If you find that title hyperbolic, I can’t blame you, but it’s how I feel right now.

The following is a chronicle of the ineptitude, paranoia, greed, and slow self-destruction of two publishers, Take-Two and Topware, that are intent on eroding whatever goodwill they had left with their consumers.

Over the past few weeks, two unrelated publishing companies have been doing their best to ruin their own games. Indeed, two companies I never thought I’d mention in the same sentence seem to have angered the entire gaming community with their latest actions. To be fair, the community is always angry about something, but this time the vitriol feels earned.

So, what did Take-Two and Topware do to get people so angry? Is the internet overreacting, or is this a serious issue? What does this mean for the industry as a whole? Well, let’s take a look!

What They’re Doing

So, let’s slow down. What exactly is the internet getting worked up about, and why should we care?

Put simply, two separate publishing companies, within the span of a week, made their games less fun to play. Games we already bought and paid for. To better understand this, we need to understand two hallmarks of PC gaming: the console, and modifications.

When PC gamers refer to “the console,” they’re talking about development tools left in the game for us to play with. They’re normally used by the developers for testing reasons, but in the hands of players, they’re more or less cheats. In Bethesda games, for example, players can use the console to spawn any item in the game, teleport themselves anywhere, even allow them to change their appearance on the fly. They’re absolutely essential in games that have a lot of bugs, as a clever use of the console can fix a lot of problems that would otherwise force a player to restart the entire game.

Take-Two
Meanwhile, mods canturn you into The Incredible Hulk

A “mod” is a catch-all term for files that alter your game. For decades, players have used mods to create new items, stories and even expansion-sized worlds to explore. People make these mods for fun, practice or just to personalize their games. Mods are, with very few exceptions, required to be free of charge. As long as you bought the original game, you can download any mod you want. Entire websites are dedicated to archiving these mods, ensuring they’re free of viruses and easily downloadable. As a result, mods can cause entire communities to develop, keeping a game alive long after it has been released.

So, What Happened?

Take-Two and Topware don’t give a shit about any of this. First came Take-Two, who decided to send a cease and desist to “OpenIV,” a modding tool for GRAND THEFT AUTO 5. OpenIV, as the name suggests, has been around since GTA IV (released in 2008), and helped people create the wacky, creative, often bizarre mods that kept the game on people’s minds for years. As I mentioned in another article, GTA V’s multiplayer mode is poorly designed and riddled with hackers. Rather than fixing their own servers, or going after the hackers, Take-Two decided to target a seemingly unrelated party: the people that create mods for the singleplayer version of the game. The publisher laid out their reasoning in a rambling, typo-ridden mess allegedly written by company lawyers.

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Put simply, they believe mods are illegal. It doesn’t matter if you’re using them to gain an unfair advantage in multiplayer or if you’re just tinkering with your own game in the singleplayer mode. Take-Two wants to control how you play your games. Given their alleged harassment of modders, which includes sending private detectives to their homes, it’s clear they mean business.

Then Topware Came Along…

As if that weren’t enough to send the community into an uproar, Topware, a moderately obscure company known for its charming if mediocre games, decided to update TWO WORLDS II, an RPG released in late 2010. This game was never particularly popular, but many enjoyed it despite its flaws. Topware had a reputation of being a spunky underdog, doing their best to make pretty good games. So, what did they decide to add to such an old game like TWO WORLDS II?

Microstransactions.

They added microtransactions to a six-year-old singleplayer RPG.

Topware Take-Two
I guess all publicity is good publicity?

Now, asking people to spend more money on a game they already paid for is one thing, but they’re selling us items that already exist in the game. Yes, Topware is offering to sell us items instead of earning them by playing the game. Believe it or not, this is slowly becoming standard practice within the industry. But there’s a sadistic twist to what Topware did here. You see, everything Topware is selling us can easily be spawned through the console. If you want more gold or a special weapon, just press a few buttons and there it is. So, seeing as there’s literally no reason for anyone to actually buy these microtransactions, Topware shut off the console commands. Yes, after six years on the market, Topware decided to remove a feature from the game, only to sell it back to us. If you own TWO WORLDS II, it’s probably been “updated.”

