Would You Really Call This A Screw Job?

To read the common rhetoric, it's hard to escape a feeling that annualised sports games represent some kind of zero-sum relationship, with either the publisher or the consumer screwing the other side out of something it righteously deserves each year.

This sentiment flared up again this past week when THQ, publisher of UFC Undisputed, revealed it was extending its one-use codes for online access to its WWE pro wrestling line, and upping the cost of a new access code to $US10 from $US5. As this is roughly the same policy of EA Sports, across more titles, few gave it much thought.

But THQ's Cory Ledesma, the creative director for its wrestling titles, stoked tensions further in comments to CVG. "I don't think we really care whether used game buyers are upset because new game buyers get everything. So if used game buyers are upset they don't get the online feature set I don't really have much sympathy for them," he said. "We hope people understand that when the game's bought used we get cheated."

I disagree with the position that used game sales are "cheating" the publisher, because it implies the only legitimate game purchase is of a new-in-the-box retail copy. I do agree with THQ's right to cover its online infrastructure expenses with pay-to-play multiplayer, either assumed in the retail cost of the game or tacked on for someone who buys used.

This Penny Arcade comic is likewise spot-on in its assessment of the substance of Ledesma's remarks. But the unfortunate framing of the subject as "cheating" scraped a fresh scab off the most picked-over arguments in video gaming: Namely, whether a sports title is worth buying new every year.

The answer is fundamentally in the eye of the beholder. If you don't think it is, then don't buy it. If the idea of paid multiplayer is obnoxious, if the latest version's features seem like window dressing, if gameplay is most important, then a used sports game's singleplayer modes still function fully and provide a ton of depth.

But "Don't like it? Don't buy it," is a brush off to consumers confronting a new title that, every year, sends the message that the previous one is obsolete and worthless. And that's where we get to the real pain point in the relationship.

The roster.

And the uniforms, new stadia, real-life schedules of the current year. But simulation football, hockey, baseball or whatever depends on more than accurate physics and statistical performance. It depends on mirroring real life. And neither side is seriously willing to put a price tag on this information.

Publishers, I suspect, are hesitant to make this feature a bullet point justifying a chunk of the $US60 purchase because by now, such things are a baseline expectation. It's like advertising the bun on a Whopper. But the bun costs money, too. And sports publishers have paid millions to multiple licensing partners - at least one league and its player's union - for the right to these symbols and information. Whether or not this cost is paid up front or in installments, this is why the games come out every year. Why would you buy the rights to six years' worth of accurate roster information and player likenesses and only use three of them?

Ah, but then there's the gamers' counter arguments, that the game should comeout semiannually with roster updates distributed digitally, either free or by subscription, sort of like an MMO.

I'm not one for circular logic, but I'm fairly confident the reason we haven't seen this yet is because it doesn't make EA Sports, 2K Sports, or any sports publisher heaps more than they're reaping under the existing model, which has been in place since the late 1990s. But the real reason is that it optimizes for the preferences of a minority. Motivated and vocal, but not the one spending money.

I'd wager more than half of the sports games population, which isn't as emotionally invested in gamers-lib issues as the rest of the hardcore, isn't looking to digital distribution for these games. They expect to see them in GameStop or Walmart. If they skipped the year when the last disc came out, they wouldn't like finding out they have to buy last year's disc at full retail, pay a subscription fee and then wait for a download of a gigabyte or more to play it. But it sure would make people who don't play sports games very happy.

There's also the promotional benefit of publishing every year. Even with the printing and distribution costs, Madden NFL still sells far more with physical copies than it would online, thanks to the annual August reminder that, yep, it's the second Tuesday of the month, time to line up a midnight, skip work the next day, pick up the game and play it all day.

As for the subscription idea, here's a thought: What does the form factor matter? What if the subscription is just disc-delivered? World of Warcraft, easily the most popular MMO, costs $US20 for the base game and a month of playing time. Six months of playing time is $US78. A year is $US156. And the game's expansions, which have come out on the semiannual basis favoured by those who argue sports games should do the same, are about $US40 each.

An annual subscription plus an expansion every other year amounts to about $US350 to play Warcraft over two years. For that you could buy three different sports titles each year in the same span. They just come on discs. Given that sports gamers are like MMO gamers - both typically adopt just one game in the genre, play it intensely and lay most of their spending on it - how does that make $US60 to play the current game each year a ripoff?

Now, there is a big difference that keeps this from being a full equivalence: a persistent experience. A character started with the 2004 version of Warcraft and maintained to today is still usable today. Madden, MLB The Show, NBA 2K, you're starting over your franchise or your singleplayer careers every year.

Sony San Diego indicated to me this spring that it has heard its community's requests for Road to the Show portability and is looking into the subject. Baseball has the longest potential career (20 seasons) so it's more of a concern there. I'm not sure that it's on the radar of other games with singleplayer career modes.

But the gap in the turn-key price of a sports game each year, versus the software, subscription, and other transactions in an MMO over the same span, makes it apparent to me that console sports games publishers would seek to charge more than just $US60 if this really moved to the subscription-and-update model everyone suggests anytime something's written about this year's game.

You rarely hear this complaint come up in the discussion of FIFA, MLB The Show or NHL, the 90-rated critical elite of sports gaming. That suggests to me that in the end, the bickering about online access, annual releases, DLC and whatnot isn't about a more efficiently delivered or value-added product for gamers. It's really about the, frankly, bigoted argument that because most serialized games in other genres don't come out every year, they especially don't deserve to in sports.

Digitally-delivered games can't bought - and therefore sold - used, like last year's sports game. They also charge well more than $US10 for online access. So think about what you're arguing for: Is moving sports games to that kind of model really more valuable, and less expensive, to the consumer?

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.


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