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Rights, Profit, Drama

The recent Blizzard add-on mess has brought up – in my mind anyway, as well as some others – some age-old questions about player rights in games through exposing a pretty core dichotomy in how people look at online games.

On the one side, you have the people who take Blizzard’s side, and if anything, think they don’t go far enough. World of Warcraft is Blizzard’s game, they added the ability to script the client, they can just easily take it away, and you people whine so much about it now they probably should. On the other side, you have people who see this as a software rights issue – the addons I write for World of Warcraft are mine, Blizzard has no right to tell me what I can and can’t write, and if I make some cash from my work it’s none of their business. Which, not surprisingly, segues into the rights of players versus the responsibilities of game developers – not exactly a new discussion.

My views on the subject, also unsurprisingly, have been shaded by almost a decade on the other side of the development fence, and a few decades of cynicism about basic human nature before that. Succinctly put, the governance of online games and worlds exist in a triangle of rights, profit, and drama.

Here, I can illustrate this triangle quite easily by using a snippet from this recent article.

Virtual world technology is intentionally designed to make humans act as though the virtual world is, at least in some respects, real. Thus, as a normative matter, when corporations choose to use technology intended to entice humans into acting as though they were safe in their own homes, or privately communicating with friends, the law ought to respect those expectations as it does in real life. I therefore argue that U.S. persons in virtual worlds possess a reasonable expectation of privacy, such that a search of their virtual homes and property should be subject to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.

Your reaction to that paragraph depends on how you feel about rights vs. profit vs. drama.

 

Rights: Well, of course. He’s stating the obvious. Does your landlord in the real world, even though he owns your house and the land it’s on, have any right whatsoever to read your mail and pop in unexpectedly when you have a date? Why should virtual landlords have more rights than realspace landlords?

Profit: I can’t believe we’re even having this discussion. If I’m going to be threatened with lawsuits because of constitutional rights you have to my server, I’d have to be retarded to ever open my company up to such liability by making a server.  These are entertainment products, and we are being paid to create a safe and enjoyable environment for everyone. There is no such thing as virtual civil rights, only EULAs. And if you somehow get the courts to disagree, we’ll take our balls and go make console games.

Drama: I KNEW IT I KNEW IT I WAS RIGHT I KNEW IT the company needs to give me my account back now.

When it comes to MMOs, a dark and bitter part of me doesn’t believe any of you should have any rights, because, well, drama. The people who complain about “rights” almost always, without fail, do so because drama happened. They did something to run afoul of the game administrators – usually, 0ne of the many thousands of ways people have crafted to be a raging dickhead to one another online – and then they turn into cyber civil libertarians, decrying the omnipotence of the “game gods” (note: any time you use the phrase “game gods” without irony, I’m going to assume you’re Prokofy Neva) and demanding their fundamental civil right to be online in your game where they can continue to be a raging dickhead.

The best example of civil libertarianism trumping customer service is the case of Peter Ludlow, who when banned from the Sims Online, supposedly for advertising his website ingame, promptly used his status as a member in good standing of academia to appeal his banning to the New York Times. (He then moved on to writing a Second Life tabloid. I’m not kidding.) You’ll note that EA, who ran Sims Online at the time, didn’t have a lot to say in response. This may be because they felt embarassed over banning someone for maintaining a website that made them look bad (not that I’d know anything about that). Or it may be because there was an actual reason to ban him and they were constrained due to privacy issues from actually saying anything about it, even when it made the New Frickin York Times, thus having Ludlow’s account of his banning being the only one on the record.

That’s not to say that online gaming companies are immune from banning people for squirrelly reasons (and even for supposedly open-and-shut cases of administrative abuse, there’s usually another side of the story). But gaming companies in general are in business to make a profit. This drives an obvious factor and one that isn’t as obvious at first glance to outside observers. The obvious factor is that banning players hurts a company’s profits because, well, one less customer. However, the collorary, which is somewhat unique to online games, is that there are players who by their presence drive off more income than they themselves bring in. Thus, the Profit motive trumps Rights and Drama – ban early and often, the “oderint dum metuant” school of customer service.

It’s not all a dystopic wasteland of corporate oppression, though. Game developers have been discussing the ethical implications of what rights players should have for quite a while now. Raph Koster’s “Declaration of the Rights of the Avatar” makes a pretty clear and reasoned argument for enabling as many rights for players as possible while still allowing developers to maintain their own games. And since most developers are also MMO users themselves, they’ve had enough encounters with the ‘oderint dum metuant’ game mastering school to know that it can be toxic to the long term health of the game by itself.

