Watch_Dogs and Game_Mods – The Arrogance of a Lie

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Jun 24, 2014

Filed under: Column 47 comments

Let’s dump on Ubisoft two weeks in a row!

The odd thing about Ubisoft is that they seem to be a normal publisher when dealing with the consoles. It’s just that they have intense contempt for their PC customers. Check out Jimquisition this week for some great Ubi quotes. We’ve shouted at them for years, and management has never wrapped their heads around the concept of “the pirates and your customers are two different groups of people”.

I just want to point this out as another example of high-ranking executives being fundamentally ignorant and bad at their jobs. Their brute-force approach to pumping out games lowers quality, so instead of two good games on alternating years we get one mediocre game every year. And even if this approach really is the best, the games don’t need to be protected by additional DRM because DRM enrages customers without stopping the pirates. And even if DRM is somehow effective, it’s already been done better elsewhere. And even if Ubi needs their own Uplay DRM platform, it could be designed SO much better than it is. And even if we had to keep this design, they could handle the PR backlash much, much better.

Greed I can understand. I can even respect it. But high-level incompetence is intolerable to me.

EDIT: It has been pointed out that the really big demonstration for Watch_Dogs that produced all of the amazing screenshots was at E3 2012, not E3 2013. That was before the devs had access to the final specs of the next-gen consoles, and two years is a long time in game development. It still doesn’t excuse the contemptuous PR, but it does explain how we wound up with such a graphical disparity in the first place.


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47 thoughts on “Watch_Dogs and Game_Mods – The Arrogance of a Lie

  1. Daemian Lucifer says:

    The interesting thing is that they state how “the mod”(stupid label,because it is not)improves the graphics but reduces the functionality of the game,when people who did tweak the settings say how the game runs better than with their stock settings.So,yeah.

    1. Sam says:

      I was of the understanding Ubisoft meant functionality not in the sense of frame rate but actual playability. To quote Rock Paper Shotgun:

      “It turns out that the bokeh depth of field of effect ““ which games have been able to do for a while now ““ is kind of insane. This is admittedly just a couple seconds after I've stopped jogging, but the angle of the camera makes the game think that the player, that phone booth and bin are the most important thing on screen. If something across the road was shooting at me at this point, I wouldn't be able to see them. I'm Mr. Magoo.”

      “Much like the bokeh field of effect, the bloom lighting is dramatic but also more obtrusive than Watch_Dogs' standard settings. Plus Aiden's coat seems strangely damp at all times. If you set those aside, there are still moments when it looks astonishing; lighting and camera focus mingling in just the right way, at just the right levels, at just the right moment to create a graphical Goldilocks.”

      Take a look at the video posted in that around 3:40 – I have a hard time seeing the people across the street, which I would consider unplayable myself. In a static situation (like screenshots), the old/mod settings are definitely prettier, but I’m not a fan when I’m actually playing things.

      1. HeroOfHyla says:

        I don’t think I’ve ever found a depth of field effect in a game that I liked. Until we implement some sort of eye tracking to dynamically focus wherever on screen you’re looking (without having to turn your character) I think I’ll always hate it.

        1. Paul Spooner says:

          Yeah, it’s one of those things where there really is a fundamental difference between movies and games.
          In a movie, depth of field is super valuable, since it allows the director to draw the audiences attention toward some things and away from others. It also looks nice if used in moderation.
          But in a game, the point of graphics is primarily to convey game-state to the player. Looking nice is great, but it’s secondary. Anything that obscures game-state in a game is outrageous, and blur does exactly that.

          So, you can use depth of field in a game without any problems, as long as it never blurs interactive objects. Basically, this means it should only ever apply to the extreme foreground or the backdrop. For an FPS, this is the player character overlay (gun model, hands, etc) and the environmental backdrop (stuff far enough away that you won’t be interacting with it in any meaningful way).
          Blurring stuff across the street, when you can easily run across the street, is beyond incompetent.

          1. silver Harloe says:

            Maybe it’s not incompetent. Maybe the problem is really hard to do at the speeds the player can move. Maybe they disabled it because they didn’t have the time/budget/insight to make it work for release.

            Maybe they ran into a problem that didn’t show up in a small demo environment but was terrible when applied to a whole city, and couldn’t figure out how to fix it, so they turned off the feature.

            Maybe that makes the part of their statement about “turning on this feature can make game play worse” not so much a lie.

            I’m not defending any of those statements, and I’m not a combatant in the console wars and don’t a pony in the ‘favorite company’ race. My last console was a PS2, the last FPS I played was… I replayed Deus Ex (1), System Shock 2 and Thief 2 last year. Because I prefer them to modern ones. I really do not care about Ubisoft.

