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8/3/2010 9:55:04 AM - Starcraft 2 Review

I played the Starcraft 2 beta extensively. I have not and will not purchase the game given the multitude of issues listed below for anything near the ludicrous $60 retail price. I'll probably pick it up when I can get it in the $30-40 range but I'll be surprised if it holds my interest very long. What follows is basically a train-of-thought missive regarding some of the many problems that I see with the game.

I am not a typical RTS gamer and your take may be identical or dramatically different than mine. In particular, I could care less about the single-player campaign. Instead, I place a high amount of value on being able to play the game now or 10-15 years from now (as I do occasionally still play the original Starcraft), and not have to worry about authentication servers still being up.

I don't like having to worry that a group of people will come over and we might not be able to play because my Internet service went out (as happened a week ago for a solid 36 hours), or because Blizzard's servers are temporarily down, or because we all HAVE TO install the latest patch (from the same Internet connection) because Activision Blizzard doesn't want to provide standalone patch files.

* No LAN.
* $60 price point.
* No chat lobbies. (How do you spend over a decade on a sequel, babble on about how Battle.Net is the end-all be-all for online gaming destinations, and then release something that doesn't allow people to easily gather and chat? Where are you supposed to meet new people with which you can game?)
* Single Battle.Net account (which prevents two people from taking turns playing the game on even a single machine, practicing with one name/account in multiplayer while competing with another, etc..)
* No possibility of resale (due to the inability to rename or reset an account.)
* Region-locked and language locked to region.
* Online authentication required before multiplayer OR the single-player campaign can be accessed. There is a lot of debate as to whether authenticating the game grants one a "30 day grace period" after which the single player game may be played offline (at which point another online authentication would be necessary.) There are literally thousands - one thread on the Blizzard forums had over a hundred posts before a Blizzard administrator closed the thread - of people complaining that the "grace period" does not work. Blizzard has ignored the complaints. As far as I can tell, if there is a 30-day grace period of any sort, it likely gets reset (and therefore requires re-authenticating) if you exit the game...and definitely if you restart your computer. In any event, however such a grace period works, you don't have access to your single-player campaign progress (because your saved games are stored on the Battle.net servers.) If I were 11 years old, I'd label this entire dysfunctional authentication mess an EPIC FAIL.
* Progress cannot be saved during the single-player campaign if the connection to the Battle.net server is lost (and not reconnected.)
* Lame tech support - form responses are the norm.
* No privacy controls. Can't "hide" from online friends, multiplayer AND single-player game statistics available to all, etc..
* No ability to name a custom game.
* Clumsy custom map browsing and uploading system.
* No ability to see how you or your league rank worldwide (or even across a given region) - only in your particular 100-person league. I went undefeated in the beta after one particular reset (spanning about a dozen games) and was placed at the top of a platinum league but have no idea how I ranked worldwide (which, honestly, would have said more about the StarCraft 2 ranking system than it would have about my skill - perhaps I should have finished my opponents a few seconds quicker?)
* No significant innovation. It's like the original...only prettier and with some new units/powers/buildings/upgrades.
* Initial installment limited to the Terran campaign so that you'll have to pay for the same game (with some new missions and flicks) a total of three times if you want to be able to experience all three races...as you could with the original.
* Limited number of temporary "guest passes" included instead of supporting the "spawn" concept pioneered by the original.
* Banned accounts can effectively render the software totally worthless (since you'll never be able to authenticate the game...and certainly won't be able to access any of the multiplayer functionality.) This is a HUGE problem for me. First of all, it's not like it's a court of law that's determining your guilt. They'll shoot from the hip and, as they state in their terms of service, "All account ban decisions are final". If you believe that you've been wrongly banned...well, tough luck, and you'll need to go buy the game again if you want to play it. What if your account was hacked and someone else committed the act that caused the ban? What if they think that calling your partner "an idiot" violates their vague terms of service (stating that you shouldn't use "offensive/threatening language", "hate speech", etc.) and you get banned for it? What if they mistakenly identified your account as using a gameplay hack but in reality their detection mechanism simply has a bug? (I know it's hard to believe, but just because a program says that something is true doesn't necessary mean it's true.) What if your name really is "Dick Johnson" but they think that you're just trying to be funny? What if they simply don't like how you play the game? Here's a link to a comment by a Blizzard tech:

http://forums.battle.net/thread.html?topicId=26137536327&sid=3000

The post states:

