30 September 2008

The consumer’s perspective

This is in response to Dan Shoe’s articles over on his (and Crispin’s) blog.

While the dance between the publisher/developer and the press is a complex beast at the best of times, the way that the intended audience fits into the puzzle magnifies that complexity and the disparity between what each of those two(three) parties want. On the one hand the consumer is blasted with information from TV advertisements, billboards and buses, in the middle we are courted by magazine covers, gossip websites and enthusiast/developer blogs and on the other hand we have the consumer-consumer channels of feedback. It’s a three tier system.

The first level of assault on the consumer is simple enough to understand. Big marketing has been using and refining their techniques for well over fifty years now and the consumer, for the most part, has placidly let this encroach into virtually every aspect of our lives – in fact it’s pretty safe to say that we couldn’t live without advertising in the same way that we couldn’t live without the internet... we could but we are children of our time and don’t know how to. I’m actually going to say that this level of marketing is effectively screened out enough that it has minimal impact on our purchasing decisions: most of what we buy is based on tiers 2 and 3.

The second level is the most important because, if we’re honest, most of the information from tier 1 and 3 is derived in some form from those outlets were more information can be found. The second level is also where the PR companies and their clients interface directly with the system. Of course, different outlets pursue different functions/ideals and each are as important as the next; a gossip website such as Kotaku or Joystiq maintains overall consumer excitement and interest in upcoming products, analytical outlets like Gamasutra provide deeper insight into the industry for those interested and then there are the straight-up review sites (EDGE, 1UP etc. and magazines) which provide, subjective, but necessary reviews and scores.

I’m going to skip level 3 here because we’re all well acquainted with that and instead take a deeper look at the consumer’s rocky relationship with that second tier. First off: magazines and review sites. These are important interfaces with the general public – people who do not know developer names nor do they even care that a studio/publisher may have made one game or another before making the current game... and they maybe even more occluded than that. I have plenty of friends who are like this and having conversations with them about games or gaming is impossible simply because they do not know. They enjoy the games they have but will generally buy a game on hype from major marketing pushes and magazine covers and I’m sad to say that they probably make the majority of the market and sales for games. (Full disclosure: I have a friend who is a lawyer who did not see the problem with Microsoft having a monopoly on operating systems... he still thinks it’s okay despite me giving him the reasons against)

The problem with addressing Dan’s article is that anyone who read his blog or this blog or participated in the other outlets linking to his blog article cannot know what these people are thinking when they buy a game; what influenced them or drove them to that specific game. I can’t – I can guess, but it could just be that. These people aren’t wrong in their actions: they just don’t care about games or the industry in the way that I don’t care about the soap/deodorant industries. As long as I don’t smell that’s fine! Everyone disregards the man behind the curtain until something goes wrong... and then that’s where the second tier really makes their mark.

Information is power, many people have said, and giving information to people, whether it’s in a concealed or direct form makes a difference. One of the reasons that I believe that EDGE has been around so long is that it holds true to this tenet. Whether it’s covering the new games in previews, current games in reviews, looking at what makes the industry tick or opinions from around the world of developers, journalists and publishers let alone trying to deconstruct a game years after its release happens to make it valuable to consumers. It’s pretty much proven that these virtues make a publication (online and print) successful in the long term and you only have to look to gossip or TV listing mags to see the effects of being too shallow in your approach to a subject: it turns into a never-ending spiral of looking for the biggest and newest scoop you can find – which will be reported exactly the same way in every similar publication. Eventually a news story is published that isn’t entirely true or they trade their reputation on rumours and hearsay rather than actual facts and the next thing you know their readership has jumped ship to the newest and shiniest similar mag because of some gimmick (there was one recently that took the bold step of reducing the size of the pages so that it fit inside a medium-sized handbag. Genius!).

Now, all of this is preamble to the actual topic at hand (I’m a bad writer :/ ) but how does it all relate to the consumer’s experience? It does and it doesn’t. Simply put, whatever is done will be relegated to a successful or unsuccessful footnote in the industry’s history. Consumers don’t care (in the negative way) if one developer says something nasty about another or their (ex-)publisher or that there was a spat between two websites/a journalist and a PR representative etc. These events actually improve the relationship between the consumer and a company – people like knowing what’s going on and they're not stupid. Consumers like having access to scores and reviews and even sometimes both! They don’t hold any ethical questions above the articles in question and they don’t care what history the writer has with the genre or company... they take it at face value.

