Friday, 21 June 2013

XBox One - why journalists must share (at least some of) the blame

Now that Microsoft has grudgingly and with much bad grace finally reversed its disastrously misguided DRM policies for the XBox One, the question being asked is how could they have misjudged the market so badly?  How did they get it so wrong?  In part, I blame the games journalists (with apologies, of course, to my online friends like Darren Pearce who, of course, always writes excellent games reviews!)

The number of gamers who play online multiplayer games has clearly grown enormously over the years and continues to grow even now.  I'm going to go out on a limb, however, and suggest that the number of gamers who do NOT play online, who are quite happy with their single-player offline game experiences, who do not even download digital DLC packs are actually still in the majority.  By a huge margin.

But read any games magazine and you'll find that game after game is criticised and given a lower rating simply because it has no multiplayer element to it.  Worse, if it does have a multiplayer option and that option isn't up to the standard of, say, Halo's online blast-fest, it may be dismissed entirely.  Why?  It's surely not beyond the wit of man to give different scores for the single and multiplayer experiences.

In many cases, I suspect, it's because professional journalists may have their hardware, software and online subscriptions paid for by their employers (or, if they're freelance, are able to claim them as business expenses) and because they HAVE to play online multiplayer (and dowload DLC packs) in order to write their reviews.  This means that their gaming experience and their perception of what gamers want and are prepared to pay for is very, very different from that of the casual gaming majority.

So, being at least one step removed from what really matters to the single-player spending his own money, they write reviews which assume everyone wants to play online and they rate games accordingly.  They give high scores to games like Mass Effect 3 without even recognising that the need to play online in order to secure all possible endings is going to incense legions of fans worldwide.  (Or, indeed, that the ending is a betrayal of everything the story has been leading to up until that point, but that's another already long-exhausted debate entirely!)

So, what do you do if you're a games developer working on a single-player game?  Far too often the answer is to tack on an online multiplayer option.  It doesn't matter that most gamers don't want it and will never play it; the important thing is to get past the first hurdle - to avoid the possibility of the reviewers marking the game down for lacking one.

All this gives console manufacturers a false impression of what the market is ready for, how comfortable it is with digital downloads, and how much value it attaches to online functionality.  Remember, neither the executives nor the techies at companies like Microsoft speak to the ordinary casual gamer like you or me.  They talk to each other.  They talk to other industry boffins.  They talk to developers.  They talk to online gaming communities.  And, of course, they talk to games journalists and reviewers.  In short, they speak to people for whom online gaming and the digital future are already a fact of life and, as a result, they ALL start to believe their shared opinions and experiences are representative of the gaming community as a whole.  And then, in Microsoft's case, they design the DRM policies for their next generation console accordingly.

Only after those policies have been made public do they get to hear the views of the casual gaming majority.  Only then do they discover that gamers believe they are being stripped of their long-cherished rights while being offered little or nothing in return.  Or, more accurately, little or nothing that they actually value.  (Except, of course, for the few who value the ability to change TV channels by waving their arms or shouting at the TV.)

Now this isn't to say that Microsoft is blameless.  Its launch of its XBox One DRM policies was arrogant, and the surly, ungracious tone of its retraction is likely to upset some gamers even more.  But, in asking WHY they got it so wrong, it's important to recognise that it's not entirely their fault.  There's plenty of blame to go around.