At the end of the day, your games now have less features than they did when you bought them.

Why It’s Wrong

Mods and console commands are staples of PC gaming. For some, it’s the main reason they play on the PC: so they can take their own games and alter them as they see fit.

But we don’t own our games anymore. Take a look at your game cabinet, or your Steam library. None of that is your property.

Sure, you could argue that we haven’t owned our games in years, that the “games as a service” scam has eroded any lingering sense of ownership. On top of that, most products you “own” come with strings attached. You can’t copy and re-sell movies, for example. These are reasonable restrictions backed by decades of legal precedence. But beyond these basic guidelines, there’s always been a tacit agreement between gamers and publishers. We’ll buy your overpriced, over-produced, under-developed games instead of pirating them, and you’ll let us do what we want with them. Sure, there’s slip-ups on both sides, but this uneasy truce has stood fast and true for the past 10 or so years.

But a line was crossed last month.

Not only are publishers restricting what we can do with our games, they’re taking away features. They have, directly or not, made our games worse after we bought them. In the case of Topware, they took features away to re-sell them to us. In what world is that okay?

Let’s focus on the mod aspect for a second, because I think it’s especially important to understand why Take-Two’s behavior is moronic.

Mods Are Good for Take-Two. They’re Good for Everyone.

Not only are mods a longstanding and beloved facet of PC gaming, but they’ve proven to be extremely beneficial to developers as well. Since the days of DOOM (and even earlier), players have created their own levels, weapons, enemies and even total conversions: entirely new games on the bones of another. Mods keep games relevant, providing free marketing for the publishers.

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Mods also allow hobbyists and freelancers to experiment and to practice. Some of the most groundbreaking innovations in the industry began as mods. A little game called DEFENSE OF THE ANCIENTS began as a mod for WARCRAFT III. You may have heard of it. Mods can be a source of inspiration for the original developers. It’s an open secret that one of the most popular mods for SKYRIM inspired the HEARTHFIRE DLC, allowing you to build your own home.

Bethesda Take-Two
Don’t try to deny it, Bethesda. We know what you did.

Speaking of Bethesda, how popular would their games really be if not for the modding community? Sure, plenty of people play the games without mods, but what keeps people talking about them? What’s keeping them relevant? One glance at YouTube or a gaming forum will quickly answer your question. There are new mods for SKYRIM almost every day, which means more YouTube videos showcasing them, which means more references to SKYRIM on Google. Quite simply, mods are keeping SKYRIM in the zeitgeist, whether you use them or not. Not only that, but modders have been fixing Bethesda’s notoriously buggy games for years. One look at the “Unofficial Skyrim Patch” will let you know just how beneficial mods are to developers.

I Shouldn’t Have to Defend This

So, I could go on for ages about how mods are integral to the success and longevity of video games, and how beneficial they can be for publishers, but quite frankly, none of this matters to me as a consumer. I shouldn’t have to justify my right to alter my own games. For whatever reason — be it paranoia, incompetence, or a pathological need for possession and control — Take-Two and Topware are content to sabotage their goodwill and, eventually, their profits.

It’s worth noting that most publishers understand this. In fact, Take-Two and Topware are in the minority here. A growing number of publishers deare embracing mods, acknowledging the good they do for their business, and the goodwill they get from consumers. Meanwhile, Take-Two and Topware have gone off the deep end, taking the industry’s out-of-touch practices to a new low. Even Rockstar, Take-Two’s subsidiary and the creator of GTA V, has issued a statement that they approve of singleplayer mods, and has convinced Take-Two to back off for now. Still, it’s unclear how long this peace will last. Take-Two itself has not signaled any policy change. They’re still retaining the right to act like idiots in the future.

Either way, these actions represent growing, widespread problems within the industry. There is a total lack of respect for the consumer, and a steady erosion of our perceived rights. As long as publishers can get away with these practices, they’re not going to stop. Even if Topware and Take-Two are in the minority, we need to call out these issues before they spread.

In the midst of all this anger and vitriol, you may be wondering:

Is this even legal?

