(This is another edition of , a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
Earlier this week, heads were turned and eyes bugged open when it was discovered that Halo 4 had launched … for the iPhone. Naturally, this was no ordinary game, but a bit of cheap tat given away to promote 343 Industries’ upcoming videogame. Oh, and a soft drink, which was also being advertised. And a particular brand of corn ship. And a chain of convenience stores.
Halo 4: King of the Hill Fueled by Mountain Dew is an actual thing, a “game” in which you fight to proclaim dominion over your local 7-11 by scanning barcodes of Mountain Dew bottles and Doritos bags. Yeah. It’s real.
Videogame promotions are nothing new. In fact, in the 90s, it was perfectly acceptable to have full retail games made to promote a completely non-game-related product. Cool Spot was a title in which you played part of a 7-Up logo. Yo Noid! was, of course, an enthralling adventure brought to us by the fine folks at Domino’s Pizza. Even games already made to advertise a product could advertise another product within, as seen with Biker Mice From Mars, a game promoting a cartoon that promoted toys, and was full of promotions for Snickers bars.
We’re part of the older generation now, wiser to marketing ploys and rendered harshly cynical through years spent on the callous Internet. We react more strongly to blatant product placement than we used to, which is part of the reason why promotions like these are accepted less graciously. Even with that in mind, there’s no denying that Halo 4: King of the Hill Fueled by Mountain Dew is a particularly tacky proposal, perhaps the zenith of indulgent corporate back-rubbing and companies shoving their goods brutally down the throats of their customers. It’s so guileless, so over-the-top, and so perfect an example of the shameless mire that is incestuous sponsorship dealing.
There are arguments on both sides as to whether or not something like FUELED BY THAH MOUNTING DOOOZ actually matters or not. Those against it have a strong case when they say it could legitimately hurt the brand — overexposure can always be damaging when left unchecked, turning the audience off through familiarity and the contempt it so famously breeds. There’s also no denying that it’s hard to respect Master Chief as a character or Halo as a creative endeavor when we see the stoic Spartan surrounded by friendly logos for soft drinks and snacks. Then again, many have rightfully said that marketing is marketing, having no bearing on the final quality of the product. They also point out that nobody is being made to download an app like this. It can be ignored if you prefer, and those who do use it must clearly get some enjoyment from the whole thing, so what’s the harm?
Personally, I find it too funny to hate on its own. The sheer over-saturation going on is amusing, and it’s very easy to parody and mock. However, one element to this whole situation does make me angry — when developers and publishers of big AAA games plead poverty, and use it as an excuse to justify pulling intense amounts of consumer-unfriendly bullshit.
Just thinking about the amount of money Microsoft must be making from Halo 4 and its associated products is staggering. When you break it down, we have the basic sales of a $60 game, one that will easily be among the biggest releases of the entire year. We must also include the special editions, which will net extra cash. Then we have the Mountain Dew/Doritos/7-11 promotion. Worldwide, Halo 4 is also in bed with Pizza Hut and V-Energy. Add onto that the inevitable slew of Avatar Items (that will sell) and downloadable content. Let us also not forget action figures and specific, Halo-branded peripherals. All of this will amount to more cash than you could conceivably picture in your head. What’s more, it is all going to revolve around a service that serves advertisements to millions of consumers a day, with some companies expected to pay up to $344,000 to control an ad spot for a single day. A service that, also, can charge developers up to $40,000 to issue a single patch.
A service that, ultimately, we as consumers are supposed to pay to access in order to play the original $60 retail game.
Don’t get me wrong — Microsoft has every right to make a shit-ton of cash with its good friends at Pepsi and Frito-lay. It can release any sort of peripheral it likes, it can serve ads and it can charge developers for patches. It can, does, and will continue to demand an annual toll to access a service that’s already seeing buckets of cash from advertisements. It has a right to do all this.
But fucking give us the real reason, Microsoft — you like the excess. You enjoy the insane profits. Greed, to you, is good. You do this shit for no other reason than you simply can.
