Thursday, May 14, 2009

looking a gift horse in the mouth

in real life you would break your neck trying to do this Late last week, Rob did a post about loving Valve, and loving Valve’s games, and loving every bloody blade of grass that Gabe Newell has ever deigned to tread upon. It was well-intentioned and he had some good points, namely that at $20 the Orange Box represents a ridiculous value, and that, yes, Valve can sure make them a decent video game.

But the rest? Really Rob? You don’t think you’re being a tad overgenerous? I’m sure they’re good guys and all, but when all is said and done, business is business, and in the entertainment industry there’s scarcely a business more commercially driven than video games. To say that Valve is using marketing tactics different than anyone else is a stretch, and to say that they’re giving art away to the masses like some aboriginal tribe on the barter system is something just shy of utterly ridiculous.

When the Orange Box released in late 2007, it was hailed as the best value in gaming. There was a lot of product there, to be sure – Half-Life 2, two Half-Life 2 episodes, the much-fawned-over Portal, and Team Fortress 2. For $60, it sure looks like a lot of stuff. Break it down a bit, though – the bulk of this new $60 title was that the bulk of its gameplay was warmed-over stuff from the last three years – new stuff was limited to Episode Two, Portal, and Team Fortress 2, and some gamers felt, understandably, that they were being charged again to buy things which they had already played. Episode Two and Portal together add up to some eight or nine hours when put together, and TF2 will keep you occupied about as long as any shooter’s multiplayer component. Really, the Orange Box offers value about equal to its peers, the Halos and Gears of Warses that sit beside it on shelves.

And let’s consider Team Fortress 2 whilst considering a Valve that contrasts the “slick commercialism” of those other studios. TF2 on the PC has, like a fine wine, gotten better with age – new maps, new weapons to spice up character classes, and even more coming at us in the future, all for free. It’s a good product, and it has some legs. Put down the mouse and keyboard and pick up a controller pad, and the game changes. TF2 on the 360 or the PS3, though those consoles have proven themselves more than capable of downloading new content, has remained stagnant, updateless, with only vague promises as to when these updates will be delivered (for money). We all know that Valve is first and foremost one of the last of the PC stalwarts, but that doesn’t mean they should shun the Xbots and the Gaystation crowd.

Once the price comes down to $20, these arguments go out the window – for $20, the Orange Box may well be the best package gamers have yet seen. Still, Valve isn’t doing this because they love you. They’re doing this because the Orange Box at $60 was acclaimed and sold like a bajillion copies, and as such became one of those rare games that actually makes some money. Valve is offering the Orange Box for a song because, well, any money they make off of it at this point is pure, undiluted profit for them. If just five hundred people bought the Box over that weekend where it was $9.99, Valve just made itself a cool $5,000, and it doesn’t have to give any of that to a publisher. $5,000 is a not inconsiderable chunk of change, and they could easily have made much more than that in one weekend by selling cut-rate copies of a game fast approaching its second birthday. Valve isn’t pulling a Lewis Hyde and delivering its art to the huddled masses – it’s taking advantage of you, shoving an impulse buy in your face, the same as any Wal-Mart on the planet.

However, commercial considerations aside, the value is good for the gamer on a budget. This stands in stark contrast to the excesses of last year’s Left 4 Dead, which is anything but sensibly priced. When I say “anything but,” I do mean it – the game is fun enough and, hell, might even deserve some of those awards that were heaped upon it, but it’s certainly no more involved than the aforementioned Team Fortress 2, which shipped as one-fifth of a $60 product a year before. For $40, perhaps this game would make sense, but for $60? Post-Orange Box, in the middle of a recession? That’s almost criminal. You get a handful of multiplayer maps, a handful of characters and a single-player mode which comes off as something of an afterthought – hardly a stellar value proposition. Subtract the slick cel-shaded visuals of Team Fortress 2, and you’re left with a game engine creaking under the weight of the functionality Valve has thrown on since its 2004 debut, and it looks considerably worse in splitscreen. I don’t think there’s an inch of this pig not covered in lipstick.

I certainly like Valve, but I also see no reason to hold them above any other developer. They have an excellent track record and have generated a lot of goodwill among gamers – this is well-deserved. They’re not the heartless, calculated moguls who control the Madden franchise, but it’s important to remember that they’re still a business, same as any other.