I am not a frequent reader of Polygon, but their recent (hit) piece on Steam is interesting. There is a lot going on in the article, but these are the two thesis paragraphs:
This, then, is Good Guy Valve — a corporation which employs precision-engineered psychological tools to trick people into giving them money in exchange for goods they don’t legally own and may never actually use while profiting from a whole lot of unpaid labor and speculative work … but isn’t “evil.”
This is the Good Guy everyone seems too afraid to call out, the toxic friend who is so popular that upsetting him will just make things worse for you, so you convince yourself he’s really not that bad and that everyone else is over-reacting. Once the Good Guy illusion has disappeared, we’re left with the uncomfortable truth: Valve is nothing more than one of the new breed of digital rentiers, an unapologetic platform monopolist growing rich on its 30 percent cut of every purchase — and all the while abrogating every shred of corporate or moral responsibility under the Uber-esque pretense of simply being a “platform that connects gamers to creators.”
Basically, Valve conned us 13 years ago into believing they were the Good Guys, to the point that we unapologetically ascribe sins to Origin and UPlay that Valve themselves invented, and still perform where not prevented by EU law. Shkreli would give his left nut for the amount of free advertising that blasts over the internet for every Steam sale. All of this, all of this free money coming in, all this outrage over other corporations screwing over customers and employees alike… and we still eat it up for Valve.
I will admit that this article gave me pause.
It is a weird situation to find myself in, especially given that I am Pro-Consumer. Have you heard about Consumer Surplus? I invented that term. I will talk all day about how obscene it is for Blizzard to charge $25 for a character transfer, but spend zero time talking about how Valve takes a 75% cut of community-created DotA item/model sales.
That said, I’m not entirely sure there is a contradiction there, much less a cause for proletarian revolt.
Look, most of us grew up in the pre-Steam days. Do you remember what buying PC games was like? It was chaos. Sometimes you needed to keep the CD in the tray to play the game, sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes the publishers installed a rootkit on your machine, sometimes they didn’t. The first time I ever “pirated” a game was with Command & Conquer 3 because the disc I bought from the store wouldn’t play; there was either a scratch on the CD or some bug or something, but it instantly crashed on boot. Downloading a Day 1 crack on a game you just bought for $50 and couldn’t even return is pretty emblematic for that time period.
In short, Steam saved the PC gaming industry. It provided a framework in which the industry could grow, while simultaneously providing immense value to gamers. Steam sales actually were revolutionary at the time – the only times you ever got a discount elsewhere was when the game was in a bargain bin. Steam sales are disappointing these days, for sure, in a world of GreenManGaming, Amazon discounts, and all the other storefronts. Whom deliver Steam keys 99% of the time. Which is what most gamers want, considering the platform itself is immensely stable in comparison to oh, say, RockStar’s Social Club.
There are legitimate complaints regarding Steam. The Support sucks, so I have heard. It took them entirely too long to introduce Refunds, and I understand that that only came under threat of court orders. I’m also sure that the author’s claims regarding reimbursement percentages for selling character models is probably true.
But overall, I think the article is mostly attacking a straw man. There will be Valve fanboys, just as there are Apple fanboys. The difference is that Apple is a walled garden of overpriced, proprietary bullshit. Steam appears to be a near-monopoly… but based on what, exactly? Origin (or GOG, etc) might indeed be the better gaming platform these days… if it weren’t for the fact that they have an absurdly low (in comparison) library of available titles. Does Steam have exclusivity agreements that nobody knows about? If not, who is really responsible for its market share? No one is stopping anyone from opening a competing service that only takes 25% of the cut or whatever.
The bottom line is that nobody is being tricked here. Uber intentionally treating their entire workforce as contractors to avoid paying for health benefits or time off is not at all the same as “tricking” people into buying videogames over the internet. The damning “culture of cliques” at Valve is laughable; welcome to everywhere. Hell, if you want to see an abused workforce, take a gander over at Amazon warehouse for a moment.
“Good Guy Valve” is a marketing fiction, sure… but built on the back of a decade of actual value.
