Say what you want about Brad Wardell, but there may be no one of relevance in the industry right now who is doing a better job of finding a balance between running a business and respecting his customers.
As President and CEO of Stardock, a company that exists somewhere between independent and mainstream as both a developer and publisher, Wardell has built surprising success on the increasingly unlikely foundation of a marriage between quality games and consumer friendly ideologies. Some might describe him as the exception to prove the rule and others as the champion of a strong future of PC gaming, but right now every one knows him as the author of the Gaming Bill of Rights.
This Bill of Rights is an audacious, many might argue naïve, document that is probably part manifesto and part marketing ploy, though not necessarily an overt or inappropriate one. I’m entirely comfortable on companies using their customer service excellence as a selling point, particularly when backed up by action. Whatever the source of its motivation, the Gamers Bill of Rights is the industry equivalent of Kennedy’s call for a moonshot, a demand for a complete and fundamental reversal of industry standards from development, to publishing, to retail.
Among its clarion calls: the right to return games that don’t work; the right to expect games to be launched in a finished state; the right to expect realistic minimum requirements; the right to not have to have a CD or DVD in the drive while playing.
And, the response from the industry at large has been both predictable and disappointing, a comprehensive and meaningful silence. A growing star in the PC gaming space has thrown down the gauntlet, and now we get to be completely unsurprised by the mainstream industry’s total lack of motivation to change.
Which begs the question: now what?
Smart money says that nothing happens. That Stardock continues to eek out a living making superior games for a niche market while PC gaming continues to creep methodically along having paralyzing fights with gamers and hemorrhaging talent. As destructive as the current courses of action seem to be for both sides, with developers becoming increasingly combative and gamers clearly demonstrating their commitment and sympathies toward piracy, neither side seems ready to stop being the victim and make productive changes.
If I were a betting man, then I’d say that Wardell is the guy in the middle of a riot shouting for everyone to return to their senses. It’s probably just a matter of time until someone throws a brick at his head. Either way, the end result will still be the slow burn that finally eats away at the fuel of the status quo until either change is forced on the industry or it becomes virtually irrelevant.
That said, I like idealists. I want Wardell to be more than right, but successful. He and his company are both improbable things, finding critical success by creating games that harken back to PC gaming’s best traditions and some degree of commercial success despite adhering to tenets that are widely seen as digital suicide. In an environment where developers get into public spats with entire communities and games have to “phone home” every few days, the Gamers Bill of Rights might seem egregiously subversive if it weren’t so firmly entrenched in the history of PC games.
But, revolutions of one rarely have any impact. The tenets that Wardell offers are not a call to the industry to change, but those on the periphery to force change inward. There is, I assure you, zero chance that Electronic Arts, Activision, Take Two, Ubisoft or any of their peers are going to smile kindly on having Wardell’s theses nailed to their front door. Neither would I wait for organizations like the ESA, struggling in its own flat-spin, to suddenly find newfound respect for the people on whose behalf they claim to advocate. If this is to be a cause, then someone must take it up.
A industry leader can only lead when others follow.
I find myself left wanting here. Left wanting to say that gamers need to unify. Left wanting to make a call for games journalists to leave no interview complete without demanding comment on Wardell’s claims. Left wanting to encourage other developer/publishers like Valve to meaningfully support the mandates listed. Left wanting to describe a path that might make even a handful of these edicts a reality. Left wanting for faith.
Call it cynicism or defeatism, but the state of the industry is only such because we have ceded respect at every turn and I fear we are past the point of no return. While PC gamers have held true to promises not to buy games, the industry has chosen, and not without cause, its scapegoat and seems content to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Not only do PC developers and publishers lack a reason to change, I doubt seriously that one can be formulated that will convince them.
And, perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Should big business publishers finally throw up their hands in frustration, and the slow burn complete its inexorable cycle, maybe this document will inform the equally inexorable next generation of PC publishers and developers. It may take some time, and a less than even course, but I suspect eventually consumer rights will take hold again. I just wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen.