Recently I talked a little bit about piracy. That post caused a little more controversy among my friends than I was expecting, but my friend Maverynthia had some particularly interesting thoughts on suggestion #5 on my list, and I thought the issue deserved its own post. In fact, it’s such a complicated issue that it deserves two posts, from two totally different people. (I’m a little bit country. She’s a little bit rock and roll. Or something.) I really didn’t want to try and speak for Maverynthia on this issue, so I asked her if she’d be willing to post about her own thoughts on the matter, and then we’d activate our Wonder Twin powers and link across the Internet.
(Yes, I did just reference both Donny & Marie and the Wonder Twins, two things which no one under the age of 25 is probably aware of. Or most people under 30. Or 35. I am not cooler than you. I am a dork.)
So here’s the thing: I have bought a ton of used books. In fact, I regularly scour the used book shelves at my favorite bookstore, searching for out of print tomes (especially Changeling: The Dreaming sourcebooks). I’ve also bought plenty of used board games, video games, even a few DVDs and albums and so forth. And I don’t like it when anything is missing. Not pages, nor game pieces, nor poster maps. True story: I once bought a copy of the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer that was missing its poster map, a small fact the seller had failed to mention. That was the one and only time I left negative feedback for an online seller.
Further, as a writer, I don’t mind the idea of people buying used copies of my books, when or if said books are ever published. I would like to make a living off of my craft, but I would also like people to read what I wrote. To appreciate it. To enjoy it. To end up with well-loved copies scarred only by the years of reading and reading, of loaning the text out to good friends and getting it back, of taking the book on plane rides and subway rides and cloned T-Rex rides. (I don’t know why you’re reading on the back of a freaking Tyrannosaurus Rex, but bless your heart.) I have faith in any fans I manage to attract. I know plenty of them will buy my books hot off the presses. And, someday, they may sell those books off to others, or give them, or lend them and end up moving away before they can reclaim them, and all of that is fine.
That said…we do not live in the United Federation of Planets. Our society is based upon the pursuit, acquisition, and trade of some kind of resource. At this moment in time, we have a bunch of fiat currencies that honestly don’t make a whole lot of sense when you really look at them (unless you’re an economist, and I don’t know why you’re an economist while you’re riding on the back of a freaking Tyrannosaurus Rex, but bless your heart), but people tend to need that money to survive regardless.
And here is the problem with used books, games, DVDs, whatever: unless you’re somehow buying them from the original producer/seller, they don’t see one red cent of the money you’ve paid.
Now. I firmly believe that, once you buy something, you own it, and you should be able to do what you will with it. That includes selling it. A lot of corporations don’t like that. That’s why they’ve pushed to move from a system of absolute ownership to a system where somehow they’re just renting you some kind of limited-use license, and thank heavens they haven’t entirely succeeded on that front. That’s why music companies have historically tried to crack down on used record stores, and thankfully lost that battle as well. And that’s why you now see things like EA’s Project Ten Dollar. That’s why you see companies including one-time codes that cannot be used again by future owners of a given game or software product, codes that open up the full functionality of the program or unlock premium content or otherwise make new copies more desirable. That’s why you see all kinds of companies selling DLC: new missions, new characters, new ‘skins’ for existing characters, and so on.
There are bad ways to go about this (anything that restricts the full functionality of a basic game – including multiplayer options – to new copies, for example) and…not so bad ways to go about this, at least in my view. I actually think EA’s current system is a damn sight better than restrictive, intrusive DRM or planned obsolescence: with Mass Effect 2, you can buy the game used, and all the basic plot points and missions and characters are there, but you can only get bonus content by paying a small fee. Because new copies of Mass Effect 2 come with a single-use code that allows you access to the Cerberus Network, and it’s unlikely that you’ll find an unused code card in a used copy.
I don’t think this is a perfect method, of course – for example, the Cerberus Network is also the only way to buy (and, even more importantly, verify) paid DLC, so you’re basically paying a fee to get a few free items and go shopping for more stuff. It’s kind of like most theme parks. Also, you can’t use any of your lovely DLC, paid or otherwise, unless you have an Internet connection, allowing the game to check in with the Cerberus Network and confirm your membership. This is annoying. I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I’m on a long series of flights (as I was during my trip to New Orleans last year), or on the back of a cloned Tyrannosaurus Rex, I like to bring my laptop with me, and sometimes I like to play a game. My access to the Internet may be restricted or nonexistent during that time. So I can play the basic version of Mass Effect, but I can’t play Lair of the Shadow Broker or Overlord or Arrival. I can’t have Kasumi or Zaeed around. I don’t really get why the DLC I’ve already downloaded can’t just…play, or why the game can’t give me, say, a seven-day grace period from the last Cerberus Network check-in before it goes, whoops, no DLC for you.
