Sunday, October 18, 2015

Games without fixed price points.

The band I play in on weekends has just started playing a version of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, deeply influenced by the version that the Brand New Heavies does. After one of our shows, the guitarist and I started talking about versions of Peter Gabriel songs that we like – like Pink and John Legend’s version of “Don’t Give Up” versus the album version that has Kate Bush singing with Peter Gabriel.  I explained about how I had started listening to Kate Bush just before I really got into Peter Gabriel, so the Kate Bush vocals really got to me at that time – even on things like “Games without Frontiers” where she’s just relegated to a small amount of backup vocals.

“Games without Frontiers” got me thinking again about the current state of the mainstream gaming market, where the biggest games are starting to throw their weight around and see who can create the biggest collection of things. The biggest amount of floor space in the big box stores that isn’t the locked game case. It is the shelves for Nintendo's amiibo, Avalanche's Disney Infinity (now on version 3 that includes Star Wars!), Activision's Skylanders (now including vehicles), and now Traveler's Tales' LEGO Dimensions. It’s no longer enough that a game is an expensive standalone proposition that sells for $60 apiece, because with all of the man-hours of programming that goes into that it can seem a very risky proposition for company shareholders. Thanks to the very fractured nature of the market, having simply the appeal of a game is not nearly enough. After the rise and fall of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series that showed us that a complicated bit of licensing and some not-so-complicated plastic toys could be used to sell more product to customers, we now have games engineered to sell a crap-ton of high margin plastic toys both to collectors and gamers.

Guitar Hero did well from its inception in 2005 until around 2010. As a result of some really lousy looking fourth-quarter projections, Activision decided to put any future development on hold indefinitely which left Warriors of Rock and DJ Hero 2 as the last releases in 2010.  (Except that they couldn't leave well enough alone and "Guitar Hero Live" will be coming out the 20th of this month and longtime competitor Rock Band just released version 4 on the 6th. )

The first Skylanders was in 2011, followed by new games every year, because that's how Activision rolls. Fans had started complaining about how Trap Team wasn't as good as Swap Force, and before that they complained that Swap Force wasn't quite as good as Giants. Before that, the original Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure had been winning awards for being so innovative. The most recent one, SuperChargers, adds vehicles but somehow loses some of the fun out of the game. Of course, some of that is probably fan fatigue - if you put out a new game in the series every year, you will get a lot of scrutiny between versions and people will wonder if it's worth it to get the new one if they were still playing the old one.

The same sort of year-to-year scrutiny seems to be happening with the Disney Infinity games, but it really seems like Infinity is getting better and just expanding their universe. At first it was just Disney, and then they added Marvel characters in, and then they added the Star Wars universe to it. As long as the new characters are getting compelling in-game content, they don't have to change up how the game plays that much. It's an advantage over Skylanders in that they don't have to introduce characters to you from scratch - kids (and a lot of their parents) already know who Spiderman and Obi-Wan Kenobi are without playing the game. You can't say that about Eyebrawl, or Ninjini, or Hootloop.

With Nintendo's amiibos, there are a few things you need specific amiibos for. Toad wasn't super-difficult to get, but his amiibo unlocks extra content in Toad's Treasure Tracker. The Splatoon 3-pack, which I have never seen in any store, goes for $60 to $80 when it's supposed to retail for $35, and gets you some new single player training missions, minigames, and costumes. There may be other ways to get the costumes, but there's not a way that I can see to get the other content. There's also a weapon in Hyrule Warriors that you can only get with the Link amiibo - that extra $13 may seem a little excessive if you already paid $60 for the game and $20 for the season pass to get all of the DLC. Sure, the Chibi-Robo amiibo unlocks some things in the game, but it's easy enough to get the game bundled with the Chibi amiibo. (Achiibo?)

I avoided Skylanders intentionally because it seemed like a rather expensive proposition. Infinity seems a little bit better, especially with the addition of the expanded Star Wars universe, but the prospect of toy collecting to get levels still seemed  problematic for me.

But, given LEGO Dimensions' amazing combination of LEGO, Batman, Portal, Scooby-Doo, and Doctor Who, I hardly see how I will be able to avoid this.

I mean my kids won't be able to avoid this. Yeah, that's what I meant.

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