One of the lesser known facts about me is that I really, really like pinball—as in, I own almost every pinball-based video game. I’m not very good at it; my friends list leaderboards for any game I have that supports them has me comfortably behind my former Editor in Chief, Alex Lucard, on virtually every table. Despite that, I love to play it when I don’t have the time to play a more involved game. That’s why The Pinball Arcade has been a godsend to me. Initially something I tried as a random download from the Google Play market, I bought the full PS3 version when it came out, which included four tables from various eras at the start and would include later ones via paid DLC for about $2.50 apiece.
If I were to put this simply, it’s about as close as a video game can get to simulating pinball.
Since that time, three DLC sets have hit the iPhone and Android systems. The PS3 and Xbox? They have two, and they hit the service long after the mobile versions did. FarSight Studios, the people behind The Pinball Arcade (and the previous Pinball Hall of Fame games, themselves outstanding pieces of work), have been fairly mum on the reason for the delay, and frankly, it’s in their best interests to be; the last place you want to be is on Microsoft and Sony’s shitlist. But to anyone who pays attention, it’s obvious: Microsoft and Sony both have extremely stringent rules in regards to patches, DLC, and other updates, including an arduous certification process, and they’ve had them for years. These policies have been in place in the name of quality control for some time (or in Microsoft’s case especially, price control; they do not allow free DLC), though it doesn’t make anyone who wants an immediate patch or update feel any better.
As the mobile and tablet markets take more share from the big consoles, this policy is going to be more harmful than good.
The history of quality control being used as a buzzword for other forms of real control is nothing new. In fact, the Official Nintendo Seal of Quality, while branded as a quality assurance, was nothing more than a marketing tool. All it meant was that a game bearing the symbol passed Nintendo’s own certification process, which included an exclusivity contract that forced companies to limit themselves to five games a year, and to keep games on the NES exclusively for two years. At the time, Nintendo’s practices were not only tolerated, they were welcomed, as it was a lack of any sort of quality control that led to unscrupulous publishers flooding the market with substandard and often blatantly copied software. That caused a loss of consumer confidence that led the market to crash in the U.S. Keeping a lid on their system allowed consumers to regain confidence that they would be buying something worth $50, a much more prohibitive figure in, say, 1988 than in 2012. It also allowed Nintendo to strangle the Sega Master System, which sunk due to a lack of third-party software.
Despite that, the console wars of the 16-bit era were much closer despite containing the same combatants. Nintendo’s policies didn’t change at first, so what happened? Simply put, publishers got tired of Nintendo’s crap and proceeded to make games for the more publisher-friendly Genesis. Nintendo had no choice but to relent on their policies. What worked for them fine throughout the 1980s affected them negatively in the 1990s as their market share was disrupted by the Genesis, and then later the PlayStation and the Dreamcast.
This is a lesson the behemoths today would do well to learn. The market hasn’t just changed; it’s become unrecognizable from what it once was. The thought of playing quality video games on our cellular phones was a wild fantasy ten years ago, usually mentioned in the same breath one would mention flying cars and self-aware artificial intelligence; they were topics reserved for an episode of The Jetsons. But the market exists, it’s powerful, and its reach will only grow over time. The mid-core and casual gamer—the market that has decided literally every video game war since the days of the NES—are increasingly divesting themselves of expensive, games-centric devices and sticking to the ones that can actually be used to do things, be it a cell phone, a tablet, or a standard PC or Mac. In the face of this market, Sony and Microsoft should be doing more to keep developers and publishers happy (Nintendo’s in its own little world, so it’s not as relevant in this context). However, they still cling to their tired controls, forcing developers like Polytron to re-certify their entire game1 at the cost of thousands of dollars just to fix game-breaking bugs, and putting artificial barriers up to getting updates that other systems are getting for free at will. In Microsoft’s case, they’ll do you favours, but only if you’re really big and give them exclusivity for updates at the expense of other players, like what they and Activision do with Call of Duty map packs.
In the case of PC games, it’s even worse. I heard a conservative estimate from one journalist that the patches for Team Fortress 2 the PC gamers received for free would’ve cost Valve $1.2 million dollars to be released on the 360 in fees alone, using Phil Fish’s $40,000 per patch estimate. While the PC crowd was getting free hats and weapons, the Microsoft users would be forced to pay for them as well as for other extra hats for their avatars. Valve’s answer was to leave the 360 behind and to force Sony into cross-system play with Portal 2, leaving people who bought the Orange Box for the 360 holding the bag. Those players will likely not be burned again.
In all of the examples I’ve listed, the gamers get screwed, and when the gamers get screwed, they tend to screw the developers and publishers. The average gamer doesn’t know or care why the PS3 and 360 patches for Pinball Arcade are delayed. They only know that if they want to play Gorgar, they have to have a cell phone for some oddball reason, and it must be FarSight’s fault. If they know what they’re doing, FarSight will recognize what’s happening and will likely bear this in mind going forward. As more companies read the tea leaves and compare the relative freedom of Android and iOS to the bureaucracy of the big consoles, they will leave Microsoft, Sony, and the whole notion of console gaming behind.
1 – I’m not totally sympathetic to Polytron here, it should be noted. They knew what they were getting into when they signed with Microsoft, and apparently, they regard their publishing contract with them the way most people regard the iTunes Terms of Service: something to be skimmed and accepted. Basically, it’s Phil Fish being Phil Fish, and while I hate to admit it, he’s largely the reason I haven’t bought Fez.