Rebels without a Clue

24 11 2009

I have decided, at long last, to put down my own thoughts on the recent heavy trend of gamers threatening to boycott games if certain things are not done. Specifically this is about my personal experiences going up against the Left 4 Dead 2 boycott, but also from talking to people who have complained about what Activision and Infinity Ward did with Modern Warfare 2 (but still play it anyway).

Our story begins in late May, after Left 4 Dead 2 is announced at E3. Personally I didn’t know what to think. It seemed odd that Valve would want to put out a sequel that fast, a sequel that they planned to release on time for once even. I did not however, expect the level of vitriol from certain people, one of whom was a mod that banned me from the forum he moderated rather that talk civil about it. His complaints were (as were later parroted by the boycott movement itself)

1. Valve had lied. They had promised x amount of weapons and y amount of campaigns and a working SDK for L4D1. They had not delivered, this meant they were liars
2. If they are putting all this stuff in a new game, they should be giving that new content away for free, like they did with Team Fortress 2.
3. It isn’t going to be different enough from the first to justify being new.

Those were the main points. The problem with both those points, in addition to them being wrong, was that they were formulated before any real information about Left 4 Dead 2 had surfaced other than “yeah we’re making it.” This is why I have a problem with E3, or more correctly the people who hang on every single word said at it. It leads to knee-jerk reactions like this. Course, people buy yearly released games and sequels all the time (hi there Madden series!), but apparently Valve doing this is somehow wrong and indecent and terrible and so on and so forth.

So a couple days go by and more information comes out. For one, Valve was not abandoning L4D1. In fact the SDK was coming out of beta next week and would be cross-compatible with L4D2 content. In addition they were already working on another DLC campaign (granted the full info about this didn’t hit until about a month or two later), and as for L4D2, why couldn’t it be a free DLC add-on? Well they (Valve) had considered that, and there were a couple reasons why it had to become a full game.

1. the AI director was being altered to work in different ways, and also work better
2. Level design was taking a drastic change and branching paths were being introduced, something that again was necessitating a change in the AI director
3. The game engine itself was changing a bit to allow the Infected to be dismembered differently, as well as new and more visceral damage effects, plus melee weapons.
4. All in all, with the new levels, weapons, characters, and so forth, they estimated it to be roughly twice the content of L4D1 and therefore they couldn’t feasibly see giving it away for free (also due to the changes being made to AI and the engine, they wouldn’t be able to, but I’ll get back to that).

Despite these rather obvious and good reasons as to why they couldn’t just make it a free release, people were not satisfied, again citing that Valve was only after their money. Yes Valve, a company that hasn’t really done anything along the lines of EA, Blizzard, or Activision (among others) and released something just to cash in or charge out the ass for things. As to the erupting forum debate, I was soon removed when I took my stand at how hilariously wrong the people planning on boycotting were. insults were exchanged, sexual orientations (mine) were called into question, and at the end I was sent away with some comment about how my comprehension levels were worse than that of a retarded chimpanzee. Which is funny seeing as how I was reading everything correctly and the moderator was too busy doing the digital equivalent of holding his hands over his ears and loudly shouting “LALALALALA I CAN’T HEARRRRR YOUUUU”

If he had listened, or maybe taken the time to think, he’d be able to see that L4D and Team Fortess 2 are two different things. TF2 has no real AI to deal with, and thus can be updated really quickly. Something like Left 4 Dead requires levels to be built with pathfinding routines scripted, AI director events scripted, other events, and so on and so forth. And the levels are much larger too. It’s not like you can just wave your hand and boom, there’s a level. Furthermore you cannot alter the code of a game engine as easily as people tried to believe, which again above all else meant that they had to make it a sequel.

So around this time I learned about the L4D2 Boycott Group on Steam. I read their manifesto, which later added such wonderful gems like “The fiddle music sucks and is not L4D enough”. Through it all I maintained that they were wrong and that by and large this group (which became almost 45,000) were not only going to not cause any real damage (being barely 3% of all L4D1 copies sold), but that their concerns were not legitimate and instead were by and large motivated by a sense that they were being betrayed and that Valve “owed them”. This was not a sentiment exclusive to me. Adam Sessler of G4 had a similar belief, pointing out that Valve was not in the habit of screwing people over and that consumers are not owed anything by a developer, and also calling the behavior of the boycotters “a little bit on the naive side [that only they should be considered] and slightly embarrassing. It’s really kind of juvenile and if I were the head of one of these companies sitting there and seeing that the original Left 4 Dead sold an obscene amount of copies last year and that this [the boycott] is only a small percentage of it, i would probably listen to those people [the boycotters] even less”. The boycotters countered back that they were being misrepresented and were not allowed a chance to speak their side of the argument. There was just one problem with that, they already were.

Various stories were cropping up about people coming into L4D games and griefing the hell out of them if people weren’t on board for the boycott. That doesn’t exactly sound like the actions of reasonable individuals to me, nor to many others. By the time Sessler had said his piece resentment was growing amongst the Steam community, angered that people would stoop to such a level to try and force Valve to give them something that they weren’t possibly going to get. Of course, the boycotters claimed they weren’t trying to get L4D2 for free, but that’s a load of bull. So was their claim that the boycott wasn’t about L4D2. But I digress. In response to the boycott group, groups began cropping up against the boycotters and overwhelmingly in favor of Left 4 Dead 2. I joined one of the larger ones, Left 4 Dead Enthusiasts, mostly so I could have an inside track of what was going on. It was here I began to hear a lot more about the greifing, as well as the fact that the boycott group was apparently sending out mass invites, which meant their numbers were artificially inflated on top of everything else. With all that dishonesty why should anybody give the boycotters a chance to say anything else besides their manifesto? Now I know that sounds unfair but lets be realistic here. If you are going to lead anything, you have to be responsible for your followers. The leaders of the Boycott did not do this, they deserved nothing in the first place and their inability to take the moral high ground (either through ignorance or just not caring in the slightest) meant that any chance for it would be slim. Valve of course, being Valve, saw things a bit differently, but I’ll get to that in a while.

