Sunday, April 06, 2014


Rusty's Real Deal Baseball

You can't talk about Rusty's Real Deal Baseball without mentioning the pricing scheme.  The game is a free download, but there isn't much to do unless you buy some baseball-themed minigames -- with real money -- from a cartoon dog who's set up a shop.  The clever bit is that, before you buy a game, you can haggle with the cartoon dog to try and get a better price.  What a novel concept!  Isn't that just like Nintendo, playing around with conventions.

Here's what's wrong with that.

Rusty is not real.  He is a piece of software.  He has been programmed to offer you a particular price for a video game if you press the right buttons.  Nintendo has already set the bare minimum that they will allow these minigames to be sold for, and that's the price that they expect to receive from everyone who plays the game.  This isn't a case of Nintendo setting a price and the player coaxing them into giving them a deal -- this is Nintendo setting an artificially high price to make the player feel like he's scored a huge deal when he negotiates them down to their actual price.

Then there's the in-game narrative.  Before you buy your first game, Rusty gives you one of his children to follow you around and act as the narrator voice as you play the games and learn the ins and outs of the software.  When you step up to buy your first game, that child dog sort of pulls you aside and tells you that you shouldn't settle for Rusty's price before explaining the mechanics of haggling.

Isn't that a little... fishy?  I mean, am I the only one who read that and thought something was up?  "Look pal, I'm in your corner, see?  Don't listen to my old man; I know he can go lower than that.  You just step up and tell him what's what, I'm right behind you."  Then you work Rusty down to his lowest price, and the kid steps up again, "What did I tell ya!  You're king of the world!  Man, you sure got a great deal on that game!"

It's a setup!  They're playing you!  I'm sure there's a word for this kind of scam, but I don't know what it is.  You're the timid consumer, looking at a price tag you don't like, and rather than lose the sale altogether, the shop keeper has a friend goad you into talking him down on the price.  Then before it gets too low, he builds up your confidence, tells you how great you did and what a great price you're getting.  It's a total headfuck!

And finally, there's the storyline.  I mean, it's Nintendo -- of course they've added a framing story to all of this.  Rusty Slugger was a baseball legend, but now he's a washed-up has-been running a failing store.  His wife has left him with ten kids to raise.  He's failing as a parent, as a businessman, and as a dog.  But as the story progresses, he starts to get his shit together bit by bit.  And you progress the story by... purchasing video games.  With your real money.

So let's say that, of the ten games on offer, only a couple of them actually interest you.  Maybe that umpiring game sounds dumb.  But if you don't buy it, then Rusty will be stuck like this forever!  Don't you want to see the cartoon dog get back together with his wife?!  GET OUT THAT CREDIT CARD YOU HEARTLESS MONSTER.

So there's this whole network of little psychological traps designed to make you feel good about spending your money on this game.  And I know that's nothing new, but it feels like Nintendo has really taken it to a different level.  What's the morality of all of this?  Is it all right to charge an artificially higher price to players who don't get the haggling mechanic?  Is it appropriate to introduce this in a game that looks like it's very child-friendly?  Not that they would be the first company to add micropayments to a children's game, but Nintendo has traditionally been pretty classy and up-front about monetizing their games; do we really want to see them go down this route?

The Good News

The good news is, I actually quite like the pricing scheme.  In fact, I'm tempted to say that I'd like to see more of it.

Look.  There are ten minigames on sale here, starting at $4 apiece.  The absolute worst-case scenario is that you'll spend $40 on the whole set -- the going price for a retail 3DS game.  There have been some unconscionable micropayment schemes in home console games -- the kind where you end up paying $200 or something for content that would have traditionally come with the game in the first place -- but when the micropayments add up to a normal retail price, you can only get so angry.  And of course, you'll probably end up paying much less than that anyway; my first game cost me only $2, and my second only $1.90.

And the games are solid entertainment.  At the very least, the individual minigames compare favorably to most of the $2 fare on the 3DS eShop.  There are games that feature batting, catching, umpiring, aiming -- basic baseball stuff.  They're simple tests of vision and reflexes, but each game comes with a varied list of challenges, and it's a lot of fun to work your way through them.  When you're done with challenges, there are endless "arcade" modes.  All together, they provide some solid sort of Game & Watch/App Store style fun and fill a niche that I hadn't had filled on my 3DS yet.  I feel like I'm getting my money's worth.

And the more I think about it, the more I like the sort of piecemeal payment approach.  As long as it's not an excuse to gouge the customer, the idea of only buying the bits of a game that interest you is appealing.  Say you're really interested in a new RPG that's coming out.  Maybe you don't want to spring for the whole cost of the game, but you can spare a few bucks to play the first chapter.  Then, down the line, you've got a little more cash and you want to see what happens next, so you buy the next chapter.  It still adds up to a single game at full price in the end, but splitting up the payments allows you to recover financially and lets you give each part of the game more attention.  It's the episodic model, basically.  The other side of the coin, of course, is that you might play through the first bit, realize your mistake, and never get the rest of the game.  It has the potential to be very consumer-friendly.

In the end, I have to give credit where it's due.  Without the variable pricing stunt, I probably never would have paid much attention to a game called "Rusty's Real Deal Baseball."  But now I can safely say that I'm eventually going to collect all of the mini-games.  It'll be interesting to see how Nintendo continues to play around with pricing schemes as we move forward.


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