Convergent Play: Alternatives in Entertainment Software Philosophies – Reordering Expectations

There’s a lot of hype about video game piracy. And not all of it is just corporate hysteria either. Convergent Play’s underlying hypothesis is that the very nature of the software industry has gotten it backwards on a fundamental level, and that the issues of rampant piracy stems directly from that basic misconception at the heart of all development studios and distribution channels.

So what happens if you can identify the problem? Would you then be able to extrapolate out an alternative model that can successfully compete in an industry already worth countless billions of dollars, despite its relative youth?

Unlike News Hacking, the series on potential means of fixing journalism, Convergent Play isn’t an analysis on how to fix an inoperative system. Rather, it is a first-principles approach to improving a growing, white-hot industry that has quickly become vital and crucial to modern expression and perhaps to modern society as we know it.

This second entry discusses one of the fundamental misconceptions espoused by the industry, as well as existing examples of where the misconception is successfully set aside, to the great prosperity of its innovators.

Of the many unfortunate side effects of the reality of software economics, as outlined in the previous Convergent Play, the very worst and fundamental is perhaps the dissonance between client and seller expectations of ownership.

Or, to put it aptly, gamers believe they “own” a copy of a game. Software developers would much rather prefer to see it as a license – where, for a lump sum, you are given permission to utilize the software. They would prefer this so much that it has become a major point of legal contention in the US legal system – the 7th and 8th Circuits, according to Wikipedia, are especially notable for subscribing to this legal framework. However, this is not at all unanimous – though, apparently, no court case’s been made to test the validity of EULAs as a whole, major provisions have been deemed unenforceable, such as in the case of Blizzard v BnetD, setting precedent against EULA clauses that would prohibit the reverse-engineering of software for interoperability purposes.

But the legal aspect of licenses versus ownership is merely of interesting reflection towards what the sellers expectations are. As noted in the previous article, however, the expectations of the software distribution industry is often at odds with the fundamental realities of the market – and it is very much a buyer-oriented market. A far more important question is, what does the buyer think?

Well, for one, the buyers aren’t too terribly concerned with legal niceties.

This isn’t a matter of piracy and illegality. This is a matter of whether or not a software developer’s customers are actually aware of the body of legal text and precedent surrounding the ideas of ownership and licenses. Of which they, frankly, are not. Though it certainly seems, at times, as if the world has too many lawyers, they are still a statistically insignificant part of the body politic – the overwhelming majority of people simply do not have the background to make heads or tails of any of the cases I alluded to above (and, as noted in a prior article pre-hiatus, I, too, am no lawyer, so even my analysis is worth taking with a grain of salt).

However, people are very, very familiar with the intricacies of economic activities – at least, on the consumer level. When you hand money over to somebody, it’s usually for two reasons: you’re purchasing a service, or you’re purchasing a product. The two are very rarely, if ever, confused – a service is generally an action undertaken by the provider towards a goal, with no direct effect on ownership; a product, conversely, is a direct exchange of ownership of capital for ownership of a tangible or intangible good. The latter’s derivative – licenses – are probably best understood as time-restricted ownership, but it definitely falls more under the latter category than former.

So where does that leave us? As mentioned in the previous article, the current sales model for software is very much of that of a product – a commodity, where ownership is exchanged. To add an additional wrinkle to the concept of licenses, the sale of software seems like baseline exchange of ownership, where the user only pays once, and then can (to his or her understanding) do anything he or she wants with the product.

As mentioned in the prior article of this series, there are some fundamental flaws in the very business model adopted for software distribution, and it shows especially on the clash on ownership rights. As everything about the sale implicitly treats it as a commodity – a product to exchange capital for – it is no surprise that users would treat it as so. The legal techniques and methods in which to restrict their use is not, by any means, a natural economic construct – it is arguably, in fact, outright and blatant abuse of consumers. The use of expensive legal traps and agreements of dubious actual weight – the success of an EULA suit is often just as or even more dependent on the geographic location of the case as it is on the facts as-is – is nothing more than an arbitrarily imposed obstruction to the transaction, and is more symptomatic of the problems of the business model than it is of the ethical and moral character of the person that either willingly or completely unwittingly crossed the agreements listed out in the EULA.

A successful business model really ought not to be reliant on these kinds of legalistic confusion. Luckily, such models do exist, though limited in scope.

