Gaming Reviews Are Totally Out of Sync With End User Experiences
I have not played Evolve, and so I have no idea whether it is a good game, and I have nothing to say on the matter. As mentioned above, my colleague Steve Alexander has played it, and… well, he wasn’t impressed:
This game could be the first major AAA disappointment of the year. Most of the players I encountered on voice chat did not seem very enthusiastic about buying it. The game has major balance issues (i.e. BUFF THE CREATURE IMMEDIATELY) that kill any possible fun that could be had here. The lack of story (who are these people, anyway?) forces the focus onto the gameplay, which is lackluster.
Yet if you look at the online reviews of this game, they are universally effusive and glowing—while the actual users who paid good money for the game rate it maybe half as highly as people actually paid to review games for a living.
Part of the problem is that gaming sites tend to have large teams of people who can all sit around and play games together with each other, making multiplayer-focused games like Evolve easy to review because they’re playing it exactly as it is intended to be played. The average gamer doesn’t have that luxury. If he wants to play a game like this with his friends, he has to coordinate his schedule with theirs. The alternative is to play with people he doesn’t know and whose skill levels are likely to be vastly different from his own. Naturally, his experience with the game will inevitably be vastly different.
There is good reason to suspect a far more sinister motive, though.
One of #Gamergate’s signature achievements thus far has been to show just how deeply incestuous the relationships are between game studios/developers and gaming journalists. The lack of transparency between the two was appalling, and rightly sparked a vicious backlash from gamers everywhere when it was revealed. Yet as the vast mismatch between critic reviews and end-user reviews makes clear, neither the journalists nor the marketers have learned. It looks like they’ll need to take a few more #Gamergate-style beatings before they do.
I have seen no proof that 2k or Turtle Rock
bribed “gave incentives” to reviewers to help them along in their reviews. But I find it difficult to come up with a better explanation for the giant gulf between critic and user reviews, even factoring in gamer anger at the DLC model. Given what we know about the industry and its practices, it’s as good an explanation as any.
Keep It Simple
The key lesson to be learned from Evolve is this: the end-user is everything.
Don’t underestimate him. Don’t rip him off. Don’t confound him with impossibly complicated marketing jargon. Don’t present him with fifteen differently priced choices when just three will do fine. Don’t treat him like an idiot by pretending that a game is better than it really is. And don’t try to sell him crap covered in gold dust.
We gamers are what keeps this industry alive. We pay good money to play what we reasonably expect to be good games. And we expect the people who review these products to be ethical and transparent about their links to the industry and their review methods. Being treated like unwashed morons by both game marketers and game reviewers is a great way to destroy our trust—and your business.