Bans are license specific unless it's from bad accesses to a Battle.net account. We can lock down a Battle.net account when it happens but if you do something goofy in a game (like Backstabbing, poor Mugaro), we can apply temporary or permanent bans on just the game itself depending on severity. Details aren't fully available at this time.

"Backstabbing" is basically breaking an alliance with your teammate and attacking him. So...they include the ability to break an alliance with your partner, but then threaten that if you actually utilize that feature they might ban the game you purchased, thus rendering it useless. Brilliant. Here's an idea, dimwits - don't allow players to break an alliance once it's formed if you want to prevent such behavior. Problem solved.

The basic problem here is that Activision Blizzard wants you to go through their servers for even basic access to the game (in order to prevent piracy and enable new streams of future revenue), but also wants to be able to ban your account entirely for pretty much anything that they decide warrants it, and you have no recourse whatsoever in regards to their decision. Those decisions, by the way, will likely have been formulated after about seven seconds of contemplation by whatever rocket scientist they've got dealing with such issues. If you attempt to plead your case - good luck. The chances are extremely high that you'll simply get a form letter back that ignores all of the careful logic that you thought might actually matter...but doesn't...because maximizing profits in this regard means throwing the innocents out with the guilty so that the number of technical support staff needed can be minimized. In a final bit of tragic irony, the banned player may decide to repurchase the game in order to create a new account and regain access...and thus reward the very same system that treated him so poorly.

Et cetera, et cetera. I'm just scratching the surface here, and wondering how so many poor decisions found their way into such a high-profile product that took an eternity and cost a fortune to develop.

In maximizing their short-term profit, I believe that Activision Blizzard is sowing the seeds of their eventual decline from their once-stratospheric reputational heights.

Activision - like most other large software developers - would like to eventually be able to charge a monthly fee for access to their games, and generate additional revenue by selling ads to their user base. I suspect that's at least as large a part of the reason as piracy as to why they're trying to force people to get used to dealing with their Battle.Net service.

I've got to wonder, though, if what we're seeing here is what those who follow business news have seen all too many times...an inclination by a company with temporary "pricing power" (in this case, a stellar reputation for quality and an extremely popular franchise) to push too far and, as a result, to jeopardize their long-term value for the sake of short-term profits. I've waited the last couple of years for Starcraft 2 to come out...and now, because of the aforementioned issues, Activision won't be getting the nearly $200 that I'd have spent on the game...or the additional revenue for the inevitable "expansions". Blizzard has torn an undeniable rift in their base of support with these moves, and that will have ripple effects on many later titles such as Diablo III. I've been eagerly awaiting that game as well, but my interest level has now dropped precipitously as I suspect that it will be riddled with the same "pro-Activision/anti-consumer" issues as Starcraft 2.

I know, I know...it's easy to complain, but what would I have done differently to maintain the "brand value" of Activision Blizzard, while still bowing to the realities of the marketplace - a need to protect intellectual property, a desire to maximize the return on investment by driving people to your online gaming service, etc.?

I would have pushed Battle.Net...but not forced it. I'd make the community features so desirable that people would want to get online, but could still play offline if they so desired. I wouldn't force a devoted fan base - in one fell swoop - to go "my way or the highway", especially when the original (that sold roughly 12 million units and was an astronomical success) was far more flexible in many ways. That's dumb...plain and simple. Whereas losing "only" a few hundred thousand sales due to such issues might seem inconsequential compared to the millions that will sell regardless, it understates the splintering of the fan base...and how the diminished word-of-mouth and repeat purchases that happened with the original Starcraft will affect your bottom line in the years to come.

