Here’s a little thought experiment for you. You are walking down a street and a clearly very wealthy guy some distance in front of you drops his wallet; you find it, open it, and find that it contains $50. Do you keep the wallet?
Now replace that wallet with a Fallout 4 Season Pass and that rich dude with Bethesda. Do you take the season pass?
Now obviously, picking up money dropped on the street is slightly different from getting lucky with a pricing error but the core issue is still the same. It is still taking something of value from someone else by exploiting their errors. To this situation there are a number of responses that generally fall into the following categories:
‘I won’t exploit this’ – Good on you.
‘I was never going to buy this full price, but I’ve got it now’ – Good. Bethesda hasn’t actually lost money on you, if anything they’ve gained because you will probably tell your mates how good the game is. It is possible that everyone wins as a result of your actions.
‘It’s their problem, I’m just lucky’ – which is a shitty position to hold. The sort of person that says this is the sort of person who’d keep the wallet if the guy had dropped it right next to them and even if it contained all the money they had.
‘Bethesda are rich, it doesn’t matter’ – that is a more interesting response. To return to finding money on the street, say you just found a £1 coin. That’s not much at all; it can buy you a Freddo bar and a newspaper. It is of negligible financial significance and if I found a £1 coin on the floor I’d definitely pick it up and keep it (unless someone went ‘err, that’s mine’). The same can potentially be said about taking the Fallout 4 Season Pass. Sure, to you it is a lot of money, but to Bethesda it isn’t much at all. They’ll have lost a few tens of thousands of dollars before they took the page down – that is pocket change to a AAA company. There is a strong argument that taking the Season Pass when it’s free is totally fine in small numbers. In larger numbers it would have serious and negative ramifications.
And the comparison to piracy is interesting because that is, in effect, what taking the free Season Pass is. It isn’t meant to be free but it was available for free. The same can be said of Cities: Skylines, I could pirate it for free, but it isn’t meant to be free. Just because there was an error with the Season Pass rather than someone hacking the game does not change the mechanics of what has taken place. Those that took the free Season Pass did the same thing that pirates do every day – taking free stuff that shouldn’t be free.
Therefore, similar arguments for and against taking the Season Pass can be applied. Whilst I would not advise anyone to spend $50 on a season pass (I mean, why on earth would you?), exploiting an error seems like a dick move. But, again, it doesn’t matter to Bethesda in financial terms. It’s not like The Witness, which has insane piracy rates that actually do damage to the developer. This is a small scale exploit that has no serious consequences. It’s like picking up that £1 coin.
So those who have taken the Season Pass are, I think, not wrong to do so. I wouldn’t say they are right to do so either, rather that they were lucky and exploited that luck. It cannot have seriously harmed Bethesda, and might (quality of Fallout 4 DLC pending) bring them happiness and encourage them to tell their friends about it. That in turn may actually make Bethesda money in the end in the same way that piracy has helped the spread of Game of Thrones or Rick and Morty – by getting more people invested in the product. I’m a massive Rick and Morty fan, but I will admit that I pirate it (mostly because their website doesn’t work properly).
But what of the old games journalists? What is their role in this? I suggest they’ve been… unethical. Now calm your tits, I am about to discuss ethics in games journalism. But first, back to finding money on the street.
Let’s modify the situation. Instead of finding a wallet, you come across an ATM that has been broken. Moreover, you find it could spew money at the press of a button. Now, would you shout about this at the top of your lungs? It would give pretty much everyone around an extra tenner, but cost whoever owns the ATM a rather large sum of money.
Which is what the gaming press has done. Eurogamer, Destructoid, GamesRadar, IGN and VG24/7 to name a few have done this. I don’t think that is ethical, I don’t think that is responsible, but I can see why they’d do it. Firstly, something like that will get hits and therefore ad revenue. Secondly, press have a responsibility to their readers – it is pretty normal for news outlets to inform readers of sales and the fact that the discount is one of 100% does not change this. Where things get murky is the fact that this discount was not intentional and to compare this to the act of piracy once again, it is the equivalent of telling readers how to get The Witness for free, which no press organization did. Some (including Destructiod) provided links – how handy, and how bad for the developers of Fallout 4.
I’m not arguing that press have a responsibility to help out publishers, if anything we need less of that. But they do have a responsibility to try and keep the games industry healthy by drawing attention to good games, criticizing bad ones, and keeping gamers informed. Telling people how to get free shit at someone else’s expense does not keep the industry healthy.
But again, this situation walks the tightrope between press doing its job and press being that guy who keeps the wallet even if the owner is right in front of them. Maybe it can do both. It’s just something to think about.
(Incidentally, the law on finding money in the street is really complicated, even though it starts at finders keepers. Have a read if you’re interested)