The Problem with “Lumines” on Xbox Live: My two cents on the Microtransaction debacle

Admittedly, I’m pissed about this myself.  And I work for the damned company.

What is it that I’m talking about?   A few days ago, "Lumines", a small Tetris-like game, was released for purchase on Xbox Live Marketplace – the convenient online portion of Xbox 360 that allows you to peruse, shop, and try out/demo games, purchase add-on packs for existing games, or download video clips.  It was priced at 1200 Microsoft points, which is essentially $15.

Okay.  No big deal right?  $15 for a small addictive game with great sound and graphics that you can play in 1080i on a next-gen system… that’s little "up there" but if it’s a quality well-developed game, which it is, it’s probably worth the price of 3 Starbucks Carmel Macchiatos.

Or is it?

Upon further inspection of your game, (which by the way I will remind everyone that you can download and try out FOR NO COST before you buy it) a gamer realizes that there are entire segments of the game that appear to be flat out missing.  For example, if you look at the interface, you see that there is:

  • a "Mission mode"
  • a "Puzzle mode"
  • an "Advance mode"

And they’re all completely inaccessible… even when you PAY $15/1200 Microsoft points for it.

Lumines Live!… Q Entertainment’s recently buy-by-the-module Xbox Live Marketplace game

In order to get access to the "advanced mode" a more complex version of the basic play mode, you need to pay an addtional $10.  And in an obvious attempt to compel people to buy the "advanced" pack by sticking an untouchable selection in the middle of the game screen that reads "advanced mode", they’ve essentially baited the game to get people to buy these "microtransaction"-based add-ons.

It gets worse.  It turns out that even though you can’t see them, there are even more packs that you "get the opportunity to buy" to add to Lumines:

  • "Artist" Pack – For more music to play in the background
  • "Vs CPU Mode" Pack – For more computer players

Note to Q Entertainment, Xbox Live, whomever it is that did this…
I mean really.  Xbox Live Marketplace has been kind of a great forum for purchasing stuff you like, and not purchasing stuff you don’t like.  This however is the first instance of a product that people DO like however the manner in which it is served to the consumer is frankly insulting

The key here is that Lumines’ creator, Q Entertainment, by pricing the game as one of the most expensive products on Xbox Live Marketplace, is essentially acting like that big brother that used to tease you by holding a your favorite Hot Wheels car over your head and saying, "What’s the matter?  Don’t you want your car?  If you want your car, why don’t you come and get it?"

Then after you’ve grovelled, begged, pleaded, and said he’s the greatest guy in the world and no other brother is better than him… blah blah blah… he then proceeds to physically remove the tires off the car, and hands you the body saying, "There!  I gave you your car back.  Aren’t you happy?"

You little snivelling ingrate.

Lumines™ Live!And on top of all of this… "The Cherry"
The cherry on top of this big ice cream sundae of fun is the fact that a lot of content has actually been stripped out of the game, in comparison to the original version of Lumines on the Playstation Portable.  Lumines was originally a launch title for the PSP and out of the box the PSP version comes with 40 puzzles.  Not so for Xbox Live’s version:  It comes with FIVE… with the opportunity to buy the other 35 and a new feature called "mission mode" with a "Puzzle Pack" which is probably going to be $10 at a minimum, bringing the total to $25 or 2000 Microsoft points.

Also skins as missing.  The Xbox Live version comes with only 12 skins.  The PSP version came with tons of skins.  Again, the "Artist pack" will likely fulfill this empty portion of the game… for the low low price of $10 again.  Now were up to $35.

Now let’s just put it all to bed by telling you that the PSP version with all it’s features and all it’s portability is $19 for a brand new cartridge at BestBuy.  Compare this to the $15 "disabled" version that you download and buy online which a) doesn’t have any physical medium for Q to pay for, and b) doesn’t have to be stocked on shelves and distributed, being that there is a very negligible cost for moving bits instead of physical discs.

I should point out that Lumines for Xbox 360 has a multiplayer feature that can be used locally or over Xbox Live.  There is also a Time Attack mode that allows you to attain Xbox Live achievements which is good. 

