A Blizzard in July

Different people do different things with their vacations. Some people ski. Some people windsurf. Me? I catch up on all the videogames I’ve been meaning to play.

I realize that this may confuse my readers. Don’t I already spend all of my free time playing videogames? The answer is: no. I am, regrettably, an unrepentant workaholic, and as much as I enjoy playing games (and writing about them), it ain’t my day job. That takes priority, then come reviews that I’m paid to write, and then comes this blog, along with several other hobbies and artistic outlets of roughly equal priority. The truth is, lately it feels like I’ve been writing about games more than I’ve been playing them.

So now that I have a chance to breathe, I’ve been catching up. A number of publishers sent me some games to review, and I have a few longer-running games that I wanted to dig into. Then something curious happened that made me pensive.

There’s a game developer and publisher called Blizzard. This is the company whose World of Warcraft enables their employees to spend every day rolling around naked in fat sacks of cash. Blizzard has always been an intriguingly non-evil company. They have a stable of games that are developed around their own properties, rather than just licensing titles. Their games are always very finely polished and well-supported. And they nearly always release their games simultaneously on Windows and MacOS, which has made them near and dear to my heart.

Blizzard just announced the latest installment of their Diablo series, Diablo III. Along with this, they made Diablo II available for digital download, at a price competitive with what you’d pay in the stores. Back in the day, I didn’t own these games – my roommate did. So I bought Diablo, and the expansion, and Starcraft, and have been happily playing them.

So here I am, on vacation. I am 500 miles from the nearest Best Buy, which might be out of stock of the games I wanted anyway. I can make a snap decision, at 10 pm at night, to buy a game, and three clicks and one longish download later, I have achieved gratification. The publisher gets paid. The consumer gets satisfied. Everyone wins.

There’s just one question left to be answered. I direct this question to those of you who are publishing games that are not available for digital download. I direct this question to those of you who publish games that, idiotically, require me to keep your stupid CD or DVD in my drive while I play. I direct this question, in other words, to the other 90% of the “PC gaming” market. The question is: What the hell is wrong with you?

This transaction with Blizzard leverages several of the advantages the PC has. It uses the hard drive so that I don’t have to have a physical token (beyond the machine) to play the game. It uses the network to deliver the game to me, so I don’t have to drive around to three different GameStops before I find the product I want. Meanwhile, on another planet, Atari is still selling games with cd-checks and Securom in them because, apparently, they don’t want to sell games that run in laptops on an airplane. Or in VMWare virtual machines on Macs. Given this attitude, I can only presume that when the CEO of Atari wants to fry an egg, the first thing he does is look for two sticks to rub together so he can make a fire.

Copy-protection shills and industry apologists will throw around excuses for this incredible business failure. They’ll natter and whine about how Diablo II is an old game, anyway, and that’s why they don’t have to worry as much about piracy. But as a consumer, let me tell you: the fact that the game was old was not an issue. If this had cost $50, instead of $20, I still would have bought it. You can find Diablo II on any Bittorrent search engine, but given how easy it is to pick up a legal copy, why bother stealing it?

When talking to dyed-in-the-wool PC gamers, there’s an attitude that would be charmingly naive if it wasn’t so corrosive: it’s the idea that, in the end, winners and losers in the marketplace will be determined by “the best technology,” where “technology” is narrowly construed to mean the most pixels pushed per second, or the best physics simulation, or what have you. What the companies that are actually winning in the marketplace have figured out is that taking care of their customers is just as important as pushing pixels.

Treating your customers like enemies might have worked OK when most people who bought video games were teenagers. In today’s game market, it’s simply a recipe for disaster.