Take-Two to Think About What You’re Doing
Around the 14th of June 2017, the much loved open world criminal madhouse Grand Theft Auto V suddenly started to take a significant slamming in the Steam ratings. It tanked from ‘overwhelmingly positive’ to ‘mixed’ in the overall scores while recent scores displayed ‘overwhelmingly negative’. For a game with 240,000 reviews, that’s quite the drop in the space of a weekend. Whether you pay attention to the Steam rankings or not, this is the kind of change that is violent enough to deserve notice, especially for a title like GTA V. So what happened? In short: Take-Two Interactive, the publishers who own subsidiary Rockstar games and by extension GTA development studio Rockstar North, decided not so much to shoot themselves in the foot, rather to sever their leg at the knee with a scythe.
GTA’s Steam reviews on 20/6/17.
At Liberty to Mod
If you’ve had GTA on your radar in any capacity over the last two years, on the PC, then you’re probably aware that it has developed a healthy modding community. While Rockstar Games have never released official modding tools for the game, the players have been only too happy to open the bonnet and start modifying and tinkering like a pack of overexcited auto-mechanical enthusiasts with unhealthy amounts of money to play with. Enter OpenIV.
Games with flourishing modding communities often result in players wanting to install multiple mods at the same time. Installing a single mod, or a handful, is often not too much trouble. When mods start to pile up it’s not long before you begin to have problems getting them all to work together. It’s almost always possible, but takes increasing amounts of work. To solve this problem, modders often create third party applications that help large numbers of mods run together. OpenIV’s mod management capabilities were so impressive that it could manage potentially in excess of a hundred at one time. When tools like this gain notoriety, modders tend to develop their creations with these mod managers in mind, the result being that individual mods often rely on these mod manager applications to run at all.
So when Take-Two Interactive slapped developer GooD-NTS and the OpenIV team with a cease and desist order, it was not the kind of under the radar action that would go largely unnoticed by the wider community.
A Criminal Lack of Judgement
Before I go on, it’s important to point out that it’s perfectly within Take-Two’s legal rights to to shut down mods if they see fit. Having never had any official input, the scene was always,as GooD-NTS himself put it, a “grey zone” despite Rockstar themselves offering support for the single player modding community. So the issuing of a cease and desist, purely on those grounds, is not such a problem. What did cause the overt controversy surrounding the action, was how wildly cynical it all looked and, to add insult to injury, how contemptuous Take-Two were with their justifications. Take-Two themselves have offered a token parroting of Rockstar’s support for the modding scene, but their reasoning for issuing the cease and desist order was accompanied by a, thoroughly ill-written and unchecked, accusation that the tool was responsible for allowing “third parties to defeat security features of its software and modify that software in violation Take-Two’s rights”. Sounds reasonable: Nobody wants hackers in their multiplayer. Except…
Letting off some Steam
… OpenIV has always been strictly single player oriented. Not to mention that if Take-Two are only just getting around to tackling the well documented hacking problem in GTA V Online, they’ve been very slow on the uptake.
Naturally, the GTA V community was not impressed. This action by Take-Two Interactive doesn’t read like a legitimate defence of its rights and properties, rather a contempt-fuelled attack on their own customers. This isn’t about modding. If it is about modding, then Take-Two and its legal department are shockingly out of touch; failing to do their basic research, which you’d think would be the starting point for a legal challenge, before wading in with its legal team and financial weight, like a pampered rich kid. Ultimately, it looks classless and greedy. GTA V Online is a cash cow and everyone knows it. It’s a good cash cow, don’t get me wrong, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be milked for everything it can produce. It’s not wild speculation to suggest that one reason Take-Two would want to attack modding is to forcibly drive attention towards GTA V Online and, by extension, their bottom line.
