Lately, Ive been thinking a lot about history of this industry and how stupidly and/or venally it has been managed.
As serendipity would have it, while I was thus musing I came across the following quote in an Associated Press news story:
In a Sunday column, Northwest Florida Daily News Editor Ralph Routon wrote that free online sites were a mistake in the first place, noting that his paper has received a barrage of complaints since announcing the new online policy.
If we had charged even a nominal fee from the start we wouldn't have this situation now, Routon wrote. Instead of people being offended, they would look at todays advancement as paying more for a better product.
Therein lies the ultimate point to this column; Im sure Ill get to it eventually.
Back in those ancient days when the Web was a child, i.e. 1994, it all seemed to be coming together nicely, if slowly. I and my associates in the online gaming world had spent the previous eight years laboring in obscurity, pretty sure the whole time that greater success for our industry and ourselves lay just around the corner. We were pretty sure that it was only a matter of time before nearly every game a publisher shipped would have a pay-to-play component, and that such would provide the development funds for even more research and development, which would mean more cool and innovative games, etc. etc. etc.
Up to that point, though, it kept escaping us, more because we couldnt get people to understand what the games were all about than anything else. Trying to get someone to invest money in online game development was like trying to keep a politician honest; it wasnt a likely occurrence. Like any new industry, most of the folks with the money bags were reticent about plunking down large sums for something they felt was untried and for which the market was unclear. Then Rupert Murdochs News Corp bought Kesmai, Mpath and TEN sold the online gaming concept to Wall Street and started spending investor money, Interplay bought off on a proposal by me and two associates to start making MMOGs out of Interplay properties and AOL started signing online games (including a couple text games I had recommended when I worked there in 1988 and which they turned down because, you know, they were text, not pretty picture generators. When I objected that we were leaving money on the table for GEnie and CompuServe to pick up, I was told that text games were dead and to shut up and soldier. Apparently, someone held a séance at AOL in 1994 and resurrected them
after I had moved to GEnie and used them to pick up the money AOL had left lying on the table in 1988). It looked like we were finally taking off.
The whole online services gig was still new then and relatively unknown to most people, for all that both Prodigy and America Online has spent literally billions in advertising. Trying to explain to the uninitiated what I did for a living usually devolved into confusion and a certainly that the Mulligan child was a strange one, no? I remember trying to explain it to my Mom and my aunt in 1989 on a visit home and watching their eyes glaze over. Finally, I hauled out my Macintosh SE and showed them Air Warrior (and think about lugging that beast of a computer on your shoulder from the East to West Coast and back again, just to be able to check email whilst on vacation. I returned to GEnie with one shoulder an inch lower than the other and looking like I was auditioning for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. On the other hand, I didnt have to subject myself once to a body search or turn on the Macintosh to prove I wasnt carrying a bomb. But remember, the terrorists havent won). They made polite sounds and nodded a lot, by which I knew they kinda-sorta, but not all-the-way, got it.
On a whim, I gave them a tour of the rest of GEnie. When I showed them the Health RoundTable, they went absolutely nuts. Seems theyd both recently had their cholesterol level checked for the first time and wanted more information about health issues in general. The Health RT, it was proclaimed, was useful and messaging with other humans about these issues was fun, even at $5 per hour.
That was when the light bulb went off over my head on the issue of how to get people to pay for online services. That may seem weird in these days when half the United States accesses the Internet daily, but back in 1989 it was not a given that online services would ever be a big thing. The cost was fairly steep anywhere from $5 per hour to $19, depending on the speed of your modem and the time of day you logged on keeping such services out of the financial range of most people. However, it was obviously that there were some services even ordinary people would pay for; you just had to figure out what they were. And it was painfully obvious to me that, when it came to gaming, people would pay for online RPGs and the occasional vehicle simulator, but not a whole lot else.
So there I am in 1994, having helped convince a major computer game publisher to invest some money in developing MMOGs, the Web was starting to take off and traditional investment houses such as Kleiner Perkins were beginning to dump money into Internet gaming start-ups. The future looked quite rosy, indeed; it looked like we were finally about to arrive.
Then the inmates took over the asylum and decided to give it away for free.
Now, youre probably thinking to yourself, Hey, what the hell is wrong with free? Free is good. To which I reply, You get what you pay for, chum. I can hardly blame you for expecting free online gaming, since companies have been giving it away ever since TEN and Mplayers business model of charging for retail hybrid game play, such as Quake, Doom, et al, exploded in a ball of fire about twenty feet above the launch pad. The day Mplayer announced they were going to a totally advertising revenue business model, I knew we were all sunk.