Well, that’s a question without an obvious answer. On paper, it seems simple: a company shouldn’t be able to take away features after you bought the product. Nor should a company dictate what you do with the product so long as you’re not re-selling it. However, thanks to those giant walls of text known of “Terms of Service,” it’s really not that simple. We sign away a lot of those rights in order to play our games, and we have little choice in the matter. At the same time, many of these terms are legally shaky or unenforceable, especially in countries where consumer protections are strong. So, do we actually need to abide by the publishers? Or are they in the wrong?

The Huffington Post Take-Two
Move along. Nothing to see here.

When it comes to video games, the internet, or any modern technology, it’s a bit like the wild west: there’s a ton of gray area in terms of the law because everything is so new.  There are legal arguments on both sides, but without longstanding legal precedent, it’s unclear who the law will ultimately side with on the larger issues. The fact that gaming is an international market further complicates the situation. In the European Union, for example, courts often side with the consumer, citing unfair contract terms. These laws are much looser in the U.S., however.

An Uneasy Truce

Because the law is such a mess right now, no one really wants to touch it. In a way, both consumers and publishers benefit from the current situation. Once the law settles, the battle is pretty much over. If the law sides with publishers, they have free reign to do pretty much whatever they want to us. If the law sides with us, the industry will need to drastically change.

As of now, both sides can claim the other is wrong, and in most cases neither side is willing to sue the other. This is most commonly seen on Youtube, where publishers are constantly trying to stifle critical videos, but rarely if ever does it end up in court. So, in short, do we actually have to abide by the whims of the publishers?

Short Answer? We Have No Idea.

The simplest answer is that we don’t know if any of these policies are legally binding. Cases have landed on both sides, based on arcane legal theory and consumer protection laws. That being said, what do we actually have to lose by defying these companies? At the end of the day, what’s actually stopping us from hacking into TWO WORLDS II and re-enabling the console? Is Take-Two honestly willing to send every modder to court, in different countries with different laws, creating a confusing mess of legal precedence that may or may not benefit them in the long run? Clearly they’re willing to threaten the bigger fish, but can they really stop all the mods that are “floating around”?

Either way, there comes a point where we as consumers need to ask ourselves: how much more are we willing to take?

We’re Reaching a Breaking Point

Whenever something like this happens, it’s easy to fall into nihilism. Time and again, gamers have accepted these practices with a shrug and a sigh. After all, what else can we do? Those who care about this stuff tend to think they’re in the minority. Regardless of their actions, millions of people will blindly buy games from these companies, so what’s the point of resisting? Indeed, recent history has taught us that the industry will continue to exploit us with little consequence.

But if history has taught us anything, it’s that businesses can only push consumers so far before they lose interest. We see this happen all the time. Hollywood is terrified that people aren’t watching their reboots anymore. The cable companies feel threatened as people switch to online media. Hell, the entire video game industry crashed in the 80s due to poor quality and market saturation. Consumers have more power than they think.

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So yes, things are probably going to get worse before they get better. But the silver lining here is that the industry can’t sustain itself like this. Games are getting more expensive. Companies are getting more open and daring and extreme in their abuse. We’ve reached a point where every big budget game can decimate a company if it doesn’t make massive profits. These bloated budgets necessitate the predatory behavior seen by Take-Two, Topware, and countless others, and consumers have come to expect huge, complex games as compensation. It’s a vicious circle, and at some point, something’s going to snap.

What’s Next?

Make no mistake: Take-Two isn’t done screwing with us, and someone else will replace Topware once they fall into obscurity. The industry has made it abundantly clear that they’re willing to do whatever they can get away with. This is an industry that compares consumers to animals based on how much they spend. They have no respect for you. The only thing they care about is your wallet, and they become paranoid, irrational, and bitter at the thought of losing it. As the industry reaches a breaking point, as budgets get larger and publishers more desperate, I suspect we’re going to see more of this behavior in the future.

I’ve been accused of having a “burn it all down mentality,” but maybe that’s the only thing that will get this industry back on track. Maybe these are necessary growing pains in an evolving market. Maybe the industry needs to fail. Perhaps it needs to see that its path is unsustainable before it can improve.

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