Don’t tell us you can justify the cost by offering such great apps as Facebook and Twitter — apps that were recently retired in favor of another app that we can enjoy far better for free on our phones or computers. Don’t tell us your “exclusives” justify the price of the subscription. They don’t. That’s not a justification, that’s a ransom. It’s not a benefit to the end user, it’s you gating off content in exchange for another wad of cash. Most importantly, don’t you fucking dare claim you need the money to fund your apps, and online service, and exclusive little map packs. That’s bullshit. That’s absolute fucking bullshit. I cannot be expected to believe that you can’t afford your exclusivity deals with Activision without the Xbox Live subscription. Not with the vast, unimaginable, unchecked wealth you’re pulling in from literally every single aspect of a single videogame.
Charge as you will, reap what you want, but do not for a second hide behind your informed inability to afford to sell things, because when you’re getting your customers to scan Doritos barcodes for you, I simply am not going to believe it.
Naughty Dog similarly offended my intelligence when it attempted to justify putting online passes in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception by acting as if developers would go starving thanks to used game sales.
“We have to pay for servers and all this different stuff to maintain it, and so at some point, you know, games have to make money,” said Naughty Dog’s Justin Richmond to TSA. “It is a business, and we just wanna be able to continue to provide that kind of content. If Sony ever comes to us and says ‘You’re not making enough money on this, you need to cut it’ or whatever, that’s not something that we want. We want to be able to maintain the level of quality of the product that we’re giving out.”
Because, of course, the PlayStation 3′s biggest release of 2011 was simply never going to make much money, was it? It’s not like it sold three times as many copies as the sans-pass Uncharted 2, is it? Oh wait … it did!
Of course Uncharted 3 was going to make money. Used sales were never going to stop that. Did they stop Uncharted 2 from making money? No. No they did fucking not.
But then, Uncharted 3 was already spinning cash thanks its Taste for Adventure campaign. Oh yes, while Sony was preparing to launch the game, Nathan Drake was chowing down on tasty Subway Sandwiches and urging consumers to do the same, all in order to get their hands on fantastic exclusive in-game goodies and beta access. Eat fresh, and enjoy the great taste of PlayStation gaming fun, all at the same time! Meanwhile, the money just keeps spinning round and around and around.
“At some point, you know, games have to make money,” said Justin Richmond.
At some point games have to make money.
When is that point, if it’s not the day the game launches? When is that point, if it’s not when game pre-orders are through the roof? When is that point, if it’s not DLC? When is that point, if it’s not when restaurants, snack companies, convenience stores and drink manufacturers are greasing the wheels of marketing?
At some point games have to make money.
Isn’t it funny how it’s always the AAA games that are the ones using online passes, rather than the unknown IP that might need the extra help? Isn’t it funny how it’s the super-rich likes of Ubisoft and Electronic Arts who have such a thorn up their ass about piracy, and are so obsessed with ensuring not a single customer gets away with a single saved penny? Isn’t it so fucking amusing that the developers pleading poverty are the ones making the biggest, most sponsored, most protected videogames on the market?
At some point games have to make money.
If your games aren’t making money at any of the aforementioned points — sales, pre-orders, DLC, sponsorship deals — then I can only assume you’re fucking incompetent at business. How can you be making so much money without … without making any money? Hell, with manuals eradicated, box plastic reducing, and even safety information being printed inside game labels these days, even the cost of manufacturing physical packaging is cheaper than ever. Never have the savings been greater, the opportunities to rake in cash more abundant, and you’re still telling us that, at some point, your game needs to make money at the consumer‘s added expense?
Your games are making money at so many points, and if you’re not making enough to justify your insane marketing budgets or bloated dev costs, that is your fault. It should not be our tab to pick up.
At some point games have to make money. That’s true. But it’s also true that you want to make far more money than you need to keep making games. Which is fine, actually. That’s cool. You keep doing that. But don’t hold an upturned hat out, like a hobo clown, and beg for our cash like a destitute little orphan. You’re not that. You don’t need as much cash as you’re bringing in — you want it.
Just have the balls to say so.
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