First it was the aggregators telling the publishers, Well help you port your games to our Internet site so people can play them online. Royalties? Hah! Youll make your money from additional sales! I still remember Bridgette Patrovsky, the Director of Operations for Interplay Online Services at the time, eyeing one Mplayer founder and saying, Fine. If youre so sure well make additional sales, pay us an advance for each game and well pay you back when we see those additional sales. The back-tracking that ensued left a furrow in the LA Convention Center carpet. We knew it was bat dookey, because we knew back then that even most hard core gamers wouldnt pay for 2 to 8 player games; wed tried them on GEnie and they got about 1% of the use of the MMOGs. There just wasnt even added value to make most people want to open up their wallets. There could have been some added value inserted quite easily, but that would have taken time and a little more money, but people were looking for a get rich quick scheme.
After the pay-for-play for hybrids model went bust, then it was Well sell a ton of advertising and share it with you; well all get fabulously wealthy! Even in 1994, it was obvious to us all that advertising could never support a gaming site; you had to have content you could charge for, as well, and that was just too expensive to develop to expect to see a return through advertising dollars. In many cases, the people spouting forth this nonsense knew it, too, and were rather irritated when any of us pointed out that the emperor was starkers. How was one supposed to run a shell game when people were pointing out reality, for heavens sake?
And that is where the stupidity came in. Or intelligence, depending on whether or not you managed to keep the stock price above your strike price until you could sell and get the hell out. After dumping something like $200 million US down a very deep hole, the aggregators decided to get what they could and get out of the business. That meant giving it away for free, converting most of the staff to sales people, selling ad space like there was no tomorrow and issuing white paper after white paper about how the online advertising market was going to continue to grow until the entropic heat death of the universe, then unloading the site and moving into something else. Which is exactly what most of them did, those that didnt just die or have parent corporations with deep pockets.
Unfortunately, those of us still trying to make a go of this industry are left with the consequences, mainly that weve trained a whole generation of gamers that that several million dollars worth of development should be given away free.
Way to go, guys; thanks for leaving the rest of us holding the bag while you sneaked out of town.
Volume Eight, Issue 44
First Published on Happy Puppy on Thursday, December 16, 1999
This is another in my 5th Anniversary reprints of my favorite columns. The whole purpose of this piece was to heap scorn on the inexcusably silly idea that violence in games causes real-life violence. It followed all the hoorah that surrounded the high school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where the media had a field day with notion that because Klebold and Harris played Doom, they became more likely to kill people. After reporting that in lovely, excruciating detail, the press then moved on to the next handy tragedy and neglected to mention any of the other facts surrounding the events of April 20, 1999.
That really ticked me off, hence the column. The response to the column was not what I expected, as youll see in the Post Mortem.
"My Lords, my Ladies, Gentlefolk all, good evening and welcome thee to Medieval Network News, the official news agency of Her Majesty, the Queen. Verily, these are the headlines on this 13th of December in the Year of Our Lord, 1599:
"Chirgeons in York claim new studies show the efficacy of leeches in curing dropsy and the ague, and in relieving swelling of the buboes caused by The Great Plague;
"Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the First, issued a stern rebuke to Spain today, warning that Spanish warships harassing English fishing vessels in the Channel risk "the same treatment Our Brave Navy doled out to the Armada over ten years ago." Attempts to reach the Spanish Embassy in London for a reply were in vain;
"In the wake of last month's Canturbury Day School Tragedy, in which a dozen young people died, The Association of Her Royal Majesty's Sheriffs today issued a call for the outlawing of swords longer than 24 inches and the banning of crossbows from private possession.
"And in the latest on The Canterbury Tragedy, investigators say newly discovered diaries prove that the two schoolboys planned their bloody attack on classmates for over a year. According to the London Times, the diaries are purported to also show that each had a fascination with the theater, especially the works of Mssr. William Shakespeare of the famous troupe, The Lord Chamberlain's Men.
"Bishop Weirdly of Sloply Dun, the Royal Leech, stated today that the discovery of several of the works of Mssr. Shakespeare in the homes of the two crossbow-yielding youths proves conclusively that easy access to the live theater is destroying the minds of the Kingdom's youth. "Indeed, are not the works of Mssr. Shakespeare extremely violent, emotional and prone to the use of weapons to resolve situations?" the Bishop was quoted as saying. "So-called theatrical works such as Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet are nothing more than depictions of murderous rampages and are destroying the very moral fiber of this great Kingdom.
