L.A. Noire is one of the most anticipated games of 2011. The premise is unique, as gathering evidence and solving cases are going to be at least as important as any other features of gameplay. The motion capture looks amazing. The voice acting sounds fantastic. There's a lot to be excited about when the game finally emerges next month.
Unfortunately, L.A. Noire is also set up to be one of the most segmented game releases in recent memory. In fact, unless you own a PlayStation 3 and you purchase the game from both GameStop and Wal-Mart, you will be missing out on some cases that make up the overall experience. Other retailers are offering DLC items—which are bad enough—but this move to start ransoming parts of the single-player experience based on which retailer you buy the game from or on which console you have is, well, a crime.
Rockstar Games, the publisher for L.A. Noire, is quick to point out that the exclusive cases that consumers get for pre-ordering at either GameStop or Wal-Mart will be available as paid downloadable content some time after release. This is not a victory for anyone other than Rockstar, which gets to make even more money off of consumers for content that, arguably, should be in the game to begin with. The console-specific DLC is going to be a strengthening trend throughout 2011, as Sony and its "Only on PlayStation" mantra seems to indicate that the company is looking to foster the addition of specific content in multiplatform games that are on the PlayStation 3. Retailer-specific DLC, however, is the biggest problem.
Game reservations have their importance. Purchasers for retailers like having some sort of metric to use when determining how many copies of a game that they need to order to satisfy consumer demand without buying too much. Reservations used to be a lot simpler. Back in the days of FuncoLand, for example, you just gave your name and phone number to an employee. That gave the store manager some idea of how many copies that his or her store would need when the game came out. In return, sometimes there were small trinkets that publishers would provide in exchange for this. T-shirts, dog tags, and other small tokens of appreciation changed hands. The big problem with this "honor system" was that many customers would not follow through on the intent to buy reserved games, leading to excessive copies of games floating around.
When GameStop (and other retailers) moved to asking for a small down payment, the thinking was that the exchange of funds would respresent an early investment in the game and that more consumers would follow through and buy the game when it came out, or shortly thereafter. Reservation bonuses from publishers were still around to sweeten the pot. Up until this console generation, the pre-order system made sense for all sides; retailers knew how much to buy from publishers, publishers made their money, and consumers were guaranteed their games and sometimes got something tangible out of the deal.
Then… this console generation happened, and now the reservation system has gotten way out of hand, and it's the base consumer that loses out.
Publishers still get what they want, as retailers are still buying their games. Gaming-specific retailers use reservations as metrics to determine an employee's worth, forcing employees to aggressively seek reservations from consumers and make the game-buying experience less cordial and more like an interrogation. Reservation bonuses are rarely tangible anymore; we've gone from T-shirts and pens to downloadable content like extra guns and costumes, which used to be included for free in games a generation ago. When it comes to part of a gameplay experience, such as levels, characters, or cases, these bonuses become items of ransom. In order to get these parts of the game, you have to reserve it at specific retailers… or you pay extra for it as DLC at some point, meaning that the $60 game is no longer $60.
Now, with L.A. Noire, it's not just one retailer that has this "ransomware". It's now two different retailers, each with its own specific case to offer. Even if consumers cave to GameStop and reserve the game there, a case (or potentially two) is still missing. It's simply not possible to buy the full game with $60. It doesn't matter how insignificant that you may consider these DLC cases to be, the fact is that they're part of the overall game and have been stripped out for ransom—or for alternate revenue above and beyond the arguably exorbitant price tag that remains for these games.
The reservation "bonus" is no longer a bonus. It's the ability to get closer to playing the full game as it was intended. It's legal extortion, and that's one case that Cole Phelps won't be taking on come May 17th.