Suicide on Demand (part two)

Suicide On-Demand
Why I Hope Charles Onyett Is Wrong (part two)

Recently, Charles Onyett over on IGN gave up the swan song for disc-based gaming, wherein he implied that A, the industry will soon be following the casual gaming model of pricing and distribution and that B, this is a good thing. Eventually he concluded that the best solution for the gaming industry will be a move to download-only delivery. I have a lot to say about both topics, so to keep it simple I’m splitting them up into two articles. This is part two, and I’ll concentrate on the dangers of a purely digital future.

What bothered me most about Onyett’s article was a single sentence: “Used games wouldn’t be an issue at all if the entire industry was download-only.”

Before addressing the massive problem I have with a download-only gaming (or any) industry, I’d like to point out one big problem with Onyett’s praise of the PC market: it’s PC-centric. As I write this review on my MacBook Pro, I must reflect on the irony of the fact that almost all of the decent games available for direct download on the Internet — on Steam, for example — will not play on my computer. Keep that in mind and the illusion that computer gaming has conquered the “which console” debate will fade like the fantasy it is. That in between all the PC praising are constant references to an Apple service is an irony I hope isn’t lost on readers. If I’m using the App store on its native OS, I won’t be playing, say, Battlefield anytime soon. (Consider this a preemptive “don’t be an ass” to anyone who tries to rebut me with the words “boot camp,” as that requires me to still go ahead and buy a Windows license and defeats the purpose of hailing downloadable games as egalitarian).

Earlier I mentioned that the real reason the PC gaming market is struggling is due to those three wonderful words “digital rights management.” Recently publishers like Ubisoft have made headlines (accompanied by irate articles) for their decision to continue to push unpopular anti-piracy measures in their games in such a way as to render them extremely frustrating for PC gamers. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard some PC gamer seriously consider pirating an upcoming title simply on the basis that legitimately purchasing the game may result in sixty bucks spent on a game they are stupidly locked out of by a glitch with DRM permissions. Add to the existent problems the new ones — swear words like “always-on” which make even single-player games useless if you don’t happen to have an Internet connection at all times — and there really isn’t any surprise that some people are getting sick of being treated like criminals by the people they’re shelling out hard-earned cash to.

I’ve often quipped (not originally, of course) that anti-piracy warnings on DVDs are silly because the only people who see them are those who have not pirated the movies. That’s basically the way I feel about most anti-piracy measures in gaming; at best, they are inconvenient — at worst, they treat law-abiding customers like thieves and generate a great deal of ill will.

As a rule, I refuse to buy used games. I have on numerous occasions referred to GameStop as a den of thieves, not merely because they profit off the work of others but because they are so relentless in their attempts to do so. Over the course of an average purchase, I am asked no fewer than three times whether I’m sure I wouldn’t rather buy a used copy for (usually only five dollars) cheaper. I have several times actually argued with the clerk and pointed out that in this economy especially, those who create the games deserve to make money off of them; not glorified pawn shops. So I appreciate what companies like EA are trying to do with “Online Pass.” Disincentivizing¬† used games by ramping up the perquisites of new purchases is a marvelous concept; only in execution, the glow of the concept wears off.

I found this out firsthand when my brother and I, as we’ve done for years, decided to split the pre-order cost for our copy of Alan Wake. I was still waging my way through Final Fantasy XIII so I let him go ahead and play first. At some point, he went ahead and used the token that had come with the game to unlock free access to the first DLC episode of. Later, when I also went to use the code, it (unsurprisingly) didn’t work. If I wanted to play the DLC, I’d have to pay ten bucks. Should’ve bought the game new if you wanted that for free.

Except, technically, I did.

As a single adult male, I recognize that it’s no longer reasonable for me to be splitting the cost of things with my brother as we no longer live together. But for all our childhood, that was the norm: we split the cost of the game, and then we share it. I imagine that’s how it is for everyone else, too: the wealthy notwithstanding, most homes don’t have a console-per-kid setup, or the kind of budget that would encourage each kid having his or her own copy of every game they all want to play. Likewise, as early gaming generations have grown, dated, and married, I don’t imagine too many gamer couples have considered buying a his and hers copy of each new release.

But that’s precisely where the industry is headed. In the case of Alan Wake DLC, I wasn’t too sore; after all, I still had the whole game at my disposal. But what about Online Pass? If two siblings split the cost of the new SSX game, will one of them really be expected to pony up another ten or twenty bucks just so they can each play against their friends online? Or is it just understood that multiplayer games will now cost ten dollars more per player in the house: if you’ve got four gaming kids, expect to pay 100 bucks for everyone to have the same experience.

