Videogames, politics, science, all the important things in life.

The industry sucks (and we can’t do anything about it (maybe))

Posted by nfinit on March 7, 2010

miners-1911.jpg picture by bigredcoat

Activision development: Basically the same thing as being an underage coal miner in the early 1900's

One of the interesting developments of the past week that suddenly large swaths of the gaming community have come to the sudden  realization that the gaming industry is sort of a scummy business.

Take this whole fiasco with Infinity Ward, for instance.  As little as three weeks ago, Activision’s Bobby Kotick offered a mea culpa of sorts to the virulently anti-developer stance his company had adopted since its rise to power atop the gaming industry.  He expressed concern that he was seen as a heartless jerk; that Activision had made a mistake in stripping Guitar Hero from its creators, that the company as a whole was seeking a more enlightened stance in publisher/developer relations.  Then this week he promptly announced his intentions to piss all over this small smoldering  coal of good will by sending hired goons to Infinity Ward to strip its creators free of Call of Duty.

Then you have Ubisoft, who decided that, “for our own good”, Assassin’s Creed 2 will not allow gamers to save games to the  thier own hard drives, instead forcing a constant, monitored connection to Ubisoft’s home servers in order to save progress.  It should be noted that, at the time of this writing these authentication servers are in fact, offline, making it impossible for paying Assassin’s Creed II customers to make any progress in their games, whereas users of pirated versions of Assassin’s Creed 2– whom, of course, this whole Digital Rights Management scheme was supposed to shut out– have been happily playing hacked versions of this same game since release without any interruption of service.

Or the myriad of other  regressive business practices the gaming industry is guilty of, such as the revelations of RockStar Spouse, where we learned that Rockstar was guilty of Nike sweatshop-levels of white slavery in lieu of responsible production schedules.  Or the advent of activation keys hidden as downloadable content that would lock out consumers of used games of if they don’t pay Electronic Arts a ten dollar online extortion fee.

What choice do gamers have when faced with a company like Ubisoft, who’ve shown outright contempt for the PC gamer market, or Activision, who’s internal corporate politics you may not agree with, or a company like Rockstar that treat their employees as little more than sweat shop workers?
miners-1911.jpg picture by bigredcoat

Let's be honest. Halliburton could pay Blackwater in truckloads of dead puppies to fund this game and I'd still buy it.

The easy answer to boycott these companies, but it’s also the easiest option to dismiss.  The problem with gaming is that you’re being sold on an experience you can’t get anywhere else.  If you don’t agree with Proctor and Gamble’s corporate policies you can always sign a petition and turn to store brand toothpaste and peanut butter until the corporate giant finally  offers some sort of concession to your concerns.  Ubisoft, meanwhile, completely owns the Splinter Cell experience.  Gamers have been bereft of the particular type of gaming experience that Splinter Cell provides for nearly four years.  If you want to boycott Ubisoft and still want to play more Splinter Cell, where do you go?  Replay Splinter Cell:  Chaos Theory for the thirteenth time?  Convince yourself that Metal Gear Solid 4 is enjoyable?  Play Arkham Asylum and pretend that the Joker is some sort of deranged Russian mobster and that Sam Fisher has developed an inexplicable latex fetish?