Reader SilverAdept and Chris have noted the success of “Korean” massive-multiplayer-online models, and especially of the ridiculous amount of money they garner from players. While I have ethical qualms with the Eastern MMO model (which I’ll get into later), the success of the format in general is indisputable. World of Warcraft is by far the most famous success in the Western world, regularly hosting player populations across a constellation of servers with numbers that would dwarf entire states (alright, in the case of some Dustbowl states and Rhode Island, this isn’t hard – still). And they do so by charging an ongoing fee. Along with an intial fee to cover the cost of a CD and manual, yes, and more if it’s the Collector’s Edition (Wrath of the Lich King’s CE was beautiful, idly, and chock full of goodies, including the map mousepad I’m using right now), but the sheer bulk of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft revenue is undoubtedly from the roughly $15 a month they charge.

And users are more than willing to cough up the money.

It’s not hard to see why. With an MMO, it is perfectly clear why you don’t own the software – you’re not the one maintaining in-game events, backing up your character and gear, and keeping track of your various achievements. You’re definitely not the one doing the same for your guild members and their stuff too. Much of the game, and especially the heavy processor-work required to keep track of a server population in the thousands and the various interactions thereof, happens far, far from your own computer or laptop. The user very clearly pays for two things other than ownership – service and access.

While it is true that there are such things as rogue servers, and Blizzard does hunt them down rather mercilessly, they do it off the grounds of intellectual property rights – which is frankly undisputable – and the servers are generally of far inferior quality anyhow. True, they adjust the game parameters to make things easier, but event content and regular updates are often missing or outdated. New content is, suffice to say, hard to attain. And you can forget about the socializing facet of it – one of the fringe benefits of a legal server is that the sheer server population makes for immersive gameplay, as cities actually bustle, and you’ll more often than not have actual deus ex machina saves from people wandering by just when you’re about to eat the armor repair cost. Private servers? Forget about it. And the fact that they’re vigorously hunted by Blizzard’s enforcement teams just makes it worse, as you lose all of the benefits of service as well.

To put it succinctly, Blizzard has successfully made “legal” versions of their biggest revenue source far superior to pirated versions. And they do it two ways – first by making it impossible to really get the game anyhow, as most content and services are server-side, and secondly by setting it up in such a way that illegal accounts are not worth the hassle and potential loss. A pirated WoW server, quite unlike the vast majority of games, is an inherently inferior version to the real thing.

Eastern “freemium” MMOs are similar in construct, though as mentioned above, I’ve a bone to pick with the ethicality of their business model. There’s really no point in pirating them at all – they are, after all, entirely free to play. But built around the free access is an entire realm of gameplay that is still, nonetheless, inaccessible without opening up your wallet. Namely, while it is certainly possible to grind to the highest levels for free, and maybe the random number generator will favor you with the better items, the only real way to be competitive in any sense is to trigger the “-mium” aspect of “freemium,” or pay for gears and abilities. Here, too, the piracy incentive is completely nonexistent – but more than that, they’ve broken the service down to an a la carte format.

My main contention with their model of service, however, is that it is even more blatantly exploitative than a license agreement, and has a tinge of discrimination not found outside of Eastern MMOs. Players are favored based on how much they can afford to pay the game masters, which encourages all sorts of little forms of corruption. Or maybe they can’t afford it! The psychologically addictive aspects of MMOs are very well known, and as demonstrated by Eastern MMOs, the market is more than willing to exploit it for all it’s worth, even if it ultimately hurts the end-user.

I would really rather not support such a system. However, it does serve to show that, even at its extremes, the MMO format is inherently abuse-resistant. Its blatant quality as a service, rather than a product, avoids entirely the abusive client-seller relationship of most software, and as WoW demonstrates, it can be done with a more than fair minimization of its own potential abuses and exploits.

There is, however, a rather major problem: while MMO gameplay can differ wildly between games (Space Cowboy’s 3D fighter plane format was a drastic change from the usual click-and-fight interfaces), their genre is necessarily limited to roleplaying games or roleplaying derivatives. While that isn’t too restrictive on its own, there are some notable brightlines on what can and can’t be run on such a format, thereby limiting its utility to the gaming industry as a whole.

