Saturday, 8 May 2010

On The Collecting Of Editions

I confess, I was once sorely tempted to buy a Spongebob Squarepants game on the PS2. It wasn’t because of any particular affinity to a cartoon I have no business watching, or the quality of the gameplay; indeed, I never actually found out what genre of game it even was. No, my desire revolved around one thing only: It came in a huge box, easily in excess of thrice as wide as any standard case. What was in this box? I couldn't have cared any less, it would have looked glorious on my shelf.

I take a great many pleasures from gaming, and one of the most simple is often to sit back, pour a glass of wine and admire shelf after shelf of neatly arranged cases. Organised first by platform (obviously), then alphabetically with special sub-sections for a favoured series or a unique case, these silent testaments to my faith in this rapidly expanding hobby provide an almost compulsive joy. Slotting a highly anticipated sequel onto the shelf next to the previous title brings with it a certain satisfaction that only a minority of gamers today will feel. We are the collectors.

Step in The Collectors’ Edition: The definitive version of a game, released specifically with the biggest fans in mind. Whether it contains additional fictional material, limited-print artwork or simply a lavishly designed case with fold-out flaps and little Velcro patches, these are a great means of showing your true appreciation for a title or developer that you genuinely love and trust.

The majority of the gaming public are infinitely satisfied with the standard release, and for this I generally do not fault them. Based on the gnarled, tortured cases I see on pre-owned shelves, they likely transport it home by hurling it all the way down the street, removing the disc with their teeth and then proceed to leave the softly weeping case to act as an ashtray fading in the sunlight, waiting to be mercilessly traded in.

By contrast, we arrive home, untie the velvet bag and place the newly acquired trophy on the altar we spent the previous two weeks constructing especially for this moment. The opening (Or unveiling, if you prefer) is a ritual, the cellophane delicately removed along with the bane of the pre-owned treasure: pricing stickers. Playing the game is, at this stage, almost a secondary concern.

This stark contrast in approaches doesn’t prevent me from wanting to see how others organise their games, and a recent excursion in the name of co-op gaming gave me this exact opportunity. It was to my great surprise that alongside the usual stacks of mismatched cases, a few larger specimens had crept onto the scene. Twice the width of the standard case, often made of glossy cardboard or a tin not unlike those used to store biscuits and occasionally wearing an ill-fitting plastic sleeve - all the classic traits of the Collectors’ Edition.

Had my friend finally seen the light and begun to seek out the thrill that can only be achieved by hunting down the slightly heavier, more expensive version of a new release? Had my own impeccable taste in shunning the standard case so readily available, instead choosing to wait a further month or two in case the edition with the cardboard sleeve and art cards eventually becomes available on the pre-owned shelf, finally rubbed off? As it turns out, no. The truth was far more horrifying, and far more shocking, like a hard slap to the face on a cold morning having fallen asleep on the sofa the previous night whilst role-playing in a post-apocalyptic future world.

The simple fact was, some of the more recent special edition releases have been no harder to obtain than their dull counterparts. In some places, they were arguably even easier to get hold of, with all the extra in-store advertising and over-the-counter pushing they inevitably receive. The realisation is that there is now rarely a game released without some kind of alternative ‘deluxe’ edition available alongside it, and publishers have been quick to realise that people are prepared to pay around 20% more for some questionable bonuses.

With more and more ‘special edition’ releases being pumped from the grotesquely swollen corporate womb, and the rapidly growing sense that buying a Collectors’ Edition was no longer an act of high praise reserved only for the most worthy of releases, I actually began questioning my own desire to do so. I had, up until recently, been safe in assuming that by choosing these optional limited editions, I was getting the superior product, but a sinister feeling was creeping up on me. One not unlike slowly waking up after a comfortable nights sleep and realising you’d put the wrong pillowcase in the wash, and had softly nestled down on the one the dog had used for moments of unbridled intimacy.

Do I really need an art book? These are often nothing more than a series of detached drawings or renders of anything from characters, weapons or locations from the game, and once plucked from their in-game habitat, are quite often pointless. Most art books flatter their respective games by so kindly providing us with detailed renderings and blueprints of incredibly inane landscapes; as if anyone was desperate to see what that airport waiting room / cafeteria / clearing in the woods looked like during the early phases of design. Those that prove to be worthwhile will feature some form of communication from an actual person who worked on them, preferably in the form of detailed annotations and notes. All of this is relatively pointless if the stuff doesn’t come from a game that actually has deservedly high quality art direction to begin with - and thus have some sort of worth as a separate entity when detached from the game.

The Soundtrack CD takes up a similar position in this depressing deconstruction of everything I’ve loved and collected over the past decade. ‘Great!’ I proclaim, clutching a rare find in my gnarled hands, ‘It comes with a bonus Soundtrack, so if the music’s good I can listen to it whenever I want.’ The amount of time I’ve spent enjoying music ripped from numerous bonus CDs? Virtually none. The embarrassment, however, of hosting some kind of party and having shuffle take a turn for the worse and start banging out the opening theme to that Strategy RPG you sunk a thousand hours into a few years ago, will last considerably longer. Pleading with guests to recall that ’stunning level, with the atmospheric music really enhancing the experience’ will do little to convince them that you’re not an idiot with a taste in music that many wouldn’t trade for with you in exchange for an actual illness they have.

Whilst typically of poor quality, none of these faux-bonuses have actively caused me any real annoyance or anguish. No, that honour firmly resides with the latest trend of packaging exclusive in-game content with certain editions of a game, potentially making the choice between versions around a hundred times more complex than it should be. The release of Dragon Age in November, something I’d been eagerly anticipating for years, struck me as particularly idiotic, and so openly corporate. The process of determining just which retailers were offering precisely which special virtual ring or amulet, and ultimately, if I wanted any of them, was an ordeal that nearly proved to be as involved and sophisticated as the fucking game itself. To further compound the issue, the UK was specially selected to uniquely receive a one-off, completely shit Collectors’ Edition that featured none of the original contents of the reasonably tasty package available elsewhere. In fact it featured almost no additional physical content at all, doing away with all the collectable stuff presumably weighing the case down, and replacing it with…nothing. The steel was replaced with cardboard, the cloth map with a burgeoning sense of dismay. For the same price.

So with a new sour taste to add to the variety already in my mouth, I’ve come to accept that certain publishers will try and prey on this ‘collector’ mindset by either hashing out very poor quality bonuses for a title that didn’t deserve a special edition in the first place, or cutting back on their worth and value by offering shiny in-game objects as an incentive instead. It’s hard to assign any actual monetary value to these virtual offerings (That is, in addition to the main virtual offering, the game itself), and determine just how much you’d really miss out on if you didn’t bother.

It’s difficult to be completely negative in this situation, because I’m aware of varying degrees of difficulty publishers and developers are facing in the modern retail climate, especially in the face of the real big name releases. What I’m not sure at this point is whether I should be buying this stuff to show faith in and support an industry I’ve been enjoying the fruits of for many years, or forego them completely in protest of their rapidly declining quality and value. All I know is that I’ll be contemplating this very topic whilst I sit and cuddle my Ico postcards and Fallout 3 lunchbox (and implicitly using neither for the purposes of their real-world counterparts), whilst my Big Daddy watches, whispering to them that everything’s going to be alright.

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