Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

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  • Published: Feb 20th, 2010
  • Category: Media
  • Comments: 2

One Last Time

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Shamus Young pitches in to the fray, with statistics about the markets these developers and publishers are catering to; namely, Gamestop, IGN and the console market, whose denizens lash back at the anger directed towards the ridiculous DRM with cries that such is the mere whining of would-be pirates.

The thing is, these publishers are so invested in making sure pirates don’t win that they’ve lost all sight of making sure customers do. This scorched-earth policy underlies how much they miss the point: They’re exploiting the customers and the customers react by exploiting them back.

The message was heard loud and clear for years: “Console gamers are more gullible a market than you. You will accept our crappy console ports and you will buy them six months late and you will pay full price for inefficient code. We do this because you have supported us and made us the big companies we are.”

How RIAA of them. Sounds like Metallica’s infamous argument.

The fanboys that accept the official word and blame this sort of action on pirates are not working in their own self-interest. They’re practically unwitting collaborators. They argue that the companies deserve those profits, and it is the customers’ responsibility to give it to them. The only problem is that it’s not in my interest to prop up publishers regardless of their product, for that isn’t commerce: That’s extortion.

The ‘principled’ customers who say that we should all shoot ourselves in the foot by simply not partaking at all are fooling nobody, least of all themselves, that such will make a difference in the publishers’ eyes.

It’s not a moral issue. It’s an economic one. Ubisoft is poisoning the well it drinks from. Just because they as a business wrap themselves in the flag of moral righteousness does not mean they’re not really bad at business.

But It’s Wrong!

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What may be the single most talked about article on Rock Paper Shotgun’s pages is a raging debate on piracy, DRM and the fate of the PC gaming market. Par for the course, and anybody who’s played PC games through the years has a number of horror stories about Starforce, SecuROM or other intrusive pieces of “security” malware installed without the permission of the user with the expressed intent of denying them the ability to reverse-engineer, reproduce or otherwise crack the program but with the effects of rendering their computers slow, vulnerable and unstable, but folks are hung up on the idea that piracy is unequivocally wrong.

This is the wrong way to go about that discussion. It’s an economics discussion, not a law enforcement one. The product (or “license” bullshit they propagate) isn’t worth the price companies are charging. There is insufficient desire for the product at the price listed, but alternatives abound. Filesharing’s easier than CD-swapping, but the principle is still there.

The music industry as it was – the CD album format with a single’s worth of content – was a cabal. That cabal was broken once people found viable alternatives: Napster, Gnutella, WinMX, KaZaA. The music industry’s inability to adapt was not the consumer’s fault. One can’t go on saying how it’s the consumer’s fault the businessman failed to realize just how untenable his business model was, like it’s our job to line his pockets.

To go back to the “licensing” remark, it’s really not a model of selling a product to a customer – indeed, customers get extremely angry at the number of blocks in place on a piece of software after they’ve bought it, because they expect it, like other products they’ve bought, to be owned by them and used as they please – but instead an information service (content updates, patches, online multiplayer support), and as such those companies are competing with piracy on just that service model. The funny thing is, that’s very much a viable industry. iTunes took over and is beating out pirates not for price (and not by DRM) but by service. Steam is beating out pirates by service.

Bittorrent is clunkier than Steam. There, I said it.

To put it another way, we buy water in bottles! Water is the single most common thing in this world and is nothing if not free, and clean water is as simple as boiling it, yet people spend a dollar a quart on it because it’s convenient. Likewise, we now have the cheapest, most powerful information system the world has ever seen. That’s a revolutionary boon for anyone willing to cash in on its convenience, and lo and behold those people are succeeding.

Instead, the companies have, to their inevitable doom, taken an antagonistic stance against an Other they view as utterly wrong and indefensible, like inner city crime or Hamas. Instead of doing the obvious, which is to stop making these people want to do those offensive things, they put up barricades. And so, as bombing apartment blocks and erecting walls makes people support hard-line militants more, putting up more intrusive pieces of DRM just makes people pirate more.

After all, all that DRM never hurts the pirates. Can’t blame the pirates for doing what they do, because even if they stopped it’s not like the companies would suddenly shift to a viable business model. And until that model shifts, the lid cannot be sealed on piracy, however “wrong” each pirate may seem.

That Showed ‘Em, Huh?

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Honestly, what with the destruction of the music industry’s distribution platform in its quixotic quest to stick it to pirates, why does the games industry persist?

Ubisoft declared that it would require constant online activation in order to play its games, and with its new line-up of games coming out, PC Gamer has already felt the brunt of what that means to the end-user: Namely, when your internet connection or Ubisoft’s servers go down, so does your game.

While you play it.

I shed no tears for the music industry, because I am not beholden to the music industry. I am not beholden to them for the simple reason that they are music itself. I shed no tears for games companies that shoot themselves in the foot like this, because their DRM is not the only place they have stuck it to their customers.

They like to demonize their audience for making the usual pirate’s claim:

  • No pirating ever happens.
  • If pirating does happen it’s your fault.
  • If you try and stop us we’ll pirate your game on principle.

