Towards Our Digital Future

The “Xbox 180,” SimCity, and how someone who absolutely abhors software piracy can still think DRM sucks.

I’d thought that Microsoft’s reversal of its policies on used games and online checks for the Xbox One would be universally regarded as a good thing. As it turns out, there are quite a few people who are upset that it’s a step backwards, and others that think it’s unfair to video game developers because GameStop.

I just got into it on Twitter, taking a hard-line of course they had to reverse such an idiotic policy position. And since we all know that Twitter is the best possible place to make a nuanced, reasonable argument, I thought I’d add to it on here.

What set me off was this tweet from Cliff Bleszinski:

My first problem with that: *developers* don’t see any more money from a new copy than from a used one. Unless of course he’s talking about the few who own their own development studios, or the people who are as good at self-promotion as Cliffy B.

To be clear, that’s not an insult. I’m old enough to recognize that self-promotion is a talent just like anything else, and there’s nothing inherently noble about waiting around passively for people to notice what you can do. It does mean, however, that it’s more than a little disingenuous to protest this in terms of Helping Out the Little Guy. The money in question is going to go either to publishers or to a parasitic bottom-feeder like GameStop. So it’s either the corporation trying to get a lock-down on every stage of the process from development tools to hardware sales to licensing fees, or the corporation that pays kids a ridiculously paltry amount for used games before turning around and selling them again at an obscene mark-up.

Missing from all that are the players themselves. And players overwhelmingly hated Microsoft’s announced DRM policies for the Xbox One. In his write-up on Ars Technica, Kyle Orland says that Microsoft’s plan failed “the mom test.” That’s something that publishers, developers, and people immersed in video games just keep doing: making decisions that are so far afield that they have no connection with basic common sense. And requiring players to have an online connection for a single-player, offline game with media they’re holding in their hands, is simply idiotic. It’s inconveniencing players for the sake of defending publishers’ profit, and that’s always a bad idea.

Previously, I would’ve said (and actually have said) that requiring an internet connection is no big deal. Most people are connected to the internet, and even with the lousy broadband speeds in the US, and monthly download caps, the amount of data required for a DRM check is minimal. Consoles aren’t portable, so it’s not as if you’re going to be wanting to play an Xbox game while commuting or on a plane. It sucks for people in the military, or people who live where fast internet connections simply aren’t available, but those are “fringe cases.”

That’s what I would’ve said. What changed my mind? SimCity.

That was easily my most anticipated game of 2013. I told myself — and others — that the online requirement wasn’t a dealbreaker. “It sucks that I won’t be able to play it on a plane, since plane flights are when I most want to play SimCity, but so what. It’s a simple authentication check, so even dial-up connections won’t be hard hit. What could go wrong?!” What went wrong, of course, was the game’s disastrous launch. But I worry that execs will walk away from that thinking that the answer is simply to get more servers and to do more stress-testing when launching a game. The problems with SimCity go much deeper than that, though: the online requirement negatively affected every single aspect of the game and completely soured me on it.

People at Maxis — very, very smart people, whom I’ve met, and who I respect immensely — have insisted that the online requirement wasn’t for DRM, but was an integral part of the multi-player design direction of the game. So I have to take that on face value, and that’s actually worse than if it were just intrusive, publisher-mandated DRM. Because it suggests that the studio either didn’t know or didn’t care how people actually play the game and what they actually wanted, and they were free to impose whatever restrictions on players that the studio wanted.

It wasn’t simply server issues; I was one of the relatively lucky people who had no problems with the servers after the first couple of days. But even when connected, I was constantly running into limitations. A set number of regions, with pre-generated terrain that I couldn’t alter. Artificially tiny city sizes, with the justification that they have to be small to run well on other people’s machines, no matter how well they’d run on my own. My cities were saved on the server in a limited number of slots without the opportunity for saving local copies to “branch,” even though I had absolutely no interest in playing with anyone else.

My final breaking point: I changed the name of one of the pre-made city areas, and the name came back to me as a string of asterisks. Was it a server glitch? Or did it think that I’d typed in a dirty word, and censored it before it showed up in public city lists? I didn’t know, and I still don’t. But it occurred to me how absolutely absurd it was that I should even have to wonder. A single player game, and I wasn’t free to change its name, something that’s been inherent in computer games since we 12-year-olds entered “AssWipe” for a character’s name and giggled every time it came on screen. At every step of the way, SimCity reminded me that this game does not belong to you. And this had been a game series that was always about creation and giving the player absolute control.

When I’ve complained about software piracy, it’s because there’s an inherent contract between publishers/developers and players that pirates violate. They can try to rationalize it and justify it as much as they want, but the basic fact is that they’re taking advantage of people’s work without giving anything back. But when developers or publishers put their needs before the players’ — whether it’s through intrusive DRM, or online-only requirements, or getting incensed about used or rented games — then they’re not holding up their end of the contract, either.

There’s absolutely no excuse for piracy. Period. But treating physical media as property, and not simply a license, has a clear and obvious precedent. If the game industry genuinely is harmed so much by used games and rentals, I think the first question people should be asking is why their business model is so fragile that it’s so threatened by players doing what simply makes sense. I’m clearly no fan of GameStop and will be gleeful when they’re finally driven out of business. But the way to defeat them isn’t to impose restrictions that inconvenience players. The way to defeat them is to obviate them.

Steam’s been successful on the PC, even though it requires an online connection and a pretty fast broadband connection, because it’s more player-focused than Valve-focused. Frequent sales, promotion of obscure titles, lots of community tools to warrant the online requirement, cloud storage of saved games, and having a game library available from any machine you own. Microsoft’s original announcement about the Xbox One had only the requirements and none of the convenience. Again: when you have players who are holding a disc full of all the content of your game, and you’re still requiring them to go on line to play it, you’re not giving them any advantages, and you’re failing the most basic test of common sense. Any business that puts its own profits above the customer’s convenience deserves to go out of business, “inherent contract” or no.

For the record, even after Microsoft’s reversal, I’ve got zero interest in the Xbox One OR the PS4. SimCity was the last game I bought on physical media, and I sincerely hope it’ll be the last game I’ve bought on physical media. Everything I play is through the iOS App Store or Steam now, and publishers’ idiocy over DRM and insistence on absurdly large updates or online requirements mean that there’s absolutely no advantage to dragging my ass to a store to pick up a game on DVD. Not to mention that games on Steam are almost always cheaper than they are for consoles. It’s time publishers stop blaming GameStop and Gamefly and Redbox and stop punishing their customers, and ask themselves what’s wrong with their model. I’m highly skeptical that any customers are saying, “I really want to keep paying $60 for games, pay an additional monthly fee for multiplayer, and use my video game console as a pass-through UI overlay box for a cable or satellite account I have to pay an additional fee for!”

The future is going to be on mobile devices and multi-purpose boxes using the App Store model. Valve can see that, which is why they’re so eager to get Steam running on TVs. Apple’s already got a strong presence in games, without even caring about games; it’s almost scary to think what could happen if they started putting effort into it. Even without the physical media, they still give more a feeling of “owning” a library of games than my bookcase full of games on DVD. Once they’ve finally “won” the living room, and broadband is ubiquitous, the entire question of online checks will be completely irrelevant.

It’ll be better for players, and not simply because of digital distribution, but because of companies that prove you can be successful by actually providing value to players instead of just to shareholders.

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