Broken Street Dates: Are Bans The Answer?
Written Friday, November 11, 2011 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
Last week, the biggest title in the history of games hit shelves early. Some retailers, eager to get in on the action before their competitors, broke Modern Warfare 3’s street date. Across the world, eager gamers snapped up early copies and headed straight to Xbox Live.
Microsoft's Tolouse was caught in the middle last week.
Activision wasn’t happy. Director of Policy and Enforcement for Xbox Live, Stephen Tolouse, initially not bothered by legitimate players, tweeted, "clarification: dblchk'd with Activision. Mw3 pre-release play not authorised. So pls be patient. Playing early may impact your account!"
The community responded in uproar. Why should consumers who have legitimately purchased a game be reprimanded? Shouldn’t the street date-breaking stores and the early-shipping retailers be punished instead? The story spread throughout the internet, with many outlets, including ours, reporting that Xbox Live bans were to be dished out to those playing the game early.
In light of the coverage, Infinity Ward’s Creative Strategist, Robert Bowling, headed to Twitter to clarify, "No plans to ban legit fans, but try to wait til midnight launch on Tuesday to play #MW3.”
So what the hell actually happened? Did Activision plan on dishing out bans for innocent gamers, only to change their mind in the face of community outrage? Were Microsoft prepared to ban players from Xbox Live at the behest of Activision? And perhaps most importantly, what are Activision doing about the real problem: street date busting retailers? We attempted to find out.
Microsoft, for its part, was open with us in regards to its policies. Enforcement of the Xbox Live service is primarily intended to stop piracy and abuse. With players of pre-release games, the company is only interested in bans for those it suspects to be running modded consoles and pirated games.
The media plays pre-release games over Xbox Live every day of the year without action. Microsoft know when review code has been distributed and act accordingly. It’s only when games are being played before even the reviewers that there’s a problem. Put simply, if you legitimately buy an Xbox 360 game from a retailer early, there is no precedent to suggest you are in trouble, according to Microsoft.
PANIC!!!!... at the Disco. Baddumtsh!
In this case, the problem came from Activision. Initiated by Tolouse’s tweet, sent after direct communication with Activision themselves, it was the publisher that initiated talk of possible punishments. The statement spread in seconds, helped along by official channels and was repeated by every major gaming outlet. The result was the intimidation of gamers who had done nothing more than buy the year's most anticipated game from a retailer who just so happened to have breached their contract with the game’s publisher. Thus, not the consumer’s fault.
It's not helped, of course, by the method of delivery. Twitter is not an appropriate medium for matters such as this. The fact that it is limited to just 140 characters means that tweets are often reduced to blunt statements that are open to misinterpretation. By the time that Activision had flip-flopped, it was too late. Gamers were already angry.
It is, at best, poor service as a result of garbled PR messages distributed along inappropriate lines. We contacted Activision to clarify where Tolouse got the initial message from, as well as their policies on pre-release player bans. We hoped that they could clear up the confusion. But they have yet to reply.
We also asked them about the most worrying aspect of the story. While Activision and Microsoft dedicated their time to clearing up muddled PR messages, the real issue had gone unmentioned. The fact is that retailers regularly break street dates, allowing gamers to take titles home early. This is the root of the problem.
If publishers punished retail outlets for breaking legal agreements about release dates, then all of this could be avoided. Yet it seems little is being done to tackle the issue. In the absence of a statement by Activision, we have to rely on the eye-opening work of another media outlet from earlier this week.
K-Mart - so big the staff plays life-sized Tetris in its aisles.
While investigating broken street dates, SarcasticGamer was told by one anonymous retailer why independent games stores regularly sell games before the official release. “It’s usually a financial thing… the second [the chain stores] open, that’s where all the customers go. So I can understand why they do it, but at the same time it is breaking the street date, breaking the contract they made with the supplier.”
It was when the manager took action, however, that the most startling revelation came. “I used to complain,” he said, “I used to tell them and they don’t care. I don’t know how many times I’ve complained, bought copies, took pictures, sent them away to Activision… I was told by Activision, ‘I don’t care about one little shop in Glasgow,’ and that was the response I got.”
Disappointing. Yet it’s not just independent retailers, or “one little shop in Glasgow” that do it. Larger stores across the world regularly break street dates too. K-Mart, who sold MW3 early, has also allowed Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 and most recently Skyrim to hit shelves before the official release date. Basically, everyone is at it.
While indie stores believe that the only way they can survive is by getting games out earlier than their larger rivals, national and multinational companies seem confident in breaking street dates without fear of reprisal. They are untouchable, basically, emboldened by the fact that publishers like Activision are impotent to punish them. Because what are Activision going to do? Prevent stores like K-Mart from selling their games? That would be commercial suicide.
Yet something has to change. As long as retailers, both big and small, feel the need to release games early, gamers will buy them early. And as long as the likes of Activision choose to poorly communicate what it is we can and cannot do, it will always be gamers that lose out. It's our money that drives the entire business, yet we are the ones being treated most poorly. Do it for long enough and we might just stop buying them full stop.