The community reaction was surprisingly coherent. Players flooded to GTA V’s Steam page and review bombed the game into the ground. By the 20th of June, the game had reached ‘overwhelmingly negative’ status, down from ‘overwhelmingly positive’. There was a petition that reached 79,000 people, but there’s a petition for everything these days and I doubt that Take-Two were ever going to care about that. What they should care about is the potential hit to their pocket. If people are going to the Steam page and seeing an overwhelmingly negative score for the game, they’re going to be hesitant to buy it. Especially as the overall score has now tanked to ‘mixed’. The implication is that the developers have started out moderately well, and then done something horrendous with an update. Wouldn’t be the first developer to do so.
Rockstar, themselves, have seemingly been more or less innocent. Supportive of mods in the past, they have since stepped in to, apparently, moderate the “discussion” between Take-Two and modders while reaffirming their own stance on the issue. On the 23rd of June, they wrote: ’Rockstar Games believes in reasonable fan creativity, and, in particular, wants creators to showcase their passion for our games. After discussions with Take-Two, Take-Two has agreed that it generally will not take legal action against third-party projects involving Rockstar’s PC games that are single-player, non-commercial, and respect the intellectual property (IP) rights of third parties.’.
They seemed to manage to get Take-Two to settle down just a bit. At least enough to put their legal team away. The overall tone of the message doesn’t actually seem to change anything at a concrete level, and I am extremely sceptical about future actions from Take-Two, but it’s nice to see Rockstar try. Leaving out the dodgy con-men that litter places like, the now defunct, Steam Green Light, development studios are often the ones in the games industry who are mistakenly targeted for the practices of their publishers. They often seem more in tune with the people they’re creating content for, whereas the publishers, sometimes, seem to be only vaguely affiliated with the concept of gaming. While I’m not expecting a business to avoid its basic function; the maximisation of profit, it would be nice if they seemed at least slightly in touch with their customer base from time to time. Just enough to throw together a cringe-inducing conference featuring someone in an energy drink costume, some ‘leveraging of influencers’ – Twitch streamers and Youtubers and content creators, sidelining a barrage of increasingly see-through buzzwords as if the human race were just another search engine.
Modifying the value of a game
So we’ve established a possible reason as to why Take-Two would possibly take this sudden aggressive stance towards the modding community. I would be very hesitant to suggest that encouraging and cultivating a modding scene could possibly outweigh the profits of something like GTA Online. I will say that actively opposing a modding scene, particularly if one has become an established part of the series as a whole, as it has with GTA, is a bad move from more or less every standpoint.
Developers have complained that people can go to Youtube and simply watch their games these days, removing the necessity for anybody to purchase them in the first place. There’s an entire ‘game X the movie’ subcategory of videos based around exactly that. While there are various arguments surrounding this issue, it’s a larger topic than I’m willing to get into here, not to mention the fact that others have done a far better job at explaining that argument already than I will. Regardless my personal stance remains that modding can help alleviate the problem of customer conversion. Modding a single player experience can be a way in which you convert viewers to customers. It can act as the weight that tips people over the edge. If you know that you can watch a specific pre-ordered sequence of events that will be the same, regardless of who’s playing and when, then you might feel less inclined to pay for that experience, because you already know what’s going to happen. Again, that’s a far larger and more nuanced conversation for another time, and I’m not willing to attempt to boil it into a paragraph. Suffice to say that there’s space for all mediums and varieties of narrative development in gaming, but for the moment let’s keep it on track. Some games, some narratives, require a linear narrative to work and there is nothing that deviation or dynamism can add to them. Regardless, supporting the ability to mod new content into a game is never a drawback. If you can add new static content, like a series of levels or a mini-campaign, or throw in new content that is not predictable, then you’ve got something that people can engage with even if they’re already watching it on Youtube. Modders are eager to develop new content, so supporting those efforts can only help the conversion process; not just by virtue of the aforementioned content development, but by the power of word of mouth and increasingly important community goodwill.
