• The Gamer's Quagmire #28 - The Poison Pill and the Salvo

    No, the poison pill isn't me. Sure, I'm a pill and I love drinking poison (alcohol and soft drinks), but, again, the poison pill doesn't refer to me. I swear. Despite the only real thing in the news lately is the nauseatingly neverending Mass Effect 3 commentary, of which I am done with, that is, until it's time to pick apart the updated ending, I decided to walk away from current news and violate one of my core tenets for news gathering. Again. Normally I would not do such a thing, but the ramifications of what might be coming down the road in a couple years has forced me to seriously think about where console gaming is headed. It has forced me to think about where gaming might be by the time I get to choose whether to corrupt kids of my own with gaming.

    Okay, that's a lie – corruption is inevitable. It is their destiny.

    Last week I touched on core issue at hand. We have whispers that both Sony and Microsoft are looking at potential DRM for their next consoles, something Ubisoft has received loads of praise from the community for, vis-à-vis always-on connectivity. Really look at that last statement, amidst the heavy sarcasm, and start to think about how long this industry has been on this road, how you think we got here, and whether you believe if this is some sort of prank.


    A long time ago a sage-like person started talking about the natural evolution of DRM. This first came about when Napster exploded in the late 90's and gave anyone, especially college students, the ability to share music files with anyone. Eventually better bandwidth allowed this sharing to expand to movies and games. Ever since then media industries have been doing whatever they could to make sure that the products they were selling would be purchased instead of stolen. The validity of DRM in general is a debate you are free to have with anyone, however, and is one I am steering clear of.

    As is the case with any form of digital copyright, ways around it were figured out and newer methods became anywhere from really strict to viral (see: SecuROM). This has turned into a war between publishers and pirates with legitimate customers being caught in the crossfire. We can debate all day long on what forms of DRM of acceptable to all audiences (the current incarnation of Valve's Steam software being the fan favorite), but right now PC gamers have had to deal with idea that pirating software and installing it is the best way to go over purchasing and installing. A while ago some PC games devolved into their ability to stay connected to the internet. Somehow an ISP's backbone can control the fate of your ability to play a single player game on your PC.

    Between those issues and dealing with invasive DRM that I do not want on my computer (and sometimes being impossible to uninstall and requiring nuking the master boot record), I decided that for most games I will be using my gaming consoles. I watch most of my movies there. I can more easily see what my friends are doing or play a game with them. The TV screen is a heck of a lot bigger than my computer monitor. Sluggish sales in the PC world for games is hardly a new trend and games are still selling, so is the reason why some big secret?

    With rumors floating around about the PS4 and Xbox 720 (or whatever you think they may be called), I almost have to wonder if companies are utterly incapable of studying trends and deductive reasoning. DRM was never about stopping piracy but just merely slowing it down. What I wonder is, are any of these people good at raising children? No, this is not going to be my old standby argument of "good parents always let their kids play video games". This is something new that I have been working on over the years. It is time to break a new argument of its original wrapping and see how it handles.

    How do you teach someone the proper way to behave? Would you rather focus on incentivizing positive behavior or punish negative behaviors? If you want to treat your potential customers like pets and stick an invisible fence around your property go right ahead, but this only tends to work on animals that are not determined to work their way around their barricade. Humans tend to be much more stubborn. I think companies are starting to notice this, but they still do not seem to be able to handle incentives properly.

    Want to know how I know this? New games are now starting to be sold with product keys that will unlock basic features of a game (instead of doing good things like character model unlocks or any other minor bonus). Sometimes these feature unlocks are for something so fundamental, such as online multiplayer functionality, that it makes purchasing a game used no less expensive than if you were to buy it new. This is an interesting way to keep profits up, but isn't the used game market one of the reasons games became popular in the first place? Isn't the Greatest Hits line in existence for this sole purpose? Isn't there a reason Game of the Year editions are so popular? I am left to wonder why companies are so willing to throw potential customers away at the expense of making sure more subservient customers pay every last dollar they can. I thought Star Wars taught us that the Grand Moff Tarkin approach is not the most effective way to run things.

    The more you look at how companies run today, almost universally the answer seems to revolve around what can be done to make a buck now. In other words, maximize profits now and don't worry about later. I did not finish an MBA but I wonder if the older generation of CEO's is just looking for one final cash-out before they are no longer able to work. Something has to make sense, because I find it hard to believe that an industry that became popular by allowing easy access to its product (the 25 cent arcade and a dirt cheap used game market) is willing to throw out everything that got it going in the first place. Needless to say, I am highly confused.

    If you have been paying enough attention to the direction companies are taking with DRM, especially Ubisoft, this rumored step for the next generation of consoles is largely inevitable. It only makes sense, in terms of progression, that this always-on check appears not just for certain games, but for consoles as a whole. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have been trying to figure out ways to stop piracy for consoles for years. Nintendo used to stick by cartridges and eventually tried using a smaller disc size with the Gamecube. Sega did not really think to hard about it with the Dreamcast and eventually tried using it as a selling point. Sony has gone off the rails trying to stop piracy on the PS3 by stripping functionality of what they touted as the most open platform. What better way to enforce product registration than to force a player to always stay connected to a company's gaming service? It all makes sense, doesn't it?

