The Myth of Voting With Your Wallet

I find the controversy surrounding the recent, rocky launch of the latest Sim City interesting due to parallels we've seen in online gaming over the past few years.  Much of the anger we have seen against DRM, DLC, cash shops, and item gambling boxes goes beyond the specifics of each individual episode.  Rather, these changing business practices - driven in part by increasingly visible online capabilities - are driving home to customers who purchase video game products that they have no effective way of directing the development of these products. 

One of the more interesting arguments raised during this controversy is the idea that customers' anger is misplaced.  On a recent episode of MMO-Radio discussing the launch, Chris (of Game by Night) lamented that EA had already gotten their money from sales of the title, and that the backlash is only punishing developers at Maxis who had nothing to do with the more controversial business decisions.    Pete at Dragonchasers also feels that the game is not getting a hearing from gaming journalists and fans, and suggests that people who do not like EA's decisions should vote with their wallets. 

The "vote with your wallet" argument is not new - Chris (a different one!) of MMO Reporter fame often cites it in discussions of the latest addition to LOTRO's cash shop.  The problem with this "vote" is that the ballot has only a single check box next to the word "yes".  When you are only interested in "yes" votes, you don't find out WHY people have voted no. 
  • In Sim City's case, this makes the longtime simulation fan who chose to avoid the game due to DRM and server issues indistinguishable from the non-customer (like myself) who never would have purchased the game for any reason.  
  • In the days of subscription MMO's a significant number of canceled subscriptions would be noticed, but this was at best a paradoxical way of conveying feedback - the only way for your vote on improving the game to be heard was for you to quit the game, and for the developers to believe they could get your business back.
  • In today's era of cash stores, DLC, etc, the issue is no longer voting with YOUR wallet but rather voting against OTHER people's wallets.  To actually register a "no" vote you have to withhold money that you would otherwise have spent on the game, the developer needs to be aware that this is why you are withholding the money, and the amount that you and your like-minded colleagues are withholding has to be greater than the amount that people are spending on gambling boxes or whatever it is you are protesting.  Simply refusing to purchase the stuff yourself if you aren't also willing to cancel your subscription or not purchase the next expansion is NOT a "no" vote because only the "yes" votes are counted.  
Perhaps the increased prominence of "indie" games in general and video game Kickstarter campaigns - with their underwhelming track record - in particular is not just a question of rooting for the creative little guy.  Perhaps these are viewed as one of the few venues where producers of video games are more directly responsive to what their customers want.  And, on the other side of the coin, perhaps the anger over Sim City's servers provided the rare situation in which there are enough "no" votes to be noticed. 

The protests may be unfair to the developers and they may be unlikely to achieve a result that satisfies the customer complaints.  Even so, I can't agree that the wrath is mis-directed.  When you deny people a say in something they are invested in, and leave things such that the only way for players to disagree is to burn down the review scores and tell everyone who will listen not to buy the product, you can't be surprised if once in a while the customers turn around and do just that.