Unbranding the Sheep: Lesser Evils

Times like the past week make me wish I picked a better time to launch a video game website. Obviously, the big story in the industry has been Sony’s information breach. Not just their information breach. An information breach that definitively compromised the company’s entire 77 million user database (including mine), is rumoured to have compromised 10 million credit cards (possibly including mine?), and that wasn’t reported until a full week after the fact. Even after the report, Sony’s response could best be qualified as “bumbling”, as a couple of awkward Q+As came out that looked like they were written by a lawyer and handed to Patrick Seybold. The latest, as of this writing, is that eventually, Sony will bring “some” services up later this week, with the PlayStation Store being the last to go up by the end of May. Plus, they’re breaking out a “Welcome Back” campaign to thank customers for sticking with them. The rewards? A 30 day trial of their premium PlayStation Plus service, some yet-unconfirmed “entertainment content” for free download, and other items they’ll be “rolling out” as the service comes back online.

As a Sony customer who’s data was on those servers, and possibly who’s credit card was, I’m insulted. Sony has done the bare minimum it feels it needs to do to keep investors – the real people who matter – happy (it’s working; share prices for the company are up 2% since they announced the plan), and have treated their actual, paying customers as little more than a nuisance, not even telling them anything was wrong until the outage got to the point where they could no longer write it off as “maintenance”, something they still refer to it as when you try to sign into the PSN. In short, Sony tried to bluff it’s way past a multi-million user data breach of non-encrypted data until it was blatantly obvious that they would have to do something, anything to stem user discontent that was getting into the mainstream and beyond their control. This is before we even get into questions that anyone would ask about the Welcome Back package, which is going to amount to little more than silly trinkets and the “honour” of being given a hard sell for PlayStation Plus.

(Come to think of it, allow me a paragraph off the topic of my post to elaborate specifically on some of those questions. First off, when will our PS+ trial – or, in my case as an existing customer, my free month – start? Will it be once the PSN’s back up, or once the actual store’s back up? Furthermore, will a credit card be required? Will it default to auto-billing, the way it did before? And what if these “entertainment” downloads are stuff we already own? Say Sony says “thanks, guys. Now, we’re going to give you all Castle Crashers”. I already have Castle Crashers. Will I be able to use that towards something else, or am I out of luck? Will Qriocity be free to non-customers the way PlayStation Plus will be? Why is Sony being so coy about all of this? Wait, that’s just Sony being Sony.)

Naturally, Sony really doesn’t have any incentive to go above and beyond what is easily the worst breach of data and consumer trust that I’ve seen in ten years of writing about video games. Why should they? It’s not like gamers can – or will – do anything about it.

One of the things that struck me was just how many people were defending Sony, and the level that they were stepping up both their defence of the company and their attacks on anyone who dared say anything negative about their beloved corporation. When I say “defending”, I don’t mean taking a devil’s advocate approach that companies of the size and visibility of Sony are always targets, and that data breaches happen to even the most careful companies. I mean silly fanboys talking about how their system is still the best, and that Sony rules, and anyone else who disagrees can stick various objects into various orifices. This kind of talk is nothing new, especially considering the anonymous nature of the internet, but the frequency with which Sony defenders were seen, considering the circumstances, was off-putting. It was just another example of what Mark Cuban calls The Fanboy Culture: mindless sycophants breathlessly defending large, major corporations who would slit their throats for a nickle on their share price, to the point where it appears astroturfed. (Postscript: Jim Sterling of Destructoid has a good look at just the PSN page on Facebook here.

Rational discussion at this point is blasted out by the Sony fanboys fighting with the Microsoft and Nintendo fanboys, and therein lies the larger problem: gamers don’t really have any better options. If you want to play console games in 2011, excepting the one or two third party Dreamcast releases, you have three choices: Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft. All three companies are large, multinational, publicly traded corporations. All three of them have had massive issues with customer trust and transparency in the past. Microsoft in particular, as a company, has a history both within and outside of the Xbox division that includes antitrust settlements and patent trolling on Linux, not to mention the old Red Ring of Death issue. Nintendo is probably the least “evil” company out there, but this is also the same company that once pulled a Virtual Console update solely to put a few third parties in their place and to establish themselves as the only source for news about their service. Nintendo doesn’t even talk to anyone – their entire PR operation is outsourced to a company called Golin Harris – so it’s hard to feel comfortable about dealing with them. If crap hit the fan, would Nintendo be transparent with its’ customers? We know for a fact that Microsoft isn’t, and Sony… well, all I have to say on that matter is “BMG rootkit”.

The fact is, all three of these companies know that they have gamers by the proverbial shorthairs, either through dedication or through coercion. Let’s say you’ve had to cancel your credit card as a precaution, you’re pissed, and you’ve decided to get away from Sony. What will you do? Sell your system and all of your games? Not likely. You’re heavily invested, and you’ll get pennies on the dollar for all of that through either Gamestop, Game Xchange, eBay or any other method to sell games. Even then, you won’t get anything for your digital content. The blessing of the PlayStation Network is twofold: it allows smaller companies to get their games out, and it provides convenience. Those two benefits come with a heavy burden: a complete inability to transfer ownership. Anything bought digitally is a sunk cost; you can’t sell it, trade it in, or return it. You can’t even sell the user ID with the system to another person; that’s a violation of Sony’s labyrinthine Terms of Service. Even if you were do to it, where would you go? Microsoft and Steam have the same terms, and one guy found out that Steam takes their TOS very seriously in this regard.

When the PSN comes back online, with the exception of another *highly effective* firmware update and a password change, nothing will seem different for users. We’ll possibly have a couple of extra goodies to play with, but anyone with a care for how they and their data are treated are left with no other options. Microsoft is no better, Nintendo marginally so, and Nintendo’s system is largely irrelevant partly because they have the gall to make purchasers put in their credit information every time they make a purchase. Any attempt to broach this topic online will result in the defenders of the system of derision beating down the heretic mercilessly (my inbox after this will be fun to read). This current Sony problem, like the rootkit and Microsoft’s RRoD before it, will go away. Sony knows this, and it’s why they’re only making token attempts to keep the populace happy. They know the populace has no alternative. Not that they even want one.

In a way, it’s what they deserve.

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.