The UK’s Digital Economy Bill

23 11 2009

British Parliament - image courtesy of Flickr.com

Britain is taking the newest crack at Internet regulation, making a swipe at video games and human rights in the process. Cheers!

And Here……We…Go, Again

It’s no secret that the US has struggled to regulate both Internet content and usage. Without giving too much of a law history lesson, all previous attempts have failed. You can check out examples such as the CDA or COPA, but just take my word for it. So how is the rest of the world faring?

The UK just outlined its plans to deal with illegal file-sharers (those damn pirates!) as part of its Digital Economy Bill. According to the government the bill will:

ensure ensure communications infrastructure that is fit for the digital age, supports future economic growth, delivers competitive communications and enhances public service broadcasting.”

Sounds awesome, right? As a future communication professional, it’s like a dream mission statement – so it probably won’t surprise you that the bill is a fail.

Digital Economy Bill – An Outline

For starters, you can read the entirety of the bill on Parliament’s website – here. Unless you’re accustomed to reading legal documents, I’d stay away.

According to the BBC the main points of the bill are:

  • Legal framework for tackling copyright infringement by education and technical measurement
  • New duties and powers granted to Ofcom (Office of Communication)
  • Increased investment in mobile broadband and switch to digital radio by 2015
  • Updating Channel 4 functions on TV and online
  • Age ratings for all video games aimed at children 12+

Basically, the UK wants to protect creative content by punishing pirates and provide measures to introduce a thriving digital entertainment industry. I’d get more into it but for purposes of the blog, I’m only concerned with the bill’s problems.

Protecting Your Rights By Taking Them Away

For starters, the bill allows an entire household to be cut off from the internet if a single member is accused of copyright infringement. I say “accused”, because apparently there is no need for proof, evidence and/or trials. Although I doubt that is entirely the case, punishing everyone for the actions of a single person is unacceptable.

Additionally, the bill is intended to stimulate the digital economy yet doesn’t outline improvements to broadband infrastructure. Simply stated – many areas in the UK are without internet access, and this bill has no plan to fix it.

It also appears officials will be monitoring what users do on the internet. Shielded by the law, officials will be allowed to spy on a network and impose penalties wherever inappropriate actions are perceived.

Wrong Direction, Please Turn Around

I don’t have a problem with the video game rating system, because it’s already been established. I’m not going to debate why government deems one form of creative content appropriate over another – maybe another day.

The problem here is the wrongful application of law. You cannot promote a healthy online environment by stripping law-abiding citizens of basic rights. Piracy is an issue facing many industries, and governments are still failing to solve it.

As the video game industry moves deeper into the online and digital spaces, laws like this will continue to affect both professionals and their audiences. With globalization happening at an unprecedented rate, laws in one country will affect us all. As a PR professional, stay updated on legislature that stands to change your communication landscape. You can track the progress of this bill – here.

Source

Article that talks about the bill and its effects – here.









Surviving or Thriving in the Recession?

16 11 2009

Industry Sales

Industry Sales - image courtesy of Kotaku.com

Amidst the buzz surrounding the massive launch of Modern Warfare 2, it’s easy to forget the rest of the industry isn’t doing so hot.

Once touted as recession-proof, many industry professionals are feeling the effects of the global downturn. Development studio closings, publisher layoffs, and declining year over year sales are just a few woes among the community.

Looking Back

A year ago, when the recession was at it’s worst, the video game industry posted record sales numbers. Many experts believed this business sector would be one of the few winners during the global crisis.

And who could deny it? Sales were up 18 percent from the previous year, and a steady flow of popular game franchises supported healthy growth.

However, the picture presented by Wall Street showed a different story. While the Dow and Nasdaq dropped 28 percent and 37 percent respectively, six of the biggest gaming publishers saw their stock drop an average of 53 percent.

Despite some general misgivings, most analysts were optimistic about the industry’s future. So were they right?

A Few Holes in the Armor

It cannot be denied that the video game industry is posting some impressive sales figures – in both hardware and software. Modern Warfare 2 was arguably the biggest entertainment launch in history, selling 5 million copies in one day in the US and UK alone. Kotaku has an interesting comparison article matching it up against major book, music, and movie releases.

Things aren’t so shiny on the publishing and development front, though. Mega-publisher Electronic Arts recently announced they were laying off 17 percent of their workforce as part of a “cost reduction plan”. Midway cut 25 percent of its total staff and closed one of its studios, with many small developers hit hardest by the recession.

