The Wrath of the Banhammer

December 29, 2009, Author: Brian Gourlay

Shady business practices are becoming more and more prevalent in the gaming industry, 2009 in particular showcasing some prime examples. With the release of the industrial strength hype machine that was Modern Warfare 2, the world at large essentially came to a grinding halt in fear of being crushed in its path. Potential big hitters like Mass Effect 2 and Bioshock 2 were put on hold for “extra tweaking”, Monday was postponed until Thursday and birthdays were cancelled until further notice.

I was really surprised to see some developers flat out refuse to release completed games in MW2’s shadow because of the inevitable implications it would have on their sales, but I guess it’s fairly indicative of how business decisions are filtering their way into every aspect of a games conception, development and eventual release. Surely though, something as sacred as the almighty Banhammer, a symbol of fairness and equality for online gamers everywhere, couldn’t be tainted in such a way? There have been rumblings that this is indeed the case, and you’ll never guess which FPS is at the centre of the whole debacle…

Piracy is a problem that every form of digital media is blighted by, although I think for now the gaming industry is getting off pretty lightly in comparison to music and film. Modded consoles that allow gamers to play copied games have existed, albeit mostly under the radar since the PS2; it’s just something that’s been grudgingly accepted.

Until Modern Warfare 2 blitzed into the scene that is, which Microsoft took as a cue to launch an all out witch-hunt against anyone who had even tampered with the screws on their beloved machines. While bannings are commonplace in the online domain, it was completely unprecedented to see hundreds of thousands (or up to a million depending on which reports you read) being affected at the same time. The reasoning for this action is pretty flawless at first glance. These people stole from Microsoft with their nifty workarounds, so Bill Gates and friends were perfectly entitled to lock the offenders’ Xbox Live accounts and demand they be thanked for not reclaiming the 360 itself. That being said, something did seem a little bit off about the whole affair, and I found myself thinking: What the hell took them so long?

The point I’m trying to make isn’t that the victims of the mass banning had it coming, (although they did, the thieving shits), but if it was just a matter of flicking a switch to remotely detect and lock the offending accounts, why the sudden haphazard waving of the Banhammer? Some accounts point towards this being a business decision based on the volume of high impact releases preceding the bannings themselves, and culminating in the release of Modern Warfare 2. In fact, an American law firm made the decision to launch a court case against Microsoft, accusing them of waiting until gamers worldwide has already bought the likes of Modern Warfare 2 and Halo: ODST before giving them the bad news. The suit was flimsy to say the least and was released to the public domain in an almost conspiratorial tone that suggested the lawyer at the forefront of the suit was in fact a victim of the bans, but it did raise a few noteworthy points. It was already confirmed that the ban was permanent, although a few not so subtle hints were released by Microsoft alluding to the fact that the ban was machine specific, and wouldn’t affect the same account on an un-modded, and newly purchased, Xbox 360.

While I completely abhor the actions of the modders and wholeheartedly agree that they deserve to be banned for what is quite simply theft, I think this provides an interesting subplot to the story that suggests Microsoft weren’t backed into a corner as they suggested, and may have manipulated the situation to meet their own agendas.

The series of bans prior to Modern Warfare 2’s release deservedly attracted a lot of attention, however the controversy wasn’t about to die with the release of the game itself. A couple of weeks after Modern Warfare 2 hit the shelves, gamers began to exploit a glitch in the multiplayer mode which essentially resulted in the map being spammed with Javelin missiles for an extended period of time. A patch is forthcoming, but the initial reaction to the glitch was pretty interesting, as Microsoft reared its head again, armed with the Banhammer which was again to see some heavy use. It’s pretty common for online modes to ship with one or two exploits left unnoticed by the developers, and an inevitable that the more competitive gamers will make the most of them when the opportunity presents itself, which is why it was a surprise to see the disproportionate reaction that followed. Rather than Infinity Ward simply suspending the players at fault from Modern Warfare 2, Microsoft stepped in to suspend users from Xbox Live as a whole.

How do you plead you cheating son of a bitch?

How do you plead you cheating son of a bitch?

The detail that particularly drew my attention to this was that Sony made the decision not to ban anyone on PSN for transgressing in such a manner. It got me to thinking about why Microsoft even felt like they had to involve themselves in what is surely a matter between Infinity Ward and the players. Again, this eventuality is covered in Xbox Live’s Terms of Use, and there’s no arguing that the cheaters deserve to be punished, but I just can’t shake the feeling that some kind of ulterior motive is being served in this case. Maybe it’s just because Modern Warfare 2 was the biggest dot on Microsoft’s radar at the time, but I can’t recall any other times when anyone other than the game developers have gotten involved in such a hands on manner when it comes to fair play.

Microsoft have been both legally and morally covered in both of these cases, but Infinity Ward’s behaviour regarding the PC version of Modern Warfare 2 is widely accepted as being just plain wrong. The heart of PC gaming online lies in its modding capabilities, where players can exercise technical wizardy to extensively alter aspects of the game types, maps, weapons, characters; the options are pretty vast from game to game. Custom games, while sometimes modded into oblivion, were insanely good fun and opened up the game to a different kind of player altogether. However, by removing support for dedicated servers and replacing it with a matchmaking system Infinity Ward eliminated this customisation in one fell swoop and essentially alienated their core demographic. They had banned an entire community, all for the sake of exercising greater control over monitoring and dealing with cheats.

PC modders are generally a crafty bunch however and it wasn’t long before third party workarounds were filtering their way onto the internet, but it appears that only a tenuous truce has been called between the two parties and I get the feeling Infinity Ward could decide it isn’t working for them sooner rather than later.

None of this is meant to act as a call to do away with the Banhammer; it’s entirely necessary in order to ensure that honest players can enjoy competitive gaming in a secure environment. However, I feel that there’s a risk of it being more frequently exploited in a manner similar to the way the gamers on the receiving end of it have been behaving for years now. It’s good to know that cheaters are being caught and having at least some justice applied to them, but that’s where it should end. Crime and punishment, rather than utilising it for other nefarious means. I just desperately hope that the last few months aren’t going to be indicative of the direction online gaming is progressing towards. Modern Warfare 2’s online community has been subjected to a borderline Big Brother mentality, and I worry that it won’t be long before we’re all under its scrutiny.