Further, those additional sales are almost entirely profit, and thus their impact on the bottom line is disproportionate to their quantity. The development and marketing costs on the game are fixed - they don't change regardless as to whether Activision Blizzard sells 4 or 5 million units. Assuming it takes 3 million units in order for Activision Blizzard to recoup those expenses, each additional sale is pure profit (with the exception of the minor duplication/packaging/transportation costs for retail units or bandwidth costs for online sales.) Thus, if you wind up selling a total of 4.75 million units and "only" lose 250,000 units due to the aforementioned issues, your profitability will have actually suffered a painful 12.5% hit.

I don't like any form of required authentication or Internet-only multiplayer functionality because no game manufacturer ever guarantees that their servers will remain up...or free, for that matter. Activision Blizzard could shut down their servers tomorrow and you'd be out of luck. You couldn't play any multiplayer games and your access to the single player functionality would expire within 30 days. The original Starcraft is still played by many, many people a dozen years after its release. Will the authentication and Battle.Net servers still be up for Starcraft 2 a dozen years from now? 20? Will Activision Blizzard shut down the current servers at some point and try to force you to pay a fee for monthly access to their "new and improved" servers?

There are many other things that I'd have done far differently. Why can't you buy a "family pack" for the game - say, 3 units for $100 or 4 for $120? Do you really think that a family of four is going to go out and buy 4 copies of a $60 game in this economic environment? They'd make do with one or two at most...and curse your name every time they had to deal with the inane single-account limitation on Battle.Net. In short, you won't get the additional sales you're hoping to reap with such a rigid pricing structure, and you'll simultaneously wind up harming your own reputation by having your customers deal with what most people would consider "unfair" shortcomings. (Most people would expect that as long as they're not playing a game at a given time, they should be able to allow a wife, friend, or child use the game...without that secondary usage obliterating the original owner's progress.) Anti-virus vendors figured this out long ago. Hell, even Microsoft figured it out with "family pricing" for Microsoft Windows...and those guys aren't the brightest marketers on the block.

I'd allow people to rename and reset their accounts. Worried that they might resell the game? Get over it. People ought to be able to sell a product they purchased - whether you call it a "license" or whatever - to someone else. If your business plan is based upon not allowing your customers to earn back a small portion of that exorbitant $60 price tag that you want to charge when they no longer see any value in it, there's something fundamentally wrong with your company. Should auto companies install biometric sensors so that cars just need to be scrapped when a customer decides to get something else? The whole idea is inane. Here's a better idea - embrace the concept of resale. Make it a FEATURE of Battle.Net. Allow people to EASILY resell their games - with Activision Blizzard ensuring the legitimacy of the product key, handling the financial transaction, and taking a, say, 20% cut of the profit. The seller wouldn't have to mail anything to anyone, the purchaser could rest assured that the game license was legitimate, you'd instill a ton of goodwill in your user community, and people wouldn't hesitate as much when you push a new $60 price point for a PC game because they know that they could eventually get some of it back. You could allow sellers to retain the Activision Blizzard cut of the profit if they took credit (rather than cash) towards a future game or monthly subscription fee. Your minimum prices would be higher than cut-rate sites like Ebay - and people would be willing to pay them - because you could verify the keys being sold. There are a million ways that you could go about implementing this system - and making it beneficial to both Activision Blizzard, old customers trying to sell a game for which they no longer have any use, and new customers willing to pay something - which is better than nothing - but not the full retail price (or else they'd have already purchased it.)

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Honestly, I'm not surprised by Activision Blizzard's inept approach to all of this. One of the main reasons that I left the game industry to work on my own things - some of them still games - was because I got tired of seeing people make the same dumb mistakes over and over again. With the release of Starcraft 2, I see that the industry still fails miserably at intelligently innovating the customer relationship.

- TZ

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