Established studios such as Free Radical and Factor 5 are prime examples of what happens if a game flops. Free Radical was bought by Crytek and Factor 5 closed its doors.

State of the Union

While it’s safe to say the gaming industry isn’t in danger, it’s recession-proof armor is starting to wear. Analysts still expect the industry to produce $20 billion in US revenue this year, but the extent of future studio closings and layoffs is unclear.

(In)Famous game designer Denis Dyack made an interesting comment yesterday regarding the future of game publishers. Although I usually take what this guy says with a grain of salt and a laugh, he makes a plausible point.

Dyack believes the industry will go the Hollywood studio route, with games being made under a handful of large publishers. I dread the day if/when this occurs – an industry run solely by guys like Bobby Kotick instills nightmares.

Only the Strong Survive

It’s important for every PR/Communication professional to understand the industry’s strengths and weaknesses. Where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’re going are three things to always know and monitor.

The most successful professionals see crisis as opportunity. Steering your company along the right path in this climate will test if you’ve got what it takes to survive.





Stepto Takes Wind out of Pirate Sails

9 11 2009

Well, this one just blows my mind.

Stephen Toulouse

Stephen Toulouse - image courtesy of edge-online.com

This weekend Stephen Toulouse, director of Policy and Enforcement for Xbox Live, received threats from angry pirates. No, I’m not talking about the plundering kind – I’m talking about video game pirates.

Dropping the Ban Hammer

Firstly, for those of you not on the “up-n-up”, Xbox Live sent out a special Halloween treat this year. A wave of bans was sent out to individuals using modded Xbox 360s to play illegally pirated games.

Consoles issued the ban can no longer connect to Xbox Live, cannot play games off the hard drive, and cannot use Windows Media Center. Essentially, the Xbox no longer functions – a new one must be purchased.

According to a Microsoft spokesperson:

“We have taken action against a small percentage of consoles that have been modified to play pirated game disks. In line with our commitment to combat piracy and support safer and more secure gameplay for the more than 20 million members of our Xbox Live community, we are suspending these modded consoles from Xbox Live.”

They’re an Angry Bunch

Needless to say, users who received the ban were not happy about it. Forums erupted with modders swearing at Microsoft while the rest laughed at them getting what they deserved. It was genuinely entertaining – but of course someone had to go and cross the line.

This weekend Microsoft’s Stephen Toulouse began receiving phone calls from angered individuals. Threats were made regarding his wife, himself and even his dogs.

Apparently, someone over at 4chan posted Stephen’s home phone number and address. The resulting flood of phone calls prompted him to record the threats and notify the authorities. The story doesn’t end there, though.

Surprise, I Found You

Stephen hopped into an IRC channel to confront the pirates and notify them law enforcement was involved. Using his Twitter account to verify his ID, over 200 people joined the channel in  less than 10 minutes.

Stephen not only engaged the users who were calling him, but stuck around to answer various questions about the ban policy. He even notes when the phone calls ceased, and warns everyone of the consequences. The entire transcript of the conversation can be found – here.

It’s fairly obvious the threats were sick jokes aimed at harassment – however, this story raises a number of concerns.

The Internet is a Dangerous Place

Being the person responsible for managing an online community is tough enough. Unfortunately, aspects of the online video game community will always make it more difficult.

The diversity of this industry’s online community is its greatest strength and weakness. While an oftentimes rich environment, you’ll also find the absolute worst of the worst.

Many people in this community know the in’s and out’s of the Internet, and can use it as a weapon against you. Personal information is easily obtained and distributed. To combat this, you have to be as aware as your audience.

Stephen Toulouse knew where his info was posted, had it removed, and knew exactly where to find those responsible and engage them. Pretty impressive if you ask me.

Although I’d be wary of direct engagement, I think Stephen acted in an appropriate manner. He may have opened himself up to further attack, but hey – he’s got guts.







The Red Ring of Death

12 10 2009
image courtesy of killroyo5, flickr.com

image courtesy of killroyo5 - flickr.com

Stuff breaks. Ask any consumer of high end electronics if they’ve purchased a faulty product and it’s possible they have a horror story or two. Ask any Xbox 360 owner the same question, and it’s almost a guarantee.

