Monday, May 16, 2011

Where we lost some soul

Buying games isn't what it used to be. This isn't some nostalgia driven wish for the return of the "good old days" when we used to have PC speaker bleeps for sounds or low resolution images where our mind filled in the blanks. I'm talking about going into a shop and getting our hands on a game we want to play. That aspect of gaming no longer has the appeal it once used to have. To demonstrate what I mean, I'm going to showcase the physical packages from two different games: Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age 2.

The goodies of the Baldur's Gate box

The first thing the player sees is the box. The Baldur's Gate series was metaphorically book-ended with narration, as though it were a written tale being told. To this end, even the box that the game comes in supports this metaphor, with a cover flap that the player can open, and one side (and the top and bottom) of the box having art indicating a thick leaf of pages between the two covers on the front and back of the box.

There's a double sided map, one showing the city of Baldur's Gate, the other showing the wilderness of the Sword Coast in which the game is set. There's a quick reference card identifying various commands, icons and effects. The 5 CDs on which the game came were each printed with CG images taken from the pre-renders developed for the game, all in a nice folding covering matching the motif of the outside box. Finally we have the manual, weighing in at 160 pages, providing the basics required to play the game (approx 30 pages), around background and setting information (around 30 pages), and then details of the rules and mechanics behind the D&D mechanics used by the game (approx 90 pages). The remaining 10 pages are index, credits, etc.

When you bought the physical game box, you got more than the game. The whole experience of the game started with the box and everything inside. Everything supported the experience that the game was attempting to give the player, and you really felt as though loving effort had gone into every aspect of its creation. If we compare this to modern gaming counterparts, the difference is very stark indeed.

The offerings of the DA2 Signature Edition

What a contrast! We get a jewel case with slightly fancy artwork; it has a black cover instead of white  like the manual (with the silhouetted people being likewise inverted), and a silver dragon instead of red. It comes with three cards: one of which is purely advertising for Dead Space 2 and Bulletstorm, another with the codes for two pre-order bonus items, and then a third which serves as the codes for the Signature Edition content as well as advertising for the Mass Effect 2 DLC "Arrival". The manual has a paltry 40 pages (and that is fairly large by modern standards) and provides only basic information on how to play the game and its mechanics.  That's it.

Now, maybe this is all we can expect from our games these days because gamers don't care and thus are happy to just download a digital copy of the game. Or is it that gamers don't care about physical copies of games because this is all we get?  Which came first, the chicken or the empty game box? I remember getting stickers with the game Zool, a slew of journal entries of events from the game (and some that didn't exist) with gold box games, and even a keyring with the original Dungeon Siege. Purchasing a game was more than just buying the game disk(s) in a case, you were buying into the experience that the game offered from the moment you opened the box.

I imagine some players don't care a whit for all this sort of stuff, and that all they want to do is get in and start playing. Then of course, someone at some point in time worked out that players would be willing to pay for this kind of material, and thus we see things like Oblivion's collector edition (proud owner) with a 112 page "Pocket Guide to the Empire" and a Septim coin , Assassin's Creed Black edition (proud owner) with an Ezio figurine , or the Modern Warfare 2 prestige edition (proud non-owner) with night vision goggles. Then we have the trend of not offering these things at all, but instead opening up the options for franchise merchandising. Played the game? Read the book, buy the comic, wear the t-shirt, purchase the action figurine, play the board-game, own the artwork, watch the movie...

Because video game to movie translations have worked so well in the past...

The commercialization means that it's no longer an experience for the player, it's a franchise to be showcased, advertised and hyped as a world-wide phenomenon to attract more people to the ever-growing behemoth. This isn't to say that I'm unhappy about the increased popularity and acceptance of gaming within mainstream society. I love the fact that playing video games no longer carries the social stigma it once did - sure, it's still there to some degree, but gaming is gaining credence as an acceptable past-time and its popularity keeps rising.

It seems that now games are now just another form of entertainment, placed next to a DVD/Blu-ray/CD and simply used in their immediate form. Why would a publisher spend money on a manual that very few players will bother to look at? Most players won't care about seeing a map of a game location included, nor would they contemplate using a new keyring that bears some motif from the game. Those players who do can buy them from the merchandise store.

