Friday, March 8, 2013

Rant: Why Need For Speed: Most Wanted is a sign of things to come with EA

(EDIT: The following post was written before all the Sim City shenanigans that are going down. Not a genre I get into so it doesn't affect me, but you can read about it over at Tobold's Blog for a start. Sounds like EA is just excelling at either evil or incompetence these days....)

Okay, time for me to interject a discussion on computer gaming again in the midst of a pretty good tabletop RPG streak. Worse yet, I'm going to bitch about a racing game and EA, the former of which I know is a very particular taste that is not common among my own demographic: forty-something males who are mostly into tabletop gaming and RPGs. We as a group are notoriously clumsy, and racing games require a great deal more dexterity than is typical for us. I think the reasons I like racing games is two-fold: first, I once, long ago in the pre-internet days of RL, was in the category of "young men who raced" and drove a great deal, so I sort of miss the time when I spent half my day in a car, or pulled insane (and stupidly dangerous) stunts while drag racing strangers and a-holes on Speedway in Tucson. That was a long time ago, and I am a much smarter and safer person now, but when I was 20ish....not so much.

Second, I play 'em on easy mode (when offered) and that helps my enjoyment factor a lot. I also don't get into the realistic driving sims, or the ones about actual track racing for the most part. I like the cart racers, the ones with crazy, exaggerated physics, and the awesomeness that is Burnout: Paradise, a game of horror about a coastal town haunted by phantom drivers who crash and plow an endless wave of killer cars into the scenery while drag racing.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted suffers in comparison to Burnout: Paradise, which is a hard game to beat. However I am not going to discuss its various little problems which I am surprised more reviewers didn't mention (or downgrade it on) according to Metacritic, which as always makes me suspect that some of those reviews were bought....or done by people who don't play this sort of game often enough to notice when it's not quite up to the standards of even its immediate predecessors (NFS: The Run and NFS: Hot Pursuit, both better and more focused titles in the NFS franchise that succeed by virtue of not drawing comparisons to Burnout: Paradise).

Nope, I'm going to jump on a bandwagon I normally dislike, that of bitching about Electronic Arts' obsession with monetizing their games to the point of sleaze.

NFS: Most Wanted can be played without buying stuff. Let me get that out of the way. Indeed, I am playing it (after buying it on a half-off sale) and therefore I'm at least getting some entertainment value out of it for my $24.95. However the game does something I really haven't seen before, although I believe it is reminiscent of the Dragon Age DLC quest giver from way back when, the one who offered a quest which then linked to the store where you could buy said quest, breaking immersion and annoying people. I didn't have to deal with that one because by the time I got DA:O I had waited for a bundle pack with all the DLC released at that time, a good deal and therefore it was a problem invisible to me, and one for which I was not set back dollars by being an early adopter.

What NFS: Most Wanted does, which has prompted this tirade, is provide a city for open-world driving, mixed with spots you can drive or jump to for racing. Throughout the map are different cars you can unlock, which you do by finding said cars, pulling up next to them, and...well, hop on in, I guess. Sure, Burnout: Paradise actually made this a game play element by having you find the vehicle beind driven and required you to take it out in a roadside duel....good stuff. But that is not the problem here.  (Note: I haven't been playing for long, as I have a lot of issues with the controls and feel of this game, but I do understand that there is a challenger mode similar to Burnout's Takedown mode which lets you accrue new vehicles. I also understand some of those are locked up in the DLC).

I've found six unlockable cars so far, including the Porsche you are led to in the tutorial bit. Of these, three so far (including the first two I found on my own) were not actually part of the game. Nope, they were some very cool cars, which immediately took me to the EA purchase store. A store which is actually not that easy to navigate away from once you're stuck in there. From this purchase store you can buy these cars with real money (which is to say, spend real money on the fake money to buy them).


I've never had a game which opened up with me being presented with a required pay purchase to unlock a better car within fifteen minutes of starting up. It was made worse by the fact that initially I didn't even realize I could skip back to my original, better car if I wanted to....because the next two unlockable cars I found were actual cart-racer style racers which absolutely sucked to control, suggesting that the freebie cars were inferior to the amazing potential cars I was being presented with, should I be willing to buy them.