Which is good, because there’s not a lot of willingness to compromise between the proponents of Rights, Profit and Drama. The Rights advocates are usually dismissive of the fears Profit has, while being sniggeringly dismissive or blithly unaware (depending on their actual experience with virtual worlds) of the corrosive effects of Drama. Profit fears Rights – and more importantly, the possible governmental/legal intervention based on it – while its day to day frontline struggle with Drama fills its veterans with a distaste for the everyman veterans of police departments would envy. And Drama? Drama only cares about Drama, girlfriend.

Yet all three of these need to be balanced – and in fact, I’d even argue that without Drama you don’t have the community development necessary for an MMO to grow. And if nothing else, it might be an interesting thought experiment to look at contentious issues (such as the Blizzard addon foo-frah) through prisms of the triangle other than ones you might be used to.

Darkfall Improving, Now In 1999 Instead Of 1997

In Ultima Online’s Publish 13 notes Darkfall’s March 21 notes, Runesabre Tasos notes that availability is improving even though you still can’t technically buy the game, and then goes on to explain:

We have been permanently banning all accounts that we detect are using 3d party software exploits. Still, there are a few people who don’t understand this and continue installing and using these exploits. You will definitely be banned if you do this. No appeals and no excuses are accepted.

Macroing: We are working to address it at its source, but until then we need to enforce our policies. Before we do that we will appeal to players not actually playing the game to log off rather than leaving their character in-game. This will allow more people to be able to enjoy Darkfall instead of unmanned characters taking up server space. If you’re skilling up by not playing the game as it was intended, you will be kicked and repeated offenses will result in a ban.

In response, players have created flash movies involving OSI GMs running a PK guild Youtube movies involving Hitler running a PK guild.

Blizzard: No Charging For Addons

Announcement on the official forums

Which sucks for these guys. Also, apparently, for this guy, who plans to cease development of a mod which, though donation-ware, has supported him as a full time job. Possibly because his addon has more users than most MMOs.

Speculation is that this was sparked by Carbonite, the most popular for-pay addon, recently offering a free in-game ad-supported version, and some have pointed to a new terms of service that went live that includes a reference to in-game advertising through Massive’s in-game ad service.

Note that this is not, in and of itself, concrete proof that World of Warcraft is about to slap Mountain Dew billboards in Darnassus – the TOS above is actually for battle.net, which already sells advertising. Paul Sams of Blizzard has already clearly stated “Uh, we’re not THAT stupid” when Massive originally announced the Battle.net contract; the reason why the battle.net TOS shows up in World of Warcraft now is due to Blizzard moving their account system to a unified structure under battle.net. Still, given how insanely large the World of Warcraft market is… never say never… although many subscribers might . Even with a juggernaut like WoW, there is only so much that you can ‘monetize’ a player base before they revolt in disgust.

But, moving back to the original topic – what is motivating Blizzard’s addon crackdown? Probably a few reasons:

No more obfuscated code: the reasons of which would hopefully be clear. If an addon figures out how to exploit some bug in WoW’s LUA sandbox, it’s hard to replicate if you can’t see the code. Yet at the same time, without obfuscated code, selling addons is fairly pointless. Clearly, Blizzard decided addon safety trumps addon sales.

No more in-game advertising or donation solicitation: the reasons for which are somewhat less clear. It may have been that Blizzard wanted to shut down adware like Carbonite simply so that no player thinks Blizzard is selling ad space to, say, Transdneister Gold Farmers LLC. Perhaps they don’t particularly like the idea of addon users making money from a secondary market created by WoW. It’s difficult to say until we get a clear statement as to their intent, which hasn’t happened yet (but given QuestHelper’s high visibility, we may see shortly).

No more addons: the alarmist view seen in some of these discussions, that Blizzard simply wants to shut down addon development by making sure no one can collect donations. This is silly for a couple of reasons. First off, if Blizzard wanted to shut down addon development, they could simply remove the ability to load external addons in the next patch. It’s not that difficult. Second and most importantly, a lot of WoW’s value comes from those addons, and it’s an effective force multiplier in client development that later games have sought to emulate. Much of Blizzard’s live team patching of the client is ‘inspired’ by successful addons, such as MobHealth, ScrollingCombatText and Omen, all of which are now at various levels of implementation in the game’s basic client.

