After a long delay, the promised PS Plus Edition of Driveclub finally hit the PS4 on June 25, giving new players the opportunity to try the game before making the decision to buy it. Now that I’ve had the chance to spend some time with it, I only have one question:
What the hell is the point of the Driveclub PS Plus Edition?
At a theoretical level, I know the answer. The PS Plus Edition – which PS Plus subscribers can now download for free to get access to about a dozen tracks, a dozen cars, and a limitless number of online races – is ostensibly a demo. It’s a teaser, a taste that’s supposed to make tentative people more willing to hand over real money to unlock the full version of the racing game.
After all, you’ve already downloaded the whole thing. Why not spend $40 to access all that content?
It’s an old business model that can be effective. And yet, after trying (and failing) to get into Driveclub, I feel confident saying that the PS Plus Edition is a complete and utter failure. It’s a weirdly dissatisfying version of the full game that doesn’t make any effort to build interest in the full experience.
I’ll admit that some of my reticence is likely due to the fact that I don’t play many racing games. I was never in the target audience for Driveclub, so of course I’m resistant to its charms. But that’s also kind of my point. Driveclub has been out since October. Most hardcore racing fans have either bought it already or have consciously given it a pass in favor of something else. A demo is supposed to entice those who are undecided. It would therefore make sense to tailor that demo to new and inexperienced players, maybe starting with a tutorial and giving players a few easier races to give them time to learn the ropes.
Instead, the content that Sony has made available feels like a sampling of what the game has to offer a hardcore audience. The result is one of the least welcoming demos I can remember, a gauntlet designed to drive casual players away, and I’m not in a hurry to spend money for that kind of experience.
That’s the part I don’t get. Sony is giving the game away for free and it doesn’t owe me or anyone else a damn thing. Players don’t have a right to free content and Sony can distribute its game as it sees fit. But assuming that the PS Plus Edition is supposed to expand the paying customer base, why wouldn’t you at least try to make the game more accessible? It seems like no thought has been given to the way in which the game presents itself to new players. Someone took Driveclub and slapped arbitrary pay wall stickers over 95% of the content, regardless of where that content fits within the broader context of the game.
It’s just bad marketing. The free version makes you feel like a second-class citizen, and while it’s technically a solid value, it’s not a game I have any desire to spend more time with.
If anything, Driveclub now feels stuck somewhere between free-to-play and retail. The PS Plus Edition lets players unlock some new cars, but it has none of the insidious stick-and-carrot elegance that makes free-to-play games so profitable. The first time you level up, the game delivers a car that’s locked until you upgrade your game. You do all the work for no reward, leaving you with a bunch of stuff you’ve earned but can’t actually use. It’s like going to Costco and getting a free sample that you’re not allowed to eat until you’ve purchased the store’s entire supply of frozen Hot Pockets.
It doesn’t help that the gameplay is equally unwelcoming. The beauty of racing games is that while they’re conceptually simple – the first person to cross the finish line wins – they’re mechanically sophisticated and can offer deep gameplay experiences. However, it takes time to build to that level of expertise. Anyone can hold down the gas pedal, but techniques like drifting and drafting are no less essential.
They’re also not nearly as intuitive, yet Driveclub assumes that you’re familiar with those conventions, making no effort to acclimatize new players to the level of competition they can expect. It throws you into your first race before letting you go to the menu screen (it ends about as well as you’d expect), and the free events fluctuate wildly in terms of difficulty. The first series takes place on a muddy track of hairpin curves in the middle of a rainstorm. The poor conditions make it the kind of race that you’d expect to see towards the end of the game – or at least at some point in the middle once you’ve gotten used to the controls – and it’s damn near impossible unless you’ve mastered drifting.
If you haven’t, the frustration builds as you careen into walls and struggle to keep the car pointing forward. It’s not fun, and leaves you with the sickening awareness that it won’t become fun until you spend hours practicing the same courses over and over and over again. At that point, most players will probably realize that there are more efficient ways to spend their time.
Driveclub isn’t necessarily a bad game – and I have no interest in reviewing it – but it aptly demonstrates why it’s so important to think about first impressions, even (and perhaps especially) when you’re giving the game away for free and are likely to attract a lot of window shoppers unfamiliar with the genre. If you don’t know how you’re planning to convert those free users into paid users, you’re better off not releasing the demo at all. It only leaves a bad aftertaste and wastes everybody’s time, and that’s not a good way to increase sales or build a relationship with your consumers.