Videogame consoles are learning from mobile gaming, and that's a bad thing

By Nathaniel Mott , written on January 23, 2013

From The News Desk

Remember cheat codes? You know, the arcane strings of alphanumeric characters that would allow gamers to become virtual deities, gaining access to weapons, levels, characters, and other content before unlocking them in the game proper? These codes allowed gamers to play the game by their own rules, de-emphasizing the game creator's intent and essentially "breaking" the game.

It was only a matter of time before game makers turned this proclivity for cheating into a money-maker. Rather than tasking gamers with finding some obscure hack on the Web, game makers built cheat codes into their games and have managed to turn a little profit by doing so. These new cheat codes are called in-app purchases, and while they were previously limited to Flash and mobile games, they might just make their way to mainstream games this year.

One notable example that already has pundits and gamers up in arms is "Dead Space 3," an action horror game that will "remind" players who lack the proper in-game resources that they can purchase weapons with real-world cash. This model has long been popular on mobile devices and gave birth to the "freemium" concept, which isn't especially popular on consoles.

Some of the backlash comes from the different pricing models in play. Mobile games, especially the "freemium" options, allow people to spend money on a game that they enjoy and allow companies to stay in business. (Most of the time.) Some games take this too far, like "Final Fantasy: All the Bravest," which the Penny Arcade Report's Ben Kuchera described as "a steaming pile of in-app purchasing horseshit," but it's a generally accepted practice.

On consoles, however, most people aren't getting a game for free. They're paying upwards of $60 for a new game (with other tiers, such as $40 or $20, coming into play for mid-tier titles or older games). If they're parting with that amount of money, which is more than a full day's work for a minimum wage earner in many states, the game nagging for an extra $5 every time they need a bigger gun feels like extortion.

This isn't the only notable crossover of mobile gaming and console gaming practices. Nintendo announced today that Wii U owners will be able to download NES, SNES, and GameBoy Advance games to their devices, tapping into the nostalgia of many gamers' youths and getting some more mileage out of decades-old titles. The company is offering people who already purchased these games for the Wii (the Wii U's predecessor) a discounted price. And people aren't happy.

Essentially, the thinking goes, Nintendo is charging customers for the "privilege" of downloading a game they've already paid for and can't transfer between devices. If you want to play "Super Mario Bros." and you own a Wii and a Wii U, you've got to pay twice.

Mobile games do this as well. Someone might be able to purchase the iPhone version of a game for $0.99 and the iPad version for $2.99 -- lookin' at you, "Angry Birds" -- or purchase a universal version, which will operate on both systems, for a "discount." Customers have to pay extra if they want to play a game on multiple platforms. (Whether this is right or wrong is hard to determine. Because games on different platforms require different development, it's not like Rovio is charging twice just for the hell of it, the way Nintendo is.)

Last year I argued that, if mobile gaming is going to become more serious and approach the quality of console games, people would have to be okay with handing some money over. As it turns out, they already are -- they're just not doing so in the way game makers are used to.

These practices have been accepted on mobile platforms because they are so new and different from previous business models. A device in your pocket that lets you play games, read books, listen to music, browse the Web, and do any of a hundred other things is decidedly different from a device purchased specifically for its ability to play games. So mobile game makers got creative and showed that giving something away and relying on game-breaking tricks and the shift to multiple devices can work.

Now, though? Now we have games, like those listed above, that show how this is starting to irritate gamers even on mobile devices. Companies are bringing mobile gaming strategies to their consoles at the same time that people are getting sick of these practices on mobile devices. This isn't a blending of the old and the new -- it's an unfortunate, greedy mashup of the old and the almost-old.

[Image courtesy M i x y]