As such, on its own, the MMO format only gives us a glimpse at a possible alternative to the status quo assumptions that are at the heart of the industry’s troubles. It takes more digging around to find a more generalized solution to the problem. Currently, the slate of commonly used “solutions” tend towards the use of digital-rights management software, where an additional program built into the software prevents the unauthorized copying and distribution of the data.

DRM is, however, infamously incompetent at that role. The attempt to arbitrarily turn software from an abundant, self-propagating resource into a scarce, controlled commodity is a very natural reaction from the software distribution industry, but perhaps ignorant of the realities of abundant resources: it’ll always be easier to break containment than it is to establish it. Encryption is itself a game – a two-way rivalry between those that would hack apart a security scheme, and those that would build it. And the builders are losing. It is far more costly to implement a DRM scheme than it is to break it – and takes far more time too.

There is, however, one clear exception. One company has successfully proven that there is, in fact, a way to do digital rights management right, and like the point made repeatedly by this article, they do it in terms of management for the client, not the seller.

Valve’s Steam rights-management platform, is rarely considered so by the gamers that utilize it. To the client, it is merely a highly streamlined way of game management, acquisition and e-penis waving. It keeps track of their in-game accomplishments – known quite literally as “achievements,” and designed as “fluff” awards with no real consequences to gameplay (most of the time), but as a means of bragging to one’s prowess. Beyond that, as mere fluff awards don’t inherently make a DRM-laden game better than a pirated version, Steam’s broad expanse of services also makes for a compelling case to actually buy the game as a product – a one-time fee does, after all, grant you access to every improvement made over the game’s active lifetime, in the form of a stream of patches every time you open the client, as well as access to multiplayer play affected by said updates, giving “legal” servers far more actual legitimacy amongst committed players. Furthermore, the Steam platform guarantees rights in both directions, ensuring that you only have access to services via a legal copy, but also ensuring that, once you do, you own access to the software for so long as you A. have the software on your computer, and B. have an active Steam account.

Compare that to trying to install Starcraft without a CD key.

Again, the service, rather than product nature of a successful anti-piracy platform is emphasized. Steam represents what I feel to be an enormously successful prototype, where a voluntary exchange of rights is implicitly made between the seller and client in such a way that the client does so willingly, instead of being exploited out of his or her perceived fair share.

On its own, however, it’s still not perfect – though it comes perilously close enough that it threatens to make this article series obsolete from the start. But even Valve’s Steam platform is limited in its effectiveness when it comes to genres that emphasize standalone play. Multiplayers like Team Fortress 2 almost demands a centralized server capacity of some extent, and the Achievements award systems is a nice psychological ploy, but the likes of Portal, Half-Life 2, and even the indie games distributed over the Steam network, are still highly vulnerable to piracy.

What does Steam and the MMO format not cover? Visual novels. Puzzle games. Adventure platformers. Single-player RPGs. In fact, anything at all with a self-contained storyline is still outside of the protective scope of even the most elegantly executed rights-management platforms. If Ebert’s critique of games as not an art form has any real weight, it’s in the form of games as socially interactive experiences. The communicative medium is actually still locked in the form of text messages and vocal chats, embellished by a competitive format of objectives and tools to achieve them – strict-games, instead of the more nebulous, genre-inclusive range of formats we see in the status quo.

But those are worth protecting as much as TF2 and WoW. Arguably more so. Games are important, in a sense that is fundamental to our identity as a sentient species, or even as living things. Unique to the human experience, games nowadays are a fully communicative medium, serving less as objective-oriented activities and more as a medium of universal expression.

There has yet to exist a rights management platform that can successfully integrate the video gaming medium with the realities of macroscalar social interaction. But the ones that come close are starting to illustrate how it might be done.

Next week, we’ll see what happens when I take a giant metaphorical pestle stone and mash Steam and MMOs together. It might be a little nasty – I recommend bringing an umbrella.

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~ by Gonzo Mehum on May 15, 2010.

One Response to “Convergent Play: Alternatives in Entertainment Software Philosophies – Reordering Expectations”

  1. Looks good so far. Are there any planned digressions into the territories of “You can’t play the game unless you check in with a server so often.” (Did we do that one already?) and EA’s latest (for time of comment) move to require people who buy games used to shell out an extra $10 to be able to use that game and their DLC in multiplayer-over-Internet modes?

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