You might not know this about me, but I love games. Board games (have you played Pandemic?), console games (have you played Skyrim?), MMORPGs (just beta tested ESO and it’s amazing), and PC games (good old Civilization) – they have sucked up valuable hours of my life, and account for my total lack of a tan, and I love them all.
So I’ve been following the story the adventures of Electronic Arts’ much-anticipated new first-person shooter Titanfall in South Africa with great interest. The tale of how and why EA and Respawn Entertainment (the game developer, EA is the publisher) decided not to release the title in South Africa is fascinating, and not just to gamers, but to anyone interested in South Africa’s global position.
As far as I can make out, here’s what happened (in this retelling, I’m indebted to the great coverage provided here, here, and here by lazygamer.net, and here, and here by others). Titanfall was set to release in South Africa, people were pre-ordering the game, and gearing up for the awesome. Then, there was a beta test, a common practice where interested players are invited to try out a new game before it’s released – game developers use their feedback to fix bugs and improve gameplay, making for a better game upon release, while players get to see if the game is worth buying.
By most accounts, the worldwide beta was smooth enough. However, a local gent by the name of psuno (obviously, this is not his real name) found playing Titanfall less than ideal. Basically, one plays Titanfall online, pitting one’s skills against other players around the world who are currently playing on the same server one is connected to. The problem is that the server that South Africans were connecting to is all the way in Europe, because there are no servers in Africa (or anywhere else in the developing world, as this map illustrates).
According to psuno and others, South Africans’ Titanfall experience would be compromised by their ping disadvantage (it takes a few hundred milliseconds longer for a South African player’s console to ‘ping’ the server in Northern Europe and get a pingback than it does for, say, a German console, because distance and time still matter online). Psuno reportedly threatened to lodge a complaint about this issue under the Consumer Protection Act.
Now, there’s no evidence that what happened next is the result of this threatened complaint, or if there were instead a whole bunch of complaints that were not discussed in online forums or if something else happened. Whatever the specifics, EA decided, days before the launch, that it would not be launching Titanfall in South Africa, saying “performance rates … were not as high as we need to guarantee a great experience”.
Unsurprisingly, gamers were up in arms– a petition was launched attracting around 1500 signatures (by people adorably calling themselves pilots, because you are a Titan pilot in the game) – and many argued that the problem was manageable, that the millisecond delays would make almost no difference to gameplay.
Happily for gamers, they found workarounds to ensure that they could still buy the title. EA and Respawn confirmed that if players purchased a game using a different region code and then played from South Africa, they would not be booted from the server. Thus, it appears that the decision to cancel the launch was, at core, a risk management tool. By refusing to sell the title through a South African vendor, EA and Respawn protected themselves and their local vendor from potential formal complaints that could cost money. Gamers still get the game, but no consumer protection with it.
So, what can we learn from this? I see 3 potential lessons.
1. Africa is sorely lacking in the internet infrastructure department.
The reason for this whole hullaballoo is that there are not enough people online in Africa for Microsoft to feel that it is worthwhile to install one of its Azure gaming servers nearby. In other words, South Africa is still very far behind when it comes to the internet. Missing out on Titanfall is not a huge deal (for most people), but missing out on other server-hosted products like web-based software (like Google’s online office suite), and emerging web-based applications like outsourcing your data processing to Amazon’s giant servers, is more worrisome. In order to compete, South Africa needs better internet infrastructure, and if private actors are unable to provide it, government must step up.
2. South Africa is too small to have global consumer heft.
While I genuinely admire psuno’s attitude, the failure of South African consumers to sway EA and Respawn highlights how small the domestic South African market is, particularly the market for luxury goods. The South African market is not worth enough for companies to go out of their way to accommodate South African consumers. On the bright side, this means opportunity for local companies who take consumer satisfaction seriously. On the downside, it means that South Africans may have to put up with suboptimal service when they interact with global businesses.
3. There are always workarounds.
In the end, the cancellation of the SA launch of Titanfall didn’t really hurt local gamers. Sure, it’s annoying to have to buy a code and whatnot, but they can still download and play the game. And this is the good thing about the internet age. Yes, South Africa is disadvantaged in terms of infrastructure and consumer power. But ingenuity and the internet together enable South Africans to overcome this disadvantage. And that’s an encouraging truth.