However, this is where the industry has to be careful. Take that step too far, abuse the intelligence or the faith of the consumer and you will be punished. It’s all to scale. Making bad on one (Gamestop) review will probably drive up your traffic overall and heighten your consumer awareness. Being known for firing the whole bunch of writers because of PR backlash might increase your traffic but also decrease the respect and faith the consumer has in your site. It’s the same with the games themselves. Ultimately, bad and buggy games sell – it’s why publishers/developers will just shove a game out the door – in the long run it does nothing to harm their business because they have a nice, high, protective wall around sales to the consumer. Repeatedly abuse those consumers or abuse them in such a way (the SONY rootkit scenario) though and you will feel their wrath.

I guess that my point is that the consumer enjoys the shenanigans of the industry. They revel in the lives lived and the games played. At the end of the day the opinion of a single consumer counts for little but add them up and suddenly they direct the industry as a whole – (ir ;))regardless of their knowledge of what should be done. The industry might think that they play the consumer but in reality the big game is always won by those who are thought to be controlled.

27 September 2008

A note for developers/publishers on selling things:

Okay, first off i'll get used games sales out of the way: You do not have the right to expect monies from second hand sales. No other business on the planet does this or has ever done this for products sold to a consumer.

Right, now that the definitive statement is out of the way we can move onto the more nebulous discussion at hand: selling a game. Developers and publishers would have you believe that you are buying a licence to run the game - i do not believe that this is the case. Simply put, games are a commodity. They are bought and sold under this simple premise - they are not a service:

"an article of trade or commerce, esp. a product as distinguished from a service."

A licence is something that is provided to determine whether you have permission to do something, or not:

"permission to do or not to do something.

exceptional freedom allowed in a special situation.

the legal right to use a patent owned by another."

Now this strikes me as kind of obvious but apparently the aforementioned parties seem to have trouble grasping this simple concept and they use this mis-use of the term licence to try and do a couple of things:

  • Limit the number of users of a game to one - requiring more purchases for people to use the content.
  • Deny the user ownership of the product - removing established rights for purchase of commodities.
  • Limit the ability of the user to actually use the game whenever they want - i.e. a timed obsolescence.
Before i get to these three points i'll spell out why this approach to 'believing' how you sell the game to the public is flawed. A publisher or developer would have you believe that they own the content on the disc because they coded it and assembled it and therefore have the rights as the 'artist' and the reason why this has lasted as long as it has is because it's partially true.... but here's an example of why they're wrong:

You buy a car (or anything else). You own the car - everyone know this - therefore you can use it as you wish; damage, repair or sell it on. However, (and this is where the publishers/developers are correct) you do not own the patents that went into producing the car - you have no permission to reproduce the car or reverse engineer its operation.

This is exactly how game sales should be perceived. If a game is sold it becomes the property of the purchaser: they have the right to use it as and when they wish but do not have the right to use the content (i.e. game code or art assets) to produce other items for sale - they do not own the base of the game but the implementation of the game.

Let me give you an art example: You can buy a painting from an artist and you own the painting to do with as you wish. You don't have the right to the ideas behind the painting or the right to reproduce it and sell it off as your own work (or even the artist's work) when it isn't.

So actually saying you're selling a licence is not correct but that doesn't mean that you aren't still protected from all the crap that goes on in counterfeiting and piracy etc. Games are sold under the term 'licence' only that it really isn't a licence in any normal sense of the word that could differentiate it from the meaning of commodity.

Back to those three points i made above.

Point 1. : Imagine if the movie industry tried to limit the use of a DVD to the person who bought it through a 'licence' (or even the music industry)..... i think there would be a general uproar from the public. It just doesn't make sense. I have a driving licence but that doesn't restrict people without a driving licence from being able to be in a car with me when i drive.... this reasoning could be extrapolated to any number of products.

