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Server Woes, DRM, and a Free Lunch: What We Can Learn From This Week’s Gaming News


Over the past week, some of the more noteworthy happenings in the world of gaming have unfolded like a parable about good business practices. Let’s begin: On May 8, Valve released the Perpetual Testing Initiative (a totally free level editor for Portal 2), which has been unsurprisingly popular. In order to thank the community for their enthusiasm, Portal 2 was on sale via Steam last weekend for a whopping 66% off. Skyrim and some Team Fortress 2 items were knocked down as well, because why not.

A few days later, several gaming news sites reported that EA was pulling down a big chunk of their Battlefield 3 public servers, in an effort to push players toward their $30-a-month rental servers. Unsurprisingly, an outcry followed. Shortly after, EA restored a number of public servers, stating that their intent was never to remove access to public servers entirely. They did, however, continue to talk up the benefits of renting in the same breath.

And finally, on Tuesday, Blizzard’s release of Diablo III — arguably the most anticipated PC game to date — was a big hot mess. Diablo III requires a connection to Blizzard’s servers at all times, even while playing the single-player campaign. When the game launched at 12:01 AM, the resulting server traffic was massive (as one might expect), and many players spent the better part of the day futilely attempting to sign in. Keep in mind, players were able to purchase, download, and install the game client weeks in advance, which most did; all the server connection was needed for was to unlock the game.

So, three games, three companies, three different anecdotes. What do these stories tell us? To answer that, I’m not going to talk about games. I’m going to talk about sandwiches. Yes, it’s an extended metaphor. Bear with me here.

Imagine that there are three sandwich shops in your neighborhood. They each specialize in very distinctive sandwiches. It’s hard to say that any of the sandwiches are better than the others. They just taste different. If you’re a sandwich connoisseur, it’s likely that you’ve visited all three shops at some point.

You go to the first shop and order a sandwich. This shop has a reputation for being expensive, but no one can deny that they make great sandwiches. We’re talking artisanal bread and super fresh veggies. That’s worth paying a little more for than your average hoagie. But as the lady behind the counter hands you your finely wrapped sandwich, you notice that something’s missing.

“Sorry, did you forget the dipping sauce?” you say. The shop has been advertising their dipping sauce for weeks, claiming that the sandwiches just can’t be fully appreciated without it.

“Dipping sauce is extra,” the sandwich maker replies. Well, you’re a little confused, because the ads made it seem like the dipping sauce was all part and parcel of the sandwich experience, but it is an additional condiment, so fair enough. You push another dollar across the counter.

“Do you have any napkins?” you ask.

“Yes, we have two types of napkins: complimentary and premium.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Premium napkins work better.”

“I’ll just have a complimentary napkin, thanks.”

“Sorry, we ran out this morning.”

You feel like napkins are generally part of the whole sandwich purchasing deal, but you’re really going to need a napkin for that dipping sauce. You grudgingly hand her another dollar.

The sandwich maker looks at the package in your hand. “You know, that would really be better with some cheese,” she says. “Cheese is just another dollar more.”

You peek inside your sandwich. “This doesn’t come with cheese?”

“No, cheese is extra. If you’re a regular customer, you can join our Sandwich Club for a low monthly fee. You’ll really save on cheese costs in the end.” Now, last time you bought a sandwich here, you got the cheese for free, so the Sandwich Club push feels like adding insult to injury. By this point, you just want to take your sandwich and get out of there. As you leave the shop, clutching your wallet protectively, the sandwich maker calls after you: “Next time you come back, make sure to buy more condiments!” You sullenly eat the sandwich on a park bench. It tastes good, but you’re feeling a little bitter about it by now.

The next day, you go to the second shop. There’s a thick glass divider between you and the sandwich maker. “What’s this for?” you ask, tapping the glass.

“Protects against thieves,” the sandwich maker explains. “Sandwich theft is a real problem these days.” You know the glass won’t do anything to prevent thieves from sneaking in through the kitchen, but hey, if it makes the sandwich maker feel better, whatever. “You also have to pay in advance,” he says. You slide him your money. The sandwich maker takes a long time putting your sandwich together. That’s okay. It’s going to be a culinary masterpiece. Your mouth waters as you watch him expertly stack layers upon layers of delectable delicacies atop thick, grainy bread. But after he wraps it up for you, he just stands back, waiting patiently.

“Um, can I have my sandwich, please?” you ask.

“There’s no room at the table,” the sandwich maker says, pointing. In the shop, there is one large table, full of people eating sandwiches. There are no empty chairs. In fact, there’s barely enough room for the people already seated there.

