There’s a forum post here that is making the rounds today, about how Blizzard has been adding character-specific watermarks to screenshots since (at least) 2008 – around the time of the Activision merger. The watermark apparently includes encoded but not encrypted information about character name, account name, computer hardware, and IP address of the server. And obviously, this is not something that users are made aware of. I’ve been told that several other games (GW2, SWTOR, etc) have done this – at least during their alpha and beta stages.
Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not sure whether that forum post is credible or not. I’m not even really sure it matters. What matters to me is the fact that I can easily find it plausible, and I think that’s indicative of something larger. Aside from companies playing fast and loose with personally-identifiable information (again), this points to the overwhelming feeling coming out of gaming companies that the consumer is their #1 enemy.
If left to their own devices…
What will the kids get up to, when the parents are out of the house? That seems to be the driving motivation in a lot of decisions these days. Ubisoft’s stance on DRM has finally softened a little, but you can tell reading the articles that they aren’t happy about it. Afterall, it was less than a month ago that they were complaining about a 95% piracy rate on their games. EA has pioneered the “Online Pass” (locking used – and even late – purchasers of their game out of multiplayer features unless they pay $10 per game directly to EA), as well as the “haha you can’t join a class-action suit against us” EULA language that seems to be popping up everywhere these days.
A large part of the push towards F2P games (MMO conversions and what felt like 1/2 – 2/3 of the games at PAX this year) seems to be aimed at getting literally every dollar possible from consumers because, “Hey, we’re only asking for a dollar or two!” Too bad they’re asking every five minutes – or worse yet, constantly with the glowing store button prominently displayed and unhidable on the interface. More and more DLC seems to be almost punitive in its application – Day 1 paid DLC (or handily included with the purchase of a new copy!) is some of the worst, but so are DLCs that you must have in order to play on servers (Gears of War 3 has this, now, I believe).
We, as consumers don’t seem to be trusted to purchase a game on its merits anymore, and I find that to be a really hard pill to swallow. We’re constantly asked to pre-pay for beta access – especially prevalent in the MMO world – or we’re teased with access to “some more fun stuff” behind a paywall of one sort or another. And if we do find a game that just lets us buy it and play it, then there is some usually some other bullshit to overcome. Whether that’s installing a third-party downloader/launcher tool, having to constantly have an internet connection to play a game, not having LAN support, not being able to play with my friends that picked the wrong system to buy it on, or whatever the hell other hoops are designed to make sure that, yes, I fucking paid for this game. And the absolute worst part? If I wanted to, I’d still be able to have an unlocked, playable copy of most of these games in about 30 minutes – just by doing a little bit of web searching and dodging some sketchy internet shit.
What happened to the demo?
I ask again, what happened to the concept of a demo? Xbox Live Arcade still has this – in fact, I think it’s a mandatory part of being able to show up there. It’s great! I can download a game, mess around with it for half an hour or whatever, and then there’s a handy little button that says, “Did you like this? Why don’t you give the developers some money and play some more?!” And, as often as not, I do.
I’m not afraid of giving developers money. In fact, I love it. I happily support indie devs, things like the Humble Bundle, I buy more iOS games than I should, the Steam sales are the bane of my wallet, and I also buy AAA titles on release day (I’m looking at you, Borderlands 2). My gaming budget is fairly large, and I’m happy to give money to people. I just want to give money to games that I actually like. Or people that have ideas that I support.
And that’s the thing about demos. You can play a game for a little bit and say, “Hey, this is cool and innovative!” and then throw $10 or $20 at a game. Or in some cases, like Dragon Age 2, you can play the demo and say “Hey, this game plays differently from the first one. Do I like that?” The answer for me was “yes” – although, much to the chagrin of my wife, I have still not yet finished the playthrough, it’s not because of the combat system. There are a few games that I’ve turned down after playing the demo, too. But that’s okay. If a game isn’t working for me, why should I be locked in to having paid $60 to find that out?
I recognize that people work really, really hard on games. And as much as I love to play them, that’s a big part of why I’ve avoided trying to crack into that industry. I want to reward those people that work on producing the things that I love. I just want the relationship to be a two-way street. And often times, I feel like the game-makers (or producers or publishers) care more about my credit card details and personal information than they do about me.