The Victorious Carrot

There are a lot of benefits to an online future, for platform holders, publishers and consumers alike, but the approach taken by companies to bring it about in the games industry has often been at the expense of gamers.

Both Microsoft and Sony want you to be online and buy digitally – that way retailers don’t take a cut, you’ll be more likely to buy microtransactions/DLC and you’ll pay for PS+ and XBL or whatever else they can sell to you. Both can also see that digital gaming is becoming increasingly common, but they each want to speed the adoption along, and ensure that you use their online service instead of a competitor’s. So, with the next gen soon upon us, both unveiled their plans to guarantee a digital future at E3.

Microsoft chose the stick. Their plan was to force people to connect their console to the internet every day, ensuring that they were digital ready. They also tried to make physical copies of games increasingly irrelevant with every title requiring a full install, and the discs becoming useless afterwards as you could play from the HDD. They hoped that people would be so desperate for an Xbox One that they’d make sure that they’d have broadband, that they’d change their way of life to suit Xbox. We all know how that turned out. The internet exploded, and Microsoft rightly looked like the industry’s latest monster. In the end, the company had to do a hasty course change, but the one-off online activation patch will still mean that the audience is required to connect to XBL at least once.

Sony chose the carrot. You don’t have to go online, but they are trying their damnedest to make you want to. PlayStation Plus nets you a mindboggling supply of free games and discounts that make retail look decidedly unappealing – as a way to get people used to buying and downloading large games, PS+ is fantastic move. Of course, the PS4 requires a subscription to play online in most games, but a roster of Free-to-Play online only titles like the well reviewed 2,000 person shooter PlanetSide 2 are available for those not willing to pay.

The carrot won this battle, and gamers are going to benefit as a result. But danger still looms.

EA has detailed their plans to grab an extra $20-30 out of consumers through microtransactions and DLC. An optimist would suggest that the way they aim to do this will be with fantastic add-on content similar to the Red Dead DLC that gave people a real reason to pay for more. A realist would suggest that the way they aim to do this will be by making the retail product worse, with extra money required to make the game any fun, just like is the case with EA’s own F2P game Real Racing 3.

The future is sure to be full of shoddy business moves where companies use the stick to force you to go online and give them money, but, if yesterday’s news is anything to go by, it’s clear that we can win. Consumer outrage helped kill the Online Pass, and it helped kill the Xbox One’s DRM. We are lucky that this industry gives us a lot of choice – numerous publishers, platform holders, delivery methods and even (sadly) piracy – which makes it hard for one group to push through an unpopular business decision without gamers simply turning to something else.

If publishers and platform holders really want us to embrace new technologies, mediums or ideas, they need to realize that the carrot works far better than the stick. Forcing people to plug in a Kinect 2 will not make them use it, but a game that actually shows the point of it will – and if they can’t do that, get rid of it. Sony faced similar issues with SixAxis, when they made Lair motion control-only, but its sad failure quickly put an end to that attempt to dictate what we want, rather than just listen.

Here’s to many more victories by the carrot.