In a world where ad-funded mobile gaming, purchasable downloadable content and the fact that people seem perfectly happy to pump millions of pounds into Candy Crush in exchange for extra lives compete for the last pennies in gamer's wallets, perhaps it was naïve of me to think that we'd hit the bottom. However, a rare trip into an actual physical shop that still sells PC games introduced me to a range of expansion packs for EA's The Sims 3 that actually managed to horrify me.
Expansion packs are nothing new to gaming and their quality often walks a debatable line between legitimately worthwhile extra content for a favourite game, or more likely, a combination of things that should have been included first time round and a ragbag selection of bonus features and in-game items. It's not unusual for new games to be released one month, along with some "limited edition" downloadable content for an additional cost, only to be followed up six months later with an add-on pack or two. In most instances, after the initial sales have started to die down the whole lot is then repackaged into a single "Game of the Year" edition and re-sold at premium prices.
In it ability to sell additional content, The Sims stands head and shoulders above its fellows. In the game, the player must control the day-to-day life of their avatar, or sim, and steer them to success or failure in their career, society and love life, while buying them products and furnishing their homes with an array of furniture. While it doesn't float my particular boat, the formula is incredibly successful, with The Sims 3 selling over 10 million copies worldwide, making it one of the most successful of all time. Even after the first game in the series, it didn't take EA long to work out that they could continue to profit for the game's success by creating a steady stream of purchasable expansion packs adding new sim models, career options, clothes, furniture or new ways and places for the sims it interact. To date, nineteen add-on packs have been released for The Sims 3 alone, with a twentieth scheduled for later this year.
It was three of those expansion packs that I chanced upon earlier. The first two, Showtime - Katy Perry Collector's Edition and Katy Perry's Sweet Treats are bad enough:
It's not that the idea of a computer game involving Katy Perry in itself is a bad thing - there are plenty of games that have involved musicians in the past, ranging from the various Moonwalker games (all pretty good) to the slightly less appealing KISS: Psycho Circus - The Nightmare Child - but that after reading through the actual content of the expansion packs themselves, there seems to be very little content actually involving Katy Perry. While Showtime does at least involve some musical content, such as a karaoke bar and stage-based career paths, Sweet Treats only lists Katy Perry-inspired items, like a cupcake-shaped guitar. As far as I could see, apart from the fact that Sweet Treats contains a "simlish" version of Perry's Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), it looks like they've just slapped a (somewhat bizzare looking) picture of Katy Perry on the box to bump up the sales.
If you think I'm being overly cynical with the Katy Perry expansions - after all they are clearly aimed at kids and I suppose if it make them happy, then what the hell - it was the last expansion pack that really horrified me, the Diesel Stuff Pack:
In this pack, you're adding a range of Diesel-themed clothing and furniture items "showcasing the trends that are all the rage this season", which to me sounds like a translation for slapping the Diesel brand name all over your in-game world - for successful virtual living, perhaps. While I confess to be criticising without having actually played it, if you have any doubts, just read the product description on Amazon.
What annoys me about this, is that adding the Diesel brand name into the game, while presumably a profitable act for both EA and Diesel, is that you're adding very little to the actual game itself. Fine, releasing more items may improve the game for players and it's up to them if they want to pay for it, but is living in a Diesel monoculture actually any more fun? In buying this expansion pack, you're essentially paying to advertise Diesel to yourself. We've long seen product placement in other media and know how little value it adds - do the lingering shots of James Bond's Omega watch improve Casino Royale? Is it important which fast food retailer Tony Stark visited for his "American cheeseburger"? Will we really benefit from knowing Lara Croft wears a Wonderbra or that in Gears of War, real heroes drink Budweiser? I doubt it, but if we keep buying it, they're going to keep making it.
On a related note, a friend of mine used to work for Microsoft and told me that the day they introduced a purchasable Darth Vader mask for your X-Box Live avatar, they made about £10million in 24 hours.
I guess I'll look forward to Pokémon Apple and Pokémon Android, then.