As you may as heard, Valve’s grand experiment with paid Skyrim mods debuted and shut down in three business days. At one point the untouchable darlings reddit, both Gabe and Skyrim itself has taken a huge beating in the eyes of the horde; Skyrim went from a 98% positive feedback rating on Steam down to 86%. Gabe confirmed that the number of emails his staff received will cost them literally $1 million to comb through.¹
From my seat up in the peanut gallery, the entire issue of paid mods seemed to be a solution in search of a problem. Was there some crisis in the modding community preventing mods from being developed? Were popular mods being abandoned? What, exactly, was the issue with the status quo?
To be clear, I’m not against people getting paid for their work, in the same way I’m not against, say, religious liberty. At the same time, I don’t think the concept in of itself justifies every means of expressing it. The modding scene was already a healthy ecosystem built upon passion, collaboration, and natural curation. SynCaine points out there are some mods out there more elaborate and fun than the game they’re built upon. Just imagine how many more, better mods would be generated if said people were paid for their work?
Well… err, maybe eventually.
The Skyrim paid mod section was not active for long, but the future cesspit of theft and profiteering was clear to see. Who looked at Steam Greenlight or Early Access and thought, hey, let’s introduce that to the modding community? Under a paid mod paradigm, you literally can’t give your mod away for free, because someone else can and will turn around and try to sell it for cash.
During Gabe’s AMA on reddit, the creator of the Nexus website point-blank asked what Valve was planning on doing in terms of, you know, not single-handedly monopolizing the modding market. Gabe had no real answer. Which is a problem considering paid Steam mods would give even ambivalent modders every economic incentive to pull their mods from Nexus and any other site to exclusively use Steam Workshop. I mean, what, is Nexus and all the other sites supposed to suddenly create their own mod marketplaces?
With the paid mods plan on ice (for the moment), there has been some further crying about how “freeloaders” and “trolls” have won the day. Out of the entire fiasco, that sentiment bothers me the most. Erecting pay-walls around hitherto free content is an erosion of Consumer Surplus, full stop; it doesn’t matter whether modders “should” have been getting paid this entire time. Splintering the modding community into factions with negative incentive to cooperate is an erosion of Consumer Surplus. Maybe we get really well-done, professional mods out of the paid system eventually. But considering you are paying extra for that value, the Consumer Surplus gains may be a wash. In which case you are no better off than before, minus a thriving modding community.
Nevermind about all the bizarre arguments surrounding mods like DotA and Counter-Strike. Would those mods have achieved their meteoric status had they been priced “fairly” at the start? I don’t think anyone believes that that would be the case.
Do modders deserve to be paid for their work? Probably. Do I deserve to be paid for writing posts for the last four years? Feel free to Paypal me as much money you want. But as a consumer/reader, you are under no obligation, moral or ethical, to pay for something someone is giving away for free. And as a consumer/reader, you have every right to complain when your net Consumer Surplus is being reduced in any way. “Freeloaders” and “entitlement” are specious non-arguments, and especially absurd given how we’ll all talking about people who already bought a videogame.
If you want to pay modders, there is nothing stopping you. As in, right now. Go for it. I’m sure their contact information is listed somewhere on the mod page. Just don’t pretend this change was anything less than a fundamental redesign of the entire concept of modding. Or that this particular implementation was at all going to work, logistically or conceptually. In fact, I doubt that it ever does, even when Valve comes back to “iterate” the process later on. And by “work,” I mean generate more value in the aggregate for gamers and (free) modders alike.
¹ As opposed to Support tickets, which no human ever reads.
I take no credit for either the title nor the picture:
If you had not already felt the Earth’s sudden wobble from the magnitude of Microsoft’s about-face, allow me the pleasure of informing you: the Xbox One no longer has its ridiculous DRM. Namely:
- No internet connection is required to play games.
- No 24-hour online check-in.
- You can buy/sell/gift/rent/lend game discs just like on the 360.
- You can purchase digital versions of games on Day 1 and play offline (once downloaded).
