As Mass Effect fans hold their collective breath waiting for BioWare’s extended Mass Effect 3 endings (many doubtless sharpening their knives as they watch the horizon), the issue of who has a right to what in videogames remains an issue for many. It’s an important topic that reaches far beyond one game or series, and one that will become more important and contentious still as time goes on. In the case of Mass Effect 3, a tidal wave of fans – rightly or wrongly – took to the internet to demand that the developers change the game’s endings because they, the fans, didn’t like what came on the disc. While this high-profile protest could prove to be the first of many, the winds of change are bringing a new issue thundering to the forefront of the industry; when you pay for a game, does that mean you actually own a copy of it?
Let’s backtrack slightly to consider the issue of ownership when it comes to a game’s story and development. I’ve already touched upon the developer-publisher relationship in this regard, so let’s take a look at the developer-consumer relationship. I’d say that when considering a new IP, the consumer has no ‘right’ at all in saying how it’s developed – which is, arguably, why so many of them turn out mediocre at best. With no feedback from previous iterations to go on, the publisher will more often than not insist on ‘safe’ elements being used, elements that have been proven to sell – which means, of course, copying other games. Add into this mix the influence of the dreaded focus group, and common tight development schedules to meet quarterly release targets, and it’s easy to see why we have so many shoddy games – and why it’s so rarely the fault of the developers.
Sequels and ‘spiritual successors’ are another matter entirely. Developers are (almost) always keen to use fan feedback to help develop the next game, and actively seek it out or ask for it outright. Not only does this help them see what went wrong and what went right, it can also be a good indicator of what people want to see in the next game. The unstoppable march of the internet has made this a quick and easy process, mainly due to the billions of internet forums – including, of course, official developer/publisher ones. Players are often able to take one step further (in rare instances, even with a new IP) via a public or private beta. It’s easy to be cynical, and see beta tests as a way of employing thousands of unpaid QA testers. In truth that’s a brutally unfair viewpoint because, although players are usually allowed (and encouraged) to report bugs, the build will already have been through a QA process. In addition, last-minute changes such as features being added or removed are sometimes made simply because of beta feedback.
Therefore, the public doesn’t have a ‘right’ to help with a game’s development but, often, they do have an influence to some degree. Therefore, Muzyka’s blathering about “artistic integrity” (which I’ve already torn apart) seems rather at odds with what he calls fans’ “uncontested right to constructive criticism”. Mass Effect isn’t a single product, but a trilogy encompassing a wealth of DLC. You either contest this right, Muzyka, by ignoring the wishes of fans; or you embrace it, by compromising your artistic integrity to allow fan feedback to influence how the franchise develops.
Two lines in the Mass Effect 2 Shadow Broker DLC stick out in my mind. At one point, you’re defending a slowly unlocking door against a relentless onslaught of enemies. In reference to the first game, Shepard says during the attack: “Remember the old days when you could just slap omni-gel on everything?”, to which Liara replies: “That security upgrade made a lot of people unhappy”. Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t help feeling that this siege was a sort of punishment for fans daring to question the wisdom of a design decision…
At any rate, this is a good example of why so few games can be considered as art. True art is created by the artist not with maximising popularity and profit in mind, but with the consideration of nothing but making the art the best it can be; making it ‘right’ in the eyes of the artist/s, regardless of what others may think. Videogames are mass produced entertainment products – and I love ‘em. In case you’re thinking that by this logic a hell of a lot of movies, TV and music can’t be considered art either, yup – that’s how I see things. Now that I’ve likely enraged the majority of you, let’s move on.
Claims that players have no right to strongly criticise the finished product isn’t just ignoring their pre-release involvement; it isn’t just hiding a patronising ‘we know better’ attitude; it’s an insult to the unique, and important, depth of the relationship between the industry and its audience. Ultimately, players need to realise that – shock, horror – game developers know more about developing games than they do. Equally however, developers and publishers both need to remember that their consumers don’t passively absorb the products they’re sold. They are involved in a way and to a degree that no other industry allows them. They don’t watch, hear, or see the story – they are in the story. The very nature of the media allows dozens of experiences that don’t even need a story at all. Players can play, experience, feel games without the pressures of financial considerations; without pressure from investors; without strictly timed targets to meet; without the stress that the unbelievably long hours of developing a game involves. The industry needs to remember, understand, and listen to that. It’s a viewpoint that they can never see their own products from.
Unfortunately, all signs point to the industry going down a path the majority of gamers would rather avoid.
According to a report by MCV, Ubisoft’s next-gen developments are well underway – and the company’s plans have a heavy emphasis on the digital market. This means “connected services” (?), downloadable versions of retail games… and the free-to-play model. Another major industry player drooling over microtransactions and the digital market for the next generation (according to a job ad, since removed from sight) is Lionhead. They are apparently developing a next gen “MMO like title […] with a radical new take on how co-operative and multiplayer gameplay feeds into the experience”.
