Thursday, May 19, 2011

Neuroticism and Pre-Orders

This Tuesday, I went into my local Gamestop to pick up my copy of L.A. Noire. I had it fully paid off on a pre-order, so all I had to do was walk in with my receipt and my ID and pick it up. I had pre-ordered it from Gamestop because at the time, I thought that you needed to pre-order to get 'The Naked City' DLC pack. In retrospect, it probably would have some with all of the copies that came with the first batch at Gamestop, since the voucher came inside the game. Not that I had any way of knowing that at the time.

I step in, walk up to the register, present my proof of purchase, and politely tell the young man behind the counter to fetch my copy of the game. During this transaction, a somewhat older woman who also worked there spoke up out of the blue and asked me if I was fan of First-Person Shooter games. But that's not what I heard. I heard, "Do you want to pre-order Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3?"

The posters were all over the store. Information about this game was only released the week before, and already they were blitzing the pre-order campaigns. But I had no interest in buying it. I'll probably just rent it like I did with COD4: Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2.

I just stood there for a couple of seconds looking a little dumbstruck. Two little neurotic quirks of mine both kicked in at once:

First, I don't like being offered things to buy. It puts me on the spot in a weird way. I can't even really explain why this is. I feel like if I need anything, I can figure it out myself. And if I can't, then I will seek out someone who can help me. I generally don't need anyone suggesting things for me to purchase. Certainly not when it comes to my video games. Even the McDonald's drive-thru people who suggest an item really grind my gears. I'm an overweight single 20-something who never really learned how to cook. I am very familiar with the McDonald's menu, so how about you just take my damn order and stop wasting my time!?

Second, I have a hard time lying to people. Every time I tell a fib to save myself from an unwanted conversation or other such event, I feel anxious and guilty for about 20 minutes. The easiest way to get this conversation to end would have been to say, "No, not really." But I simply couldn't. I did like some FPS games. This was compounded by the fact that I was wearing my Mass Effect N7 hoodie. I would be caught red-handed wearing clothing that promotes a game with heavy shooting elements. I would say that I didn't like shooting games, and she would not believe me. She might even call me out on it, aggravating the situation.

So there I stood, like a deer in headlights. What I wanted to say was, "I don't want to pre-order Modern Warfare 3." But I couldn't just say that. That wasn't the question. I had to get to that question first. And it was a question that I didn't want to get to. I just wanted to get my game and leave. All I could do was mutter a feeble, "I... don't know?"

She looked confused. How do I not know what I like? It's a simple yes or no question. The only reasonable explanation for that answer would be if I didn't know enough about video games to know what a First-Person Shooter was. And I was wearing a Mass Effect hoodie. I look back at the kid behind the register, screaming at him with my eyes to give me the damn game so I could escape from this hellish corner that I've been backed into.

As he rang up my order, he sounded off the usual questions. "Do you want to pre-order anything else? Blah blah? Blah? Mass Effect 3? bl-blah?" - "No... No thanks... No." Even though I know that I'm going to get Mass Effect 3, I don't need to pre-order it now when it doesn't even come out this year.

Finally, I escaped. On the drive home, I asked myself why I put up with these stores. But I already knew the answer...

(Note: I have no first-hand experience working in the retail or video game industries. The following words are simply my opinion on how I think things work based on my own observations, and are not to be taken as absolute fact. I'm not referencing any sources for this information, and if I'm way off base about anything, I apologize.)

I generally only pre-order games if I have a reason to. That reason used to be if I thought there was going to be a limited supply of the item, such as a Collector's Edition, or if it was such an obscure title that the store might get too of a small quantity to meet demand. These days, that reason is that game developers make deals with retailers to include bonus content with pre-orders to encourage sales of new copies, rather than the customer buying a marked down used copy of a game at a $5 discount.

It's no secret that many game developers and publishers aren't a fan of Gamestop's trade-in strategy: Gamestop (or any other retailer) sells a new copy of a game to Customer A. Then, Customer A finishes the game in a few days and brings it back to Gamestop to trade-in for money or credit. Gamestop then resells the game to Customer B at a price that's slightly below that of a new copy. Even with the reduced price on the new copy, and the money that's given to Customer A, Gamestop probably makes about as much money (maybe even more) from the resale of the used copy than the cut they would get from the sale of the new copy. This effectively allows Gamestop to sell the same copy of a game twice, but only pay the game's publisher for one sale.

Naturally, the publishers tend to take offense to this. If people are buying used copies of their games, they aren't getting paid for it. But there's nothing that they can really do to combat this action. Furthermore, Gamestop insists that if they didn't supplement their income with used sales, they wouldn't be able to compete with bigger stores like Walmart. And without stores like Gamestop devoting themselves to the hobby of video games, the industry as a whole would be weaker.