It seems that in this case the "good old days" are gone for good, and I lament their loss. That we as a wider audience cannot appreciate the effort, creativity and indeed artistry that goes into so many elements of creating the form of entertainment that so many of us love is regrettable. Perhaps even more so that those of us who choose to do so in all likelihood don't end up directly benefiting the wonderful creators of that artistry, but instead hand over much of our money to the controllers of the franchise.

So next time you buy a game, think about what you're getting in addition to the disc you bought. Consider the effort and art that went into it, and spare a thought for the days when you got to share in a little bit of that of that creativity when you went to your store and brought home a gaming experience as opposed to just a jewel case and printed game disc that truly feels like part of the mechanical production line it came from.


  1. Hmm.

    I love getting tons of natty stuff with boxed copies - that's why I buy collectors' editions.

    But I don't feel like everyone buying the game should subsidise me there. And I often wish I'd bought the digital copy for convenience (when games aren't doing the civil thing of adding themselves to my Steam account or whatever).

    Plus looking at the BG2 manual, it only got that big by being half-way to an AD&D2 PHB. While learning curves etc. in RPGs aren't perfect, I think we've seen a general improvement that makes that sort of manual unnecessary.

  2. Most every game back then had the fold out cover. It was a way to show more screenshots and artwork.

  3. These things were called "feelies" for the old Infocom games. The Interactive Fiction community is keeping it alive somewhat and you can get feelies for indie games.

    I like that Collectors editions cover this sort of desire, although it's weird that you'd want to revel in a game and game world that you haven't experienced yet and could dislike. If I bought a game on Steam, enjoyed the heck out of it, I wouldn't really want to pony up for a Collectors edition to get swag. But it'd typically be the only way to get these things. And I don't like the concept of Collectors editions for digital games where you get, say, a digital comic, a PDF map or in the case of Dragon Age, SFA.

    That being said, I liked accidentally getting the Collectors edition for Jade Empire. The book of artwork was awesome.

  4. I used to agree with you. I used to love getting all the swag with a game. Now, having lived in everything from bedsits to sharehouses to a home with a wife and toddler, it's just too hard. I've still got a few plastic tubs full of special boxes and manuals and maps. And some of them I love to read - the Arcanum manual is as in depth as most PnP RPG books. But nowadays, don't even give me a disc. Or just give me a DVD case so I can at least trade it in/on-sell it if I get over it. Don't get me wrong though - if there's an awesome manual in there, I'm not complaining.

    As for Collector's Editions - I have gotten a few where there was stuff I wanted, but if it's just a shitty trinket or a useless junk, then why pay more? Except to show publishers that you're happy to pay more on top of our already hyper-inflated prices.

  5. Jye: Fair point, and I had the same thought process about being "subsidised" by people who don't care. But in "the good old days" it wasn't really considered a subsidy. It was just something everyone got. I understand it costs money, but think it is an interesting change over time.

    BrettW: I'm jealous you have a Jade Empire artwork book! I loved the art style of Jade Empire, not to mention the game itself. It was the main reason I bought the original xbox.

    Ando: Yeah, I understand that consideration too. There are some collector's editions I really don't care about, but others have some cool stuff that I'm quite interested in. Art books are usually quite interesting - but take the upcoming Deus Ex game. You can get an art book if you order the physical copy, or you can get a digital art book if you order via steam. This is one case where I'd prefer the tangible item - it's much cooler than looking at an image on-screen. But again, mileage (and interests) will certainly vary from player to player.

  6. The bigger complaint for me is not the collector's editions but the retailer specific pre order bonuses. Get rid of them and I'm happy. I will admit to buying them once they are on general release sometimes when its an interesting mission or a class specific buff that I could use, so I'm part of the problem.

  7. I could not agree more. As far as I am concerned, having different retailer specific pre-orders bonuses, and no means to obtain them all short of buying the gaming two or three times is delivering a message of complete disrespect to a developer's or game's most loyal fans.

  8. Oh no, I'm not talking about buying the whole game again. I'm talking about when they sell them as $1 bits of DLC later.

  9. @AmstradHero

    Very nice post! The difference is shocking. I think you summed it up nicely in your 3rd paragraph:

    "And you really felt as though loving effort had gone into every aspect of its creation"

    The DAO2 box is soul-less compared to the BG1 box. But I suppose that's true for the game too.