But I digress. The point is, something like Project Ten Dollar – which gives new customers free access to premium content, and gives those who buy used products the ability to buy in for a small fee – is a workable solution. An annoying solution, but better than some of the alternatives.
And I definitely don’t mind paid DLC. Alan Wake‘s DLC actually extends the story to an extent, for example, offering mini-sequels to keep the fans sated while the team considered a sequel. (Which is not, sadly, American Nightmare. But I have faith that a proper Alan Wake 2 is coming.) Mass Effect 2’s DLC consists mainly of cosmetic items or storylines that don’t have much to do with the main arc, with the exception of Arrival.
But oh…let’s talk about those exceptions, shall we? Because that’s another boundary that game companies just shouldn’t cross, in my view. Arrival actually sets up the plot for Mass Effect 3. Without going into spoiler territory, it is vital to understanding the backstory of the third game. And it is paid DLC. Cerberus Network members don’t get it for free. Non-members definitely don’t. The ending of Mass Effect 2 sans DLC is acceptable, but Arrival completes the arc.
Do not freaking sell me an incomplete product.
Even if you use premium content or DLC to make a buck off of people who are buying your games used, you should still give them the complete story. Holding something that vital back wrecks the experience. It’s like the novelizations of Red Riding Hood that withheld the conclusion and directed readers to a web page that only went up after the film was out. It’s obnoxious. It’s rude.
And to an extent, yes, the Alan Wake DLC also bridges the gap between the first game and its potential sequel, but without going into spoiler territory, I don’t think those episodes are vital to understanding Alan’s journey as a whole. They’re side treks. They both kind of begin and end the same way. I enjoyed them, much as I enjoy the odd standalone episode of Buffy, but felt like I would have gotten along fine without them. Arrival is a different animal.
Look. I personally believe that creators and producers should back off, accept that some people are going to buy used products, and just try to make products compelling enough that the fans will want to buy them used. The first nine or ten Dresden Files novels on my shelf? Used. I got them all from a friend. Every last subsequent novel was bought new. Used books created a loyal customer. Used games can have the same effect.
But I also want my favorite companies to have the resources to keep making games. I don’t really think used products stand in the way of that, but I can understand the need to keep making money off those products, one way or another. I don’t like it, but it’s going to happen. And if it’s going to happen, I would rather drive those companies in the direction of non-draconian measures. Don’t lock out multiplayer or key features of the game. Don’t hold back essential elements of the story. Do offer enhancements to the user experience. Carrot, people, not stick.
Of course, there’s another option as well: digital distribution. For the most part, when a customer buys something through Steam, iTunes, or any other digital download service, they accept that they will be unable to transfer that item to any other customers. (Though, interesting, there is a company called ReDigi that claims to be dealing legitimately in the resale of music files from services like iTunes – naturally they have already been challenged by the RIAA) There is little to no legitimate aftermarket for digital downloads. I can’t sell you the copy of Portal 2 I bought on Steam. Nor can I sell you the Taylor Swift album I bought on iTunes, the Leverage or Mad Men episodes I bought on the Zune Marketplace on XBox LIVE, or any books I might have bought through my Kindle app. Is that fair? Maybe not. Maybe it would be only right to offer transferable licenses on all of these items. But the corporations involved have no motivation to do so. And since digital distribution reduces or eliminates the costs involved in publishing, packaging and shipping, I think it’s fair to say it’s the way of the future…which means we may lose the aftermarket either way.
There are two principal facts in play here: first, from a corporate perspective, money is all-important. Corporations are going to tend toward practices that make them money. While they cannot afford to alienate their customer base completely, they’re going to do anything and everything they can to earn as much profit as possible. All we can hope to do is drive them toward compromises.
From a moral perspective, I think it’s vitally important to support the things I love, and encourage the creators to go on and make more things. That doesn’t mean I never buy used products, but it does mean I try to buy new when I can. If I want to save money, that may mean waiting until it goes on sale, or comes out in a cheaper format, but either way, I want to try and make sure something gets back to the original creators. To me, used products are more like samples of a given creator’s body of work. Once I’m sure I love it, I shift to new. And that’s a practice I’d encourage all around, really. But that’s me.
I should acknowledge that, yes, Jerry Holkins over at Penny Arcade recently posted on this subject as well, and Mike Krahulik talked about it on Twitter. I’d been planning something like this before I saw that, but given the timing, and the fact that one of the pieces I’ll be citing in this post was linked from that one, it’s only fair to point that out.