Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Terror of Entitlement

As many of you know, Blizzard launched Diablo III last Tuesday, bringing to an end an almost twelve year wait. As possibly even more of you noticed, Blizzard failed spectacularly, at one point they even crashed World of Warcraft's login server. That's right, Blizzard managed to screw up the Diablo launch so supremely, that it crashed games that launched almost a decade ago. The servers pretty much melted, and the glowing, slightly radioactive remnants congealed in the bottom of the crater, spelling out "Error 37".

As with many major failures on the part of Blizzard and other major game development companies, the consumer backlash was vicious and omnipresent. Blizzard failed to anticipate just how many people would try to play Diablo III, and were caught embarrassingly unprepared, leaving the game unplayable for the majority of launch day. Throughout the day, error 37, the error code that indicated that Blizzard's servers were not up to the task, trended globally on Twitter, even when Diablo III itself did not. That's the equivalent of having more people knowing about error 404 than the internet.

This was mostly because of the DRM package that Blizzard decided to apply to their series that traditionally had a single player component to it. When Blizzard announced this style of "always-on" DRM, consumers questioned the necessity of it, and also pointed out its flaws, namely that a break in the connection, on either end, would render the game useless until it was repaired. While it would be annoying to not be able to play because the internet went down on the consumer's end, at least the consumer could do something about it. The bigger fear was that Blizzard's end of the system would do down, or that further down the line, Blizzard would turn off the servers, and leave consumers with nothing but eight gigs of useless data. Lo and behold, day one, and the exact scenario that consumers warned against takes place in probably the most visible failed launch since Vanguard TV3.

In response, the consumers responded in more ways than merely Twitter. Blogs lit up, the forums caught fire, reddit upvoted "error 37", and perhaps most damaging, unhappy consumers crushed Diablo III's user score on Metacritic, driving it down to a 4/10 as of Friday night. A lot of the gaming news sites seized upon this, painting the unhappy consumers as "whiney-snot-nosed-brats" in some of the most sardonic, virulent, and condescending editorials I've ever seen.

This has been a landmark year in terms of consumer anger in the video game industry, and Blizzard hasn't been the only target. The problems that are causing these reactions are endemic throughout the industry. Capcom got busted selling "downloadable content" that was already coded to the disc for Street Fighter vs Tekken. Bioware got busted for the same thing with Mass Effect's "From Ashes" DLC, and also caught flak for launching not one, but two incomplete RPGs in the past six months. EA got busted attaching hidden expiration dates to the "Online Passes" that enabled multiplayer on several of their games, essentially tacking on a hidden subscription to games like Need For Speed. That, along with EA's forcing consumers seeking to download games online to go through their Origin program, which was revealed to be chock full of spyware, got EA rated the Worst Company in America this year.

In each of these scenarios, the gaming media rose up and defended the developers and publishers, castigating those who complained as over entitled whiners who were never satisfied. They fall back upon the same pedantic arguments as if it were religious dogma: Stop whining, It's just a game, there are more important things out there, the developers need to do this, and they need to make a profit. It's as if they have this carved on a damn tablet that they keep over their desk as they write these arguments.

Either they don't understand what's going on, or they're being apologists. This past year, and the trends that it has brought up stem from unacceptable levels of greed that would not be tolerated in any other industry. It's evolved far from its original roots, and the consumers will not stand for it. Each 0/10 vote for Diablo on Metacritic, or 1/5 review on Amazon, isn't an indictment of the game itself, it's a vote in protest of the policies that surround the game, and the company that produced it. The mighty have begun to become corrupt. I once said that Blizzard lost their right to say "Soon™" when they shoved an unfinished Cataclysm expansion out to release in order to beat the Christmas rush. Since then, they've released two absolutely garbage raiding tiers that had less content combined than T6 had on its own, they shoved Diablo III out the door without PvP or AH functionality, the two things that they explained made the draconian DRM package necessary, and upon D3's launch, they completely failed to prepare for the rush. This from the company that once scrapped Starcraft: Ghost entirely because it failed to measure up to their standards. Bioware has become even worse, having fallen from a company that produced Baldur's Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect, to the company that shoved The Old Republic out literally missing half of the endgame raiding tier, launched Mass Effect 3 with a heavily plagiarized ending that only made sense if you understood the context that it was plagiarized from. Not only that, but they locked portions of the game as it came on disc, until you paid extra for the privilege of unlocking the content you already had on your computer, the same questionable practice that got Capcom's rating with the Better Business Bureau knocked down to below that of Bank of America. In no world should these failures be considered acceptable.

What I find most interesting is the lines of division that have formed. The gaming media, aside from good ole Tycho, continue to cling to the infallibility of the game developer in these business models. The people, aside from the consumers, who point out time and again that these policies are bullshit? Time Magazine, Forbes Magazine, the International Business Times, The Consumerist, The Better Business Bureau. I think that's very telling.

Developers have enjoyed a long detente with the consumers, one that they had admittedly earned through producing excellent products in an emergent field. However, they have not maintained their standards in recent releases, and there seem to be no signs of a spontaneous return to form. As such, it is up to the us, the consumers, to make our displeasure known through the tools at our disposal, until such time as they understand that just because Video Games are a relatively new industry, that does not give them license to financially abuse us. We wouldn't take this from any other industry. Why should we tolerate this sort of disregard here?