"In other news, 29 traitors were beheaded today in the Tower of London. The traitors were convicted of attempting to assassinate Her Majesty and overthrow the monarchy. Each had also been found in the possession of the works of Shakespeare and blades longer than 24 inches
"Hello to the Milky Way galaxy and good incarnation to you all! This is the BeamSpace News Network, serving all planets in the Confederation of Man. Here are the galactic headlines on this 13th day of December, 2599:
"Genetic manipulators on the planet York confirmed today that recent studies show the venerable Earth leech, long ignored by the medical community, has certain palliative effects in the treatment of blood diseases;
"Wiley Charmer, Secretary General of the United Planets, today issued a stern rebuke to the Empire of Chitin, warning that Chitin starships harassing UP colonization vessels in the Crucis sector risk "the same treatment we doled out to their fleet over ten years ago." Attempts to reach the Chitin Embassy in Geneva for a reply were in vain;
"The Proxima Centauri Times is reporting today that the Virtual Reality Network diaries of the two teens who rampaged through the halls of a high school on Tau Ceti, killing 14 students with plasma rifles and home-made vibra-bombs, were devotees of extremely violent VR games, including the ultra-realistic Quake 204. A spokesman for Electronic Nintendo id Arts declined to comment;
"The Intergalactic Association of Police Commissioners today applauded the action of the UP Secretariat in voting unanimously to ban private possession of all weapons and virtual reality games in the wake of the Tau Ceti Tragedy. The ban includes kitchen knives, rolling pins, carpenter's hammers and the highly popular direct-connect VR game, Quake 204. "In these enlightened times, there is no reason for the private citizen to have possession of any weapon, nor to train themselves to kill on these murder simulators," read the statement;
"Twenty-nine rebels were executed in Geneva on Old Earth today. The rebels were convicted of attempted of attempting to assassinate the Secretary General and to overthrow the United Planets. They were also found to be in possession of deadly carpenter's hammers and violent VR games
"Good day, Gentlebeings. This is the Chitin Empire Approved News Agency, reporting on this 13th of December, 2999, also being the 399th year of enlightened rule by our Supreme Masters, the Chitin. In today's headlines:
"Chitin veterinarians on York 329 have determined that, all other medical procedures being outlawed for the 'human animals,' leeches are now the only approved treatment for human cancer;"
"The Chitin Supreme Emperor today issued a stern rebuke to the Yaya Hegemony, warning that Yaya bio-ships harassing peaceful Chitin battlecruisers in the Crucis sector risk "the same treatment we doled out to the humans after they unilaterally disarmed 399 years ago." Attempts to reach the Yaya Embassy in Geneva for a reply were in vain;
"In the wake of last week's Wolf 359 Tragedy, in which two Chitin teenagers went on a rampage in their school and killed 14 classmates with demolecularizers and home-made fusion bombs after viewing the heroic documentary, "Conquest of the Humans," the Supreme Emperor has issued an order outlawing entertainment of any kind.
"The Emperor also went on to note that "any Human finding this order amusing will be summarily executed
Post Mortem: Unintended consequences
When this column was published, I expected plenty of flaming email from the we must protect our kids from violence in media at all costs crowd. At the least, I expected a couple emails from the leading groups noting that I was misguided in my views. I received not one, repeat: not one, email to that effect.
I did, however, receive a veritable flood of email from libertarian and firearm rights groups asking for permission to reprint the column. It seems I touched a nerve with the line, The Chitin Supreme Emperor today issued a stern rebuke to the Yaya Hegemony, warning that Yaya bio-ships harassing peaceful Chitin battlecruisers in the Crucis sector risk "the same treatment we doled out to the humans after they unilaterally disarmed 399 years ago."
This is the Law of Unintended Consequences with a vengeance; write a column about violence in games, get positive responses from the NRA and Libertarian Party. This is rather like writing a column about the dangers of E. Coli in fast food and getting fan mail from hospital emergency rooms. Mind you, I happen to agree with the stance that the Constitution and Bill of rights is about protecting rights, not granting them, but come on!
I havent decided if the lack of email from the anti-gun, anti-violence in game nuts means I presented the argument so clearly and forcefully that no one wanted to challenge me on it, or just that no one gave a damn. It probably just means what it always means; people with agendas tend not to bother with opposing views, lest the debate break out in common sense.