    I cannot tell whether these are just rumors this time around, as they were for before the PS3, but this is something everyone should prepare for. Customers need to think about this because I am willing to bet that there will be a shift in which platforms are popular. Will the PC become the favorite again because it is the easiest to circumvent? Will Nintendo surprise people again with avoiding this issue entirely (seeing how they have no idea how to provide a decent online service)? Will gaming on mobile devices (iOS and Android) benefit the most considering the cost is usually in the very low $1-$5 range? I would say all of these are valid possibilities, and I have to wonder if big video game publishers have even considered these as possible outcomes (especially the last one, considering how much that would eat into profits across the board).

    For a while now I have thought that the natural evolution of the video game console was a media center that would be the mainstay of a lot of homes in the country. Support for video streaming services seemed to back up that notion and where the technology has been going. I imagine both Sony and Microsoft would love to be able to see that everyone in their market has one of their devices in their home. It is not like these are tiny companies just trying to entertain people. These are companies with insanely high revenue streams. They will always be looking for ways to make money. These latest rumors make me wonder what the strategy is. We as customers always talk about what the breaking point is for when we will no tolerate price hikes or more invasive DRM. Well, we should consider what might be the breaking point for executives for when they believe that they are just losing too many sales to piracy (as if there's an objective way to measure that).

    Not that long ago Blockbuster Videos went bankrupt. When I saw this idea forecasted a year before it happened I didn't laugh. I looked at it and just thought that the video streaming services had finally punctured a hole so big in their profits that those stores were no longer viable. Is it so unrealistic to believe that killing off the used game market entirely is a possible effect of this? Publishers have talked about how much the used game market eats into their profits. It is so painfully easy to see the parallels between stores like GameStop and what Blockbuster once was that they have to see this news as a possible death knell to their business. Feel free to cry or laugh, but that step is on the horizon. A major chain in the UK was just saved from going under not that long ago. What do you think is going to happen when gaming companies decide they are going to do everything they can to absorb every possible sale from the used game market so they can increase their profit margins?

    The answer to most of these questions comes from one simple tenet – who is the target audience for these services? Facebook, for example, doesn't make money by being nice to the people that use it. Quite the opposite, in fact, is the truth. They hate the people that use it! Well, no, sorry... couldn't resist that one. The people they make happy are the advertisers; it just so happens that the users are more than happy to allow anyone to view the information advertisers need to make their money. Facebook's financial success, in a sense, is a complete accident. So, who is the target market in a world where you need to be online in order to play your games? If Ubisoft's numbers were in the tank then Sony and Microsoft would have no real financial incentive to do what the rumors would have us believe.

    Again, this is all speculation. If I were a betting man I would say Sony and Microsoft would be insane to do this because they would be driving many people away. Whether this is to the PC, Nintendo, or, *gulp*, Apple, that remains to be seen. For the record, the mobile gaming market doesn't exist because of high quality games. It exists because the games are dirt cheap and you have easy access to them. I am not even sure how 'stealing' a $1 would even be an issue on that platform considering how locked down iOS is. If you want to be in a place where this all doesn't matter I have the answer for you. It's so easy and so obvious that it'll never happen, of course, because publishers would never agree to it.

    Here is the game system that almost any gamer wants: Steam with game trading capability. Users who buy games are free to trade them, in that when they trade they lose access to their old saves and information and all the rights and access go to the new owner. This is the equivalent of the old pre-Internet system. Trading games with anyone, selling them at a garage sale for a cheap price, finding steals on really old games – all these are reasons why many of us have been able to sustain gaming habits for so long. Call this whatever you want – SteamPlus, GameStream, GameBroker, whatever. If I had the money I would start this venture myself. Heck, I look at Valve and I simply fail to understand what the holdup is. It's like people want to turn the simplest solutions into a problem domain where rocket scientists dwell. This answer is far from complicated. You want to stick it to the gaming companies and keep a used game market afloat? Do you want to see the DRM war stop and not have to worry about how you might get locked out of a game next? This is how you do it!

    Yes, I do know how to gift games in Steam to people. This is sort of like trading games, but you can only do it before you use the game. Once you claim rights to a game under Steam it is yours. Whatever the reason is for why trades are not possible do not concern me. Obstacles never concern me. Charge a small fee for trades, restrict trades to only apply to games of similar value or from the same publisher, make the resale value back to the distributor be like the used game market is now, whatever. That system is the answer. It is the panacea that will stop the invasive and spreading DRM virus dead in its tracks and keep money flowing into the pockets of companies that want control over everything. It provides all the functionality that gamers want and have had since the 8-bit cartridge days.

    I don't just want this because I'm a gamer and I want to pass on this hobby to future generations. I don't just want this because keeping my computer free of invasive DRM is already a hassle. I also want this because I get sick and tired of writing about stupid things like how much DRM and content control is poisoning the gaming world. Completing certain games may be a chore, but complaining about them should never be!
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Craig Reade's Avatar
      Craig Reade -
      Blockbuster saw the writing on the wall a LONG time ago. I worked at one in 1995 and they were talking about streaming video back THEN.

      I'd love to see Steam implement something like Amazon's book lending. You can lend a game to someone - and during that time, you are locked out of it. I don't think it would make a real dent on their sales at all, and if the game has a decent multiplayer option - it might increase sales in the long term.