Massively Overthinking: Consumer protections in the MMORPG industry
Veteran Massively OP reader Miol says he’s exhausted by a recent string of stories in which MMO companies screw gamers over, one after another: ARK Survival Evolved, Albion Online, Skyforge, and now Black Desert all figure into his list, just from the last week.
“I want to ask what more can gamers do to protect themselves and everyone else as consumers than speak up? It feels exhausting to always stay vigilant and feel upset all the time, since games, as an everchanging medium, give devs so many opportunities to screw us over with every single patch or update. And the worst immediate consequence seems many times a meek apology for what they’ve done, only for them to try out something different that maybe could go over unnoticed.
“You guys have reported about this UK watchdog group ASA, who investigated No Man’s Sky, but even they dismissed the tons of complaints about false advertising. Steam did declare some changes to advertising on their platform, but I still don’t see them taken place. If even those big negative stories don’t have that much of an impact, what hope is there for all the smaller communities, spread thin globally? There was a recent wave of gamers imploring each other to not pre-order, but that ebbed away fast enough, when the next shiny pre-order advantages over other players were presented. But even so, this still can’t protect you from what may happen after the launch!
“As said by Bree many times: Merely quitting won’t help either, as the studio will never know why most of the times. But also sending feedback for nine whole days didn’t help Skyforge players to make its devs to scramble! So what else could we do? Or should we just take rotating shifts to call them out?”
We’ll take the first shift right here in Overthinking.
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Be vocal. I know Twitter and Reddit and Discord are a good start if you can’t do it on official forums, but being vocal on fansites and media sites like this one help too. It may suck to hear, but despite social media’s ability to make it easier for the common fan to approach devs, studios can be downright afraid to engage fans. Standalone communities are taken more seriously because they’ve got history and connections that (usually) show they’re critical and can voice fan opinions and thoughts in “safe” ways PR and community can engage with.
This is also why it’s important to organize. I know a lot of us have full-time jobs, families, schools, sometimes all of that on top of a time-intensive hobby. The thing is, if you don’t take a break from that hobby to make an imprint on the community, you’re going to keep getting stepped on. I think this is one of the reasons TV and movies have more active fanbases that anecdotally seem to get more recognition than gamers. Family Guy, Futurama, and Firefly have all gotten resurrections (or movies) because of fans, but I can’t think of a lot of fan art, essays, or social groups (aside from Firefly) that really stood out in helping those make a comeback. It was largely fans already in industry figuring out (rather simple) ways to show that the program could be profitable.
Look to Mass Effect or Earthbound/Mother 2. The former had a certain title with an ending that disappointed fans. While I don’t agree with what happened, the amount of noise across social media and press sites pressured BioWare into making things right. EB/M2 was similar, but it took much longer, originating with fansites that people who became press would remember and support. I know because I’m one of those people. Starmen.net did more than provide forums and petitions, but displayed fan art, questions, concerns; it centralized the fanbase. Going for international appeal certainly helped as well!
It may take years, even more than a decade, but throwing your voice into the ring really does help, especially when you rally around something larger than yourself. I know it may seem like a lot for “just a game,” but our genre isn’t as old as other consumer products and still has more of a negative stigma. It’s improving, but we can do better. Especially due to the interactive nature of games, we need developers and their PR to fear mistreating us, especially considering how abusive certain practices (like Early Access) have proven to be.
Brendan Drain (@nyphur): I know it’s becoming a tired refrain at this point, but people really need to stop buying so heavily into the hype for games before release. It’s perfectly fine to be excited about an upcoming game and to want to find out more information about it, but keep your enthusiasm grounded in fact and don’t let it become a commodity the developers and publishers can exploit. Don’t let pre-order incentives and artificial digital scarcity sway your purchase decision, don’t pre-order a game unless you want to financially support the developers, and always treat crowdfunding as a donation to a studio that needs help rather than a glorified pre-order system. As long as people keep throwing their money at the screen in response to dodgy business practices, they’ll continue to happen.
On the industry side of the issue, it also seems that studios are having a harder time managing gamers’ expectations lately. When there are gaps in the information on an upcoming game people are excited about, fans sometimes fill those gaps with speculation and hopes that may not be what the devs are planning and may not even be feasible. That kind of runaway hype is an even bigger problem when a game has pre-orders or uses crowdfunding, introducing a financial conflict of interest for the studio if they choose to correct excited fans and bring their expectations crashing back to reality. I think that was part of the problem with No Man’s Sky, as Sean Murray had to be evasive in interviews on issues such as multiplayer or risk losing people’s interest and money.
The fact that MMOs and other online games can change considerably after release is just something I think we have to accept as the norm for this type of game. The gameplay you enjoy now could be completely different in six month’s time and the items you have could be nerfed into the ground with any patch, there’s not really anything you can do about that other than quitting when the game is no longer fun for you and filling in an exit survey. You can reach out to the gaming media with the story of a major developer mis-step and hope that puts pressure on the studio, but the studio will usually only care if it begins to affect its bottom line (as happened with EVE Online’s Monoclegate scandal back in 2011).
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Literally no industry comes by consumer protection the easy way. If it seems easy, it’s because somebody else — many somebodies — worked very hard to raise awareness and pass laws. Be those somebodies.
1) Just quitting is fine if you need out for your sanity and your fortune. Walk away from bad games, put your wallet away, and don’t buy new bad games just because you need a game. You can’t save the world all by yourself, but you can save yourself, and it does help.
2) Complain and boycott, loudly and vocally, across any platform where you can be heard. Don’t just tweet. If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a speaker, make videos. If you’re an artist, circulate your posters. Aim for Reddit and the press. That’s so much better than just quitting and far harder for studios to brush aside.