So somewhere along the line, Gamestop and the developers started teaming up by offering incentives to buy games new in the form of pre-order bonuses. The developers win because it encourages people to buy their games new, ensuring that they get a cut of the profits. Gamestop wins because it encourages people to buy from them. And the customer wins because they get a bonus thing to have.

In the days of yore, pre-order bonuses generally were extra knick-knacks used to promote the game. Clothing, figurines, soundtracks, artbooks, keychains, and other branded goods were used as incentive to buy a new copy of the game while the price was still high. While those kinds of goods are still given away on occasion, these days the publishers tend to include bonus content for the actual game. It's cheaper than making merchandise, and with the advent of online services like Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, it's relatively easy to distribute.

So in exchange for spending full-price on a new copy of a game from a select retailer, the consumer gets a code that gives him Downloadable Content (DLC). It could be a unique costume, weapon, playable character, or fancy hat to wear. Things that used to be in-game unlockables are now used as incentives to buy new copies of the game as soon as they come out.

And things that used to be given away as pre-order bonuses are now packaged into Collector's Editions of the game, and sold for more than the game by itself.

Normally, I don't have too much of a problem with this practice. If you want the extra thing, go get it from Gamestop. If you don't, you can get it somewhere else. If you don't live somewhere where they have a Gamestop. Well, I guess you can order it online. Or you're SOL. Whichever.

Lately, however, a disturbing trend has been emerging among the industry. I imagine that other major outlets were upset that Gamestop was getting all of the bonus incentives. Or maybe the publishers wanted to expand their operations. Who knows? But for whatever reason, games have started offering pre-order incentives to other stores like Best Buy and Amazon. Which doesn't sound too bad. More people get a chance to get the pre-order goodies, right?

The problem is that they are offering different bonuses between outlets!

I first encountered this with Mass Effect 2. People who made pre-orders with Gamestop were given the Terminus Weapon and Armor pack, and people who pre-ordered from other retailers recieved the Inferno Armor.

You can choose only one, so choose wisely.

Why is this a problem, you might ask? Have you recently looked at anyone who plays video games as a hobby? We're fueled by collecting absolutely everything! Experience points, side-quests, dog tags, achievements, extra bosses, bells, shiny Pokémon, bigger Farms, 100% completion awards, etc. The devout gamer has been conditioned throughout his or her life to want to collect absolutely everything possible.

But when you divide the pre-order bonuses, you can't get everything. Sure, you don't NEED all of the armor sets in Mass Effect 2. You can't use more than one at a time. But the diehard fan is going to WANT it all. The video game OCD that we've developed over all these years COMMANDS IT! And by offering separate bonuses, the only way I could get both sets of armor was to buy a copy of the Collectors' edition online, AND buy a copy from Gamestop (and return it after I had used the voucher that they gave me). Not to mention that I had to buy 3 bottles of Dr. Pepper (yuck) to get those extra hats.

Which brings us back to L.A. Noire. When this game came out, four different content packs were offered as pre-order bonuses, each one available from a different store.

What else can I say about that? Now, I'm a little more forgiving since Rockstar has stated that all of the DLC will be available for purchase at some point. Y'know, for money. So if you want everything, you'll be paying more than the USD$59.99 that they charge for a new copy. We don't know how much each DLC pack will cost right now, but it's going to cost something. But hey, at least I don't need to buy ONE of those packs, I guess. The whole process just feels like a slippery slope.

So I guess I'll keep going to Gamestop to get my pre-order bonuses until the system changes, or I break down and stop giving a crap. I could probably write a whole other page about "Project Ten Dollar" but that will have to wait for another time.

-Alex McG

(And for the record, the Inferno Armor from Mass Effect 2 was later available for sale as DLC. Not like we had any way of knowing that would happen when it first came out.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How I named a pony

Friday, May 6, 2011 marked the season finale of My Little Pony Friendship is Magic. It's no secret to anyone who knows me that I've become quite taken with the show. I could probably make a whole post about why I love it so much, but that's not what I'm here to talk about.

During the episode, we see a a fancy band playing for the Grand Galloping Gala...

One of these ponies really stood out to me for some reason...

There she was. Playing the cello. Or is that a double bass? She's playing it while standing, which seems to suggest that it's a bass. Hey, I played one of those back in elementary school. I was never very good at it. It was hard to move around and I didn't practice as much as I should have. But maybe it's a cello, and ponies just need to stand up to play. I'm thinking too hard about this.