Point 2. : You can't resell the game if you don't like it. In fact for PC games you can't even return the game if you don't like it or it is buggy. You have no recourse (only because consumer protection laws have been slow in catching up to the new digital era) but to eat the loss of money on your purchase. Developers/publishers would prefer to make it so that you buy your product and then have no rights or expectations - even if it's the most buggy unfinished game ever made. Their point of view seems to be that 'well, we made our money.... so suck it!' and this is becoming more prevalent with the increasing restrictions of DRM (Digital Rights Management) or as us consumers like to call it: removing the 'rights' of the legitimate customers. [I place rights in apostrophes because there are no laws governing the right to sell your purchase in my country and there are no laws allowing people to share the use of a commodity but they are accepted practice by the whole population and so are taken to be law - in the same way that copying music from one device to another is now becoming legal due to the politicians changing the law to reflect a user's rights]

Point 3. : This overlaps with point 2 by a large margin but is important to list separately because of the emerging types of DRM on the market. No longer do you even get a licence to play the game as you see fit but now you get a licence (at the same price as the originally, 'owned' unlimited game) to possibly use your game.... if the company lets you. Online activation means that your game is tied to the company - you're running it on a sanctioned terminal linked to the mainframe whose connection could be revoked by the company any time they wish whether it be through conscious decision such as banning or through accidental mishap as when authentication servers break or go offline. All the users have to hug themselves to sleep at night with is the promise (for whatever little that is worth) of a patch being made available at some later unspecified point for your games to be freed from this limitation.
These measures inherently devalue the product... however the product is still sold at the same price.

All these measures and efforts aren't particular to gaming though, oh no, they come from the ill-defined world of 'services'. Services are a different matter entirely though because you enter the contract knowing that you have a limited service and a fixed term - much like a movie rental or your phone contract - you are provided with a worthy service for which you pay a (usually) constant fee for continued use of said service and the worth of the service increases or stays static with the use of the service - it does not diminish.

Let me give you an example of what i mean here - i know it can be a bit confusing. Imagine if you were tied to a phone service like Orange. You are happy on the normal form of connection (GSM) and all is going well. When 3G is launched the company do not drop the use of GSM, when a new version of a phone is released your old platform doesn't suddenly become unusable. Those points i made above make sense when combined with the benefits provided by a service. There is no need for the service operator to try and force you to change because they are paid regardless of the situation and quite often it is actually in the interests of the consumer to upgrade. The worth of the service does not diminish.

Take those points and put them into your commodity system instead and all of a sudden you have a problem. A game is not normally supported by a developer or publisher past a year (and frequently less) and certainly you will not receive a free upgrade to a port onto a new console. Nor is it in the publisher/developer's best interests to keep your access to the original game because they want you to buy their latest version due to the fact that they don't get any money in the intermediate period between games from a person who has purchased a game. A consumer could play their game for years and not need or want to buy another in that time frame therefore the publishers/developers have to create a way to force people to 'upgrade' by implementing DRM with planned obsolescence.... they release games that are buggy because they do not see the worth in waiting a little bit longer and spending a little more money to release a more playable game. The whole way that the games industry is set up happens to be antagonistic to the consumer and the way that the consumer/producer relationship has worked for hundreds of years by trying to apply service logic to a stand alone product. By buying a game with DRM in it your purchase diminishes with value upon use and with time and it's planned rather than natural.

There are a few options open to the industry to actually make things work:

  1. Return to simple non-reliant copy protection schemes such as CD/DVD-ROM protection. This stops casual piracy/copying from friend to friend but does not stop people exchanging their paid-for commodity. It has exactly the same effect on proper piracy (i.e. torrent downloads and illegal sales of mass copied content) as DRM schemes do but does not require the continued maintenance of an authentication server, the costs of purchasing and applying DRM to a game and also (if the publisher is being honest) the cost of removing that DRM scheme.
  2. Move to a proper service model where games are released in an unbuggy state, all problems are supported and games are brought forward onto the latest system. This, of course, requires a subscription to the service but means that you have an ever increasing library of games to choose from on the service and thus increases the value to the consumer. It does have its downsides though: it will not stop proper piracy and the service will actually increase in cost to deploy as time goes on.
  3. Change the system so that you only rent games. You pay a LOT less than we currently do but the consumers know that they only have access to the product for a limited time.
Take your choice developers and publishers..... but don't keep things the way they are because sooner or later these business practices are going to end up in court and be found at worst illegal and at best shady and immoral. But know this: I and many other legitimate consumers will not keep buying games if the current model is extended with ever more restrictive DRM.... nor will i follow over to option 3 if it is the only method of acquiring games. I won't resort to piracy to get my gaming fix - i'll just play my bought property from the last few years until i am unable to do so - however, i can't guarantee that other consumers won't turn to piracy though it would be very ironic. Don't you think?