Worse, the number of gamers clued into corporate malfeasance is dwarfed by the volume of gamers that simply don’t pay attention to this sort of thing, and even that small informed market is fractured into camps of virulently pro-publisher corporate fanboys who are willing to play the game regardless if corporate irresponsibility.  There is only a small number of dedicated pro-consumer advocates willing to shut themselves out of an entire publisher’s worth of gaming just to prove a moral point– and even then you can’t really entirely trust your fellow gamers not to buy the game on sale or used.
And no, buying used isn’t really an answer, either.  One of the defining trends of this console generation has been the ability of publishers to monetize a  game regardless of how much you actually paid for it, or even if the publisher was shut out of the initial sale altogether.  Buy Assassin’s Creed 2 used from GameStop?  Fine.  Good luck buying the online-only expansion pack Battle of Flori used.  (All this is of course ignoring that GameStop is itself pretty fucking reprehensible in that they’ve managed to convert a huge chunk of the gaming retail landscape into the world’s most successful pawn shop chain.)
Is piracy a valid answer?  I’m unconvinced.  For one, publishers have long shown an inability to tie in download rates with actual numbers of sales lost; for another it’s just as likely to result in even more punitive corporate policy toward paying consumers.
But all of this ignores the larger point– Publishers are unable or unwilling to connect sales to retail reality.  If you ask EA why their games don’t sell on the Wii, they won’t tell you it’s because Wii owners view EA games as broken ports of fully functional HD console counterparts, but instead because Nintendo’s own offerings on the Wii are too strong to overcome. It is equally unlikely that Ubisoft will be able to point to their prohibitive and punishing anti-consumer tactics as the reason the PC version of Assassin’s Creed 2 will falter at retail; they’ll instead blame the fact that the DRM scheme was not strong enough and release a new plan that will incorporate the mandatory presence of an armed Imperial interrogation droid to upload your saves onto.
So if pro-advocacy gamers can’t hope to have a visible impact on a publisher’s bottom line, what avenues do we have to voice our displeasure at  irresponsible  corporate practices?
There’s the Entertainment Consumer’s Association, but they seem more focused on saving games from government regulation than corporate malfeasance.  The ECA has remained silent on issues such as Rockstar Spouse, punitive DRM and Day-One DLC–  Indeed, their boilerplate sounds more like a pro-publisher advocacy group than anything remotely concerning gamer advocacy– Their entire “fair use” guideline in the ECA mission statement is… well, quite simply a guide “line”:

The Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA) understands and respects the careful balance that must exist between the rights of copyright owners and the right of copyrighted material consumers.

That’s it.  That’s the ESC’s lone statement regarding consumer rights and concerns vs publishers, despite the name “Electronic Consumer’s Association.  I suppose this is only to be expected coming from an organization founded by a guy who used to be president of a retail trade organization that went on to become The Entertainment Merchants Association.

miners-1911.jpg picture by bigredcoat

If at some point Jack becomes more relevant and/or dangerous than envelopes of mysterious powder showing up in the mail maybe it'd make sense to pay attention to him.

(It would be unfair of me not to mention that the ECA’s sister publication,, reports on matters such as the Infinity Ward fiasco and Ubisoft’s adventures in DRM, but while the site remains useful as an information portal, it’s very mission statement requires that it concern itself primarily with anti-regulatory screed and not actual consumer advocacy.  Oh, and Jack Thompson because apparently it’s 2002 and Jack Thompson is relevant.)

So are publisher-wary gamers to be left without a voice?  Is gamer advocacy doomed to remain deciding to deny yourself content based on personal ethics with no unifying message behind that decision?  Perhaps.  However– and this is probably an insane, completely impractical idea– we need to remember that entities like Ubisoft, Activision, 2k and EA are publicly held companies.  Can an organization exist who’s sole purpose is to collect dues with which to buy company stock when the gaming public becomes concerned with that publisher’s direction?  I don’t even know if that sort of thing is legal or not, but it’s a fun idea to throw about, provided you can trust the people running this organization not to blow this money on a shopping spree in  Akihabara.  I mean, we are gamers, after all.

Since I have no real point to this update, I’d like to close with mention of a project that had no real point in and of itself.  While researching the Entertainment Consumer Association on Wikipedia, I came across something called The Scratchware Manifesto.  It’s dated now, having been written in 2000 and mentioning things like John Romero’s Diakatana without it somehow incorporating it into the punchline of a joke, but the concerns it brings up are still relevant to gamer and developer concerns with the industry today, including subjects such as the prohibitive business practices of Software Ect (now Gamestop) and the same development Death March concerns that would be echoed by Rockstar Spouse nearly a decade later.  And while the document itself is charmingly rabble rousing (evocative of an era before the aughts crushed our collective hopes and dreams and left us walking husks) it does bring up the idea of using our money to instead support what it calls “scratchware” or what we now refer to as indie gaming, small teams of developers working free of the publishing corporate infrastructure and distributing games directly to customers via download.  So the seeds for this sort of movement have been dormant for a while now, and with the advent of widespread digital distribution and the maturation of the indie gaming scene perhaps something more can be made of this.  However even the Scratchware Manifesto has its risks, as the big publishers themselves are starting to invest in independent gaming.


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