G2A, Gearbox, and the Problem of Good and Evil

The recent Gearbox-G2A-TotalBiscuit debacle (reported on excellently at Vice’s Waypoint by Patrick Klepek over a series of news articles here, here and here) that was the result of a deal struck to officially distribute Bulletstorm via G2A, was in the offing for the longest time.

It had to happen, because the legitimate online price-race (one that has now cooled, to be frank, after several online retailers have been, or are in the process of, shutting down shop) drives a portion of consumers to find the best available price every time, and every time they are caught unawares by the illegitimate practices of various services such as Cdkeys, Kinguin and the titular G2A, it is principally because of the way we are being sold games, and because of a lack of consumer education.

Therefore, such a burst of activity around this topic has been a good refresher and reminder to gamers that not all is above the board with these cd-key shops. Of course, by now it should be so very clear to all of us that anything that has the word “keys” plastered to it is morally bankrupt in the general view of the retail establishment. But it isn’t, and won’t be, not until the system changes – and that change will probably be to the worse.

The thing is, the framing of Gearbox’s brush with the Bad Guys was largely from the point of view of the scorned developer, as with the help of TotalBiscuit, Gearbox navigated the situation deftly and swiftly, which had the unfortunate side effect of distorting the crux of the issue, and perhaps side-stepping other relevant questions of digital distribution that absolutely led into the intended (or unintended) result of blending questions of legitimacy with illegitimacy, and proper practice with improper practice.

Again, this is not to discount all the egregious instances of the morally bankrupt enterprise of G2A sabotaging developers – Natural Selection 2 developers Unknown Worlds suffered from such offenses as early as 2013 – especially by allowing credit card fraud to blossom. But it seems that in their willingness to jump in to avow their support of Gearbox (discounting Jim Sterling, of course), a company that has a long-running consumer-unfriendly corporate policy (remember when CEO Randy Pitchford called refunds mafia style extortion tactics”1), the video games media has done us consumers something of a disservice.

Gearbox is the perfect example for this topic, because of their historical position in the video games industry. To us here at The Slowdown, the company has taken the significance, and the chief position as the very symbol of the industry-wide practices of anti-consumerism, false advertising, and corporate lies – perhaps to a larger degree than any other major video game developer in the world. Because of this fact, every move that Gearbox makes seems deeply embedded in a lineage of mistakes, a constant comedy of errors; their moves and plays beg to be called out, with past mistakes always invoked together with future ones not yet made.

Who, if not the caricaturish Randy Pitchford, would have greenlit the coincidental release of a Bulletstorm remaster, at three times the price, with that of Bayonetta‘s? Ars Technica’s Sam Machkovech brings up several salient points regarding the pros and cons of the way the remaster was ultimately sold, but the chief one remains that at the time of writing, the latter has successfully sold over 3x more copies than the former. That Bayonetta should be published by SEGA, again, seems to fit into a framework of karmic justice, slotting right in as a historical response to Gearbox’s abuse of their contracted funds for Aliens: Colonial Marines being allegedly spent on Borderlands.

Only a company so fumbling and bumbling as Gearbox can gain goodwill from this G2A debacle, finally scoring some much-needed PR Points ™ (not yet available as a micro-transfer or as an in-game currency.) In fact, only Gearbox seems to have adept enough publicity relations staff to afford a CEO so intent on sabotaging their business, year in and year out.

While Gearbox’s history of flubs may seem tangential at first, it is the company’s complete public disdain for their consumer base that serves to underline the fact that this kind of unified perception in favour of publisher conduct is ultimately untenable; instead, we must always give ourselves the chance of heaping legitimate criticism together with defense or praise. A discussion on the basis of the cult of a brand never does anyone good. Remember when Google was to not be evil? Well, they “should” be doing “the right thing” now, by dabbling here and there with military robots.

Therefore, no matter how corrupt G2A’s practice in practice is, we must not allow ourselves to lump those practices together in theory with other grey-area industry practice. We must be wary of the philosophical framing of the entirety of the discussion, which seems to currently slant in the media in a way that blurs the lines of our rights as buyers and owners of video games. No matter what harm G2A have ultimately caused to the industry, these aspects of the retail of video games remain philosophically and societally problematic in today’s inter-connected world:

  • Video game keys and retail games as “licenses,” “services,” or “subscriptions”
  • Purchasers as “licensees” or “subscribers”
  • Viewing the resale of legitimate purchases as “illegal” or “against the TOS”
  • Regional restrictions on purchases
  • Regional pricing of goods

The chief problems with G2A are undeniable; indeed, they have visibly and tangibly strong-armed publishers by first birthing a problem and then offering a solution to that problem in a way that only further benefits them, and them alone. The closest analogy is the external destabilization of a region to gain access to oil. But we, as a collective, should not be lulled into accepting the aforementioned untenable consumer positions only because the current winds of PR and news paints them in a certain light, lumping them together with other issues as a pre-digested and pre-mediated package.

Instead, we must be alarmed by how extremely easy it seems to muddle the lines between a) fraudulent resale and b) legitimate resale of keys. I understand that it is a terrifically grey area in practice, but in theory none of us should have any problems with it. I paid for it, it’s mine to sell or resell, right? It is a similarly slippery a slope to accidentally defend the industry practice of video game licensing simply because it is our primary platform of delivery and we are accustomed to the ease of use of Steam, Origin and uPlay.

But in no way are any of these platforms ultimately philosophically acceptable practices of delivery of goods in this capitalist trade society of ours. These services are the reason this problem exists in the first place; they are the reason we have been deprived of proper ownership of our goods, of material and immaterial rights, behind the veil of words such as “service” and “subscription”.

To reiterate:

We must not allow ourselves to be blinded into accepting or taking a position as a “whole” or a “sum” of positions of good and evil; that way, we will lose our rights and access to the valid resale of legitimately purchased keys, and we will lose our (intellectual) legitimate position of ownership of goods. I understand fully that some of these are already lost. But there’s more still to lose: It’s perfectly clear to me that in today’s partisan world, societal, political and technological ideas are clumped together in bunches of ideas, they come in political colours, and become defensible or indefensible on the mere basis of the lines that are drawn.

Whether this has been the aim of the media that contributed to this recent spur of publicity on the topic, whether it has simply been the side-effect of having to paint the stories in a certain light for clicks and views, or whether it makes the most sense to frame the discussion intellectually between only good and evil, we need remind ourselves constantly, consistently, and vigilantly, of our positions, to retain the proper accuracy of our views, and to de-bundle and de-package our viewpoints, and ultimately take ownership of what we feel is right and wrong.

  1. http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2015-07-09-we-seem-to-like-making-completely-new-things []

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