One of the “casualties” of this Lance Armstrong-level backpedaling is that you can’t have that whole “10-person family sharing” plan or the ability to “take your games anywhere by logging in.” Often lost amongst the Apologist tears though was the simple fact that logging on from a friend’s Xbox One basically meant you would have had to wait for a 10+ GB download before playing anyway. And what were the odds that more than one member of the family could play the same game at the same time? In other words, you are not any worse off than the present system of just taking the disc with you.
Plus, you know, used games.
On a semi-related bit of interesting news, apparently Valve snuck some interesting code into the Steam software: shared libraries, e.g. lending digital games. Obviously nothing is formally implemented yet, but the premise seems to be that once you lend a game to a friend, they can play it until you log on to play it yourself (which then bumps them off). Which is… pretty remarkably clever if you think about it. Valve could just as easily went the other way, where you couldn’t play until your friend “gave it back,” which would probably discourage people from using the feature at all. Assuming there is no transaction fee or anything, I would feel comfortable giving one or two of my Steam buddies access to everything.
Regardless of which way the shared library plays out – if it plays out at all – today was a huge win for consumers everywhere. I am not quite ready to declare victory yet, but the future sure is looking considerably brighter than it was, oh, two weeks ago, eh?
(This is followup to my In Defense of Used Games post.)
I believe that eventually we will see the resell of game licenses. Given how our present trajectory is clearly in favor of restrictive limited licenses, games-as-services, and exclusive accounts everywhere, from whence does this optimism spring? Basically, it springs from what I imagine to be an inevitable reconciliation between what is legal and what consumers see as reasonable and/or how they play games in the real world.
I am going to divide this model into roughly two parts: the Practical and the Legal.
The Practical Disconnect
There is an incredible disconnect between what companies write in their ToS/EULAs and how people actually use the products in question. In fact, even the question of what amounts to game piracy is not as clear-cut as you might think. If you download the Tomb Raider reboot off of Pirate Bay, that is clearly piracy, sure. But suppose you let your little brother play the copy that you legally purchased. Is that piracy? Instead of it being a family member, suppose you let a friend come over and play it. Is that (still) piracy? What if you let a complete stranger play your copy of the game?
Now suppose this copy of Tomb Raider in question was purchased on Steam. Does that change anything at the family/friend/stranger level? It does:
“When you complete Steam’s registration process, you create a Steam account (“Account”). Your Account may also include billing information you provide to Valve for the purchase of Subscriptions. You are solely responsible for all activity on your Account and for the security of your computer system. You may not reveal, share or otherwise allow others to use your password or Account. You agree that you are personally responsible for the use of your password and Account and for all of the communication and activity on Steam that results from use of your login name and password. You may not sell or charge others for the right to use your Account, or otherwise transfer your Account, nor may you sell, charge others for the right to use, or transfer any Subscriptions other than if and as expressly permitted by this Agreement (including any Subscription Terms or Rules of Use).”
In our all-digital future, everything is tied to accounts. Ostensively, account-sharing is a bannable offense. In fact, if Valve suspects you shared or sold a given Steam account, it will ban all accounts in your possession, even if nothing untoward was happening in the others. And yet the problem with account-sharing is that it shouldn’t actually be any company’s business who is sitting in the chair, behind the keyboard/controller. I mean, it is technically their business – because they say it is – but it shouldn’t be.
I am not playing WoW right now, despite having multiple level-capped characters and a large sum of gold doing no good to anyone. If I resubscribed and started playing again, Blizzard would be happy. If I resubscribed and let a friend play my character, Blizzard would still be happy… up until the moment they realized what I was doing. But provided we did not alternate log-ins from multiple IP addresses or whatever, there is really no way for Blizzard to tell the difference between us. And yet that is “illegal.” Why? Because presumably the threat of account closure is supposed to induce the friend to purchase their own account/expansions/etc and work their way from scratch.
If letting friends and family members play your games does not count as piracy, neither should letting them log onto your account(s). Indeed, the only way the company would be able to ascertain a difference between users is with intrusive biometric privacy measures like… an always-on IR camera powerful enough to measure your heart rate via body heat to ensure only the True Owner ™ utilizes the account. Otherwise, these measures simply fail unless you attempt to log in from two places simultaneously. These companies are writing rules and contractual terms they have no means of enforcing outside the most heinous of nightmare scenarios. Or, I guess the Honor System.
