Thursday, March 20, 2014

Virtual Obamacare

“Stay a while and listen.”

Coming up on March 25th, the first expansion pack for Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo 3 will be released.  Reaper of Souls, as it’s called, has gotten many gamers, including myself, to take a second look at a game that didn’t quite live up to its predecessor.  While ruminating on the successes and failures of Diablo 3, it occurred to me there are some striking parallels with, of all things, Obamacare.

Back in Diablo 2, Blizzard had a multiplayer component that allowed users to trade in-game items, and naturally a market formed between the players. It wasn’t long before people started paying real money for these digital goods, and of course some people got ripped off.  You may even remember news reports from around that time of people paying exorbitant sums of real money for items in Diablo 2 or perhaps later in World of Warcraft.

When Blizzard created Diablo 3, they decided to take control of this market by adding the Auction House, an online exchange if you will. They argued that with it players could more easily trade their items and be protected from getting their money stolen. (And of course, Blizzard could get a cut.)  However, for it to work, Blizzard had to mandate that everyone play the game online, even if they just wanted to enjoy the story in single player like the previous games.  Otherwise people could have abused the system by hacking their copy and/or pirating the game.

Like Obamacare’s exchange, Diablo 3’s launch was a disaster, with most players spending days after its release staring at error screens instead of playing. People who did get in were plagued by bugs that lost their items, progress, and in some cases, entire characters. The dreaded Error 37 even became a meme for a time. 

Eventually the tech problems were sorted out, but then a new issue began to emerge: the existence of the Auction House totally undermined the gameplay. The Auction House had actually made it easier to just buy loot rather than work for it in the game, and further, the transitions between difficulty levels punished players that didn’t use it because the game was designed assuming they would.  Since the attraction of continuing to play up through harder difficulties is to get epic loot, and the Auction House has the epic loot, why bother to play?

All of these inevitable problems were foreseen by forward looking gamers by the way.  That didn’t stop Blizzard though.  Instead they swore up and down the Auction House was not an issue and went on adjusting all the other underlying rules of the game to try and compensate.  To no avail, I might add.  Fortunately, unlike Obama, they eventually came around.  As of Reaper of Souls, the Auction House will be no more.

So, when you’re trying to explain why Obamacare is such a colossal failure to millennial gamers, try putting it in terms of Diablo 3.  They might just get it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Next Political Battleground: Video Games

"Get over here!"

It’s no secret conservatives lag way behind liberals when it comes to almost all aspects of the entertainment industry. Fortunately they’re starting to come around to the idea that engaging that part of the culture is absolutely necessary to change the tide of politics, but when people think of entertainment as a battleground, usually they stick to movies and television while ignoring a very large elephant in the room: video games.

Video games are a huge part of the lives of the American youth and over the last couple decades have become a juggernaut industry.  Just a few months ago, Rockstar Games’ magnum opus Grand Theft Auto V grossed $1 billion in three days.

If that’s not reason enough for us to take the uncontested battleground of the gaming industry seriously, Microsoft gave us a new one at CPAC. As Brian Fung writes over at the Washington Post
Microsoft is trying to [ersuade[sic] politicians to take out targeted ads on Xbox Live, Skype, MSN and other company platforms as midterm elections begin heating up around the country. To plug the idea, Microsoft officials handed out promotional materials Thursday at CPAC, the annual conference for conservatives.

It's the latest move by tech companies to seize a piece of the lucrative political ad market. The ads, which would appear on the Xbox Live dashboard and other Microsoft products, combine Microsoft user IDs and other public data to build a profile of Xbox users. Campaigns can then blast ads to selected demographic categories, or to specific congressional districts. And if the campaign brings its own list of voter e-mail addresses, Microsoft can match the additional data with individual customer accounts for even more accurate voter targeting.

He also notes it’s not the first time Microsoft has made this play, having done some work with the Obama campaign in 2012. In fact their entire business strategy with regard to entertainment has shifted towards controlling advertising space, leading to considerable grousing by gamers not terribly thrilled to see their interfaces overtaken by ads of all stripes.

With the new Xbox One, Microsoft has put all their chips on being the go-to device for the entirety of your home entertainment, focusing on the capabilities of the console to handle TV, movies, and Internet streaming even over the games it was ostensibly created to play.  No doubt they know that once they can guarantee your eyes are on their box at all times, the advertisers will come running, and with a Kinect 2.0 attached to every one of those boxes quietly monitoring everyone in the room, they stand to have enormous ability to target ads, political or otherwise. (And report to the NSA, but that's a topic for another time.)  If it works, Sony, Nintendo, and the other players in the industry will almost certainly follow suit.

Even if Microsoft’s gambit fails, the gaming industry has long since started bleeding into other forms of entertainment. Though film adaptations of games have largely been complete flops, cinematic, story-driven games with full CGI cutscenes feel more like interactive movies, and many of them are arguably better stories than the stuff showing up in theaters today.  (I maintain the introductory sequence to Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic is better than all three Star Wars prequels combined.)

TV isn’t immune either. Last year SyFy Channel premiered a series called Defiance, which is actually a tie-in to the massively multiplayer game of the same name with plans to have player actions in the game affect how the show unfolds. Microsoft intends to break in here too by bringing its hallmark Halo franchise to your TV screens soon, helmed by none other than Steven Spielberg.  

You can even take in an evening at the symphony with an orchestra playing renditions of the prominent themes of the gaming world, though a cheaper date would be a night in with one of the scores of Youtube channels of young musicians playing or otherwise remixing their favorite video game tunes.

Beyond all that, gaming is an experience like no other.  Conditioning people to dislike certain political concepts takes multiple movies and television shows, but when that evil businessman betrays your character and kidnaps your character's girlfriend in a video game, that's personal, and it sticks with you.

Those of us on the Right side of the political spectrum cannot afford to ignore this critical part of our culture. Talk about healthcare premiums and mandates and a 20-something's eyes glaze over, but they understand what forced online DRM is and what having your loot stolen means.  I've got another post coming up to talk Obamacare this very way, so keep an eye out for it.

*h/t to Sarjex, for the graphic. Check out more of her work in her store.