So I made this video. Then a day later this happened. I don’t mean Sterling’s video in particular, I just mean yet another in a series of outcries bemoaning the quality of games on Steam and calling for tighter standards on what gets published. And it’s sometimes frustrating to pose the counter-argument on this issue – the opposition has megaphones on major game websites and the support of armies of self-righteous game players, while the side of open platforms is largely the side of developers and a few critics that want to see barriers to entry lowered. And while I wanted to respond I’ve got more important things to make videos about than rehashing these same arguments forever, so I figured a blog post would do. More after the jump.
Now, I want to be upfront about the fact that Air Control is by all accounts a terrible game. This post is not an attempt to rush to the defense of a game that almost certainly a waste of money unless you’re buying it for ironic hipster cred. Nor is it an attempt to diffuse most of the bile being thrown the game’s way – by all means, rag on the game! I’m not saying “This game is good.” I’m saying “Arguments for taking this game off of Steam generally suck.” Well, let me rephrase that: Arguments for taking this game off of Steam result in a chilling effect that raises the barrier of entry for smaller, deserving titles that aren’t trainwrecks. And why are we so eager to throw those small titles out with the bathwater? So people plunking six bucks down on a game called “Air Control” sight unseen and without any research can be assured their purchase will have an abitrary “minimum level of quality.”
It’s yet another example of angry internet people being upset that they have to recognize something they don’t like even exists; the very idea that a game like “Air Control” rests in a Steam database next to Half-life 2 and Portal frustrates them to no end. It’s not enough to warn people about the game; it’s not enough to publicly mock the video game equivalent of a z-grade movie. No, it must be destroyed, removed from the store and banished from sale outright. So what is it about Air Control that makes it so terrible that a strongly worded review or criticism isn’t enough; what makes it so terrible that people need to demand it be ineligible for sale? Well, let’s review the arguments:
Just… look at it! It’s garbage!
Pleas to aesthetic taste are perhaps the weakest arguments I’ve heard. Yeah, the game uses pre-baked art assets and generally lacks any sense of artistic direction, culminating in a title that’s unappealing to the eye. But plenty of games have visual styles that turn off people for any number of reasons. Games like Proteus, Race the Sun, and McPixel have each turned people off by their lo-fi looks. The You Don’t Know Jack games are literally low-res ports of Macromedia games from the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and look and sound every bit the part. Actual Sunlight uses default RPG maker popups, but that doesn’t make the game any less affecting or meaningful. I love Luke Schneider’s work at Radian Games (seriously, buy Super Crossfire), but no one would suggest the new Powerpuff Girls game didn’t have a bit of an air of programmer art about it. But even so, no one’s calling for any of these game’s removal from the store. Not every game can (or should!) be a lush visual indulgence; and games are more than a series of pretty frames rendered to your monitor.
Liz Ryerson has a fantastic piece up on the dangers of judging games by their visual aesthetics (in particular in reference to Michael Brough’s work) that attempts to remind people that something they might not find attractive is not the same thing as something that is low quality or without thought or value. The point is: A game being ugly or using default engine asset isn’t grounds for a work to remain unpublished. Ugly games are games too.
It misrepresented itself
So do most games, frankly. Have you seen the Dead Island trailer? Or talked to people about bullshots? Should Aliens: Colonial Marines been removed from Steam for not matching its screenshots? Should Dark Souls 2? Should a game that has “30 levels” where each level is the same space but different waves of enemies be removed from the store? Alternately: What happens when a game like Metal Gear Solid 2 comes around again, pulling a bait-and-switch with its protagonist? Are we to blame false advertising and remove that game, too?
Valve/Steam are not in the business of enforcing Truth in Advertising laws. Granted, they should have an improved returns system, and the fact that they still don’t is a testament to the idea that Valve maybe aren’t the universal good guys the internet keeps pretending they are.
Here’s a review of Watch_Dogs that notes poor framerate, mouse acceleration, and an occasional BSOD. The reviewer describes the game as being so broken as to recommend that readers “find something that works” instead. But he’s not calling for the removal of this game from Steam, just lamenting the poor state of the game. Bethesda games crash regularly. Older games on Steam tend to only half-work if you don’t have the original hardware to run them on (Quake III in particular kills my machine to the point where I need to reboot it unless I run an updated third party source port capable of supporting modern resolutions). I bought R*’s Manhunt a few years back and the game crashes after the first cutscene on my current gaming PC. Steam surely sells games whose multiplayer services have long been shut down, and lots of games are in a questionable position with Games For Windows Live going offline in the near future. Should these games all be removed too, because they’re broken for one person or are partially broken or may be broken in the future?
“Broken” is a weird thing in software. EULAs attempt to defend companies from broken software by claiming it’s provided “As-is,” but they exist in something of a legal limbo in a lot of places. And what’s “broken” for you might not be “broken” for me – I’m sure people are running Quake 3 and Manhunt just fine on hardware from 2003. So how broken is so broken that it’s unsellable? Valve are already offering titles that ostensibly won’t work for some or even most people. Why are we drawing the line here, with this game? I mean, aside from the fact that it plays badly and isn’t visually appealing and we’re trying to turn it into something of an internet mockery. Because I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason.
This taps into a bigger question than game quality: With the increase in releases on Steam, how can they be sure no content ever infringes another’s copyright? This is a problem that has cropped up on YouTube and elsewhere on the internet. And the short answer is they can’t, at least not easily. There’s no way to check every audio file and image in a game against every bit of audio and image under copyright. And seriously: Do we really want YouTube’s ContentID system creeping its way into our game distribution channels?
Now, Air Control is probably riddled with every bit as much stolen content as people claim. But angry internet mobs who notice that sound clips are taken from a Delta Video don’t get to dictate fair use; the courts do. The way the system works should be: Delta (or whoever) notice their content has been taken. They file a DMCA claim with Valve, who promptly pull the game to remain DMCA compliant and immune from prosecution. Delta then threatens to take the developer/publisher to court. Sometimes they reach a settlement (yay!) and the game is made available again once Valve is notified the matter is settled. Other times they go to court, and a lot of bad things can happen there. Either way: courts decide if unsourced material is cool, and Valve exists to facilitate distribution. It is not Valve’s job nor the job of Internet Nobodies to play Intellectual Property Lawyer.
People wanting to kick Air Control off of Steam aren’t taking on a meaningful advocacy for consumer rights, they’re joining in yet another internet pitchforks-and-torches bandwagon. It’s not that Air Control deserves defending – it’s a transparent cash grab that offers little value outside of a “so bad we can make fun of it for 15 minutes” style ironic purchase. But hey, at least that’s some value to someone, even if it’s a shallow activity and not the best way to spend that $6. Why deny people that if they want to engage it in that way? Why remove it outright, as though being available to consumers is itself a crime? This mentality would see MST3K films banned from store shelves; it would expunge badly written books from Barnes and Noble, it would seek to not just mock but eradicate works that don’t achieve a certain level of quality.
I get going all “Hulk Smash” on the game – it’s bad media, and the internet has been doing that to bad media since the heyday of James Rolfe and Doug Walker. But removing it from sale invites a terrible precedent of making distribution channels less inclusive, and the benefits of being assured in our luxury purchases don’t offset the loss in making these channels even harder to get onto. If nothing else, think of it this way: Five years from now someone’s going to stumble on Jim Sterling’s video and think Air Control looks like a goddamn hilarious way to spend six bucks so that they and their friends can understand Sterling’s frustration. And if Sterling gets his way they won’t be able to.