These are not good signs for consumers, especially if – as is likely – the intention is to push the experience, and all purchases, into the internet space. Why? Well to start with, I must insist you read this piece by Stuart Campbell. I won’t say what it’s about, only that I’ve linked to it before in this series and you really should read it. More recently, you may well have seen the anger over EA’s iOS version of Rock Band rumble through the internet. Basically, everybody who had this app (which they had to pay for) were told that it was due to soon stop working on their device; in effect, cease to exist. After the anger this notification generated, EA issued a statement to the effect that this message was sent out in error, and the mobile version of Rock Band would continue to be playable. This is at odds with what purports to be a screengrab taken of a page on the official EA site before it was removed, explaining the situation.
Then look at OnLive. As a service it’s fascinating, exciting even; in several ways, it could represent the future of videogames in a positive way. It’s become clear however that, in the UK at least, fast broadband speeds just aren’t widespread enough for it to take off. More worrying when considering its potential signs for the future of the industry is the nature of buying games. Prices are usually roughly equal to buying the boxed product; but more than that, if you read the small print when buying a game, the product you’re paying for is only guaranteed to be available for a limited amount of time. Granted, that time is a minimum and has every chance of being extended. Buy a disc, however, and it will work as and when you want (unless, say, you have a PC and you’re trying to play Diablo III) and it won’t suddenly stop working for any reason (unless, say, you have a PC and you’re playing an online DRM controlled title).
This attitude has already begun to creep onto consoles. Download a game, and it’s not usually explicitly stated that you’re buying the ‘right’ to play the game, a right which can be taken away at any time with no repercussions for developer or publisher. Dig around in the small print, or even external websites, and you’ll find that this is all you’re paying for. As the Dead Space bundle on PSN admits in the description, you’re buying a “digital license”.
Think about that. Really, take the time to consider it properly. This is one of the strongest arguments for a digital-only gaming future being A Very Bad Thing. Of course, the vast majority of us already have dozens of games which rely on these ‘digital licenses’, and the world has yet to come to an end. Is it really so difficult to imagine an industry however where, once digital has become the only option, placing ownership of games consumers have paid their hard-earned money for entirely in the hands of developers and publishers causes big problems and huge controversy?
Take EA’s FIFA franchise. At the moment, the servers for each instalment are switched off after just a few years. This fact is met mostly with a shrug of the shoulders because (a) most players want to keep up with more up to date versions anyway, and (b) the games continue to work offline. Imagine, however, that the series goes download only from FIFA 14. Shortly before the release of FIFA 16, 14 stops working, Sorry 007; license to play revoked. To continue playing FIFA, you therefore either have to buy 15 (still full price, or almost full price due to no secondhand market and no retail) or wait to buy 16 (which will be a little more expensive). And so the cycle continues, ad infinitum.
It’s unclear if Activision would risk angering the passionate and vocal Call of Duty audience with this tactic. The fact that the servers for the original Modern Warfare are still active suggests not. If this becomes a viable and undeniably profitable tactic for publishers to take advantage of, however, you can expect the market to become flooded with new sports and FPS franchises where a new instalment is guaranteed every year.
The big question is: will this happen? Are games doomed, as we’re constantly told by various publishers and developers, to go download only? I sure as hell hope not. It’s easy to imagine the PC market going digital within as little as four years, because (a) this all started there long before console manufacturers started taking the internet seriously, and (b) look at all the crap PC gamers put up with, and have been putting up with for a long time – and despite the complaints and protests, they carry on buying the games in droves. There was uproar about online DRM when it was first introduced, but that never stopped PC games utilising it shifting big numbers. That, basically, is why it’s so prevalent today.
Consoles are already closer to PCs than they’ve ever been. This isn’t just because of the various apps and multimedia functionality that today’s machines carry. Console gamers would often point and laugh at their PC brethren for having to put up with post-release patches, often applying to games that ran on consoles with no issues. Thanks to the introduction of hard drives however, the number of console releases that never see a patch for bugs or glitches is growing smaller and smaller. The option is there, so developers often take it. Will consoles also follow the lead of the PC market by embracing online DRM for retail titles? It’s possible.
It may sound melodramatic, but the next console generation – with its new hardware and, apparently, greatly increased enthusiasm for the digital market – will be the most important the industry has ever seen. It will in all likelihood determine once and for all how our games are made, sold… and owned. If videogames do eventually become a digital only media, one of two things will happen. There will be anger and protests which will eventually die down, and gamers will reluctantly relinquish ultimate control over products to the companies which make and publish them… or resistance to this direction will be underestimated by these companies, and we’ll see an industry crash at least as bad as the one of the 1980s.