Happy New Year: Some Reflection, Some Prognostication, and an "I Told You So"

Shawn Delahunty's picture

Hello Everyone! I hope that you've all had a terrific Christmas and New Year break, and are as excited as I am about the possibilities and promise of 2013. I've been absent from Armchair Arcade for too long (again... job-related...), and am working on some articles to remedy that. (I still owe you good people the last article on the Houston Arcade Expo.) For now though, since it's the time of year that people tend get all gooey and sentimental, reflecting on the past so that they might get a better grip on the future, I thought I'd chat a bit about a topic near and dear to our hearts as gamers in the 21st century: SaaS - Software As A Service.

Some Introspection on Software As A Service

As part of my day-job, I deal with a huge number of different software technologies. These range from Web/Wiki development, to version control systems for software and CAD, to client/server data transfer solutions, to writing software for custom hardware, to system builds and integration, to application-level code... it's a really long list, and I won't bore you with all the gritty digital details. In doing my job, I also get to deal with what's known in the industry as "middleware": External software programs, libraries, and packages, which we use to hook together the various bits and chunks, to create a complete software-system. As such, I get to have all the "fun" of trying to integrate and understand the ragged and often ill-conceived innards of these external bits of software. Most of the time, quite honestly, it's a pain--usually because someone chose the package poorly, picked it for the wrong reasons, chose because they misunderstood what the external software actually DID, got hood-winked by the sales guy, and so on.

As a result of all this "fun" that I get to experience, over the years I've formed some very strong and decidedly contrarian views on the topic of "middleware". Usually, as long as the source code for the external middleware package is available, a solution (no matter how ugly and painful) can be eventually worked out. This is not an option in some cases however, where you license the use of the software, but not access to the source-code--you end up having to deal with the company which wrote the thing originally. They will provide the updates, they will weigh whether or not you've found an internal bug, they will issue fixes and patches... for a fee of course---the very definition of "Software as a Service".

Now, on one level, I don't have a problem with SaaS. It's certainly not a new idea. For my part, I had my first exposure to the concept of "Software as a Service" in my youth. The notion of SaaS as it relates to video games, started in the arcades, really as an extension of the pool-halls and EM (electro-mechanical) pinball machines which pre-dated video games. Fundamentally, it was all based around the notion of 25-cent microtransactions. That's the price they charged to "use" the game-code on any given machine--at least for a while.. It was no different that what IBM had been doing with their huge mainframe-based data- and accounting-systems since the 1950's. Instead of a block of time to crunch your accounting data, you got a block of time to crunch your entertainment data.

Somewhere in there though, the notion of "renting machine-time" and "renting software" began to blur. Just as minicomputers and then microcomputers and PC's pushed into the business world and displaced the mainframe, so too the home-computers and home gaming consoles pushed into the consumer world and displaced the arcade machines and pinball cabs. Hence the notion of a "license", to run the software on your hardware, was born. Still though, people required (and expected) physical media to install said software on all those machines. And so things went for about 25-30 years.

Nowadays, we're in the midst of crossing the next "blurry line".

  • What happens if we don't have physical media with the software on it?
  • What happens if the content-streaming doesn't work?
  • Or if the company decides to discontinue that version?
  • Or if the company decides to charge more for a yearly license?
  • Or if the company wants to force you to their "newer shinier" product?
  • Or worst of all, what happens when the company goes *KERPOOF* and takes the heart of your business work-flow with it?
  • How will people feel when their favorite MMO, the game they used to socialize and spend enjoyable blocks of time relaxing, goes *PIFFLE*?

These questions have been asked before by countless other pundits, so I'm certainly not treading new ground here. Anyone who's read my work here on Armchair knows that I've posed variations of these very questions here on multiple occasions. To be sure, I have issues with SaaS, for all the obvious reasons that those questions raise. But as I drink a few celebratory beers to ring in the New Year, I've been mulling things over again, and come to a strange realization (beer can do that to you...)

It's clear that SaaS bothers me greatly; it's fair to say that it even infuriates me. But I have to ask the obvious question, "WHY is my response so vehemently negative?"

A minor series of revelations...

I clearly didn't mind the concept of "renting" or "licensing" video-game software when I slugged quarter after quarter into Ms. Pacman and Defender as a kid. Heck, I still don't mind the idea. I love arcade games and pinball, and will gladly drop a couple quarters into the stray Galaga, PacMan, and DoDonPachi game.

Why then, do I find the idea of SaaS so heinously offensive in other areas? How is spending a couple bucks on pinball, any different than spending a couple bucks on a funky sword or gun-sight upgrade in an MMO? From a certain point of view, you could argue that the money spent in an MMO is actually far more cost-effective as entertainment. That shiny "Helm of Blinding Manliness" is mine to use for the rest of the month at the very least; my extra-lives on Defender will be gone before the hour is out.

This realization, this awareness, has made me uncomfortable. In thinking about it more deeply (beer is also good for introspection, in case you didn't know) I came up with a set of other possible answers to the questions of:

"Why does even the idea of SaaS make me so upset? Why am I not merely mad, but actually offended by SaaS":

  • Is it the fact that "they" want to use MY machine H/W and my power feed to support "their" software?
  • Is it that "they" have crap software, so I know it's chewing more cycles / RAM / resources than it should?
  • Is it that "they" have a tendency, by discontinuing a version, or forcing an upgrade, or whatever, are "changing the bargain?" I'm thinking of 'bargain' along the lines of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back here, when Vader warns Lando Calrissian:

    "I am altering the bargain... Pray I do not alter it further..."

