One of the most wonderful sights to see in the gaming community, particularly in the PC gaming community, is what a combination of a loyal fan-base and a strong modding community can produce. This is particularly so when the mods released are clear and active attempts at doing nothing more than making the original product even better. You see this all the time in PC gaming -- old games being yanked into the present, an increase the replayability of a classic, and even all-new sub-games created out of the original. All of this done through a modding community that loves the original work produced by game designers. Some gaming companies embrace the modding community, while some don't. Which way they go is typically decided by just how much control the company generally wants to exert over its product.
Guess which way Microsoft tends to go? Well, they tend to be the protectionist sort, but a recent story about the release of a new free-to-play Halo game, Halo Online, both puzzled me and amused me. The puzzled part came from Microsoft firmly insisting that the release would be available for play in Russia only, which...what the hell? Even the excuse of a long testing period in a Russia-only beta setting is, well, kind of strange.
Microsoft: Right now our focus is on learning as much as we can from the closed beta period in Russia. Theoretically, any expansion outside of Russia would have to go through region-specific changes to address player expectations.
Note that availability of the game to markets outside of Putin-ville is theoretical at this point. Except not really, of course, and that's where the amusement came from. Because if the alchemy ingredients for mods is a loyal fan-base, something begging for modification, and a capable modding community, everyone had
to know that restricting this to Russia was going to be a barrier tested by the public before too long. It turns out that "before too long" meant in the past few weeks, because modders were already posting information on their work to free Halo from Russian imprisonment when Microsoft caught wind and fired off a DMCA notice to the host site
Modders have been mucking about with the leaked Halo Online files to unlock features, with one team creating a game launcher called ‘ElDorito.’ But all that work came to screeching halt yesterday after Microsoft sent a DMCA takedown notice to Github, who was hosting the files. The site quickly complied. Microsoft sent the following notice to Github:
"We have received information that the domain listed above, which appears to be on servers under your control, is offering unlicensed copies of, or is engaged in other unauthorized activities relating to, copyrighted works published by Microsoft," the company wrote in a DMCA notice to Github.
Under other circumstances, that might be the end of the story, except that these are game modders we're talking about. When they commit, they're committed, and their work tends to mean that they're the sort of types who know how to route around these sorts of attacks. Now, to be clear, Microsoft certainly has the right
to try to kill off these modders' work, but they're going to have to try a lot harder than a single DMCA
if they want to really have this battle.
"In terms of DMCA/C&D mitigation, we have made redundant git backups on private and public git servers. This is to ensure we will always have one working copy. These are being synchronized so that data is always the same," [modder] Woovie explains. "Further DMCAs may happen potentially, it’s not really known at the moment. Our backups will always exist though and we will continue until we’re happy."
Team member Neoshadow42 says that, as a game developer himself, he sympathizes with Microsoft to a point about protecting ones copyrighted material:
"As someone involved in game development, I’m sympathetic with some developers when it comes to copyright issues. This is different though, in my opinion,” the dev explains. "The game was going to be free in the first place. The PC audience has been screaming for Halo 3 for years and years, and we saw the chance with this leak. The fact that we could, in theory, bring the game that everyone wants, without the added on stuff that would ruin the game, that’s something we’d be proud of."
Making the moral equation here slightly more complicated is that the things that "would ruin the game" don't only refer to the geo-restrictions, but to other game "features" as well, such as in-game microtransactions
that almost uniformly piss off the PC gaming community. The modding team has aimed at removing those from the game as well, which, given that this is a free-to-play game, might break the business model Microsoft set up for the game. I expect Microsoft to continue battling for control of its product, as well as for the game's restrictions and microtransactions.
Ultimately, this is a damned shame, because there's a lesson to be learned from all of this and that lesson is not that the modding community is the enemy of the game designer. This is pure market testing at its finest. What this entire episode clearly outlines for Microsoft, were it willing to listen, is that potential customers want wider availability for the beta version of the game (as in, not restricted along national borders) and don't want annoying microtransactions in a Halo game. And if they want those things, fans will be willing to pay for them. Should Microsoft continue with its plan to not meet customer demand, those customers likely won't go unfulfilled, they'll simply find their pleasure in the form of a mod from a strong modding community that Microsoft wants to play whac-a-mole with, rather than listen to the wants of its customers.