Keeping Your Game: The Threat of the Trade In

February 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yesterday I returned to Bayonetta, a game which I consider to be one of the best ever made, and certainly the best to come out last year. I did not return to it because I’ve not finished it, nor did I do so out of sheer boredom. No, I returned to it because even though my total playtime stands at 30 hours and I’ve finished it three times, there are still new features of the game to explore, new weapons to unlock, and new scenarios to complete.

The war between publishers and retailers is a well-documented, and yet strangely ironic one. Publishers love the fact that retailers sell their games, but they’re not so keen on retailers annoying habit of reselling games. The publisher gets paid once, the retailer twice or more. What we’re left with is a conflict that’s still being fought today.

There are, as I see it, two solutions to the issue currently circulating in the industry. The first is ‘online passes’, a strategy mainly employed by EA. Games using this feature require a code to be entered in order to access their online portion. This code is free but, and here’s the catch – only if you buy the game new. In effect, the requirement of an online pass will increase the cost of a pre-owned game by a considerable margin. Retailers are thus forced to cut their profit margins if they want to keep the price of a second hand game below that of a new one.

The second trend is that of online components, the idea being that these will keep people playing for twelve months until the next game in the series rolls around. The thinking here is sound, but the execution is more than often lacking. After all, a tacked-on multiplayer component is in most cases worse than none at all. The games that people will play for months on end are invariably the ones designed with a multiplayer focus in mind, and as such this approach is ill-advised in games designed for solo play.
These approaches are worth mentioning because their existence shows how much publishers are worrying about the problem, a problem which Bayonetta seems to have solved in a way which is neither morally dubious nor costly, but simply involves some clever game design.
For Bayonetta may be tough as nails on its two higher difficulty levels, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. I’m not saying it’s rewarding  in a rather circular ‘rewarding because it’s so difficult’ sort of way, but that quite literally the rewards it doles out are pretty sweet, new characters and weapons that actually have uses in the game, lightabers as unlocks, that sort of thing.  
These rewards are certainly neat, but would be worthless if you’d already beaten everything the game had to offer. This is simply not the case here, with side events a plenty that actually let you use those rings you’ve spent hours working towards. It’s strange to think that this is a design choice that seems to have eluded other developers in the past. Completing everything GTA Vice City had to offer left you with a troupe of bodyguards to wreck havoc with, but with nothing more to challenge you, they felt a little redundant. 
It’s also very helpful that Platinum Games chose to put more effort into difficulty than the usual ‘more hit points for enemies and less for yourself’ fare. Higher difficulty levels do mean these things in Bayonetta of course, but they also mean different enemies altogether, and even the removal of slow motion – a significant part of your arsenal – on extreme.
One thing the game doesn’t do is telegraph these highly desirable items – at all. It would have been criminally easy for me to miss then entirely, and retire Bayonetta to the shelf permanently. Some may like keeping these sorts of rewards as a surprise, but I’d argue that 90% of the people who end up unlocking them will have seen them on the internet before they bother doing so. Show me the item, tell me what it does, and then tell me how to get it. Get your marketing department involved if you have to, but make me want it.
As much as I’m picking up on these design choices, the simple truth might unfortunately be that I want to return to this one game over and over primarily because it’s good. Sure, it’s nice to know I’m working towards a great payoff, but I care about it because I’m already invested in the game.
So although I’d love to see unlocks dropped into every game this side of Tetris, it might be the case that in order to prevent people from trading in, you might just have to make better games. All the unlocks in the world wouldn’t stop you from trading in Superman 64, but then again, neither would online multiplayer. If you find a way of telling that to quick-fix obsessed executives though, then please get in contact.
Still, imagine Superman with a lightsaber and tell me that wouldn’t be sweet.

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