Part Six: So, In Conclusion…
There is a term in video games that gets a lot of flak. It’s called “play to win.” You play to win the game. You do not change human instinct. You do not inhibit man’s right to compete. When you’re playing StarCraft, you don’t get upset when somebody exploits the same cheap strategy game after game. You don’t get mad because you’ve played six straight opponents who all decided on Strategy X because it is the most effective gameplan. You pin that fault on Blizzard Entertainment. They created that rule set. The onus is on the developer to fix that rule set. The player base is just playing to win.
Think of the major video game publishers as players. Activision-Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Zynga, Ubisoft, Sony, Capcom, and Nintendo are all a tiny, tiny portion of an entertainment industry that’s playing to win at any costs. And I don’t hold that against them. What I hold against these companies is that they are writing the rule set. They are designing the rules that they play by. They are creating a set of rules for the software that harms the consumer’s rights and harms the quality of the product. Right now, computer software law is still a very new legal field that is changing very, very quickly. Let’s keep in mind that Atari fought with the United States Copyright Office for fourteen years because they would not issue a copyright for the 1976 arcade game Breakout. The government repeatedly declared that the colors and geometric shapes could not be copyrighted. That’s the legal landscape that these companies are molding to their interests. Much like the RIAA spends money to lobby governments so they’ll pass legislation favorable to their bottom line, software companies have created a market where they write computer software law.
With this power in tow, the goal of the major retail video game publishers is to transform their product into something similar to cable television. They want to transform their industry from a good into a service. Nobody will “buy” video games. Players will subscribe to a library of games that will change at the whim of a company or distributor’s demands. Right now, you’re seeing the baby steps for that movement. Their next goals are to cut third-party retail distribution out of the equation, saving money on packaging and pocketing the money that would normally go to GameStop or Steam. Electronic Arts has already begun this with their aggressive marketing of their Origin digital distribution service. Bobby Kotick has publicly expressed interest in packing his games with the hardware, creating a version of Guitar Hero that can be played by connecting the guitar into the television.* He would do this to circumvent the licensing fees associated with creating games for video game consoles.
And with the distribution of their products on lockdown, they’ll charge the highest prices that they possibly can. There will be no modmaking tools that aren’t explicitly authorized by the developer and creator of the game. And as time passes, and these games become less popular, companies will have complete and full control over the distribution rights to those games. Once people stop playing it, they’ll pull it. It’ll be like the movie theaters: Once people stop playing the games, they’ll disappear. Battle.net 2.0 is consistent with the vision held by every major publisher in the video game industry. As Blizzard Entertainment said on the preview site for Battle.net 2.0, “[t]he final metamorphosis has only just begun…”*
“Hey, Mikey Lowell, you know what my right as a consumer is? To avoid products I don’t like. You should do the same. Quit your whining and move on!” In the battle of “Fuck corporations!” versus “Fuck socialists!”, the free market interpretation of Battle.net 2.0 is very easy: Blizzard Entertainment is a business, and if you don’t like their rules, go buy a different game. Let me explain my philosophy on this.
Shortly after the turn of this century, long-time computer game developers jumped ship to the consoles. They did this in order to milk a larger consumer base and avoid the narrow computer development profit margins that were the result of increasing production costs. The companies that remained to do business on the platform introduced incredibly unpopular “digital rights management” programs onto copies of their software. The rationale for loading malware into the computers of legitimate customers is that software piracy was costing those companies money. More recently, the major publishers in the console video game industry have been desperately attempting to eliminate the sales of used video games, packaging the games with one-time-use codes,* calling retailers “parasites and thieves”,* and trying to win customers over with pre-order bonuses. Capcom would even eliminate the ability to delete save data in 2011’s Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D,* a means of assuring that the recipients of used copies could not delete the data and start anew. These companies are doing this because they are losing money. In June of 2010, the C.E.O. of Take Two Interactive Ben Feder stated that their products required “aftermarket content” (a.k.a. downloadable content) or their products could not be profitable.* And now, I have been informed that a computer game developer has wired their online video game service into a closed system because software pirates, script kiddies, and Asian government organizations were harming their revenues. Or are you beginning to get my point?