My view on the subject?

Prohibiting in-game advertising via addons is extremely justifiable. If anyone sells in-game advertising, it should be Blizzard itself. Not that they should. But for others to is pretty clearly skeevy, on a level with web sites that yoink news stories from RSS feeds and wrap ads around them pretending to provide their own content. (No link provided – I don’t feel like rewarding them with page views.)

Prohibiting direct sales of addons is somewhat dicey but justifiable, mainly due to what I wrote about code obfuscation. Still, simply making code obfuscation against the ToS would have the same effect and be less chilling.

Prohibiting in-game solicitations of donations isn’t as justifiable. It’s difficult to see what Blizzard gains by this, and it’s very easy to see what the player base loses. If the fear is that addons will become obnoxious with donation nags – this is a self-correcting problem.

Selling in-game ads in World of Warcraft is apocalyptically bad. To the degree that if they actually are planning on doing such a thing (which mind you, I don’t believe they are), I hope that Blizzard’s subscriber numbers fall at such an alarming rate that they immediately yank them back out. I am extremely tired of game companies selling advertising in games I already paid for ONCE. Selling advertising in games I pay for ON A MONTHLY BASIS is not acceptable. Period. End of sentence. There is no justification. None. If you don’t make enough off my subscription fee, raise the subscription fee. I will not pay a monthly fee to be a pair of eyeballs for you to make still more money off of.

Not that Blizzard has already done that or anything.

This Just In: Women Exist In The Gaming Industry

Tom Chick at Fidgit justifiably lambasts a clueless blog posting.

Women are being “left on sidelines” in the “video game revolution”, according to the LA Times… But the real question is – assuming it is, indeed a Bad Thing – what can be done about it? And the answer to this, I fear, is not much.

He then goes on to explain that the problem basically is that Math Is Hard. Which is an excuse like any other – there are female engineers, just as much as female producers, female designers, and female artists. There are fewer of them than their male counterparts, but they exist, in every discipline, and an aggressive hiring policy that values diversity can succeed. (Mythic deserves a lot of kudos here, by the way – it was one of the most gender-inclusive workplaces I’ve ever encountered in the industry.)

The real problem, of course, not to put too fine a point on it, is that there just aren’t that many women willing to put up with the game industry’s bullshit. Perhaps that should be addressed before the whole math-is-hard-yo thing.

Cryptic Marcom Malreported, Verify Ungood, Rectify Candygive

There’s been some movement on the Cryptic poaching City of Heroes players thing F13 turned up. Mainly, we have an Ivan Sulic sighting!

Ivan Sulic was the TOTALLY AWESOME community manager for Hellgate: London who memorably told angry players in the aftermath of a lack of LAN play, “who the fuck cares.” Given that Hellgate: London servers no longer exist, I would expect “anyone who owns a Hellgate: London box” the fuck cares. However, clearly, telling your customers to man up and deal is your path to being a straight shooter in Cryptic’s Department of MARCOM.

What’s a MARCOM? As the form letter Sulic wrote which impressed the hell out of Eric Schild until he realized it was a form letter explains, “Marcom is basically Community, PR, and Marketing.” Or, another way to put it, “Marcom is what happens when you’re too cheap and too clueless to hire seperate people for marketing and community.” But hey! Sulic’s off to a great start, explaining to Schild:

I think I know what you’re talking about now. I’ve been reading up on recent press and some news aggregates have picked up this story. Maybe I can help clear things up a bit?

Or, in other words, “we were going to ignore this but now actual news sites are talking about it, so we have to appear as though we’re doing something!” I’m not sure if that’s the Mar or the Com of Marcom talking, but there’s definitely talking happening now, with Cryptic people flooding into the F13 forums to make absolutely sure that Unsub (the user who whistleblew the whole story) absolutely positively no really has his Champions Online beta access back. I’m pretty sure that’s the Com of Marcom. Because the Mar of Marcom managed to get this closing tag for the actual-news-site-talking-about-this:

It’s refreshing to a see a gaming company not only own up to its mistakes but to publicly apologize for them, isn’t it?

