Game passes: unexpected item in the bagging area

At an IT industry event last month, there was a presentation called Shaping Self-Service for the Future. This described one company’s journey towards implementing an online portal where their customers could go to make support requests and all the factors that had to be considered at the start of the project.

The desire for these self-service channels, along with artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots has been taking the IT world by storm for the past year or so. The speaker compared this current trend to the self-checkouts frequently found in supermarkets nowadays and explained that the just-in-time stock management followed by such companies inspired the creation of the Lean principles in the 1990s. (It might be for IT but it’s also pretty good at keeping your video game backlog in check.)

self-checkouts, Tesco, tills, store, supermarket, cashier

The part of the presentation I found most interesting was the section comparing the benefits shouted about by businesses to how self-checkouts are viewed by customers. We may be told they give us more choice, convenience and speed, and have been put into stores to ‘improve our shopping experience’, but is that really what we believe? Not at all: a 2014 poll found that 93% of us dislike the machines and see them as a cost-cutting method used by supermarkets to boost their profits.

It struck me after the event just how similar self-service channels and game passes are. You log into an online portal, select the product or service you require, receive it and are asked for your feedback. Everything you need is contained within a standard monthly fee which can be increased depending on the level of service you’d like. And right now consumers view these subscriptions with a large amount of cynicism: do the supermarkets and publishers have our best interests at heart or are they looking to make a quick buck?

During their briefing at E3 last month, Microsoft employees took every opportunity to tell us about Project XCloud and the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. They’re apparently going to revolutionise the way we purchase video games. They’re going to give us unlimited access to over 100 high-quality titles from well-known developers. They’ll bring us together to create a shared community regardless of where we play. All great benefits for gamers, certainly – but by the end of the show I was sick of hearing about the products.

Although I could see the truth in what was being said when thinking rationally, I was curious to realise it was a totally different matter emotionally. The high number of mentions about XCloud and the Game Pass somehow made it seem suspicious; surely it was all about the company and not the consumer? Microsoft can look forward to a regular and reliable source of income, instead of hoping we’ll shell out £50 to £60 for a new game several times a year and having to get sequels out as quickly as possible to keep the cash coming in.

There’s also the fact that cost-savings can be achieved through the potential to focus on a single marketing effort. Rather than having to constantly promote individual titles, stick them together in a single game pass, throw all your marketing weight behind one product and occasionally offer a free month of service to draw in new customers! It’s an attractive proposal for shareholders: a guaranteed monthly income for the business through subscriptions plus a few extra consolidation tricks on the side to increase those profits even further.

The rational side of my brain then kicked in and wanted to argue for those benefits the Microsoft representatives had put forward during their E3 briefing. How could paying for unlimited access to a library of video games not be a good thing? You’re betting a chunk of money that you’re actually going to enjoy the title you’re buying if you do so at full price, and a game pass removes this risk as you can try as many as you like for a much lower monthly fee. There’s also no more having to wait for payday to get your hands on that new release.

But what if you don’t have a lot of free time to play, or if the games you want aren’t available in the library? Is it still good value then? And what if one you’re halfway through is dropped from the service? So many questions, all of them leading back to the ultimate: are game passes just a way for corporations to make money? It’s no wonder customers are suspicious. It appears every company we encounter through our hobby wants to push at least one subscription, whether it be a game pass, access to their network, or season pass for new content.

When do all of these become too much? Let’s turn to television for an example. Now that companies have seen just how successful Netflix has been, they all want a slice of the subscription pie and are removing their content from the platform so it can be placed behind their own paywalls. Viewers will therefore be locked out of certain shows if they can’t afford yet another monthly fee, and it could mean we have to make some difficult choices about which platforms we pay for in the future.

E3, Xbox briefing, stage, lights

Is this where the video game world is heading too? Not according to Microsoft. Head of Gaming Services Ben Decker said in an interview in August 2018: “We don’t have a goal of being the subscription where you get all your content. This is meant to be additive to the ecosystem. We don’t see a future where subscriptions are dominant. We see a future where customers have choice between a subscription and purchase-to-own, where there’s a mixed ecosystem because that’s what customers want, and that’s what developers want.”

