The games industry has an accountability problem.
Or, maybe it has a trust problem.
Or maybe it has a people problem. It has some kind of problem, I think we can all agree on that, but like any good doctor we have to figure out what it is before we can start solving it. Problem is: we’re very bad doctors, and while we’ve been wrestling with the symptoms of this particular problem for what feels like years, we’ve gotten no closer to digging deeper and figuring out what the root of these issues actually is. Other than, you know, the obvious specters of greed and unchecked capitalism. But that’s a human and societal issue, respectively, and this website is for gaming new.
You might be wondering what I’m going on about. So let me explain: I was noticing all the loot box news that had come out this week, and I started to think back on all the other controversies that had sprouted up in our little industry. Right now it’s loot boxes, but not too long ago the problem was preorder culture. Before that, it was used game sales and forced multiplayer and “the death of single-player”. Earlier still, it was day-1 DLC. And then we have the early 2000’s when microtransactions were seen as the big problem (remember the hubbub over the horse armor?). And then we have the cusp of the 20th century, when people were getting really prissy about having to pay for an Xbox Gold account and the “death of PC gaming”, what a joke that turned out to be.
Were there other controversies? Sure. “Doom clones”, “Gamergate”, “Booth Babes”, all that crap sure as heck went down, but those were cultural. I’m looking at the industry controversies right now, and I’m noticing a trend, as I’m sure you’ve all noticed as well: the games industry decided to do something a bit scummy in order to earn a little bit of money, people got mad, then the scummy thing became a dirty word, but they kept doing it until eventually it became normal and the industry pushed its luck again. Making the whole game-buying marketplace and the industry built around it get progressively worse and worse and worse as the years drag on. All the protests and petitions and boycotts: they all amounted to nothing. The curve of history seems well-established, and it leans towards greed.
That’s not to say we didn’t have some victories. Day 1 DLC is a lot rarer these days. Digital passes have all but vanished. And we did manage to postpone the “always online” requirement for consoles for a generation. But those victories are tarnished by the realty behind them: Day 1 DLC was replaced by Season Passes, which were more lucrative and reliable. Digital passes vanished because physical game sales is on the decline thanks to improved digital marketplaces that automatically forbid game resales. And the always online thing will be coming back for the next generation of Microsoft and Sony consoles, that’s just… inevitable. They might have some limited functionality offline for PR purposes but they’ll effectively be online-exclusive.
So my point is: how come, when push comes to shove, the games buying public is so bad at getting the change we demand? How have we failed as smart consumers? And what can we do to get our voices heard?
Let’s break things down a bit. When protesting a company, there are a number of things you can (legally) do to get your voice heard. You can 1) choose not to buy the product and encourage others to do the same, a boycott, 2) reach out to them and express your dissatisfaction personally 3) Protest loudly and publicly to draw attention to the issue at hand, or more likely, 4) some combination of the above three.
The first is the most effective in theory, as money talks, and a loss of business is certainly going to make some executives sweat. In practice, however, effective boycotts are almost impossible to pull off, as there are always going to be people who are apathetic enough about the issue to willingly ignore it in order to get what they want, especially for something as inconsequential as video game monetization schemes. And whenever there’s a vocal group, there’s a better than good chance they’re a minority: it takes energy to care and people only have so much energy in their lives. And there’s also the fact that since most executives aren’t as cool as the late Satoru Iwata, a loss in business will likely cost innocent people their jobs instead of the people who call the shots. It’s easier to fire Steve from PR than the seven-digit executive who runs the sales team… and frankly, with the Golden Parachute those types are given, they wouldn’t be much worse for it.
The second one, which would seem to be the least effective, has actually proven more than once to be a good way to get something done. Because while it’s very hard to actually cause a loss of sales by a boycott, it’s very easy to make the threat, which oftentimes makes it more credible. Plus, there’s the fact that companies are beholden to higher powers in the law, and a failure to fairly address the public’s concern could, in theory, lead to people actually going to those higher powers to demand change. How often that actually happens? Probably very infrequently. And of course, there’s always the fact that with enough lobbying power, just about any industry can get a free pass from legislative bodies. But for gaming companies, who aren’t quite as involved with politics as, say, oil or pharma companies, it’s proven to be a pretty good tactic.
The third one, the protest, oftentimes merged with the second in that for a lot of companies the best and easiest way to reach out to them is on their forum, their twitter, and their subreddits. And those, too, have proven to be fairly effective tactics, because while it’s hard to drop sales, it’s not hard to make shareholders scared, and thus destabilize stock, which directly impacts executives as they usually have a pretty big share in the company they run. Which isn’t to say people were rushing to sell their stock when Bioware messed up the ending of Mass Effect 3, but it matters.
All that said, of course, you’ll note that even with these three tools at our disposal, two of which are actually perfectly useful, we’re still on this sliding slope of industry trust and greed. It’s certainly not for a lack of effort: we’ve deployed all three of these tactics at every point mentioned at the very start of this op-ed. But while we’ve always had passion, what we’ve lacked, for the most part, is follow-through.
People just had a really hard time staying mad about it. As I said before, it’s hard to care about something, it takes a lot of energy and time, and the fuel that most people use to keep that care going strong tends to run dry after time evaporates it away. The first few apologies make some feel like they’re winning, an “I’m listening” from one company can make others feel they don’t have to talk so loud: people are just quick to assume victory, or admit defeat, or just grow tired of the fight, and they simply sit back and let it happen. They might assume that in speaking out once, they’ve made their position clear and they don’t have to speak again.
They are wrong. Because “waiting out the storm” is the #1 tactic these companies employ, and frankly, it works. So much so they’ve been able to push the envelope again and again until enough time has passed that we forgot there was ever a time we were mad about tacked-on multiplayer, and now we live in a world where single-player is being omitted entirely.
But hey, don’t feel bad. This isn’t an issue exclusive to the games industry. It’s human nature. And every industry and government has used it at one point or another to endure a controversy and continue destroying the planet/the country/society as a whole.
So what do we do? I think you should have figured that out by now, if you’ve been reading this far. We have to keep fighting. I mean, it’s a little too late to draw a line in the sand to force the EAs and the Ubisofts and the Warner Brothers and the 2K’s and the Blizzards to behave completely ethically. We missed that window by about eighteen years. But we can stop losing ground if we finally pick a subject and say “okay, enough is enough.”. Right now, that’s looking to be loot boxes, thanks to EA’s terrible attempt to shoehorn a pay-to-win system into Star Wars Battlefront 2. And it’s important we keep that line strong, because here’s a truth that’ll be hard to hear:
Once you give ground, it’s almost impossible to get it back.
And if we can’t make the games industry better, we might just have to settle for not letting it get worse.
And that’s a fight worth having.