One Ring That Fails Them All

Microsoft’s infamous Red Ring of Death has been a constant thorn in the company’s side since the 2005 release of the Xbox 360 video game console. During the early months of the console’s life, Microsoft claimed the failure rate was within the industry’s accepted range of three to five percent.

Fast forward to July 5, 2007 – Microsoft officially acknowledges the console’s problems and announces a three year warranty extension for every Xbox 360 that experiences the dreaded flashing lights. Microsoft loses money, and consumers are given a free insurance policy.

Then at GDC 2008, the company proudly announces that failure rates have officially dropped – only to be rebuked later that month when a study  finds one in six Xbox 360s to be defective. Later that year in California a class action law suit files to hold Microsoft accountable for the Red Ring of Death.

In Recent News

Game Informer magazine published their controversial survey of hardware failure rates, finding the Xbox 360’s failure rate to be a whopping 54 percent. What may be even more shocking is that many gaming publications were surprised it wasn’t higher. Even worse, participants in the survery reported Microsoft to have the least helpful customer service.

When the results of the survey hit the Web, debates raged on about the poll’s accuracy. Many were outraged that Microsoft would release such a faulty product, despite replacing affected units free of charge.

Following the Game Informer study, PlanetXbox360 released results from their own survey which found the failure rates to be somewhere around 33 percent. The website included a response from Xbox product manager Aaron Greenberg, who expressed gratitude for the continued support of customers in dealing with the console’s technical problems.

The Red Ring of Disaster

The myriad of technical problems associated with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 present a PR nightmare. The constant stream of failure rate surveys, and testimonial horror stories pose an enormous challenge for building consumer confidence.

To build that confidence Microsoft continues to stand by its three year extended warranty, which has cost the company over $1 billion. The warranty seems to be effective, with results of the Game Informer survey revealing that only 3.8 percent of participants would never buy another Xbox console due to hardware failure.

However, next year the extended warranty will come to an end and consumers will presumably be left without this insurance policy. Microsoft has been working diligently to get a handle on the console’s technical problems – i.e. with the improved Jasper chipsets – but will that be enough to counter three years of bad press?

New Modern Warfare 2 Xbox 360, image courtesy of GamingBits - flickr.com

New Modern Warfare 2 Xbox 360, image courtesy of GamingBits - flickr.com

Fool Me Once, Shame On You. Fool Me Twice…

Speaking from personal experience, I have two friends that own Xbox 360s and both have experienced the Red Ring of Death. Each now owns a replacement 360, and both seem relatively unchanged in their perception of the console.

My concern for Microsoft isn’t with existing Xbox 360 owners, but with prospective buyers. For too long Microsoft has simply championed their extended warranty, without actually communicating an increase in quality of the product.

With the recent price drop on the PS3, consumers now have the option of purchasing a more reliable and arguably more advanced console for the same price. My advice for Microsoft is to focus their PR strategy on breaking down the negative barriers associated with the console’s reliability, and show some tangible evidence that newer Xbox 360 models have indeed been built with quality in mind.







Ready! Set!……………Go?

5 10 2009
psp_go_hirez_3516_screen

image courtesy of Gamespot.com

Sony’s new PSP Go launched last week and it seems the company faces another long, uphill battle getting consumers to adopt new hardware – what is the method to Sony’s madness?

It’s How Much!?!

Probably the biggest obstacle facing the PSP Go is its price tag – $249. This might have been an easier pill to swallow if Sony didn’t just drop the price of the PS3 to $299. As it stands, paying only fifty bucks less for a portable gaming system seems almost offensive – not to mention that consumers can pick up a brand new PSP 3000 instead for only $169.99.

It’s Better Than the PSP 3000 Right?

Well that entirely depends on your point of view, but if you are a savvy consumer who reads reviews the answer is “No.” General consensus on the system is that the only real value  is in the smaller design. Sure it has Wi-Fi (outdated), Bluetooth connectivity and 16 GB’s internal storage but are these features really justified in the price tag?

Screw the Install Base

With over 50 million current PSP owners world-wide, it seems natural that many would be looking to upgrade to the PSP Go. Well there is a catch – the PSP Go doesn’t play existing UMD video games, it’s download-only.

That’s fine, considering Sony originally planned to implement a good-will program to transfer an owner’s existing UMD games over to their new PSP Go. However, merely a week before the system’s launch Sony retracted that statement and revealed no intention for such a program – at least in North America.

