Tuesday, April 01, 2014

When 'Buyer Beware' Merges With Constumer/Developer Responsibility

I need to stop holding posts back.

The Escapist’s Jim Sterling recently released a video over the “Buyer Beware” premise in video games,  and Forbes covered it. I have been working on something very similar for the past week, but kept fine tuning it. And then everyone else beats me to the punch. But it happens sometimes, right Kotaku

So I’m posting the piece as it stands, though it may be tweaked continually over the next few days. Enjoy!

Buying a new video game is no thrifty endeavor. A regular version can cost $59.99 before tax, maybe $52 or 55.99 if you buy through Amazon. Then there are the ‘collector’s’ editions at $79.99, followed by premium versions that can range from $109 to $129.99. It’s a lot of money to throw down for one item that may, or may not, be a good product. $129.99 is 3 weeks of gas for my car, or a full month of groceries. And if you’re wondering how I figured out my grocery bill, I’m thrifty and I do a lot of cooking at home. Base ingredients are cheap if you cook your own meals.

So how do you know if the product that you’re getting is worth the money you’re spending? Similar to movies and music, you don’t really know what you’re getting until you put down the money. Creative properties have more leeway in protecting their content before release, mostly for sales reasons (who wants to see a movie when they already know word for word what’s going to happen?). This is where we rely on reviews online, in newspapers, or on the box art for the item itself to gain a general idea of the story and content. But by comparison, a movie is rarely expensive with the exception of collector’s editions. We have no qualms spending $9-19.99 on a new movie or CD because if it sucks, well we can always toss it or get rid of it at the next garage sale. There isn’t a big loss with a movie – where as in comparison a video game is really f-ing expensive. Even the used games can cost more than the price of a movie ticket in some cases.
But the big difference that we see between video games and other media is the lack of consumer awareness. The majority of gamers are casual, and based on sales over the years, that is solidified by the rise in mobile games and repeat titles in the top 10 sales such as Madden NFL and Call of Duty. (Note: This isn’t a bad thing. Casual gamers are still gamers, and they make up a majority of the marketplace.) The issue that arises is that because most gamers are casual, few take the extra time to read reviews and research the product they wish to buy outside of the tv ads, Super Bowl commercials, and your local game sales associate (whose job it is to get you to buy more stuff). The idea of video game reviews also has not been engrained into our mindset like movie and music reviews, which have had decades for people to become accustomed to before they became a staple of the general public. Video game reviews are still in their infancy. From time to time I’ll catch a title in the New York Times or the Dallas Morning News, but it only appears for the “big” games, like Madden, or the next Halo. Mobile games, or quirky indie products like Journey would never make an appearance in the general news. 

Like it or not, video games are still seen as a novel activity. People see them as “toys” and as such, researching them is not at the top of the propriety list. Much like Lego, Barbie, and Hot Wheels, we get a general idea about the product’s intent: to entertain us. Therefore, in-depth study isn’t necessary. But smart phones, cars, tablets? You better believe buyers will research them before purchase, even with the phone/tablet field being relatively young by comparison to video games.

So “buying with your wallet” is almost happenstance when it comes to video games. Most people will buy it because of the flashy commercials without doing the leg-work to read the reviews and bugs. We’re buying because it’s the latest Madden. We’re not exercising responsible consumerism.

Buyer Made Aware!

In this scenario with video games, is it the buyer’s responsibility to be aware and be responsible consumers? Well, yes and no. As someone who has worked for so many years in customer service, yes. It is 100% your responsibility to have SOME Idea of what you are buying. It’s not my job to tell you every little detail about a product. You should have some clue about what you want, and I can help direct you in the right direction to get said item, but I can’t read off the entire contents of a BiC blue pen. You need to have some level of involvement in your purchases.

At the same time, because the content is so expensive, the publisher needs to release all known issues to consumers in a format that can be easily located. Yes. I know. Some bugs aren’t made aware until after a game’s release. The latest Sim City is a perfect example of this, where a small room of game reviewers crashed the server multiple times. We knew about this a few weeks before the game’s release, and EA pushed it anyway with a heavy marketing campaign. Surprise, surprise. Release day came and the servers were a mess for weeks.  It got to the point that EA halted all advertising for the product until they could resolve the issue.

That is the type of information consumers should have access to before buying a product. It could be equivalent to finding out that such-and-such model car having starter issues (because with Sim City, it’s an online only game – meaning you can only play when the servers are working). That’s a big deal, and as a customer, I would want to know about it. Maybe it would have dissuade me from making the purchase, or like most people, they would wait the few weeks until the issues are resolved before buying the product. Not me. No new Sim City here. Not until they have an offline mode.

But isn’t this the case with multiple industries? WonderBread can’t tell me exactly how their products taste because it’s going to vary from person to person. And Apple can’t tell me if I’ll like the size of the latest iPhone until I hold it in my hands. Very true. Again, a good portion of this is that consumers need to hold responsibility for their purchases. But it’s also the product’s developers duty to make a quality item at the end of the day. It’s also in their best interest to divulge information important to the customers, like the ingredients in that bread, or the weight of the iPhone. Game developers have excluded themselves from this and there hasn’t been any backlash against it. There is the ESRB which gives a general idea about the content within a game, but it doesn’t dive into the meat. (In many ways, this is where government regulation could come in handy, but then Call of Duty would be XXX and would never be allowed in stores for sale. Self regulation is a bitch.)

The concept of “buyer’s beware” is a two sided coin. Without researching the product, people don’t know about the issues. And without developers telling us the problems…people don’t know about the issues.
I still believe that boycotting a company for crappy products can produce a strong message (EA, I’m looking at your). When it comes to video games, however, the general consumer isn’t aware of the growing problems some companies have until they buy the game. And at that point, the developer doesn’t care. They got their money from you, and they can move on to the next product to push on to you.

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