Editorial: Read The Contracts, People!

I may just be an unfrozen caveman lawyer, but I do know this… game journalists are not lawyers (as a rule).

A lot of people have the same types of questions about games: what can game companies and publishers really do with end-user license agreements (EULAs)? That is always a tricky proposition; there are lots of different jurisdictions, and with each jurisdiction comes different laws regarding the construction of contracts.

If you have been near a computer, or even a moderately literate computer user, in the past few weeks, you have doubtless heard about the controversy surrounding Electronic Arts’ banning of people for being naughty on BioWare’s forums. Rock, Paper, Shotgun has more.

Phil Hartmann was a genius.
Oh yes, I play 8-bit Angry Birds on this all the time!

In short: some Dragon Age II players were unhappy with the game and thought clowning around online was the answer (hint: it was not the answer).

One user in particular said something that, taken by itself, was pretty innocuous: he asked if BioWare had made a Faustian deal with Electronic Arts. This is a common perception among gamers: game designer that we know and love (yay, BioWare!) puts out a game that is less than what we expect, so we naturally blame the soulless, money-grubbing publisher (Electronic Arts).

Overly idealized views of the game business aside, I am not surprised that this statement drew a ban from frazzled community managers. We may blather and bloviate about “free speech,” but none of us actually have any “right” to say anything on BioWare/EA’s official forums. They can absolutely control what is on there.

Now, in the idealized world we all inhabit in dreams with our magic swords and unicorns, BioWare and EA would not care about people posting mean things about them on their own forums. They would take criticism to heart and have an open and honest dialogues with users, like Blizzard sometimes does.

This works… sometimes. But other times, it is unproductive when all the public wants to do is vent some misplaced anger and throw a little mud around. Remember, these are people (flawed people) behind the bans and snarky forum posts alike, and everyone’s temper can get away from them. Sometimes, the most expedient option is just to give people a timeout, especially if one is Electronic Arts, because Electronic Arts has no interest in anything except making money.

Even the forum ban, although we might lodge ideological objections about such heavy-handed tactics, is not unreasonable. The actual problem, many gamers are saying, is how this effectively locked Arno out of playing any BioWare game that was linked to his master account.

Dragon Age 2: Hawke
Go home; your kind is not welcome here.

This had the effect of preventing him from playing his existing single-player games, as his saved games were all tied to this account, as were his achievements, and the other hallmarks of gaming experience that we now expect. And as we all know from some of Ubisoft’s less graceful moments, sometimes without these accounts, we cannot even play our single-player games.

Although EA has excused this as being an unintended consequence, it highlights an underlying technical problem: with so many games being tied to master accounts with saved games, achievements, et cetera, does anyone really purchase a “single-player” game anymore, at least for major consoles or PCs?

The obvious answer is, “Yes, of course, you dolt,” but that misses the point of the question. RPS’ John Walker highlights what he considers to be a troubling part of EA’s EULA, where it states that EA basically has the right to do whatever they damn well please with the online/social part of your account.

I am not sure why this is troubling to people, but it is. I encourage you: read the contracts you sign, all of the time. They all say things like this. Whenever someone provides you a service, that service is typically only provided insofar as the provider has the ability. And much like your local McDonald’s can refuse you service if they feel like it, a game company can refuse you service as well (provided, of course, they are not violating civil rights laws).

Emperor Bobby Kotick
Now you will feel the power of my fully-operational banhammer!

Nevertheless, there has been a lot of bad fallout for EA over this. I suggest that the doomy, gloomy ire of people like Walker is misplaced: this kind of super-scary stuff is going on around you all the time, and you typically do not notice it because it is rarely ever done. EA has absolutely zero interest in keeping people from buying its products and patronizing its services. If EA could find a way to make money off of something, they will do it, because that is all EA does: make money by providing a service (access to and publishing of video games) that people want.

But EA the company is different from Jane Schmoe EA Employee, who has to sit there and read through forum post after forum post of “OMG THAR IS NO TACTICUL ISOMETRICZ CAMERA IN DA2!!! I ARE VARRY ANGRY!” before she snaps and says, “Listen here, bub…”

That should not keep people like Arno from playing the game that he bought, offline, without access to any of the associate online services, and by all accounts, he was not that kind of locked out (though he did not have access to his saved games). But then it raises a technological question about how much consumers/gamers are willing to make their own Faustian deal for features that they want, like achievements or trophies or online backup of saved games.

I submit this: insofar as you want cool stuff like that, you have to agree to play in someone else’s yard. And they rule, absolutely, in that space. Which means that they get to do things that you do not like or are mean and there is not much you can do about that.

I will force choke you if you disagree.
Why won't you people read your contracts?

Again, in Unicorn Land, every game publisher would be super-ethical and always consumer-friendly. And they would always make super-awesome games that satisfied everyone and had top-notch production values and created really special experiences.

But we live in the real world where lots of times, things get messed up. Way messed up. And there are constructive and destructive ways of dealing with frustration and anger, and some EA fans found out the hard way that being destructive often leaves everyone worse off than before.

And contrary to what John Walker believes, this is not a case of a company being able to repossess its assets after you have purchased them. This is a case of a company saying that you cannot play in the sandbox with all the other kids if you insist on dropping a deuce in the sandbox whenever you do not get your way.

0 comments

  1. I always pooped in the sandbox when I didn’t get my way, and no one ever threw ME out of the sandbox.

    However, no one ever played in the sandbox with me, either. Because I had no friends.

    Probably because whenever I didn’t get my way, I shat all over the place.

  2. Ah, but did you poop in the sandbox because you had no friends, or did you have no friends because you shat in the sandbox?

  3. You know, Lusipurr, they make pills for that intestinal problem, now. You can play in the sandbox again, and invite your friends.

  4. EA is a hive of villainy, though I imagine it would be something of a respite to be banned from Dragon Age 2.

    Nonetheless, it never looks good when a faceless corporation BANISHES a customer for airing a perfectly legitimate grievance.

    From my POV it looks as if EA pooped in their sandbox.

    Then again, it is not as if we can ever own our consoles and games; which is why it’s OK to pirate software.