Gran Turismo PSP - image courtesy of Gamestop.com

Gran Turismo PSP - image courtesy of Gamespot.com

This is Madness

The PSP Go is expensive, doesn’t play existing UMD games, and most importantly sends conflicting messages to both its current install base and potential consumers. Not only did Sony fumble the ball by retracting promises for a UMD-conversion program, but they also failed to mention how many digital games would be available to purchase on the system’s launch day.

In fact, it wasn’t until the day before the system launched that Sony listed what PSP games would be added to the online store.

What’s Really Going on Here?

Personally I think Sony’s focus isn’t anywhere near the PSP Go, but on digital distribution. The PSP Go is merely a means to an end – a way to introduce consumers to digitally download their games. Sony knows consumers are hesitant to accept this system, so the company will continue to support UMD and the PSP 3000 while hooking early adopters with the PSP Go.

I believe Sony is hoping PSP 3000 owners will start adopting digital games over the UMD versions, eventually migrating to full acceptance of the distribution system.

There’s a Better Way

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker - image courtesy of Gamespot.com

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker - image courtesy of Gamespot.com

As a future PR professional, I can’t help but see this as a missed oportunity. The PSP is entering its strongest software lineup since launch, and now there are two conflicting SKUs for audiences to choose from. I think the PSP Go is a thinly veiled experiment, and should be communicated as an option rather than an upgrade.

Sony’s communication strategy should focus on the PSP brand, not the individual SKUs. The PSP Go represents a communication misstep in what should otherwise be a golden age for the handheld, with big name titles like Assassin’s Creed, Gran Turismo, and Metal Gear Solid.

Once again, successful communication comes down to knowing your audience and reaching them with a specific message. What is Sony trying to say with the PSP Go? As of right now, the message isn’t clear.





Dante’s Inferno Campaign Gone to Hell?

28 09 2009

image courtesy of Joystiq.com

image courtesy of Joystiq.com

Mock Christian protests, contests of “lust”, and potential journalistic bribery are just a few of the aspects of the PR campaign behind EA’s upcoming game Dante’s Inferno.  Loosely based on the epic poem the Divine Comedy, the action title will take players on a journey through Hell and its various circles – greed, lust, gluttony, wrath, etc. Criticized by many for being a simple God of War clone, it appears EA is not afraid of pushing boundaries of good taste to grab attention.

Epic Fail?
At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, EA hired a marketing agency to form a picket line “in protest” of the game’s content. Naturally, many pro-Christian groups were wildly offended by the stunt. Further public ire was roused when the company sponsored a “Sin to Win” contest at Comic-Con, where one lucky winner would receive “dinner and a sinful night with two hot girls, a limo service, paparazzi and a chest full of booty.”

Oh but wait – there’s more. EA recently sent out legitimate $200 checks to various editors in the gaming press, hoping to catch “greedy” individuals within the industry. Some chose to donate the money to charity while others disposed of the money in abefitting fashion.

Despite whatever ethical misgivings you may have about this campaign, it’s pretty clear EA has  successfully managed to put Dante’s Inferno in the spotlight.  It’s safe to say the company wants coverage, despite coming off as indecent and insensitive. Even the campaign’s target audience seems split on how they feel about the game’s marketing.

What I Think
As a future PR professional, I can’t support the way EA has been handling this campaign. I understand what the company is trying to do, and while I think the ideas behind the campaign are creative – the execution is substantially misguided.

The “Sin to Win” contest is my major gripe with the campaign. This event was not only offensive to many, but it perpetuates a stereotype that sets back the gaming industry as a whole.  I feel there is an inherent responsibility for PR campaigns to not only promote the specific product, but reflect well as part of the bigger picture.

The audience for video games isn’t a bunch of immature adolescent males, but includes folks from all walks of life. Dante’s Inferno is widely appealing to this audience as an action-adventure title, which has now been segmented thanks to EA’s campaign. The audience should always be the primary area of consideration in any PR campaign – not simply making headlines.

On a broader note, is it ever appropriate for a PR campaign to revolve around generating controversy? Generally I feel the video game industry has enough controversy without adding fuel to the fire, and PR should focus on communicating a positive message. Still, deep down inside a small part of me can’t help but smile when I hear about a story like this – is EA exposing the evil within?