Total year-to-year sales of boxed video game software and hardware have declined by fifteen percent in the United States from 2007 to 2010.** And unless Modern Warfare 3 sells forty-eight billion copies, year-to-year sales of video games will continue to decline. Yes, digital distribution has a little to do with that. However, the consoles are not moving sixty-dollar digital games and Steam is not making enough money to ward off that decline. Electronic Arts, THQ, and Ubisoft are all losing money.*** Activision-Blizzard will only continue to make money if the exodus of 600,000 World of Warcraft players since the release of the expansion pack Cataclysm* is an aberration and not a mutiny. The only major American publisher making big money these days is Zynga. Yes, the FarmVille guys. When you say “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it!”, that’s exactly what’s happening. People are not buying the games. For the last six years, a period of time that seems oddly concurrent with the industry’s cockamamie fetish for distribution control, there has been no growth. Zero. None. All of the people who purchased Nintendo Wiis in 2007 are now playing crappy mobile phone games because they are cheaper and more convenient to that audience. If these companies cannot get more people to buy their games, then they will grope the wallets of existing customers and see if they can charge those customers more for the same product. And like all entertainment properties that don’t grow their consumer base, they will crash and burn.
So really, it doesn’t matter what the hell I do or whether people read this article and stop buying Blizzard games or stop buying console games or whatever. I don’t really care. The goal of this piece was to say, “Here’s how Battle.net 2.0 works, here’s why they’re doing it, here’s what it will lead to.” My job has been accomplished here. When my kids (and they’ll be adopted, because there’s no way I’m getting laid after writing this article) say “Daddy, where were you when the Battle.net forums said dumb crap about Battle.net 2.0?” I can say, “I was writing essays on a web site!” And my kids will be like, “Yeah, um, okay. Gonna go play StarCraft V. Bye, daddy!” And I’ll be like, “Don’t you realize Battle.net 4.0 is a means to control the chemical composition of your bodily fluids?” And they’ll be like, “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it! That’s how the free market works! God! Stop hating America, daddy!” And then I’ll say, “Eh. I tried.”
P.S.: Before I conclude, I’d like to say something to any of the game developers who worked on StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. Video game sales tracking web site VGChartz claims that month-to-month pre-orders of StarCraft II declined by thirty percent in the month of June 2010.* If there is any truth in those numbers, then the article I wrote back in June of 2010 was possibly responsible for harming your ability to make a living. If I did that, then I apologize. It is not the intention of my writing or any writing on this web site to hurt those who are simply in this wretched business to fulfill their creative dreams and make a couple of bucks while doing it. I’ve read enough about this wonderful industry to understand how horrible an industry it is to work in. That’s precisely the reason that I criticize it looking from the outside in. Now, that doesn’t mean I will refrain from being critical of a bad product. But as I have repeatedly stated and stressed, I thought that StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was a very good video game. I do not like the service. I want that distinction to be clear.
Unfortunately, the industry is designed in a funny way. If management greenlights a successful series of video games, then magazines such as Forbes hail Bobby Kotick as a hero, “a chief executive blind to the beauty of videogames [who] developed an unmatched eye for spotting hits.”* But if the games are not successful, the developers take the blame. The development company is ground into dust and the employees have to find a new job. The day that Kotick sends Activision-Blizzard operating income into China Syndrome, he walks away with a compensation package, commissions a yacht, and sails away into the sunset. Dustin Browder and company will lose their job and have nothing to show for it. My fight is not with workers. I’m going after management. They’re the dudes who hire the people who surround the company with yes-men who make the decision that in order to protect operating profits, Battle.net 2.0 has to be designed in order to enforce the company’s intellectual property. They’re the dudes pocketing most of the money. And until these businessmen stop creating shitty distribution models to protect their decaying business models, then I’m going to keep badmouthing them. If you’re working for one of these dudes, you’ll have to live with that. Just please, don’t consider it personal. Just keep making good video games. In exchange, I’ll educate customers so they know a good product when they see it. We’ll make this work for both of us. Fair?
Author Addendum on August 3, 2011: At the beginning of August 2011, Blizzard Entertainment announced that Diablo III would require a persistent internet connection.* In addition, the game would not include any tools at all or any support for modmaking.* I’ve been unable to figure out why this is news, because the company already announced that Diablo III would not be playable on a Local Area Network. This was the logical step forward. If anybody else had written a 16,000-word epic detailing the creation of the Battle.net 2.0 online gaming service, they would have come to the same conclusion. I need to go get some Tylenol. It hurts to be this correct all of the time.