  • Is SaaS somehow less offensive to me with regards to "play" vs. "work"?
  • Is it because I feel as though they are (not-so-) subtly insulting my intelligence? (I believe there is a great deal of presumption on the part of companies, particularly game companies. Namely, that we as customers are stupid, that we're going to go along with whatever changes they want to make because "The Newer Shiny Is Better! Trust Us!")

In the end, I think it's that last item which upsets me the most. Although the whole "Vader thing" is a close second. It strikes me as dishonest, unethical. (I won't make the mistake of saying "illegal", since there are certainly terms in the click-through agreements that basically state the companies can do whatever they want, at any time.) I think this is terrible, and a bad thing for gaming in general.

Now, I am painfully aware that a great number of people feel differently; much differently, as the monetary numbers attributed to World of Warcraft and all the "gold rush" Free-2-Play social / casual games demonstrate. I've read and listened to most of the counter-arguments to my stance. And as I am a libertarian at heart, I ultimately believe in people having the absolute right to decide for themselves what they want to spend--even if it's shortsighted and stupid and will bite them in the ass later.

However, things have started to get interesting recently....

I Told You So: The Zynga Debacle

I've groused about Zynga a good deal both here and elsewhere. What has angered me most is the manipulative and frankly evil behavior encouraged and initiated by it's founder, Mark Pincus. When Zynga was started, he openly joked about the horrible ad-ware and spy-ware that got installed onto a user's PC when they attempted to play Zynga games. He freely admitted that he was willing to do anything to get enough funding to get his company started. (Here is a link to an article summarizing his twisted little speech.) Zynga has been, in my eyes, the worst example of "Software as a Service" affecting gaming.

Yet despite my objections, the counter-arguments have generally gone, "..Joe Sixpack doesn't care." This much seems to have been true, judging from the number of people playing, and paying for the various offerings from Zynga. I have had numerous conversations both online and face-to-face about the potential problems inherent in SaaS, particularly with regards to Zynga's utter disregard for ethical behavior. It seems that nearly everyone I have spoken with in the past 4 - 5 years insisted that, "..the popular stuff would hang on. By the time something goes away, most will have moved on to the latest fad."

Thus, it was with some seriously grim satisfaction that I read the following article on Slashdot today. Zynga announced they are shutting down a slew of their on-line game offerings:

  • PetVille
  • Mafia Wars 2
  • FishVille
  • Vampire Wars
  • Treasure Isle
  • Indiana Jones Adventure World
  • Mafia Wars Shakedown
  • Forestville
  • Montopia
  • Mojitomo
  • Word Scramble Challenge

We are only beginning to see the, "Oh my gosh! There are consequences for my choices!" reaction from Joe-Sixpack "Casual Gamer" concerning these shutdowns. People are beginning to appreciate the true scope of the loss; the amount of time, effort, and emotional investment poured into "virtual stuff which you don't own." My genuine hope is that, perhaps finally, when the impact hits vast numbers of "average consumer" or the "casual players", the true pitfalls of "Software As A Service" will start to sink into people's collective awareness.

(I'm going to do my very best and try NOT to gloat too much that it's Zynga getting hammered for this in the press and on many web forums. I know that people, a lot of people, are geniunely hurt over these game shutdowns. But I must admit to more than a touch of schadenfreude, bordering on glee, that Zynga not only had a huge financial slide in 2012, but is now facing even more backlash in 2013 resulting from this behavior. I believe in freedom of choice, but I'm very pleased to see the "consequences of actions" also still functions...)

Closing thoughts and gazing into my Crystal Oblate Spheroid...

As with all things in life, I believe this is a cycle. I genuinely think this is the beginning of the pendulum swing back towards normalcy; an awareness of the need for some form of "guaranteed ownership", for physical media, for independence from the vagaries of any one company or cartel. My hope is that more gamers get burned, if only so that they may wake up to the reality that too many greedy businesses are treating their customers like ignorant cattle; dumb piggybanks to be flipped over and shaken mercilessly to try and dislodge every last dime.

But like all things, in chaos lies the promise of great change, the possibility of great improvement.

I foresee great opportunities for those businesses which respond properly and decently to the coming backlash. There is now a terrific market for wooing the disenfranchised, disillusioned, and shoddily treated gamers, both hard-core and casual alike. Return to a business model that treats customers like ACTUAL PEOPLE, instead of a "monetizable resource", and a business can do very well I think.

(In the relatively near future, I hope to start doing this very thing... I'll keep you posted on how that unfolds.)

Ok, I suck at making specific predictions, but I have to admit I'm excited about a goodly number of things coming up in the next twelve months:

  • Valve releasing the Linux client for Steam, and working on modern PC games for Linux...
  • Kickstarter funding some truly terrific games...
  • Another set of Humble Indie Bundles... provided they stick to the Indie part.
  • The continual improvement of Android phones and tablets, showing more viability as a gaming platform...
  • Some (possibly) sane resolutions to the Global Thermonuclear Patent War that is being waged...
  • The release of wicked cool new games for the Wii U, PS Vita, and ???...
  • A whole slew of cool new indie games! (which I can add to the stack... that I haven't had time to play yet...*sigh*

I think 2013 holds great promise folks. After all, we survived the Mayan Apocalypse!!! So as always, please share your thoughts and comments below. I hope that everyone has a safe and sane remainder of the holiday season. See you again soon.