Friday, August 7, 2009

Who Knew Being in the Mob Could Be So Fun? And So Free?

The answer is X! RAWR! This past June, Microsoft launched the open beta of its Xbox Live interactive game show 1 vs 100.  Thousands of gamers could now access this videogame version of the popular (though I’m not sure it’s still on in the US) television show, at no additional charge (save the annual cost of a Gold subscription).  Within a few weeks, players had gone from earning entries into some theoretical sweepstakes (“theoretical” only in the sense that you probably have the same odds to win as you do to be struck by a passing emu) to winning actual prizes, e.g. spendable virtual dollars and free games.

Parenthetic remarks aside, it’s basically a free game show where you compete against thousands of other people.  But where does that free come from?  And how will it impact the game moving forward?

For those who’ve yet to experience 1 vs 100, let me do just a wee bit of explaining.  The current beta is considered the show’s First Season.  Five days out of the week, you may participate in Extended Play, which is a half-hour trivia free-for-all.  They are essentially practice sessions for the two weekly Live Shows (though they will earn you sweepstake entries).  During the Live Shows, a lone player (The One) faces off against one hundred opponents (The Mob), climbing a ladder of monetary winnings (see above “virtual dollars) by correctly answering questions that Mob members miss. 

It’s much more exciting than my description makes it sound.  To keep things interesting, the questions fluctuate greatly in subject matter in difficulty.  One minute you’re proving your Rock Band knowledge, the next you’re getting stumped by poetry trivia.  As Tycho of Penny Arcade noted, “There are layers of competition.”  You are in a contest simultaneously with The One, The Mob, The Crowd (of which you’re often a part during Live Shows), and up to three opponents with whom you play in a more conventional Party format.  And yes, while I’m often despaired by how well the top players perform, I’ve yet to find any evidence of cheating.  Receiving the maximum number of points for a correct answer requires timing on the scale of nanoseconds, rendering Wikipedia referencing a waste of time. 

So this free game is fun.  But is it fun because it’s free?  Would we not enjoy ourselves as much if there was a price of admission above the Gold subscription?  I’m not sure.  Somehow, Microsoft was able to convince Sprint and Honda to fork over $1 million each for exclusive branding and commercial rights.  This ad-subsidized business model is extremely rare in the gaming industry.  Ian Bogost, in his book Persuasive Games, discussed how advertisers still haven’t figured out video games, mostly due to conventional marketing tactics falling flat in an interactive medium (Would putting Coke bottles in The Sims really make me want more Coke?).  Microsoft’s run right around that hurdle by structuring the game like a television game show.  You can only play it at certain times, so Microsoft can actually schedule and sell chunks of time to advertisers.  Whereas television commercials fall right at the moment of highest suspense, 1 vs 100 is constant suspense: “What will the next question be?” “I hope I get it right!” “If I get this next one, I could win a free game!”  By providing players the opportunity to win just by staying involved, 1 vs 100 weakens the classic “Go grab a snack during the commerical” impulse, which should make its advertisers happy.

The advertising model seems sound, which allows the game to be free.  But would charging a fee actually make it less enjoyable?  Industry convention says I can pop my game disc in whenever I want.  I might be a little perturbed if I spent money on a game and had to play it on a schedule.  Looking at it from a game show perspective, The Price is Right doesn’t charge for tickets.  All you have to do is get yourself there.  Buy the plane ticket.  Rent the stinky sedan.  That’s fair, I suppose.  And somewhat analogous to the Gold subscription fee.  Furthermore, I can’t imagine it would be easy to find a logical price point for the product.  Do you pay per season?  Per year?  What’s acceptable for a game that would rather drop you in a nameless crowd that empower you (a la every other big name title)?  I don’t know that you can expand your user base by asking people unfamiliar with the whole online gaming phenomenon to pay for a chance to win something.  They would just as soon play the lottery.

And the Casual crowd – hopefully drawn in by dapper Avatars, an accessible interface, and a wide variety of trivia topics – will make or break this title.  Getting 7 or 8,000 gamers to take a two-hour break from Gears and Halo to answer questions about Gears and Halo (and occasionally Shakespeare) will not recoup the money poured into whatever alien technology they’ve harnessed to deliver this game seamlessly to thousands of people at the same time.  It will not deliver unto Sprint and Honda enough new revenue to earn back/exceed their initial $1 million investments.  They need to consistently draw the tens of thousands of people I’ve seen playing during Live Shows.  That may mean doing shows in East Coast-friendly time slots.  It may mean expanding it onto Games for Windows so that moms and geriatric uncles don’t need to buy a shiny new box to get in on the action. 

Again, what they shouldn’t do is charge.  Microsoft already gets $50 a year from every player in the game.  The grand prize available to The One is 10,000 Points, aka $80.  Do the math.  With some clever QuickBooks work, this thing should be able to pay for itself.  And all that money from Sprint and Honda?  Microsoft can use it to market its awesome free game show to even more people, who will each have to cough up another fifty bucks.  It’s the perfect scheme.  Ball’s in your court, Microsoft.