Fast-forward to August. Valve announces bigger details on “Crash Course”, a DLC pack for Left 4 Dead. Yes that’s right, the first one. This put a major crimp in the boycotter’s attempts to claim Valve wasn’t going to support L4D1 anymore. Of course the boycotters somehow tried to spin it as Valve responding to pressure from them, this despite the fact that anybody with any sort of industry knowledge (or even the ability to use google to learn about such things) would find that for Crash Course to be ready by September when it came out, it was likely it had been started around or even before E3, and therefore was Valve’s plan all along. This of course, marked the point where the movement really began to lose ground, to the point that one of the boycott leaders, known as “Walking_Target” (an apt name if there ever was one) began going to whatever press he could trying to plead his case and a desire to be heard. I encountered him on the Escapist and I have to say I had no trouble telling him in no uncertain terms why he and the rest of his group were wrong and why, no matter what his original intentions were, they were gone because he had failed to keep the group on track and on the higher ground.

Then came September. By this point the Boycotters had been losing on every front, especially since preorders for L4D2 were far exceeding that of the first one. Valve decided to play its final trump card: invite the boycotters to their studios to see L4D2 for themselves. Now I am not a fan of the idea that people who throw tantrums should be rewarded, but I can’t argue with the result. After playing it the leaders (Walking_Target being one of them) returned to the group with the good news that more rational people had known for months. It was definetely a much different game and not a cheap cash-in. The boycotters were not pleased. They turned on their masters (what a shock) claiming Valve had paid them off. By October the group was effectively dead. It didn’t even last until the game shipped, something I had predicted would happen (And I’m not trying to stroke my own ego since I can only really predict one or two events a year. This year it was the PSPGo being a massive failure and the L4D2 Boycott failing as well). To further drive the point home, it was later revealed that people in the boycott group were preordering at a higher percentage than people who hadn’t been in the group. All thanks to Steam’s ability to track that sort of information. Despite my misgivings about it, Valve had killed the boycott movement with kindness.

Discontent slowly fell away, though some people foolishly held onto the belief that they’d made a difference. Well ok I guess that’s not necessarily false, because they did make a difference. They made the game even more popular and more successful. Probably not what they were going for. Having played L4D2 I can honestly say it was not a cheap cash-in. It is far more than the original was and Valve made the right decision. I enjoy the game just as much as I did the first and I do not feel like I didn’t get my money’s worth out of the first game. I cannot for the life of me understand people who complain this loudly and achieve so little in the process. But it wasn’t over yet.

While this movement quietly died out, another one was gaining steam. This one leveled against Activision and Infinity Ward. See people weren’t too happy about losing dedicated servers in Modern Warfare 2. They were even more annoyed when it was revealed they’d have to use Steam to play multiplayer, and that VAC was going to replace Punkbuster in terms of trying to stop cheaters. What nobody stopped to consider was that this was an experiment. One that obviously has not worked. But rather than think that way people have been complaining about how Steam is controlling too much of the market (I didn’t know 4% of all game sales was such a big deal), and that other companies will follow this trend. The latter argument gained creedence when John Carmack announced that his new game Rage would also not use dedicated servers. Of course the thing about John Carmack is that he is a goddamn genius so maybe he does have a reason for what he’s doing. But looking at forums shows people more of the belief that Carmack is a dinosaur who hasn’t made anything good in over a decade. Nevermind the fact that Doom 3 was actually a pretty good game and if people would stop blindly parroting a certain fast-talking critic they’d probably remember that.

Having talked to one of my friends about this, his main concerns was Steam becoming a monopoly (which is impossible given how little of the market it controls in addition to the fact it’s not trying to push anybody out) and that Steam will become mandatory for PC gaming online. Again I think he’s a bit presumptuous, and not just because he’s playing Modern Warfare 2 despite saying he wouldn’t (in fairness, it was a birthday gift. In a counterpoint he could’ve gotten it exchanged because I believe he received a disk-in-hand copy.) And this is the problem. Too many gamers these days do not stop and think for just a second. Steam doesn’t control a huge chunk of the entire games market, and even with 70% of that 5%, other content download services still prosper (like Direct 2 Drive). Steam’s not a monopoly. They are competing with other companies and services, you know, the way capitalism is supposed to work. But rather than look things up, rather than think, gamers are more content to just say the first thing that comes to mind without considering that it might just sound really dumb a little while later. As somebody who has trouble thinking before speaking, I know what they’re going through, but the thing is I’m trying to learn from that, while they are content to make the same mistakes again and again. We cannot do boycotting the way the MW2 boycotters and the L4D2 boycotters did. For one it was unpleasant, and for another both groups had people buying the game anyway which just proves they were all bark and no bite. I think that there is a place for activism in gaming, and companies do listen to the concerns of people, but most of the time they seem to listen to people who deliver their arguments in a decent manner, instead of pretending they somehow hold the very survival of the company in their hands and won’t buy something unless it’s tailored to their specific needs. This has to change. We are not owed anything by any company. Warren Spector did not owe us for cutting out a lot of content in Deus Ex (Texas, Space, the Moon, etc.). Valve does not owe us for having to cut out content in L4D. Nobody owes us anything unless they specifically say it. A game design document is not a promise. Gamers need to learn that life, and especially the video game industry, does not deal in absolutes.




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