The FairPlay Campaign was an effort launched in late 2002 to try and raise public awareness over the way that computer and video games were being priced in the UK. The campaign was (despite protestations to the contrary) basically the pet project of veteran freelance games journalist Stuart Campbell.1 In its original incarnation it also received support from a body of members from both inside and outside of the industry, including John Abbott (www.uncleclive.co.uk), and John Pickford (co-founder of developers Zed Two) although Pickford stressed that he had no official link to the campaign.

Seldom in recent times has a debate raged so bitterly among the makers and players of video games as the one FairPlay started, simply by asking some seemingly innocuous questions:

  1. Are video games too expensive?
  2. If so, can anything be done to lower their price?
  3. How much of the cost (if any) would have to be borne by the developers, who, it is generally accepted, have to be justly rewarded for their labours for the medium to evolve?

Put simply, the campaign wanted to see games sold at the same price point as books, DVD movies and audio CDs. The lower profit being made per unit would then be offset by the larger audience that would then be attracted to the games as impulse buys.2 (How many audio CDs would you own if they cost £40 each?) The challenge was to find a way to reduce the price of games that everyone would accept, and to prove that the untapped audience was there. Before they could do this, they would also need to get the industry to listen.

Unwisely, the campaign began making bids for media attention before its arguments had been fully researched and made watertight. The initial statements of the campaign (made through press releases and its website) were primarily aimed at consumers with little knowledge of the inner workings of the games industry (e.g. parents), leading with the sensationalist statement that many games cost £40 to buy but only 40 pence to manufacture. (Critics were quick to point out that this kind of logic could be applied to anything from music CDs to sports cars with similar findings.)

Understandably, the industry's trade papers and representative bodies were very hostile to FairPlay's statements. Their main concern was to destroy the credibility of the campaign before it turned into a public relations blot in the middle of the Christmas shopping season. To this end the main industry paper, MCV, devoted many pages to inviting various spokespeople (largely picked from the retail sector) to lambast the campaign. None of this activity was aimed at rationally countering the campaign's arguments, it was a tactical exercise in making sure anyone who hadn't read the campaign's site was fed the industry's (false) description of what the campaigners had said. Much was made of a crucial mis-step by FairPlay in using quotes from industry figures such as Peter Molyneux without indicating that they were made years ago in a different context.

Some of the talking heads involved in this exercise got a little over-excited, with one buyer from Virgin Megastores hinting that The Dixons Group could prevent mainstream newspapers from mentioning the campaign by threatening to withdraw advertising. (It never ceases to amaze me how some people seem to think that trade papers can only be read by people who are 'on their side'. God help the retail buyers if the Office of Fair Trading or the Competition Commission ever suspect them of collusion.)

The trade press's opposition to FairPlay tried to assert that the campaign was designed to harm the industry. FairPlay claimed that bringing the flaws in the business model to people's attention would actually help the industry, pointing out that smaller developers in the UK were closing their doors at a rate of almost one a week, and publishers were making massive losses which they were unconvincingly trying to blame on the wider economic downturn.

Encouragingly, the coverage in the specialist press (magazines aimed at gamers, not retailers or publishers) was more positive, or at least, more objective. (Cheaper games meant more gamers, which could mean more regular readers.)

The industry's kneejerk reaction had little impact on damaging the credibility of the campaign (as this cat fight was mainly going on in the trade papers rather than in the public eye), but it did cause both sides to go back and try to improve the accuracy and focus of their arguments.

FairPlay determined that there was one cost factor that needed to be changed to allow fairer pricing, and that could be changed without causing losses to the publishers, retailers and developers. This cost was the licensing fee that was imposed by the hardware vendors (Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft) to allow software to be released for their machines3. (This fee is only levied on console games, and it can be seen that like-for-like, PC games are usually priced around £10 lower than their console equivalents.) These fees were set at a fixed rate instead of a percentage of the retail price, preventing publishers from reducing the wholesale price without cutting into their own profits. They are, in effect, indirect price fixing. If the fees have to be paid (even in part) up-front, they could also be argued to be a barrier to entry.