So maybe that’s what it all boils down to: choice, and perhaps too much of it. Research has shown this isn’t a good thing as it can make us miserable. When there are fewer options available, it’s easier to make a decision (although we’ll feel cheated if there are too few) and around 12 seems to be the sweet-spot for decision-making. Perhaps our current cynicism and suspicion towards game passes are because we’re starting to feel overwhelmed at all that choice.

Microsoft and other companies are jumping into the future of cloud-based services and are quick to point out the benefits. But we as consumers are far more cautious and want to take the journey one step at a time. Whether it’s a self-service channel in an IT setting, self-checkouts in supermarkets or game passes from publishers, they’ll need to lead us gently and avoid any unexpected items in the bagging area.

Stranger adventures

It’s rare that a TV show captures my attention enough to make me want to watch it and I’d rather play a video game in my spare time. But every now and again one comes along that changes that and this is exactly what happened when Stranger Things was released on Netflix last summer.

It’s highly unlikely you’ve not heard of the show or its storyline but just in case: in a small Indiana town called Hawkins, where the nearby Hawkins National Laboratory supposedly performs scientific research for the United States Department of Energy, a 12-year old boy by the name of Will Byers disappears while cycling home after playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends. Where has he gone? Why is the town suffering from ‘visitations’? And who is this weird girl who calls herself Eleven?

Take the bittersweet comic-fantasy tone of E.T., the adventure from The Goonies and the fear factor from Poltergeist. Add an alcoholic cop from any 80s police movie, the camaraderie of a group of friends from Stand By Me, and the young female hero from Firestarter. Mix with a bunch of other references from Steven Spielberg films and Stephen King books, and you’re close of capturing the essence of Stranger Things.

These elements all combine for a huge nostalgia hit and it’s one of the reasons I love the show so much. Not only is it influenced by the media I grew up with during the decade in which it’s set, I can remember being one of those kids in the programme. My friends and I spent our summer holidays cycling on our bikes, exploring the nearby forest, and believing there was a secret to uncover if only we’d stumble upon a clue hidden among the trees.

My other-half and I will be going to Kitacon this weekend, a geek culture convention where cosplay is fully encouraged, and so I’ve recently been working on putting together an Eleven costume. While trying on the outfit last week I happened to mention to Pete that it would be great if there was a Stranger Things video game; what could package such a mysterious storyline better than an adventure? So I sat down to write a post about my ideas…

…and then Google quickly revealed that a developer has already produced a short tribute to the show. Why had I not heard about this already?!

Created by Infamous Quests, the spoiler-free demo can be downloaded from itch.io and is a one-room point-and-click adventure. Its synopsis on the site gives a very brief overview of what made the Stranger Things storyline so intriguing: “’99 out of a hundred times, the missing kid is with a parent or relative. This is about that one other time.’ The disappearance of Will Byers has the town of Hawkins, Indiana – and Chief Jim Hopper – on edge.”

Anyone who’s a fan of old-school adventures such as Monkey Island and King’s Quest will feel right at home. Players step into the shows of Hopper himself while he’s on the search for Will in Mirkwood, navigating a single scene from the show while handling dialogue trees and inventory. It’s very short and won’t take you any longer than ten minutes to complete; but it shows that Infamous Quests has a great understanding of what makes both adventure games and Stranger Things so special.

I’m in no way a developer but I can see there being some design problems in making a full title based on the show. For example, some of the action scenes probably wouldn’t translate into point-and-click as well as they could in other genres. But being able to switch between characters for their parts of the storyline, as happens in the programme itself, would work a treat.

When IGN interviewed Matt and Ross Duffer last year, they suggested a Stranger Things comic but the brothers said themselves that what they’d really like to see is a video game. In addition, Steven Alexander from Infamous Quests has stated he’d like to be able to chat with Netflix about the possibilities, and even told Wired that he ‘wrote up a whole design doc, did research on the locations in the show, mapped out ideas’.

Come on adventure game gods, smile on us and make that happen.

The second season of Stranger Things is due to be released around Halloween in October so hopefully by the time it arrives there may be more news about a potential video game. In the meantime, don’t keep any curiosity doors locked.