3) But don’t be an assclown. Be civilized, clear, concise, and logical. You’re trying to be heard, not trying to get yourself ignored by those who need to hear you. This means not being abusive trolls, including toward studios and press and fanboys. (It also means no giant pastebins and conspiracy theory gifs. As somebody who routinely gets those in her inbox, I can tell you straight up that they do not convince anyone.)
4) Report genuinely bad business practices to the government bureaus and watchdog groups that care. We lose most of those battles, it’s true, but not all of them, and a loss still raises awareness when the media covers it.
5) But avoid the trap of unintentionally becoming a well-meaning dupe of somebody with a vendetta against a game who does what he does out of self-interest and revenge, not a genuine interest in consumer protection.
6) You wouldn’t preorder a car or a house sight-unseen or donate hundreds of dollars in the hopes of getting a vacation in five years. Don’t do it for video games either. And for skies’ sake, stop giving money to dodgy crowdfunds. Oh no, you might have to pay an extra $15 five years from now if this thing launches. Big whoop. Don’t enable games that don’t even sound clean from the start. If you really believe in letting the market work things out when it comes to the future of our genre, stand back and do it – don’t make things worse by paying for wild ideas that haven’t worked in 20 years and probably never will.
7) And while we’re at it: If you just have to play a thing that has lockboxes, fine, I get it, you want to show support for an MMO. But don’t buy the damn lockboxes. DO NOT BUY LOCKBOXES. Buy anything else to support the game, but don’t encourage predatory business model design.
8) Finally, and this is the most important thing: Support the games, developers, and yes, journalists that do it right. Show up. Be there. Put your money in solid developers, solid games, solid business models, people who start small and stay honest and ethical. Advocate for them. Fight for them. Pay for them. Light the way. The things we don’t pay for eventually die. For caring to matter, it requires action, not philosophy.
People don’t want to hear it, but a lot of the responsibility for consumer protection has to come from consumers themselves, from all of us. We can’t wait around for somebody else to save us. Yes, ideally we need somebody watching the watchers in an otherwise self-regulated industry, and yes, the press can help, but in the meantime: Protect yourself, warn other people, and help us lift your voices.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): This is a complex issue, and it’s made more complex by the fact that gaming culture as a whole has a ridiculous amount of entitlement and unsustainable expectations that interact badly with actually identifying when people are getting screwed. Even cases like No Man’s Sky are the sort of thing you can argue back and forth, which is why the watchdog group looked at things and ultimately decided that it wasn’t misleading enough to really push it any further. The biggest problem No Man’s Sky had was less that it sold players on one thing and provided another; it was that it sold players on an idea that wasn’t actually thought through by players who were excited to play it, only to realize belatedly what that really meant.
At the same time, I’m reluctant to agree that boycotting doesn’t work. Sure, a designer has said that you shouldn’t boycott a game because the designers won’t know, but that’s a function of you just quitting and saying nothing. We’ve seen consumer reaction cause reversals to decisions, and these are beyond even just nasty financial decisions; remember Blizzard’s whole RealID forum fiasco? Just the threat and promise of boycotts got things moving there. They certainly don’t have a perfect success rate, but boycotts can most certainly work to force studios into reconsidering actions and changing policies.
And while there’s a lot of entitlement in the mix, there’s also genuinely shady stuff that gets pulled by various companies. I can’t have much sympathy for people who cry foul about cosmetics in a game’s cash shop, because there are lists of reasons why that’s totally reasonable; at the same time, there’s a difference between “cosmetic items in the cash shop” and “extraordinarily expensive monocles for a feature rarely used by players to begin with.” It is, at the end of the day, a case-by-case matter.
That’s why I don’t think you can really have a singular action plan, because so much depends on the moment-to-moment circumstances. Is something legitimately predatory and unfair? And what actions can you take that are likely to actually affect change and/or communicate your feelings? I really dislike the lockboxes on sale in Star Trek Online, so I don’t purchase keys for them even with stipend funds. Do I think they’re actually predatory? Not quite, although they sure do affect my enjoyment. But outside of talking about them, there’s not much I can do to affect the fact that they are actually profitable for the company. If I felt they went further in a predatory direction, I’d stop giving the company money for anything and just move on; it’s clear that they’re still going to make money, but it won’t be mine.
I realize it’s not the most satisfying answer in the world, but it’s the one I’ve got. You have to take it piece by piece, and let people talk it out, and sometimes let cooler heads prevail. The one bright side is that usually in cases where things get really nasty, it’s often indicative of problems in other directions. (For example, I find Overwatch’s lockboxes to be a really nasty monetization scheme… but that’s also in service to a game that really has little actual progression moving and has a problem providing good incentives to keep going beyond moment-to-moment gameplay. So it’s not so much that it’s a nasty way to milk people out of money as some design issues.)
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Welcome to the world of marketing and shady practices. It goes hand-in-hand, and it’s not only in the video game industry. Companies are stupid good at figuring out all sorts of ways to deceive, manipulate, and milk consumers, and if a questionable action is called out, then the company can easily ditch that and try something else.
Barring a Better Business Bureau-type organization for video game companies where players can register complaints (and how fast would something like that be overloaded?), the response from players needs to be multi-pronged and constant. Do your homework, share information with others, report suspicious situations, petition the media for extra coverage (such as MOP), hold studios accountable for past actions, and be loud without being ranty or incoherent. I wish there was just one easily solution, but companies have a lot of the cards in their hand with this, so we have to do what we can with the few options that we are dealt. Definitely withholding money and being wiser consumers overall would be great — if we could all agree to do that, but we’re fickle and love the “security” of pre-orders.