Things were much easier when I was growing up and when the industry was in its infancy. If you wanted to buy a game then you went into a games store (if you were lucky enough to have one near where you lived) or a department store with a games section in it. Piracy was rife but games were cheap enough for us all to be able to buy what we wanted (relatively speaking) so most of us still had sizeable collections (until the SNES and N64 paved the way for astonishingly expensive cartridges).
But what if we didn’t know what to buy? We had plenty of options open to us there as well. Asking store staff for advice was often hit and miss, especially when it came to asking sales assistants in stores like Boots who had often been drafted in from other departments to cover the games department temporarily but the real bread and butter when it came to our source of gaming information came from the newsstands and the plethora of gaming magazines that we had at our fingertips. Month after month we were assured that almost every game that was released was covered in detail in at least one magazine so we could be certain that our hard earned money (or pocket money) would be well spent. If we were still unsure, most 8-bit and 16-bit magazines came with cover mounted cassettes and disks with trial versions of games so we were able to try games out for ourselves to be absolutely sure we were making the right decision.
Times were good but now the digital era has changed all of that. Print-based magazines have dwindled and most found it a struggle to survive against their online competitors and only the largest were able to stay in business, settling into their own niche markets. Their once loyal readers have instead turned to the internet for their regular source of news, reviews and buying advice finding the instant access and speed of availability essential in today’s fast moving world. The truth is that the mainstream media simply couldn’t compete in a time when gamers wanted news and reviews of all of the latest games the moment it happened.
It’s been the same for ourselves though. Over the years, many people here at Infinite Frontiers have (and still do) work in the mainstream press and have spent time covering video games. We’ve seen the industry change from the inside but even we’ve fallen victim to the change in the market watching magazines close around us as readerships have fallen when they’ve been able to find what they have wanted to elsewhere.
It’s not just the press side of things that have changed though. We’ve been covering the PlayStation Vita here since December 2012 and one thing has become apparent… the games industry wants us to ditch physical media for games. Sony Interactive Entertainment have said openly that they have seen digital as being the primary distribution method of games for the PS Vita for some time (on one of the rare occasions when they have spoken about the console) and most of the releases for the PS3 in recent years have had an emphasis on digital rather than physical. The PC market has turned digital primarily thanks to the likes of Steam and GOG and it’s easy to see why. Digital distribution is cheaper, results in higher profits for developers and reduces, if not eliminates the risk of piracy compared to physical game sales.
But that comes with drawbacks for gamers. It’s been talked about a great deal over the last couple of years – sparked initially following the controversy surrounding the announcement of the Xbox One – that the main drawback of digital game sales is that they offer gamers no scope for resale on the second hand market. If you buy a game and complete it, or you simply don’t like it then to put it simply, you’re stuck with it. Being able to sell games that you don’t want at least reduces the risk to gamers of buying games that you don’t know much about, but for a large percentage of games right now there is still a need for players to have some awareness about them before taking a gamble and spending money on them.
I won’t talk about the associated drawbacks for digital games for the Vita – I’ll discuss that another time – but while there are a lot of modern games that are affordable, these are often from smaller independent studios and these can get overlooked when it comes to reviews. Larger games are covered but do these appear quick enough when it comes to making purchasing decisions? If you’re paying £20 or more for a major digital game, you should at least have some reassurance that you’re buying a game that you are going to enjoy. After all, you won’t be able to take it back if you don’t like it and you can’t sell it on or trade it in towards something else at a later date.
So what choices are there? Unfortunately, very few. Strangely, there are very few digital games for the PS Vita that offer trial versions allowing us to see what games are like before taking the plunge. Whether it was a single level demo or even the full game with a time limit, these could open up games to a whole new audience and I’m sure that more players would be willing to take a chance on games if they could try them out first. You wouldn’t buy a car without taking it for a test drive first nor go on an expensive holiday without doing some research before you travel, yet the video games industry expects us to support them week after week and place our trust in them and their products.
No, the pricing for what they are offering isn’t on the same scale, but for most of us gaming is still a luxury and we have to consider our purchases carefully. Perhaps it’s now time that the industry looked elsewhere for inspiration to see where trials can work and attract new customers. Online gaming sites frequently offer new players free spins and no deposit, this reassurances them that they are going to enjoy the game, before they spend any of their hard-earned cash on it. Supermarkets adopt a similar approach, they regularly offer new customers free use of their home delivery service the first time they shop online, while others offer discounts on future purchases. None are ideal but in business today there has to be some way of enticing someone to try something for the first time.
In the case of the PS Vita, PlayStation Plus has helped to introduce many gamers to new titles they wouldn’t have tried by any other means but that doesn’t generate a large amount for developers and because PS+ is a subscription based system the games themselves are tied to that service, are rarely new releases and certainly aren’t games that you can choose yourself so that only helps in some circumstances. The only other option that has been tried on the Vita in the past has been Free To Play. A few have used this with mixed success allowing players to expand games as they’ve seen fit, but for the most part it’s been limited to the casual game genres.
Could that work for a mainstream release, offering a core game free akin to a free trial, but allowing players to add extra content as they wished to enhance the gameplay experience? It could be something interesting to see and an experiment worth trying by a more adventurous developer looking to bring something new to the Vita…