Games like Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld are built around this idea of non-linear content: You have, more or less, a set series of actions that occur in any given scenario, but the timing, specifics, and the way their individual interactions can affect the world around them, are unpredictable and compelling. You can have, broadly, the same experience as the Youtuber you were watching, but it’s never going to be quite the same. The dynamic butterfly affect nature of those interactions creates engaging emergent gameplay. Similarly with open worlds and sandboxes like Grand Theft Auto or Minecraft, the content is not all predetermined even in the base game. Therefore, you get a slightly different experience every time, and the more you allow extra content to be added to the game, particularly with AI and active entities, the wider the scope for variety and engagement is, and by extension the weightier the draw. These emergent interactions are the basis for narratives and memories that gamers tell each other about. If you see something amazing happen on a stream or a video, and you know you’ve got a chance to have something similar but not exactly the same, you’re more likely to invest because you’re invested in the potential for stories. It’s why battle royale-esque multiplayer games, such as Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, are becoming a significant part of the market. X3, Rimworld, and Dwarf Fortress are just a handful of notable games that thrive on this factor: The unpredictable emergent narratives and memories that they create through their multiplicity of interacting components.
X3 Albion Prelude’s developers, Egosoft, are notable for their encouragement and facilitation of modders and for good reason. There are deliberate holes in the market of the base campaign, which players are encouraged to exploit and use to make money. There are specific abandoned ships and trinkets that can be found and used by the player. It’s a vast universe driven by the “Global Decision Engine”, which keeps track of the economy, removing and adding objects to sectors in an attempt to keep things smooth.
As it turns out, this is actually a problematic solution. Interesting scenarios are created, not by trying to fill in the gaps, but by letting those problems run, impact other parts of the game, and see where the resulting conflicts, created in those gaps, go. When two people lack a resource, but only one source of it is available, the result will inevitably be some form of competition and conflict. There are a number of broad ways in which these conflicts can be resolved. In an ideal world some level of representation for each of these is modelled, to whatever level of abstraction, in the game mechanics.
In an ideal world, the AI should be able to attempt to resolve the problems it encounters, successful or not, using those mechanics, and not simply brute forcing artificial equilibrium into the game setting. Of course, this isn’t an ideal world and the amount of work needed to create a multifaceted simulation like that is impressive to say the least. Aside from the amount of work required, this kind of simulating can be pretty heavy on a processor even today, and I’m talking about a game that came out in 2008. Still, my point stands: By using this sort of brute force solution, the potential for dynamic situations is stifled and emergent scenarios are not allowed to develop, which in turn can lead to stagnation. This applies, not just to X3, but to all open worlds, sandboxes, and settings which claim to allow the players freedom or “living” dynamic environments.
In X3 the conflicts between the races are, ultimately, muted. The Xenon and Kha’ak serve the purpose of a unifying alien threat, though neither seem particularly fleshed out. They both fill the boring ‘destroy the universe because reasons’ niche, and there’s the usual ‘they don’t communicate,’ handwaving, but they make for consistent cannon fodder in the vanilla game, so I suppose what the hell… There are, however, mods that do a good job of expanding on them, making them competitive with the main races in the games, and this works particularly well with conquest mods, allowing these two “threats” to actually feel like threats. In the vanilla game, the most threatening thing about the Kha’ak is their ability to introduce pointless apostrophes into perfectly good nouns (boing).
The problem with attempting to run a prebuilt campaign in a freeform sandbox is that requires the sandbox to look a certain way, or for the campaign to be able to dynamically react to every variable introduced during playtime. The latter isn’t happening anytime soon in a convincing way. Returning to the previous example, even X3’s dynamic economy isn’t that dynamic. While you can profit by exploiting holes in the market, you can’t actually impact the wider economy. You can’t blockade a sector, even if you blow up every single ship visiting it from outside, and destroying stations simply means new ones are spawned in. The AI doesn’t have to spend any resources for its actions, thus your actions in the universe, though they look impressive on the surface, are utterly devoid of meaning or impact as a result. Once you look past the surface, the rigidity of the machine starts to become stark in its conspicuousness. You are forever impotent. This is where modding helps.