The problem, of course, is that under a system like the one we’re now pursuing, families and couples are treated like the dirty opportunist thieves the gaming industry sees in every used-game-purchasing, torrent-pirating player they’re trying to combat. Right now, it’s just extra content or multiplayer modes that are considered “perks” of buying new; if we enter the download-only paradise that Onyett recommends, it’ll be the whole game, and suddenly that four-kid household is looking at $250 for everyone to be a gamer. And I don’t know about you, but if gaming had been that costly in my house when I was growing up, I’d never have become a gamer.

Families and friends are the basis of gaming — perhaps even moreso now that social and casual games are becoming such powerhouses. When the industry’s defense mechanism begins to attack its own lifeblood, I have to wonder whether we’re truly moving in an enviable direction. Some see the move towards on-demand, individualized gaming as a beacon of hope in a bright, game-filled future. But me? I see suicide.

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Whoppers

Rocksteady made the bad kind of headlines yesterday with its announcement that the playable Catwoman content which they’ve been bragging about (and marketing the game with) for months is only accessible with the use of a code that’s included in new copies of Batman: Arkham City, which comes out on Tuesday. I’d like to discuss two things that came about because of this news: the reaction it prompted in the gaming community, and the alarming trend of which this announcement is only the beginning.

I learned of the Catwoman VIP pass via Eurogamer, and though I’ve glanced through the comments on other communities’ articles, I’ll concentrate primarily on the ones at Eurogamer, because they’re both more numerous and more vitriolic than elsewhere, and decently representative of what seem to be the general feelings among gamers.

One thing is very clear: the decision to render this portion of the game an exclusive to first-time buyers (a la EA’s Online Pass for sport games) was immediately understood to be a disincentive for secondhand purchases, rather than (as Rocksteady’s PR team might suggest) merely as a reward to those who buy new. I’ve expressed resentment in the past for new-buyer perks (typically DLC codes or special skins/outfits/etc.), but as these have mostly been auxiliary features which you download to enhance your game, I’ve mostly accepted them in silence.

Rocksteady has broken new ground, however, because they are no longer offering free extras — they are actually locking out content that’s already on the disc. Moreover, it is content that is built directly into the main storyline, and (here’s the kicker) it is content that has been primarily used to advertise the game (without, heretofore, any indication that it was not part of that standard game).

Unsurprisingly, there has been a bit of an outcry. Though plenty of people shrugged at the news — either because they’d already planned to buy it new, or because they didn’t really care about Catwoman — others were quite outspoken. Two particularly alarming response categories were “I am canceling my preorder in protest” and variations on “I’m intentionally buying preowned so they don’t get money” or “I’m intentionally going to torrent this.”

This vitriol has become commonplace in arenas where the phrase “doctrine of first sale” is hailed with a reverence typically reserved for religion or tacos. Gamers seem to be infuriated by the idea that the industry is, as they see it, trying to tell them they can’t sell things they’ve purchased, and the self-defense mechanism is to invoke every other industry in history — books and automobiles seem to be the crowd-pleasers — and say used sales are an inalienable right.

Though often reasonable, those who make such arguments seem to be improperly framing the situation. Rocksteady (or EA, or any other company that follows this path) is not in fact saying anything at all to those who sell their games. They are fully aware that gamers, like all consumers, can, and will, sell things they no longer want so long as someone else out there will buy them. That’s business.

So what Rocksteady et. al. are doing is simply changing the product. If I buy a Whopper at BK, I have every right to sell it to someone else if I can find someone who will buy it off me. But if I’ve already eaten the Whopper, I’m gonna be hard-pressed to find another buyer. I don’t get angry at BK because I can’t make money back on Whoppers I didn’t enjoy. I either stop eating Whoppers, or I give them another chance. I don’t get angry at BK because I can’t make money towards the purchase of other Whoppers. If I can’t afford more Whoppers, I eat fewer Whoppers. I accept that the nature of the Whopper is that it is inherently difficult to resell once I’ve used it.

BK has the perfect business model: with almost no exception, people who want Whoppers will have to go straight to BK to get them. They can’t rely on a secondhand market. And since BK put all the money into designing, creating, and shipping the Whopper, it makes sense that they’d like to see all the profit from Whopper sales. Now, if I buy my Whopper and sell it to you, then BK sees no money for your enjoyment of my Whopper; but since I didn’t get to enjoy it, it’s still a 1:1 deal: they received payment for one Whopper, and only one person got to eat the Whopper. They shouldn’t expect to get money from you, too — after all, they already got paid once. But they’ve designed a product that can only be used once per purchase, regardless of whether the user is the first purchaser or the fifth.