However the question is not, "Is the new UI and these new features worth the $15 difference?"  The question is more like, "Why does the customer get positioned to feel like  they were sold a bill of goods?"  At the end of the day, all because the game clearly has been "partitioned out" for upselling, and the missing components have been laid before the user in as obnoxious a way as possible, the user feels like he bought an incomplete product – especially if they’re used to the PSP.

The "You don’t have to buy it" Argument
Now for the record, I respect Larry Hyrb.  He’s a great guy and he’s answered several of my questions personally over our internal network and he’s even volunteered to fly down and talk to one of my customers.  The poor guy must be incredibly busy.

That being said, his argument around the Lumines/Microtransaction debate is simple: 

"You don’t have to buy it.  You don’t have to buy any of the add-ons."

This is where historical perspective I think provides me with a little bit of a benefit.  This is the same line we’ve given to consumers about a lot of things we sell.  Internet Explorer = "You don’t have to use it."  Windows XP Professional = "You don’t have to buy it."  "Office Professional = "You can buy Standard Edition"

From my vantage point, this is the wrong tactic and approach for pissed off users/consumers.  These folks aren’t like corporate customers – every nickel matters.  They’re not ones to blow things off… to them, it’s personal – not business.  We have a great deal of goodwill built up in Xbox Live Marketplace.  People like it and people look forward to new content that they can download on the console over the Internet.  And for many people, I think they believe we’re pissing all over them by insulting their intelligence and selling them a "shell" of a game.

We’re selling them a proverbial dinette set with only 1 butter knife, 1 dining fork, a bowl, and a bread plate.   We then go tell them that they can buy the salad fork, the soup spoon, the stirring spoon, the steak knife, the wine glass, the water glass, the dining plate, the placemat, and the napkin separately… only as they need them.

YES, you’re damned right you need to buy them.

I mean seriously.  How many people are going to buy the "base game" then not want the additionals.  Case & point:  Xbox 360 Core System sales vs Premium System sales.  People are willing to pay a little more, but don’t go nickeling & diming them right in their faces with "unavailable features" that they can only unlock if they cough up another $10.

I’m talking about Lumines… not other Xbox Live products
Now to be clear, I’m talking about Lumines specifically here.  There’s some debate about the viability of lame add ons like "Horse Armor" for your horse in Elder Scrolls 4 Oblivion that’s basically just an aesthetic upgrade.  This is a $5 purchase that’s just stupid and really shouldn’t have been posted.  I’ll bet they made less than 1000 sales of that dumb upgrade. 

However Larry makes the point that Oblivion was worth EVERY PENNY of the $60 you likely paid for it at the store so if you ended up paying a little more for a microtransaction for ANYTHING you might be interested in that’s posted on Xbox Live Marketplace, so be it.  The game was worth far more than the $60 paid for it and had far more content in the game than anyone could have really gone through.  I know folks that simply never expect to "finish" the game it’s so expansive.  And I agree with him on this point.

But Lumines?  The inclusion of "unavailable options" in the main Lumines game download, combined with $10 downloads for every add-on just smacks of greed and insults the gamer at large.

What should they have done?
Hindsight is 20/20 however I believe they should have:

  • Made the game $20 and included everything in the PSP version + multiplayer & Time Attack.  It would have been a shocker but folks that aren’t used to $20 XBL games but they’d get over it.  It is a killer game.
  • Made upgrade areas "invisible" unless you actually purchased it from XBL in which case the option "appears".  This would be less like link-baiting, and more like a real software "expansion pack".  Right now, the "unavailable options" that are listed in Lumines just taunt the player that just coughed up $15 for the game.
  • Apologize.  Concede that while it is within the right of Q & Xbox Live to set prices to whatever they want, this was an experiment that wasn’t received well and that this was a mistake.  Product marketing misjudged people’s perceptions of value of the product. 
    Continue to sell Lumines for $15 temporarily & make the Puzzle Pack available for FREE immediately to people that buy Lumines today.  Then after say 11/15, either reset the price of the Lumines game to $20 and continue to have the Puzzle pack a free download, or reset the price of the Puzzle pack but make it $5, not $10.   Everything other add-on can remain a microtransaction.

But that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.  Here’s a video debate on the topic brought to you by G4TV.

VIDEO:  G4TV – Are you being ripped off by microtransactions?

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