The internet has brought gaming into a new era of convenience and accessibility. In this online world, a developer of any size has the ability to sell their games to the wider gaming audience. Digital availability has made the constraints of physical stock a thing of the past. Maintaining and improving games has never been easier. Gamers themselves have more variety than they could have ever dreamed of and they no longer have to write-off bad games as being permanently terrible. Truly the internet has introduced many great boons to gaming, but it’s also enabled just as many problematic banes.
Making the market accessible has enabled scam artists to hock their non-functional wares. Digital availability has turned the pre-order into a marketing ploy. The ability to update games has led many publishers and developers to push out unfinished products. Some go as far as to release mere shells of what was originally promised, their justification being that they’ll deliver the full and finished game eventually. Constant online access has also encouraged the rise of micotransactions and games built to be ongoing hobbies rather than experiences with defined stories and well-planned gameplay progression. Again, it’s the gamer that’s stuck in the middle of all this. Buying games is the easiest it’s ever been, but now every dollar one spends runs the risk of sending a negative message to game makers.
It was only a generation ago that the notion of “voting with your wallet” was a relatively simple matter. If one didn’t like a game or something the developer implemented in it, all they had to do was refuse to buy it for a few months. That way the gamer could enjoy their favorite series while still communicating a clear message to the developer or publisher. In the modern era of gaming, it’s not so simple anymore.
Thanks to patches and continual improvements, there’s really no good time to buy into a game if one wants to use their money to send a message. A great example of this is No Man’s Sky. No Man’s Sky is infamous for the terribly-unfinished state in which it was launched. The uproar it caused was so loud that the reaction became a discussion topic unto itself. Thanks to pre-release hype and pre-orders, however, the game sold well initially. It didn’t matter that the game’s name was basically mud because it had already made a lot of money. Two years have passed and No Man’s Sky is now back in the spotlight as a shining example of what dedicated support can do for a product. Is now a good time to buy though? No, not really.
It’s tempting to think that buying No Man’s Sky now would send Hello Games and the game making community at large a positive message. Releasing a fun and more-or-less complete product should be rewarded. There’s no guarantee, however, that that’s the message that will be received. What’s far more likely to happen is that developers and publishers will see this type of situation as an opportunity. By following the example of No Man’s Sky, they could theoretically set up their product to have two big sales periods instead of one. The first being the initial release window, and the second being the post-fix window. By buying now, gamers will potentially be telling game makers that releasing unfinished products is a good thing. With this in mind, the natural thing to do would be the opposite: refuse to buy something like No Man’s Sky even though it’s been fixed. Unfortunately, this approach has problems too.
Those withholding their money may want to drive home the point that the game shouldn’t have been launched in an incomplete state, but that’s not the messages that will be received. Refusing to support a fixed and improved product runs the risk of telling developers that’s it’s not worth trying to support their products post-release. Games like No Man’s Sky would be unfinished and glitchy wastes of money forever, and those that bought into it would have no hope of ever receiving a satisfying product. So buying a post-fix game is bad, but so is refusing to buy it. It really is a pickle, isn’t it?
Fortunately, it’s not the sort of pickle that ruins the whole sandwich. We can’t remove it, but we can eat around it. The best way for gamers to control the message sent by their purchase is to wait for opportune times to buy. Don’t buy at launch and don’t immediately buy once a game has been fixed. Wait at least a couple of months, then buy it. Better yet, wait even longer and get the game when it’s on sale or buy it used. If enough gaming enthusiasts consistently do their best to avoid paying full price, game makers will notice. Gamers still have the power to speak through purchasing decisions; we just need to take more care in order to make sure the industry understands what we’re saying.