I think that the premium car packs only cost $20 or something in total to unlock, but that's not the point. The point is that I was presented with a "pay to play" option that offered a better car experience over what I was being offered in the game I had already paid for, within 15 minutes of starting the game.

If this is EA's future monetization structure, then I may be reconsidering their games for purchase in the future, or at the very least may refuse to buy until I can find them for 75% off a year or two after release. EA's taking a real gamble here.  There is a lot of dislike for them online, and while I know that the average consumer that EA is targeting is not someone who reads blogs, forum posts and game journalists ranting about this stuff all the time (drop by PC Gamer for some examples of this at its finest), I have a very hard time believing that at some point even Joe Shmoe with his credit card and beer bong on the couch isn't going to feel a bit slighted at a game asking for another $20 fifteen minutes after paying $60 for his brand new game.*

Surprisingly among the "press" I see little discussion about this or the general gameplay issues in NFS:MW which is a bit odd because this game, for all its pretty, really does have some issues and more than a few head-scratchers. I also suspect that the DLC thing was not present on day of release; the cars I am encountering now that command real money to unlock are all part of DLC that was released weeks after the arrival of the game itself, near as I can tell. If that's the case, then this is a problem noticeable only to people playing the game after the DLC was released.

Still, even if I am experiencing something unique to those who come in as late adopters, there's plenty of precedent for alarm with another EA release: Real Racing 3. This game is apparently applying the ioS/Android store game app microtransactioned-to-death model to an otherwise quality racer, and is commanding some insane prices for full ownership ($500 according to Ben Kuchera at the PAR). What the hell. The game apparently takes advantage of the "time-shifted" model of gameplay, one in which you provide a good game, then punish the player with lengthy and arbitrary waiting periods for required game activities, which can be skipped for a real money fee. Kotaku talks about it here.

It's bad enough that I've already learned in only two months of owning a Nexus 7 that "free" game apps are just a polite way of saying, "We're gonna try and make you pay through the nose after using basic design principles more common in Vegas casinos to hook you."

The good news is, if EA ends up deep in this heavily-monetized rabbit hole it means there will be vastly more room for new developers and publishers to--hopefully--creep in and fill the void they leave for the creation of whole games filled with good content that I feel comfortable purchasing with my hard-earned $60.

The bad news, of course, is that EA owns Bioware and the next Mass Effect and Dragon Age are in their hands.

Would some fine smaller studio with more common sense please set about making the next (as in, first) Mass Effect killer, please? I have money, and so do others. We will give it to you for an honest game experience, I promise. We all want to boycott EA, but some of us need some decent competition to aim our cash at. Please!

*Plus or minus another 30 minutes to two hours if he's playing it on a PS3 and the game pulls a download/install  special.

(ADDENDUM: How if at all this relates to my Wednesday Rant: the short answer is, "it doesn't." Why? Am I not decrying the right of the game developers and/or publisher to make money as they see fit? I am not. I am decrying their ways in so far as they are cheapening their own product and damaging relations with fans who would happily pay good money, just not insane amounts of money. But here's the important part, the one that makes the comparison distinctly different: I am choosing to not buy the car packs as a statement about EA's excessive monetization. I am also choosing not to play Real Racer 3 at all, as a statement about my dislike of pricey freemium games. What am I not doing? I am not rationalizing why I want to play them anyway and then pirating the games in question under the pretense that if EA wanted me to pay money they shouldn't have been gouging.

Think of it this way: I might be willing to pay EA for $20's worth of new car packs in Need For Speed: MW, but not when I just started the damned game, and not in a way which places them in the game like some sort of bait and switch. Good DLC really works best, I feel, when the game offers it at the end of the experience, when you're about to close out on the core game and feel like you'd want some more. Throwing it in my face 15 minutes in...that really rankles me. As for Real Racer 3...let's just say that one can only hope most people aren't so dumb as to pay good money to buy the cars in that game.)

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