Game development isn't cheap. Publishers tend to hold the real price tags of the biggest games close to the vest, but throwing together a few random numbers should give you an idea of the scope we're talking about. According the Gamasutra Game Developers Salary Survey for 2013, the average game developer salary is $83,060 per year. I'm going to ballpark the team size at 150 people, though that number can scale much higher: Ubisoft Reflections managing director Pauline Jacquey said the average team for an Ubisoft open-world game is 600 people and Resident Evil 6 was made by 600 employees. Most games have development cycles of around 2-4 years at this point, I'll say 3 years for our hypothetical game.
Bringing all those numbers together, we have a theoretical title costing $37 million to make, without taking into account marketing (not too far from reality). That's a lot of cash and magnitudes greater than earlier console generations.
To make sure they make their money back, publishers and developers have gotten a bit cutthroat. This is why you you've seen more downloadable stories, more downloadable characters, more costumes, and more microtransactions in general. It's about wringing out all the time and money you can from the existing audience. Notifications letting players know how much they can spend to "improve" their experience with the game, like an endless wall blocking or diverting your gaming flow.
I don't even really have a huge problem with the idea of microtransactions and DLC. Additional non-essential characters like Mass Effect 2's Kasumi or Dragon Age II's Sebastian are okay with me. Additional color packs or voice packs for fighting games? I pretty much ignore them, but I'm sure some Persona 4 Arena Ultimax players are dying without Adachi providing game commentary in Network matches. Hell, I'm even cool with Blizzard charging players to jump to level 90, despite feeling that $60 is too steep.
There's a line. It's probably different for everyone, but we all have on. A bridge too far. One example of that has been the retailer-specific pre-order bonus, which prevents even fervent fans from easily purchasing all of the content available in their favorite titles.
Today, 2K Games and developer Turtle Rock Studios announced that Evolve would have a special pre-purchase bonus. The entire set of third-tier hunters - Parnell, Caira, Abe, and Cabot - and the final monster, Wraith, are all available instantly if you pre-purchase the game. If you don't, you have to unlock those characters like the designers intended, grinding your way through matches. Pre-purchasing also lets players download the Monster Expansion Pack for free, which includes the 4th unannounced monster and the Savage skin for Goliath. Evolve was built to allow for future DLC - more maps and hunters are on the way - so this slots into everything Turtle Rock said before.
"It's designed to have a long life--hopefully that works and we get to try a bunch of crazy things with the community after release," Turtle Rock co-founder Chris Ashton told OXM. "As long as people are into it and the DLC does reasonably well, then we'd like to keep making more. At the end of the day, it's a business and it has to make sense, but we believe that we've built a game that does support that really well--more so than any game ever before."
My terminology is specific because this is pre-purchasing, not pre-ordering. You have to pay the entire amount for the game before Evolve's launch on February 10, 2015. In the case of the Monster Expansion Pack, missing out on this offer means paying an additional $14.99 if you decide you want it later; a tactic other publishers have used before. Like most other pre-order bonuses, these "gifts" are intended to get players to buy Evolve now. Gifts that only seem available to players on Xbox One; the press release doesn't mention the benefits applying to other versions.
These characters are unlockable, but by launch, they'll be known commodities; you're not getting anything new or exciting from the grind upwards. You're just jumping to the front of the line because you bought the game before it came out. They're also more than just skins, because the hunters aren't the same: Markov and Hyde are both Assault class characters, but they play differently, with Hyde's flamethrower making him a more offensive and close-ranged character. These hunters could provide a solid gameplay benefit for early adopters, acting as a jumpstart for competitive players (though I'm sure Turtle Rock has balanced them appropriately). This content is a carrot, one tied to the demo-style Open Beta period; buy now, save time later.
Yes, as we get farther from launch, this will be less of a problem. The community will have played enough that everyone's on a similar level, so these additional unlocks won't matter. At launch, it feels like a publisher trying to pry open your wallet just a bit earlier.
Will these pre-purchase bonuses enough to get Xbox One players to buy right now or have 2014's broken releases put the fear of AAA into players? A CD Projekt Red board member seemed to think the latter when he spoke to polish financial journalists about the delay of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
"Gamers took our decision very well. [The] market is afraid of badly polished games on next-gen platforms," Adam Kiciński said in a translation provided by our sister site, Eurogamer Poland.
The open beta lets you see if Evolve is polished, but now interested players also have to ask themselves, "am I interested in the game right now?" Are they ready to spend $60 to get in on the ground floor? Waiting means the ride to the top will be a bit bumpy.