Hurts So Good
“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
If you’ve ever listened to “The Dragonborn Comes,” it’s hard not to get excited when the Dovahkiin chant begins. I enjoyed it before ever even setting foot in Tamriel, and now that I’ve been there the music is deeply imbued with memories of battles hard fought, enemies conquered, friendships forged. I loved playing Skyrim. And yet, it is by far the messiest gaming experience I have had this generation.
When I finally broke down and purchased my PS3 last summer, I did so with what proved to be an ill-founded assumption: equating superior hardware with superior performance, I believed multi-platform games would look and run better on my PS3 than on my 360. Though due to the premium I place on multiplayer experience, I’d still likely end up buying most games for the 360, the few single-player games I would buy would definitely be running on Sony’s box.
Initially, this worked out well enough. I played through a handful of Ratchet & Clank titles, and attributed their goodness to the hardware rather than to their Sony development. My first multi-platform game, Arkham City, did little to belie that impression.
Skyrim changed everything. For the first time in my life, I had my console freeze and require a manual reset… three times in one afternoon. Something as mundane as stepping into knee-deep water literally crashed the game, and the first couple times it happened (before I realized that was the cause) I lost an unreasonable amount of progress (thus driving me to compulsive quick-saving, a rather time-consuming process in the game). Eventually patches came along which fixed some of the problems (water ceased to be fatal!), but the game still proves to be rife with bugs, some of which are just as “game-breaking” or obnoxious.
But every time the console froze, I willingly reset and kept playing. And that’s worth noting, because there are plenty of games I would have given up on, either for the day or for good. Assassin’s Creed 3, sadly, fits in such a category, usurping Skyrim for position of “most broken game I’ve played in a decade.”
I loved my time with Skyrim — and I even hesitate to use the past tense here, because there is still so much to do in it I haven’t even attempted — but my experience with it and, thereby, with Bethesda has been anything but pleasant. Adding insult to the injury of Skyrim‘s bugginess is the documented fact that other versions of the game aren’t nearly as bad (and have been more readily patched). And over the past several months, I’ve cringed time and again as DLC extensions of the game have been announced, released, and praised with the footnote caveat: “Four for you Xbox, you go Xbox! And none for PS3.”
As a consumer, there are plenty of things that trouble me about the situation. In the back of my mind, I curse myself for having chosen the PS3 version when I own a perfectly good 360 on which I could be enjoying all the perks of Skyrim without all the headaches. But that’s a straw man, really. Because I paid precisely the same as I would have for the Xbox version, but got far less for my money. And as each month passes, it becomes increasingly clear to me that I am, for Bethesda, a second-rate customer, not worth the time and money it would take to fix the situation. The fact that they have found the time to produce three new DLC packages this year but still haven’t found the time to fix even the main game for the PS3 blows my mind. That they have issued little more than a say-nothing apology that the DLC “might not ever get to PS3″ has me nonplussed.
This is my first Bethesda game. I preordered it well before release despite having no prior experience to suggest doing so was wise. This really could have set the stage for a lifelong devotion to the company; had my Skyrim experience been smoother, I wouldn’t have hesitated to go back and buy some of their other games. I’d have bought all the DLC with joy. I’d have preordered Dishonored and probably started playing it on day one. Instead I find myself incredibly wary of the old “fool me once, fool me twice.” I don’t want to be a fool.
But I want to play Dishonored. And if Bethesda released Dawnguard on the PS3 tomorrow, I might seriously consider buying it. And therein lies the rub.
I want to give money to people who are treating me like I’m worthless (or at least, worth less). I have entered an abusive relationship and I don’t really want to get out of it. Some part of me truly believes I’ll be better off putting up with the treatment than simply saying “no” and walking away. If it weren’t so trivial, it’d be tragic.
And the more I think about that, the more I realize it’s not just Bethesda who’s hurting me, and gamers in general, because they can get away with it. It’s most of the industry. And the beatings are becoming commoner and commoner, it seems.
I made a pretty big stink about Gamestop a while back, and for over a year I’ve stuck to those guns: I’ve refused to buy anything from them, and I’ve dissuaded my mother and grandmother from shopping there as well. I consider the way they handled the Deux Ex situation deplorable, and besides that I’ve never been a fan of their parasitic business model.
But, you know, Game Informer is actually a decent magazine. And by subscribing to it, I’m still attached to the company that runs it. Moreover, Gamestop almost unequivocally has the best bonuses of all retailers, and it galls me every time I pick up my copy somewhere else that I’m missing out on those bonuses. Here’s a relationship I did try to walk out on, and I’ve been unable to stop looking back at it through rose-tinted glasses. The other day I almost actually walked into a Gamestop for sheer nostalgia’s sake. If they were hiring, I might have applied.
The preorder bonuses aren’t just a Gamestop thing, of course. Many games now have actual listing pages on their websites that tell you which bonuses apply to which retailers; often there are a half-dozen options. Coupled with console exclusives (like the four missions I missed out on in Assassin’s Creed 3 for buying the 360 version), buying new games becomes a game in itself, albeit an un-fun one. As the situation continues to escalate, winning moves become scarcer, and it becomes increasingly attractive “not to play” at all.
At first, not playing manifests itself in a cutback on preorders, and shortly thereafter a cutback on day or even week one purchases. A profusion of overpriced “special editions” robs them of their specialness and they are the next to go. Expensive, predictable DLC will be bundled with GOTY-style editions in six months, and the prospect of that value stretches the calendar and makes playing the “it” game during launch window far less attractive or meaningful. If you have a few friends who will be playing that far out (either because they’re addicts or because they too are waiting), then the scales tip permanently in favor of delay.
And this, of course, is the path of the devoted gamer, the one who has grown up obsessed with the industry and is unwilling to move on to other things. Anyone less committed will likely drop out entirely in the wake of online passes, DRM abuse, or lack of access to “day one” patches that fix game-breaking issues in the copy they brought home to an Internet-less house or college. These are the ones who see the abuse and decide to terminate the relationship. They are the lucky ones.
Meanwhile, the industry will continue to abuse its faithful, and I can’t say with any real certainty how to change that reality. The most effective path is also the least likely: a mass divorce, a boycott, a banding together that says “we won’t buy online pass games,” or “we won’t buy your DLC until you fix every version of the main game.” But of course that isn’t going to happen. Xbox owners have no empathy for “Sony fanboys” or vice-versa. Those who lack connection problems can’t be bothered by the cries of those who have them.
It’s a shame, honestly, that we’re all so cavalier. Gamers, as the collective partner of the industry, are a house divided, and whenever some of us call out game-makers as selfish others raise a mirror to the term. In one breath I attack buyers of used games for cutting into company profits; in the next I attack the company for profiteering. This doesn’t make me a hypocrite, mind you; it simply underscores the fact that we’re all selfish in our own way. And I guess that’s capitalism at its heart: a race to see whose selfishness pays the highest dividends.
In the end it comes back to the abuse paradigm. Bethesda can look to my desire to play its games and lord it over me as an excuse to behave however it wishes. And if I am lost, ten others won’t be. It may be arrogant, but they can honestly say “I gave you more than most would have. Go elsewhere if you wish but you won’t find anyone who can do what I do for you.” And when a new trailer releases we’ll look past the bruises in our wallets, the crashed consoles, the lost hours, and we’ll say “take me back.” And with a smile every time, the industry will.