There’s no real way of completely liberating the economy, but you can do a lot to liven up the universe and take off the restraints. There are various mods and overhauls to the game that make the factions play not-so-nice with one another. The introduction of specific war zone sectors in the Albion prelude expansion meant that modders took that functionality, limited to a few sparse sectors in the base game, and expanded it onto the entire map. The previously peaceful, but canonically hostile, factions were suddenly actually at war, able to spawn fleets in and conquer territory from one another. Add in another mod that takes faction actions and adjusts their relationships on the fly, and you can end up with some interesting scenarios. X3 was never really attempting to simulate an entire political landscape with consequences and economic warfare, so much as it was attempting to simulate an economy and imply the wider consequences. Turns out that you can have both; it’s entirely possible and it’s brilliant. It’s what makes me think of going back to X3 every now and again, years after Albion Prelude was released in 2011. It’s why I purchased it a second time on Steam: Purely because of that modding support and functionality, that allows so much depth to be added to the game. I wouldn’t have stuck with it, nor bought it again, if the modding wasn’t there.
Unless you’ve got the balls to really let go of the reigns, even the largest sandboxes become boring.
Around the start of July, OpenIV was reinstated, and the download button returned to the mod’s page. Before Take-Two finally relented on their decision to take down OpenIV, its creators actually ended up admitting that there were ways in which OpenIV could potentially be used by hackers to access and modify the online component of the game. This was a significant change of tone and one that undermined both mod creators and the user base, despite the tool genuinely only ever being intended for single player use.
Take-Two Interactive has since shut down two online cheating tools, Force Hax and Menyoo – about half a month after they went after the single player mod tools. Why didn’t they start with this? What was the line of reasoning taken that made them ignore individual problematic mods and people, a problem that has apparently been prevalent in GTA Online for years, before randomly going after a popular single player modding tool? The result is that this just looks like an unnecessary display of force, intended to intimidate and silence. Only it was directed at the wrong people and Take-Two didn’t look so impressive after it backfired in a spectacular and embarrassing fashion. It’s like a bartender spitting in your drink, and your reaction being to then walk down the road and punch a coffee shop barista in the face.
This isn’t a case of collateral damage, this is just another example of heavy-handed arrogance by another corporation taking its legal team out and expecting everyone to simply bow down. If they wanted to actually do something about a loophole they’d discovered in the software, all it would have taken was a simple act of reaching out and discussing the problem. Like mature people. If OpenIV were uninterested in cooperating, then Take-Two would have had a more sympathetic basis to start making legal threats. As it is, they’ve massively damaged their reputation and their brand, not to mention the longevity of their game, by being excessively militant with their response straight out of the gate, especially after being so passive up until that point. They haven’t taken any responsibility for their past complacency. Even now that OpenIV has admitted that there is the capability for its tools to be used in order to tamper with GTA Online, it doesn’t make Take-Two Interactive look any better.
Nobody is against shutting down hackers and cheaters in online games. Well, apart from the hackers themselves, but they don’t count so who cares? The fact that OpenIV effectively outright lied about the potential for exploits in the tool does not reflect well on GooD-NTS, but at the same time, the focus on single player content has been consistent throughout the tool’s development and so it’s unreasonable to lump OpenIV in with the likes of Force Hax. It’s not exactly rocket science to suggest that you should work with your user base, modders included, and not against them. You make money that way. Take-Two Interactive do not have an excuse here, they’ve attacked their own customers and forced their own publishing house to mediate the fallout, because it looks as if they’re more interested in short sighted bravado and intimidation than they are the end user experience of their customers. As the result, even with the reinstatement of OpenIV, I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire farce has significantly damaged the long term revenue that could have been maintained, with minimum effort on their part, from sales of Grand Theft Auto V.