Well, yes, it would. In fact, I’d like to see that public apology. Note to Wired: There wasn’t one. Edgy “aw shucks, we didn’t mean to do anything BAD!” wisecracks don’t really count. Although there was a mistake owned up to in the Marcom Minitrue Pressrelease:

So, we’re currently running the closed beta test for Champions Online and a few of our employees thought it might be a good idea to contact avid MMO notables and various guild leaders floating about to see if they wanted to test. I’m certain this wasn’t meant to be a malicious attack on a competing product, nor did anyone intend to steal players, violate user agreements, kill babies, or knife hardworking farmers in the back. We had invites to send and the folks who send them figured people who play MMOs most might want them most. If a line was crossed, it was totally inadvertent and no harm was intended.

In case you’re keeping track, that admission is dead center in the middle of the paragraph, as part of a distant “well, from a distance, I don’t think any of this happened, as a disinterested observer” passive voice. Well played, Marcom, well played! Reading is hard, and it takes effort to stay with it all the way through the non sequitors about knifing agricultural workers and protestations of innocence. Note to Wired Deux: Protestations of innocence generally tend to nullify public apologies. “I’m really sorry BUT I DIDN’T REALLY DO ANYTHING WRONG” only works when you’re an AIG executive being asked gently to return bonuses.

I wonder if AIG has a Marcom department.

EDIT 7:30PM Central: Note FROM Wired: They agreed that upon reflection it wasn’t much of an apology to speak of.

As this gets traction elsewhere on the Intertubes (including links here since I’m apparently one of the more mouthy of the MMOGerati), I’d just like to make a few final points:

– I was at one time an employee of NCsoft, and although I didn’t work directly with the NCNC/City of Heroes team we often sent each other mash notes. No, really, it was kind of pathetic. “I love your website! I read it every day!” “I love City of Villains! I have a little Kim Jong Il mastermind!” So, I’m not entirely unbiased (which you should always assume of me) (and, really, which you should always assume of everyone) in this matter. (Although I’m pretty sure I’m not high on NCsoft’s Christmas card list any more, either.)

– I would point out that in the grand scheme of things, Cryptic using the official message boards to recruit beta testers is a bit of a smaller sin than letting your publisher handle your being sued by Marvel, and then once the lawsuit ends promptly turning around and signing a deal with that same Marvel, minus the publisher. Legal? Sure! Ethical? Hm.

Tell Me, Tell Me, How To Be A Gazillionaire

MMO publishers have been fairly static for the past decade or so: EA, SOE, NCsoft, a few other forays from Asia and the occasional indy (that more often than not promptly gets borged by one of the above).

But wait! A challenger appears!

Gazillion sure knows how to make a splash. The MMO (massively multi-player online game) publisher has been operating in stealth mode for three years, putting together a collection of development studios and signing one of the biggest video game licensing deals in recent memory: A 10 year pact with Marvel giving it exclusive rights to make MMOs based on every single character in the comic book publisher’s library.

This would be, you know, as opposed to the ten year exclusive deal Marvel signed with Vivendi. In 2002. Or the deal signed with Microsoft to develop Marvel Online with Cryptic for the Xbox 360. In 2005. Clearly, this time it will be different. Why? Because in case the Marvel Universe deal falls through (not that it’s concievable that could ever happen), Gazillion also now owns NetDevil, thus giving them Lego Universe and Jumpgate: Evolution, and Slipgate Ironworks, thus giving them John Romero. Failure: not an option.

World of Warcraft May Be Losing Millions Of Subscribers

And protectionism is to blame.

The General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) intends to tighten approval criteria for online game imports in an effort to protect the development of domestic online game enterprises and avoid the excessive penetration of foreign culture among Chinese youth, reports Sohu quoting GAPP Technology and Digital Publishing Bureau Director Kou Xiaowei on March 16. GAPP will move from inspection standards that treat domestic and foreign games equally to become more strict when dealing with influential games such as The9’s (Nasdaq:NCTY) licensed MMORPG World of Warcraft, said Kou.

If you can’t beat them… get the government to beat them.

Note that this will mainly impact The9 (which has said they face bankruptcy if the state shenanigans continue to shenanigate). Blizzard themselves already has something of a contingency plan: another Chinese distributor, SoftWorld, in Taiwan, outside the reach of the “protection of Chinese culture” of the People’s Republic. The9 has already seen significant losses to the Taiwan version of WoW, which unlike The9 already has Wrath of the Lich King ready to go. And the fact that The9 is partially owned by a familiar company may indicate shenanigans of an entirely different sort.