Interestingly, and unknown to the campaigners at the time, Sony had begun to implement a 'tiered' system that allowed for the creation of 'mid price' and 'premium budget' ranges. Since last year Nintendo have also been rumoured to have revised their licensing charges. It is unlikely that these decisions were directly influenced by FairPlay however.

Throughout the campaign Campbell claimed that industry representatives had never in the past been willing to debate the issue of pricing. As there was no indication that the mood of the industry had changed, FairPlay decided to stage an action to get the message across in "the only language they understand": supporters of the campaign were urged to take part in a video games boycott in the second week of December, and to raise awareness of this boycott through flyering. Although this plan was met with extreme scepticism by critics and supporters alike, the campaign subsequently announced that there was an appreciable dip in game sales for that week. (Of course, the trade press claimed the opposite...)

As December drew on the campaign continued to draw small amounts of mainstream media coverage, and the website attracted a total of over 500,000 unique visitors. The campaign's most successful media operation was a radio debate between Stuart Campbell and ELSPA chief Roger Bennett that was aired on BBC Radio 5 Live on December 7th, 2002. (A recording is available on the FairPlay website.) Challenged to give an example of new games not sold at the £40-£45 price point, Bennett suggests second-hand games. (Apart from this not answering the question, publishers and developers - the interests Bennett is employed to represent - make no profit from the sale of second-hand games.)

With the Christmas shopping frenzy over, the campaign began to wind down, officially ceasing activities on March 31, 2003. Although the pricing situation is not greatly improved, FairPlay have pointed out that actions by retailers and hardware vendors in the subsequent months (in reaction to lower that expected sales) were a tacit admission that there was something wrong with their pricing model, and have, in the short term at least, brought down the prices of certain types of game.4 (In my opinion, it will take an appreciable increase in consumer spending, as well as some decisive action against retail collusion to facilitate a permanent, industry-wide pricing shift.)

In the last few weeks the campaign was brought out of retirement to look at a new issue, unrelated to video games. Stuart Campbell claims to have found solid evidence that coin-operated fruit machines (a fixture in many pubs and motorway service stations in the UK) are designed to cheat. It is widely known that fruit machines operate on fixed odds (there is no element of chance as to what symbols come up), but according to Campbell, by running the machines' software via emulation, it is possible to prove that certain features (such as the HI/LO gamble) will ensure the player always loses by choosing the result after they have made their input. (So if you select HI, the result will always be set to low, and vice versa.) Campbell's investigations have also uncovered that there is no legislation over how the machines actually operate (most of the law is concerned about where and by whom they can be operated, not whether they are allowed to defraud punters).

Presumably the campaign might tackle other issues in future, and hopefully will continue to learn from experience how they can best deliver fairness to the gaming public.

http://www.fairplay-campaign.co.uk/


1. Stu Campbell had previously worked as a developer at Sensible Software, and was a regular contributor to (and briefly editor of) Amiga Power magazine. He currently writes regular columns for PC Zone and Indie Magazine.

2. One flaw with this argument was that it failed to take into account the fact that all the software publishers are effectively competing with each other. If the average gamer can only afford to buy a handful of titles each year, that ensures that the larger publishers (with the biggest marketing spend) can keep the largest slice of the pie to themselves.

3. Licensing fees themselves are a hold over from the cartridge era (1980s to mid-1990s), when the only way to make software run on a given console was to purchase ROM cartridges from the platform vendor. This was given a sheen of legality by Nintendo, whose cartridge design required a patented 'key' chip to operate, so anyone attempting to clone the Nintendo cartridge hardware would be found in breach of this patent.

4. Specifically, Nintendo have revised (read: lowered) the licensing costs for Game Boy Advance games, after a spate of incidents where shelf stackers at GAME were crushed under the weight of unsold licensed tat. Electronic Arts slashed the price of their first generation Nintendo Gamecube titles, which had the desired effect of getting Nintendo to renegotiate their licensing agreement (cue highly publicised kiss-and-make-up session where Electronic Arts pledge new versions all their major franchises for the GC and GBA). Prices of Xbox and Gamecube hardware were slashed, resulting in massive sales increases which seemed to back up the 'untapped market' theory.

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