By claiming its justifications as baseless, as if they are catering to an unpleasable base. But it’s primarily that unpleasable base that gave them all their money in the first place.

People do what works best for them. Pirating is a direct response to high prices coupled with mediocre content. Napster was the logical response to the MTV generation of $18 albums of the Backstreet Boys. Bittorrent is the natural response to $50 Halo and $60 Modern Warfare 2. It’s the mind drawing the logical result from the parameters of “nothing today is worth what they’re charging, but I still want to play games.” The market is still there; it’s just not being addressed properly, and that’s not the fault of the consumer.

I’ve pirated a lot of games, for various reasons:

  • Because they didn’t produce shareware or demos.
  • Because the professional reviewers are all in their pocket.
  • Because I lost my original manual with the serial number.
  • Because the CD got scratched.
  • Because the CD check took a full three minutes.
  • Because the game lost company support and couldn’t find an activation server.
  • Because SecuROM bluescreened my computer after finding CD burning software.
  • Because the average game price went up 50% but my income didn’t.
  • Because game’s IP was held by a company that wasn’t putting it on the market.

I’ve also bought a lot of games, for various reasons:

  • Because it got legitimate acclaim from gamers.
  • Because the price went down. (thanks, Steam!)
  • Because it was easier to buy than pirate. (Steam, GOG, D2D)
  • Because I wanted to see that company succeed for its efforts. (THQ, Valve, Bioware)

Money is not an insurmountable obstacle. People will spend money not to go through flaming hoops. That said, if the flaming hoops are hotter after having spent that money, then any rational person is going to go and say, “Hey, only people who legitimately bought this game have to suffer the nonsense of these activation servers when there’s a Day One hack already out to loop the request back to yourself.” And pirating wins again.

The games companies have also focused on console platforms as their answer to the charge of high prices and mediocrity, and cited PC gaming’s high pirating rates as “pushing them away.” Except the PC is still the largest single market despite such high rates, and the creation of the hardcore console gamer is only going to delay the inevitable: PC gamers know mediocre games. Halo 3 and Modern Warfare 2 rather illustrate how certain game genres are new to console gamers and thus they don’t know what they’re missing.

That will change, and the more console gamers play, the more they, too, will chafe at their lackluster choices. For every game companies choose to promote solely on the console – like Alan Wake or Brutal Legend – for fear of being panned on the PC as weak examples of their genre, the more likely console gamers will learn of these things. The companies merely sow the seeds of their own destruction for want of saving their short-sighted business paradigm.

One Large Diet Coke, Please

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I can never tell if Slate’s articles are daft because they have a really terrible editor or because they’re catering to a blindingly self-important readership, but the sheer visceral response I had to an article that started out saying,

But I’m stumped about what I should actually do [to live a cheaper, more energy-efficient life]. In my house in Connecticut…

Move to an apartment.

Period.

Abstraction

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With Mass Effect 2 having been released and more or less universally lauded as a role-playing game on the depths of its character involvement (and the cleverness of its using Mass Effect 1 saves to continue your character’s personal storyline), there appears to be the opening of a particular wound in the gaming world: Namely, the ensuing debate whether RPGs as a genre deal primarily with

moral dilemmas, lateral thinking and personal choices

and/or

ability charts, character statistics and combat abstraction

as Mass Effect 2 has effectively stripped a great deal of the latter’s involvement in the character development process. People say it feels more “actiony,” meaning that your character’s ability to hit a target is dependent far more on your ability to hit a target rather than a dice roll plus a modifier based on your character’s vital statistics and experience.

That said, the line of demarcation seems to fall along whether those people have been raised on pen-and-paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons or their computer analogs like Baldur’s Gate. It’s not unrelated to the amount of hate directed towards DnD’s 4th Edition rules for “dumbing down” the game, when Wizards of the Coast specifically made the new edition to cut down on munchkinism because they saw it as getting in the way of the game.

In my opinion, anything that cuts that sort of abstraction down is good, because the abstraction itself leads to ridiculous events that make no sense in the real world: You’re no longer simulating how your character would act in the world, you’re looking for ways to exploit the abstract system you’ve set in place of the world. This is nipped right in the bud in a pen-and-paper game because such a game must be lead by somebody who has the right to call shenanigans on obvious exploitation of loopholes, but computer games don’t have live gamemasters keeping tabs on you.

With the absence of such oversight, odd things happen. Rather like our monetary system, where our potential for productivity may remain the same yet we are plunged into an economic depression. How, for instance, houses cannot be sold yet homelessness still exists, or, for that matter, how the relative value – itself an arbitrary indicator of an abstract concept – of a house can be manipulated by people who are placing bets on the solvency of its owner’s debtors and thus how houses get built far from established infrastructure and services and lay empty and useless long after their occupants have been forcibly removed.

We’re in love with systems that allow us to explain the world around us, because the very nature of these systems, having been invented by us, can be understood by us, but they’re very silly things indeed and ultimately have little relation to the world at hand.

Just Desserts

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We need a new WPA. Wasn’t that one of Obama’s basic promises?

Also, Critical Mass got what they always wanted: Attention. Serves ’em right.

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