Thursday, 16 July 2015

Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment: Kings of DLC and Pre-Order Culture

At the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con last weekend, Warner Bros. showed the trailer for the upcoming Suicide Squad movie. As usual, the trailer was immediately leaked to the internet, and for the next 24 hours WB's "anti-piracy team" tried endlessly to stop it getting out. After dismally failing to do so, they eventually just uploaded the trailer to Youtube, with a super passive aggressive message about how they wanted this trailer to be a "unique experience for Comic-Con". Now, none of this has anything to do with gaming, so why am I bringing all of this up? Well this attitude extends into Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, their game publishing arm.

You might have gathered from my extremely moody post about Arkham Knight and its PC port, I'm not super happy with Warner. Holders to the rights of some of my favorite franchises, such as DC Comics, Scribblenauts and Lord of the Rings, WB have a hit and miss record when it comes to games they produce. As a fan of Batman, seeing that my preferred platform to play these games on was treated as a second class citizen behind the consoles hurt me more than I'd like to admit.

Arkham Knight is just the tip of the iceberg however. WB has a history of shady practices, ranging from poor ports to slicing parts of the game out to offer as DLC or pre-order bonuses. When Arkham City first came out, they put codes in all of the boxes to access the Catwoman missions, content that was already on the disk, but locked to try and stop people buying the game preowned instead of new. If you did buy the game second hand, the Catwoman missions had to be purchased, ensuring WB got their little slice of the pie. I actually initially bought Arkham City on the Xbox 360, because they delayed the PC release, and in my brand new, sealed copy of the game, my code for the Catwoman missions failed to work, meaning if I wanted to access the content I had paid for, I would have to purchase it again. That copy was returned immediately, and I decided to wait for the PC version.

Not pictured: the rage this bug caused me.
Every one of Warner's games I've played has adverts for season passes and DLC right there in the main menu. Exclusive pre-order bonuses from certain retailers ensure that to get the complete game you would need to order the game multiple times, or more commonly in Australia, that you just can't get access to them without paying for it later. The very first trailer for Arkham Knight ever released included an advert for the Harley Quinn missions, but only if you pre-ordered. It always seemed to me like WB treats games as more of a platform to sell more DLC. After all, this is the company that straight up said they weren't going to fix bugs in Arkham Origins because "the team is currently working hard on the upcoming story DLC." They did eventually fix the game breaking bugs, but to this day there are still non game breaking ones all throughout Origins.

Even games that are completely worthy of praise aren't immune to controversy due to decisions made by WB marketing executives. Shadow of Mordor, my game of the year in 2014 and possibly one of my top games of all time, faced some poor publicity after they offered Youtube personalities early access to the game in return for only positive coverage of the game. Jim Sterling, then at the Escapist, got his hands on a copy of the contract and revealed just how strict it was. With messages like "persuade viewers to purchase the game", "videos will promote positive sentiment of the game" and "videos must not show bugs or glitches", and giving Warner the final say on if a video can be put out, the contract reveals just how strongly WB wants to control the messages about its games. Oddly enough, the contract also forbade mentions of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies, characters and books, arguably hamstringing anyone who actually likes the Tolkien universe from being able to compare to them, even in a positive light.

The ridiculous thing about this contract was that the game was good in the first place. Had WB not tried to control the message so hard, all of the news surrounding Shadow of Mordor on launch would have been overwhelmingly positive. The PC port was amazing, the story was strong for fans of the established lore, and the Nemesis system is a mechanic I really hope to see implemented in future games. As it stands, Shadow of Mordor will always have that black mark in its history, and WB will always be remembered as trying to control a message that didn't need controlling.

Even when Warner eventually did the right thing and pulled Arkham Knight from sale on Steam and other digital distributors, they had to spin it to sound like they weren't doing it to stop the flood of refunds they were no doubt getting. Rather than just saying, "yeah we messed up, and are going to fix it," they had to say that a significant amount of players were enjoying the game on PC, just to twist the knife to those who were having problems.

Realistically, Warner are probably worse than EA and Ubisoft, both of whom have copped a lot of flak over the years, and rightfully so. But where EA and Ubisoft at least make efforts to try and fix things, the message we get from Warner is "lololol too busy making more stuff to sell you suckers". I can pretty much guarantee that the only reason they pulled Arkham Knight from sale on Steam was because of the recent addition of the refund option by Valve, and they saw the number of people who weren't going to put up with their crap. Had the option been there with Arkham Origins, I'm convinced that the message wouldn't have been "we're too busy making DLC", it would have been "we're going to fix those bugs".

All of this has been stated before, many times, and by people with far larger audiences than me, and still Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment show us that they don't understand why we dislike the stunts they pull. I've never been one to complain about the commercialization of video games, but I'm done with way WB treats us, especially those of us who prefer the PC platform. And really, in my mind, it comes back to how they reacted to the inevitable leaks of the Suicide Squad trailer. Warner is old media, trying to hold onto that sliver of tenuous control they have over their message, being dragged kicking and screaming into the new age of the internet, where people can share information faster than Warner can suppress it. Get with the times WB, and maybe I'll play your games again.

As always,


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