Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Deus Ex, GameStop and OnLive - Technology Wars Bleed Into Real Life.

I'd planned an entirely different article for today, but when there's a story that needs attention the way this one does, I'll bump my intended post and risk another violation of my loose guideline to try to not write about video games more than once a week. This isn't really about video games. Or at least, not just about them. There's a heavy dose of irony in the story and surrounding controversy that broke hours ago. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a new entry in a classic series of cyberpunk-themed hybrid RPG/Shooters, and is on target to be one of the best reviewed games this year. I'm not going to review it. Not because I won't play it, but because by the time I can justify the purchase and play enough of the title to give the game its due, my voice will have been drowned out by the chorus. There's another story here. Deus Ex focuses on a world where technology and pure humanity are in a war of ideals over ethics. In the real world, a GameStop memo was leaked indicating that all copies of the PC version of the game were to be opened before sale and a coupon for free online play on the new OnLive digital distribution/cloud gaming service removed before sale.

A war is on. A war over how you will purchase and play video games.

GameStop made this call because OnLive is in direct competition with their core business, and in addition to being able to play online, this marketing scheme gets consumers to install the service on their computers, and GS doesn't like that. The first shot in the war of physical retail vs online digital sales has been fired, and the irony comes in that Deus Ex was the title where GameStop drew its battle line. Opening a sealed product, removing a part of it that contains information that the corporation doesn't want people to see, and then selling it as new is unethical at best, maybe even illegal. Considering the content of the game in question and the ethics at the center of its plot, it is also sort of darkly hilarious. I don't know if the next round of this fight will be fought in court or if it will be left to a PR battle with reporting of the story and public reaction to it the ultimate arbiter of who was right, and what will be done about it.

This issue has been coming to a head for a long time now. More than one developer has said publicly that the resale of used games in a retail setting, though not illegal, is more damaging to the gaming industry than piracy. How does that work? Well, initial purchases of new titles involve everyone getting a cut of the sale from retailer, to middlemen to the publishers and development studio. A used game sale involves two parties, the consumer and the retailer. No one else sees any of that money, and this is the core of the GameStop business model. One-use codes unlocking online play, bonus features or at-launch DLC are commonplace now to fight against this practice. You want to buy a used game? Fine. There are features only included to first time-buyers that you can get... for a price. Selling the DLC that was free with a new copy of the game allows publishers and devs to get some of their cut, and brick and mortar retailers who deal in used games hate it.

...unless you mean the power to decide whether or not to use a free coupon
for a service packaged with the new game you bought.

I've got a little invested in all sides of this struggle. I'm a proponent of digital distribution (some will read this as “Steam Fanboy”,) and I trade in and purchase major studio console releases, having a GameStop Rewards membership. I understand and sympathize with all sides of this fight and how the competing business models interact is a subject that fascinates me. That said, I strongly object to GameStop's practices in this instance, as it smacks of dishonesty to loyal customers and seems underhanded as far as competitive practices go. The reasoning behind the decision also likely stems from the fact that in order to survive, GameStop has plans to enter the digital distribution market themselves. The question of whether or not a company should have to sell a product that represents competition for itself is a good one, and worth asking. Whether or not a company has the right to remove an included part of a retail package and still sell it as “new” isn't bad either, as I strongly doubt Deus Ex customers were told in advance of their purchase what they are missing.

This is also interesting because OnLive isn't just a Steam clone. If all it did was the same thing Steam, Desura, GoG and EA's Origin do, it doesn't change the context of the argument, but it might mean something a little different to gamers. OnLive is, at its heart, a service that is to console and PC games what Netflix streaming is to movies and television programs. Through PC or Mac, or a set-top box connected to a television and broadband internet connection, OnLive is a digital rental service where the software is located on the cloud of servers. Users can pay a monthly fee to access games in the cloud without needing to install them on local storage at all. For new releases (and other games not in the “play pack,” the option to rent a single title for three or five days or purchase access to unlimited play of that one game are available as well. The technical aspects of how exactly that all works is beyond the scope of this article, but it isn't hard to see how such a business model puts OnLive in opposition to GameStop.

Onlive's TV set-top setup. The service is still pretty new, and a lot of games aren't on it yet.
How it comes away from this fight may directly affect that though.

In the war in the world of Deus Ex, shadowy corporations put pressure on people to enhance themselves with cybernetics and take the drugs to make sure the implants remain stable in the body. Information is controlled, governments influenced and people killed on a massive scale to keep the profits of the corporations secure. People fight back, taking to the streets, violently at times against the manipulation of their bodies and minds by big corporations. The fight surrounding the release of the game isn't nearly as dramatic, the consequences and stakes aren't severe on anywhere near the same level, and there isn't a clear “little guy” here. We've got companies both offering things video gamers want in different ways, and their strategies are incompatible. Pressure on governments and control of the flow of information, however... well, some tactics are applicable regardless of the stakes.
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Timothy said...

"In the real world, a GameStop memo was leaked indicating that all copies of the PC version of the game were to be opened before sale and a coupon for free online play on the new OnLive digital distribution/cloud gaming service."

I think there is something missing from the above sentence (from the first paragraph).

Things like this make me somewhat glad that I have been able to restrain myself from becoming a computer/video gamer.

Timothy said...

And you beat Yahoo! to the story by something like 10 minutes. So score on that one, Josh.

DocStout said...

Nice catch on the editorial fumble, Tim. I just wish I hadn't had several hundred views of the article before I could correct it. I apparently can write quickly, or properly, not both. The first time I leave the house for more than an hour this week, and I've botched an edit. Ah, well. Better late than never.

Alpha said...

I don't believe GameStop will be getting very much of my future business.

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