You look at your delicious sandwich, waiting less than a foot away, behind thick glass. “Why do I have to eat at the table?” you ask. “It’s just a sandwich. Can’t I take it to go?”

The sandwich maker frowns. “If you don’t eat at the table, somebody outside might steal your sandwich.” He squints at you. “Or maybe you’re a sandwich thief.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” you say. “I just bought that sandwich. I paid for it. Nobody’s going to eat it but me. Come on, it’ll take you two seconds to just hand it to me.” The sandwich maker stares impassively at you. You wait twelve hours. By the time you get a seat at the table, you don’t even really want the sandwich anymore.

The following day, you go past the third sandwich shop. You’re actually not out to buy a sandwich at all. You’re just going for a walk, enjoying the fresh air. But as you pass the shop window, the owner bursts out the front door. “Hey, you!” she calls cheerfully. “Didn’t you buy my specialty sandwich last year?”

“I sure did,” you say. “One of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. I kind of ate too many of them, though, so I haven’t been in the mood for one in a while.”

“That’s okay,” the sandwich maker says. “You can only get so much mileage out of a sandwich. That’s why I made a variation on my recipe. Same stuff you love, but with just a little somethin’ new.”

“That sounds pretty good,” you say, already reaching for your wallet.

“No, no! It’s on the house.”

“Why?” you ask.

The sandwich maker smiles. “Because I just love seeing people eat sandwiches.” She holds the door for you as you walk in. The shop is packed with happy people sitting at big comfy tables, chowing down on free sandwiches. Your sandwich arrives within seconds of you sitting down. It’s small, but absolutely delicious. Savory and satisfying, everything a sandwich should be. As you’re licking the last crumbs from your fingers, you notice an exchange between the sandwich maker and some newcomers by the door.

“We heard all the hullaballoo about your free sandwiches,” one of the newcomers says. “Can we try them too?”

The sandwich maker grins. “Sure thing. But the people I’m giving free sandwiches to already bought a sandwich last year. I’ll tell you what, though. I’ll let you buy that same sandwich they bought for a fraction of the cost, and then you can have free sandwiches, too.” She turns and addresses the shop. “And as for the rest of you, you can have a discount on some of my other sandwiches! What the heck, right?”

All the sandwich eaters cheer. You vow right then and there to buy every sandwich this woman makes for the rest of her sandwich-making career. You’ll probably pick up a couple of their shop logo t-shirts, too, and you’ll definitely be telling your friends all about this place. In comparison, the other sandwich shops don’t seem very friendly. In the future, you may still do business with them, if you’re really craving one of their specialties, but you’re going to be much less inclined to do so. It’s not because you expect them to give you free sandwiches, too. You weren’t even expecting this place to give you free sandwiches, and you’re more than happy to pay for your lunch. But in the end, it’s not about eating for free. It’s about wanting to support a business that respects you, trusts you, and loves sandwiches as much as you do. That’s a purchase you can feel good about.

…okay, so it’s a reductive metaphor, and yes, the real intricacies at work here are a little more complicated than can be illustrated with mere sandwiches. Yes, Blizzard, the technical challenges of releasing Diablo III are greater than releasing a Portal 2 level editor. But why force players to go online for a single-player game at all? Gamers hate that, and it does nothing to prevent piracy (show me the DRM system that has yet to be cracked and I will eat my words). Nobody’s mad about the servers crashing due to high traffic; they’re mad because servers crashing should not affect a single-player game that has been fully installed on their computers for weeks. Your fans adore you, but right now, you’re punishing them for purchasing the game legitimately. You know there are huge Diablo II fans out there who won’t buy this game at all because of the DRM, right? As the popular saying goes, the only way to prevent piracy is to provide customers with better service than what they receive from the pirates. Know who originally said that? Valve co-founder and managing director Gabe Newell. Huh.

As for you, EA, yes, you’ll make more money if you rent out multiplayer servers instead of allowing universal free access. But what’s more valuable in the long run — a nice pile of cash scraped up from server rentals, or earning some goodwill among gamers, more and more of whom see you as the poster child for corporate greed? You’ve been running around with mud on your face all year, and the Battlefield 3 server to-do shows that you either don’t know it or don’t care. Oh, I’m sure your bottom line looks just fine, and I’m sure that the customers who have gotten fed up enough to jump ship are just a drop in the bucket. But come on, EA. You can’t keep this up in the long term. We all know you’re in this to make money, but you’ve gotten downright pushy about it, and your reputation is seriously hurting right now. You’re going to need a lot more than disingenuous attempts to cash in on the indie bundle trend to fix that.

As for you, Valve…everybody loves you. Keep doing your thing. Maybe more of the industry will catch on.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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