Without getting too Freudian about things, her character design is just very appealing. The hair style, the eyes, the color scheme. For a background pony with no lines, she's very well done and stands out from the rest of the band.

One thing that following the fandom of MLP has taught me, is that EVERY pony will get a name from the community, regardless of their actual importance to the show. Following this, people will create stories that make up personalities and behaviors of these ponies from the smallest of details. Which in turn fuels more fanfic and fanart that play off of these traits.

For example, two ponies are often seen together in the background of several episodes:

Because of their cutie marks, they were named Lyra and Bon-Bon. Naturally, because these two are often seen next to each other, they've generally been accepted by the community to be a couple. Which isn't too surprising, since you can't throw a cat without hitting a F/F pairing of just about any character combination you could imagine, provided that they've shared at least 5 seconds of screen time.

For some reason, I was compelled to leave some kind of mark with the cello pony. I spent more time than I'm proud of thinking of a name. She has a treble clef cutie mark (shouldn't it be a bass clef?), so I was thinking of some kind of pun regarding clefs. Clef Hoof came to mind, which doesn't make much sense even as a pun, since horses don't have cleft hooves. Thinking of music terms, I eventually came up with using the word "octave." Octavio, I thought. That's a real name. But that's a male name. WAIT! That's a Spanish name! I can just change the O into an A.


And so I fell in love with that name. Simple. Elegant. Punny. She even looks like she could be Spanish, in a way. But it was all in my head. And pretty soon, someone else would come up with a different name. How would I make the name stick? How do they normally stick? I figure that among imageboards and other community sites, one person comes up with a suggestion and others roll with it. How would I do something like that? I have no talent when it comes to drawing, and I have no interest in attempting to write fanfiction. In discussing this with a friend of mine, he came up with a suggestion.

"Maybe if you posted a pic and tagged her on Ponibooru you could actually get that name to stick... Wait, I know. Get a high quality screencap and shop/MS Paint in some dialog where Pinkie is asking if she wants to go backstage and fuck."

Hah. Yeah right, I thought. Like I would stoop to that level.

The next day, I created this and posted it to Ponibooru:

I added tags for everything applicable to the image: cello, bowtie, gala, innuendo, lesbian, Pinkie_Pie and finally Octavia. I had created something that referred to her by name. But would it stick? The comments would be my gauge. The first comment:

Anonymous: Rubbing underwear? Surely you could have thought of something better.
Fair enough. It was the only sexual pun I could come up with regarding stringed instruments. But it got the job done.

Chipotle: The name of the cello pony it's Octavia??? WTF?! That name it's awful!!! Her name must be Clarisse or Maria Joaquina or "Mi culo sabe a pollo"!
Ouch. Someone's not a fan. Though suggesting "My ass tastes like chicken" as an alternate name questions the validity of the poster's opinion.

Over the next few days:

Anonymous: Awww. I like "Octavia." But that's just me I s'pose. :/
Anonymous: Octavia is one classy pony. I can see why she's getting noticed more than the average non-Ponyville BG character.
StarshineSprint: Octavia is my new favorite background pony. Sorry, Lyra/Bon-Bon, you guys have had your position usurped.

Around this time, I also added Octavia to the MLP wikia. I figured that I would try to make it as official as I could. To be honest, the whole thing felt a little underhanded. Sure, it's not a big deal on any level, but who was I to just decide on this name? I didn't have any part in designing this character. I didn't suggest a name that others in the community thought was good and kept using it. I just decided.

But maybe no one really cares about what I called her. Maybe someone else would make a good piece of fan art and choose a different name for the character. Maybe that name would stick better, and someone would go in and change the wiki page.

But that didn't happen. Other people started creating pictures with that pony, and tagging them "Octavia." Then, someone made a fanfic about her. The only real split that people had with the name was that some people believed that she looked close enough to one of Pinkie Pie's sister that she could be related:

So some people started calling her Octavia Pie. More fanfic. More art. This does however, add a new layer of awkward to the original picture I made, since now Pinkie could be hitting on her own sister.

So people are using the name now. It's hard to describe how that makes me feel. On one hand, I feel proud of myself. I wanted to get that name out there and I did. On the other hand, who really cares? I didn't draw the original character. I didn't make any of the art, or write any of the fiction. All I did was use roflbot to add a lame sex pun to a screencap of a cartoon about talking horses.

And does it matter? Would any of the art or fanfic be any different if someone else had tagged a picture naming her Cello Shots? Well, I know one thing: we wouldn't have as much fanart that refer to yogurt or Spider-Man villains.

-Alex McG