Perhaps you do believe that your little brother playing your copy of Tomb Raider counts as piracy. In which case I have two questions: 1) why haven’t you turned yourself in, and 2) how far does that really go? Is it piracy for him to watch you play? Or is the crime committed only when he touches the controller? What if it is a strategy game in which he tells you what moves to make, and you simply act as his inputs? Still probably worth a $150,000 fine, wouldn’t you agree?
If companies could go this far, they would. That is the copyright endgame: the limitation of the experience to a single, paying mind. Thankfully, they lack the ability to dictate what happens in the privacy of our homes. Except, you know, for all the times that they can.
The Legal Aspect
“Notably, the ReDigi case turned in large part on the same phrase at issue in Kirtsaeng—whether the copies at issue were “lawfully made” under [the Copyright Act]. In ReDigi, the court held they were not. “The first sale doctrine does not protect ReDigi’s distribution of Capitol’s copyrighted works,” Sullivan held, because the files at issue are “unlawful reproductions” and therefore not “lawfully made.” And, also like Kirtsaeng, the court said the proper venue to decide the core issue—whether buyers of digital products can resell them—is Congress.
“ReDigi effectively requests that the Court amend the [the Copyright Act] to achieve ReDigi’s broader policy goals—goals that happen to advance ReDigi’s economic interests,” Sullivan observed, adding that “amendment of the Copyright Act in line with ReDigi’s proposal is a legislative prerogative that courts are unauthorized and ill-suited to attempt.”
The hinge of the case was that even though ReDigi’s process involved removing the music file from the original computer, technically ReDigi was still “creating” a copy on their own servers by virtue of the transfer process. That was the entire hang-up, or more accurately, the technicality. Even Google tried to get involved in the case by coming to the defense of ReDigi, arguing a judgment against ReDigi “would put the entire cloud computing industry, worth an estimated 41 billion dollars, at risk.”
Incidentally, as pointed out in the concluding paragraphs of the same article:
To make his point, Sullivan stressed that the first sale doctrine does still protect the ability to resell digital music—you can still sell your “computer hard disk, iPod, or other memory device” onto which the file was originally downloaded, he wrote. While conceding that practice might prove to be “onerous,” he suggested there may also be reasons why such “physical limitations” are desirable. “It is left to Congress, and not this Court,” he concluded “to deem them outmoded.”
In other words, you can resell your digital music, as long as you originally downloaded them onto, I dunno, say a $6 MicroSD card. Or a $2-$5 USB stick (which are 1gb in size… Jesus, time flies). Preferably we could cut the bullshit and just print the CD/DVDs ourselves, but I imagine there is no direct-to-CD argument that can be made, else they would have made it.
The salient point here is that the current system is, at best, untenable. As more and more aspects of our lives migrate more fully into the digital realm, Congress will revisit this subject again. Honestly, they really should not have to – it would be better for everyone involved if companies came to this voluntarily. Hell, I have been shitting on the Xbox One pretty often, but Microsoft is apparently putting in a “used digital game” framework, in some murky form or another. It would be the height of irony if Microsoft ended up starting a revolution in the same way that Steam made digital games mainstream. Both Apple and Amazon have patented second-hand digital marketplaces, by the way, but have yet to actually do anything with them.
Some people get the impression that I am anti-IP, or that I am antagonistic to copyright. That is not really the case, although I do believe “life of author + 70 years” is absurd welfare for corporate rent-seekers rather than to the actual benefit of society, e.g. the entire original purpose of copyright. I mean, are there really artists out there that would look at something like Life + 5 years and go “fuck it, I’m not going to bother”? Give me a break.
Anyway, what I desire is for the designers to partner with consumers, for all of us to cooperate for the common good. I don’t like GameStop any more than game designers do – they really are just parasitic middleman – but only one of those two parties actually make efforts to improve consumer surplus, even if it’s just by accident. And if there was any enduring message that came out of the wild internet heyday, it is that you Can’t Stop the Signal. Revenue models are going to have to change, whether you like it or not. If game designers want a piece of the the new paradigm, they have every opportunity to get aboard the train.