Saturday, October 1, 2011

Pretty pretend guns are not a right

Lately my fellow bloggers have been writing about the importance of rights, like the right to a trial in relation to the safety of the public over at Congress Shall Make No Law, and fictional rights that fools cherish, such as the right not to be offended as Popehat and For The Sake of Science both did a great job of hammering out.

So with that in mind, I'm going to tackle the issue that really matters to me - the false claim that Gears of War 3 players have a natural right to pretty guns.

Gears of War 3 is an Xbox game that retails for $60. In some online multiplayer modes, there are some purely aesthetic customizations one can make to their character, the relevant one here being "weapon skins," where the guns players uses can have different paint jobs or animated graphics to make their pretend guns dazzle. Some of these weapon skins are unlocked by completing specific tasks in the game, but a set of 22 was made that players have to pay real money to use.

For $3, you can unlock a static paint scheme like tiger stripes or a flower pattern for all five starting weapons. For $4, you get an animated graphic, like an ocean ripple, for all five. For $15, you can unlock all 22 skins for one of the five weapons, and for a poorly-spent $45 you can unlock each and every one of them.

Predictably, there has been a lot of complaints on the Internet, most of it whiny. The best articulated criticism I have seen is from a level-headed competitive player named K.L. who made a very reasonable video saying this isn't the end of the world, but he doesn't like the policy of incorporating money-making tactics normally reserved for freemium games into a retail game. He hit all the normal points, such as making people pay to use content on the disc, something I don't have a problem with.

Let me start by saying K.L., or "arCtyC" as he likes to be called, has hit upon a gut feeling I share. There is something disappointing about having to pay to use these fun weapon skins. He also does a good job of stressing that this is an entirely voluntary transaction.

Paying to make your pretend guns prettier goes beyond voluntary and satisfies all of the criteria of Michael Munger's "euvoluntary" or "truly voluntary" criteria. Epic Games created the skins, has the legal right to sell them and customers know what they're getting. The weapons skins have no impact on weapon performance, and there are still zero-dollar unlockable weapon skins, so players are not punished for failing to buy them. There is no coercion vaguely associated with this transaction.

So that leaves one criteria to be considered euvolunary. How terrible is the Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement, or BATNA? If not buying a product will result in the death of a consumer, the BATNA differential is said to be very large.

I have trouble imaging a smaller BATNA than not being able to use a pretty pretend gun without paying $3. Sure, it's foolish for most people to pay $45, and I imagine most people chose not to, but a lot of people paid an extra $90 to have their copy of the game bundled with a cheap desk statue, a few trinkets, fake documents and a few different weapon skins and aesthetic downloads. For some reason, offering special editions of games and movies to consumers doesn't draw the same complaints, but the same elements are all there.

I gave it some thought and paid $3 to have the pretty flower imagine at the start of this post put on some of my pretend guns. This small price acts as a barrier, preventing every other player from having an obnoxious arsenal, and as a result I haven't run into anyone else with the same pretty guns.

There is no way to know if Epic Games planned to include the weapon skins, and later decided to charge for them, or were simply looking for another source of revenue and put a little bit of work into creating these for-pay paint jobs. The intent is irrelevant. The weapon skins are a fun addition to the game that I was happy to pay a small amount of money for, and in result, I received exactly what I wanted.

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