Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Future of Software

Video games got me thinking... 

"Free to Play"
I absolutely despise "free to play" games.  They take what is often a great game and purposely make it so tedious, boring and painful to "play" that people give their money, over and over again, to actually make it into a fun experience.

With a free to play game, you will either pay way more than the publisher could ever charge you in one payment, like Asphalt 7 with a total, everything-unlocked cost of almost $3500.

Or you'll just never stop paying, like in Dungeon Hunter, which charges real money for healing potions.  Its one thing to charge real money for ultimate armor or some killer sword, but healing potions?  Those are a basic necessity in an RPG like Dungeon Hunter. 

 Which brings me to the worst of the worst of the worst.  A practice so appalling it would be laughably absurd if people didn't fall for it.  I'm talking about when publishers take an existing game, maybe a gem of the 90s Sega Genesis & Super Nintendo era and think of ways to drain the fun and annoy you enough to make you pay every step of the way.  Take a look at Dungeon Keeper.  An awesome game by Bullfrog released in the late 90s that put you in charge of digging and designing a dungeon dangerous enough to fight off heroes.  In the Bullfrog classic, it would take a couple minutes to dig out a large section of your dungeon.  But then EA Games, easily the most nauseatingly greedy of game publishers, took this classic gem and pervertedly molested it into a soulless prostitute.  In their new farce "Dungeon Keeper" it takes days, even weeks to dig your dungeon... unless, of course, you want to spend money.  WTF!  This game has been around forever!  You can buy the whole, much better version for $6!

Unfortunately even paid games are starting to include many of these tactics.  EA (nauseatingly greedy, remember?) incorporated microtransactions in Dead Space 3 and FIFA Ultimate Team so they could score a few more dollars from you after you already spent $40 - $60 on the game itself.  Unlike Downloadable Content, which is more like an expansion pack, these microtransactions are usually $1 - $3 and unlock things like guns and better players.

On top of all this, you have games that also charge a subscription.  I'm not necessarily opposed to a subscription system if its a reasonable charge.  After all, those servers cost money to run and maintain.  But the going rate seems to be around $15 a month.  Considering Xbox Live is less than 9 dollars a month, and serves as a subscription for a huge assortment of games, $15 seems a little steep.

This brings me to my next topic, which I think is even a scarier one...

How Did This Happen?
Basically it was Apple's fault.  But no, really...  Lets think back to when the first iPhone came out.  Up until then, the most advanced game you could hope to play on your phone was probably snake or brick breaker.  So, when Apple released the app store people were understandably reluctant to spend any real amount of money for a game on their phone.  This lead to many developers charging extremely low prices, even for A+ quality titles.  Remember when virtually everything on the app store was $0.99?

Developers and publishers were not too pleased with the new app store economy.  How could they ever hope to make a profit on a good game with high production costs if customers would only pay $0.99?  So maybe us customers share some part of the blame...

Enter "the solution"... "free to play" games with in-game purchases. 

Software Subscriptions
A few software companies are now selling subscriptions to their software.  For example, if you'd like to use any of the Adobe Creative Suite applications, including Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign or Dreamweaver, you used to be able to purchase that software and it would be yours for as long as you wanted to use it.  Adobe offers upgrades every 2 years, but many non-professional and hobbyist users don't need the most cutting-edge features so they skip a version (or two) and upgrade every 4 (or 6) years to save money.

Not anymore!  Adobe has found a way to put an end to those frugal customer's pesky money-saving habits.  Now, if you want to use any of Adobe's programs, you are only able to do so via a monthly subscription.  $20 a month to use a single app or $50 a month to use more than one.  Stop paying and you will no longer be able to use the programs, so you're really just renting access to their applications.  Also, since Adobe uses proprietary formats, it is likely you won't be able to access your projects, either.
Adobe isn't the only company moving in this direction.  Microsoft offers a subscription model for Office as well.  While a traditional version is still available (for now), I have to wonder how long this will be the case.  Software subscriptions are lucrative money-making opportunities for these companies.  By forcing consumers to follow their upgrade schedule and leaving them stranded and unable to open their work if they cancel their subscription, the software companies are ensuring long-term profit. 

The Future...
What if we keep going down these paths?  Is it so far-fetched to imagine a world in which the computer OS and all of "your" software consists of subscriptions?  Along with your monthly ISP and cable TV bills you'll receive a software bill... OS - $40, Office - $25, Adobe - $70...

Perhaps software companies will mimic the tactics of free-to-play games and microtransactions.  Your OS is "free-to-use" unless you want to create more than 5 folders, after that each additional folder is $3.  Or a multimedia player that charges $1 to play any song not downloaded from its built-in store.  Perhaps the web browser will provide an hour of free browsing a day, and after that you'll need to pay "a small fee"...

The Alternative
You might not think any of this could ever happen.  But, if several years ago I told you that game publishers would soon make tons of money by taking 20 year old games, remove features and slow down the gameplay until they aren't playable and make you pay to get the features back and pay more to play at a normal pace, would you have believed me?

And yet, that is precisely what happened to Dungeon Keeper, Theme Park, and many other classic titles.  

This scenario is another reason why Linux and open-source software is so important.  Because Linux offers a huge collection of quality software for free, it provides a natural layer of protection against this type of corruption. 

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