We like to compare games to other media and products which are, by nature, easily resold. We have convinced ourselves that because books and DVDs can be sold over and over again, and since games have been sold over and over again, that we have a right — not just a right to sell our games, but a right to be able to sell our games. We see ourselves not just entitled to a right to sell our things, but a right to only have products which are capable of being resold. And that’s simply unrealistic.

Game companies realize that if they make games as the same product they’ve always been, then they’ll have to accept losses to secondhand sales. So they’re slowly turning games into a different product: one which you have to come to them for, or get from someone who hasn’t actually used what they paid for. They’re not violating your rights any more than BK violates your rights by providing Whoppers. The nature of a Whopper is that it can only be enjoyed once per purchase. Now our industry is starting to make games that can only be enjoyed once per purchase. Games aren’t cars or books or movies, and there’s no rule that says they have to follow those business models.

In the case of those whose response to an announcement like Rocksteady’s is to boycott new purchases of the game, it’s really a matter of illogical selfishness. To deny yourself an experience you want simply because the producer of that product wants to be paid for producing it makes no sense. Such actions suggest a blind buying-into the previously mentioned belief that people should have a right to buy and sell preowned and that measures taken to lessen secondhand sales are violations of gamers’ rights. That a business wants to make money is not greed. That an artist wants compensation for the sale of his art is also not greed. If a company sees people using its product without paying the company, and is capable of forcing people who want to use its product to pay, it is not greed. It is business. It is logic. It’s the way things are supposed to work. If you want a Whopper, you’re going to have to pay for one, or find someone who already paid for one and isn’t going to eat it. If you can’t afford the Whopper, and all the people who can are hungry, then you’re just not going to have a Whopper. Deal with it.

But for some reason, people can’t. People whine and throw tantrums like spoiled brats because they’re being persecuted by the gaming companies. They seem to believe that they have a right to the Whopper whether or not they can afford it, and if they can’t get it secondhand, they’re going to steal it. They’re going to slip in in the middle of the night and steal all the ingredients and then they’re going to eat their Whopper and give one to all their friends, too. And then they have the gall to advertise their impudence, as if they are heroes, freedom fighters, sticking it to the man for trying to keep their Whopper from them and being so arrogant as to want to be paid for the fruits of his labor.

In the past, I’ve been fairly vocal about my position regarding used games sales and the industry’s attempts to combat them. I’ve even gone so far as to suggest that people who can’t afford new games shouldn’t be gamers — a statement which is difficult to defend and perhaps not even entirely true — though if you can’t afford a Whopper, you really shouldn’t be eating out at all. So for the most part, I really do think gamers need to grow a pair and shut up.

Unfortunately, not all of the complaints that stemmed from Rocksteady’s announcement are invalid rants voiced by self-entitled cheapskates. Most noteworthy is the complaint from well-intentioned gamers who are upset to discover that despite their preorder or day one purchase, they, too, will be locked out from the Catwoman content because they don’t have an Internet connection to validate their VIP pass. As one who spent four years at a college that had a proxy-throttled network preventing online gaming, this complaint hits particularly close-to-home. It’s one thing to have to wait a couple months to download some extra maps or a bonus chapter or character — an inconvenient thing, but an acceptable thing nonetheless.

But to have the core game fundamentally stripped because of a lack of Internet connection? To be banned access to content on the disc simply because I don’t have a broadband connection? We’re a whole lot closer to unacceptable. PC gamers have been dealing with this for several years — the words “always on” send shivers down my spine — but heretofore console gamers had been largely free of web-based shackles.

Last summer I wrote an article expressing my concern about EA’s Online Pass, an Alan Wake DLC code, and the potential for the industry’s anti-secondhand movement to wreak major collateral damage on families and couples. My thinking then, when this sort of behavior was in its nascent stages, was that eventually it wouldn’t just be perks you received for buying a new game, but actual parts of the game. I was worried that siblings who played on separate accounts (as my brother and I once played with separate memory cards) would have to shell out more money to be able to both access the same experience. I was worried that multi-child families would eventually be forced to consider gaming too expensive a hobby as we moved towards a fully-digital distribution model. It never even occurred to me that those without steady (or any) Internet access might experience a de facto banishment from the industry altogether.

More recently, in response to a pseudo-prophecy from Charles Onyett, I described the industry’s anti-secondhand methods as suicidal, but my forecast didn’t account for the suicide beginning so rapidly. Rocksteady’s move will pay off because they’ve crafted one of the best games of the year (and if the reviews are any indication, one of the best games period). Which means this sort of tactic is only the beginning, and we’d all better prepare for a pretty bumpy ride.

One day, games will be Whoppers. If you have an issue with that, I have one last bit of advice for you: time for a diet.