24 September 2008

On why PEGI is worse than the BBFC... for everyone.

Kotaku ran a story where they pointed out that the BBFC freely gave an interview but a PEGI representative required a positive spin on any article written for their publication. Now, this guy may only be a PR zealot but i felt that it was my duty to outline why PEGI taking over the UK ratings industry (and the whole of the EU) would be detrimental to the industry... i posted this in the comments on kotaku but i hadn't posted on here in a while.... plus this was mostly in a consultancy questionnaire that i filled in for the Byron report (anyone can answer the questions - though it did take me 3 and a half hours to complete!)


Okay i'm in the UK but i'm neither biased either way because i want the system that is best for both consumers and developers/publishers. Having the BBFC rate games at 15+ and 18+ is the best solution. I don't agree with them rating games at a lower level because it isn't required.

Basically, the BBFC do a more thorough investigation into the games submitted to them than PEGI do and thus this probably costs more. On the upside, this protects developers and publishers from litigation from the (stupidly uninformed) public due to lack of knowledge of game age ratings (BBFC use film ratings which are universally known whereas PEGI ratings still cause confusion in the UK public).

ELSPA sold out many years ago because they are an industry sponsored association (like the RIAA). They want what is cheapest and easiest for the developers publishers - which (debatably, because they require a separate certification process for each console version of a game - regardless of content variations or lack thereof) would be PEGI. However, this only takes into account the ease of acquiring a rating and not of being protected by law in the country that a game is sold in.

Back to why the BBFC is better for the industry than PEGI. The BBFC rate games at a lower age rating than PEGI do. Look at any game that the BBFC rates and you'll find that they rate only the most violent games at 15 and 18 age brackets. A game like Call of Juarez is a 15 game for BBFC but is 18+ for PEGI. Half Life 2 is 15 for BBFC but 16+ for PEGI. There are other examples too - especially notable where PEGI rates a game at 16+ but the BBFC does not deem a rating to be required at all.
Now, this may be considered a black mark against the BBFC because they could be said to allow more violent content to reach the consumers. Or you could take it the other way and think that PEGI actually restrict and censor more games than the BBFC do. Which some people may think is a good thing... but there is a further argument to be made:

The BBFC's rating exposes a game to a larger audience: meaning that there is a larger proportion of the population who can legally buy a game thus providing the potential to be more profitable.

Now... why do people want PEGI to be the de facto ratings body in Europe again? Remember, we recognise that a monopoly in many other areas is a bad thing... perhaps a monopoly in this area is bad too.

8 September 2008

What women want...

Leigh Alexander has posted up a new abberant gamer article on why women don't buy those big-budget blockbuster titles such as Mercenaries 2 or Doom etc. I'm pretty much in agreement and have felt this way for a long time.

Basically the way i think about it is: give it time.

The reason why women tend not to buy into the 'typically' male dominated blockbuster gaming titles is purely because those titles have predominantly been for men/boys.

It's the same reason why there's still such a problem with gaming and 'adult content' (i'm not talking about porn here but you get the point). The populace at large still perceive videogames to be for children - so logically the question is asked: Why would you want adult-oriented content?

It took a long time for women to be considered emancipated and yet the battle is still being fought in various sections of society. At the same time the roles of men are blending with those traditionally associated with women (e.g. nursing etc). There are only personalities, societal gender differences are learnt and not innate. There are differences inbetween gender though i do not think they are as big and wide-ranging as many people would like to believe.

Men are from Mars and women are from Venus... but only because we say so.