            What I AM saying is that the idea of “figure out what’s important to the player” is one of those things that sounds super easy – I can do it instantly! But might be hard to program. Or deceptively easy to program in a way that turns out to be too slow for jerky mouse behavior or running or driving when you scale the problem space up to a huge number of objects which might be important.
            Are you sure the gunman is the most important thing? What if you’re about to be hit by a car? Or you really have a moral issue with shooting innocent bystanders and want to know they’re clear? Or you’re really much much more interested in the guy who has a knife on your sister? Or that mailbox that is being “incompetently” rendered importantly contains a huge bomb you’d like to disable before shooting back?

            I’m just pointing out the problem is NOT so trivial that ONLY an incompetent person could fail to make a dynamic depth of field focus on the the things the player cares about (out of hundreds or thousands of things) as fast as the player would like while the player is running and jumping and jiggling their mouse.

            1. Paul Spooner says:

              Except that all of your examples are covered by the “never blurs interactive objects” rule.

              I agree that there’s a case to be made that what looks great and plays great is not a trivial intersection to find. But what I’m saying is that if their priorities were at all game-play oriented, there’s a lot of things they would have done differently. Their failure to do so appears to stem not from inability to execute (incompetence) but from something (which I consider to be) worse; The unwillingness to do so.

              1. silver Harloe says:

                I think it would be pointless applied to foreground and background non-interactives, so I think they did the most reasonable thing when they couldn’t make it work how they wanted: they turned it off entirely.

      2. Paul Spooner says:

        Hah! The part that struck me about this video was 3:11 where the be-ball-capped, trench coat clad what’s-his-face rear-ends an SUV…
        While riding a motorcycle!

        Made me laugh out loud so hard. A collision like that would send him through the back window of the car head first, probably killing him instantly. Way more fatal than being shot at.

        It’s one of those cases where the good graphics is working against believably. He doesn’t even fly off the motorcycle! The motorcycle isn’t even damaged!

        And then he jumps the bridge at 3:20, probably two stories up at apex. Landing that will wreck your day, even on a properly outfitted bike.

        Followed by 4:40, where he jumps off an overpass, a fall which is highly survivable (if you land and roll correctly). But no, he takes damage from THAT!

        What a silly game.

        1. Ciennas says:

          Games are a form of storytelling. Like Hollywood, they can get away with a lot more if you don’t know what’s possible or are willing to overlook it for the sake of fun or story.

          Otherwise, EVERY game would be significantly shorter than we’d appreciate, or they’d all be DIAS gameplay and no fun regardless.

          1. Paul Spooner says:

            My views on storytelling.

            I fully agree that ignorance of possibility increases leeway (which is why highly realistic visuals are detrimental to believability).
            Your final statement seems suspect… would you care to elaborate?

            1. Ciennas says:

              I’m saying that… You mentioned action movies.

              I know a nurse, and we sat down and watched Die Hard 4 together. By the end, she tallied how many times the hero would have been killed or disabled in a hyper realistic setting (We’ll call it Earth Standard)

              It’s been a while, but I think we hit double digits.

              The first one came early, in the first big set-piece.

              Applied to most stunts that game characters do… We wouldn’t worry about multi-hour narratives. we’d worry about multi minute narratives.

              1. Paul Spooner says:

                Oh, I totally agree (though I don’t recall mentioning action movies).

                And things are like this for a reason. Games are about learning through playing with things that are too expensive to toy with in everyday life. Human death and injury is one of the most expensive things around, so it’s no surprise that games address it frequently, and exaggerate the limits of human endurance in order to toy with a broader range of possibilities.

                What surprises me is that the degree of exaggeration is not more often harmonized between mechanics and presentation.
                Put another way, I abhor Ludo-Visual Dissonance.

          2. You’re talking about (warning: TVTropes) The Rule of Cool.

            The problem is you have to have “cool” in the first place. Saints Row physics are cool, and the silliness is therefore awesome.

            A game that’s ostensibly trying to create a more or less realistic experience that allows things like 90 degree train track turns or indestructible motorbikes (as above) without some kind of payoff beyond “huh, that’s weird” doesn’t exactly help the story.

  2. RCN says:

    They did launch a long-awaited PC Exclusive Might & Magic title this year, when everyone thought the possibility was anything but.

    Then again, they did give the dev team about the minimum of the minimum to launch the game. They still rushed it a few months ahead of sensible development cycles for no apparent reason. They probably only green lit it because of Legend of Grimrock. And the art team was pretty much forced to work only with already existing assets from the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise.

    But at least they made it so Uplay was only optional. IF you knew how to find the way to disable it. And still need to activate the game in it.

    Gods, was I this starved for a new game I’m happy it just got made at all?

    … yes…
    (shame on me)

  3. guy says:

    Aren’t situations where higher quality graphics are possible but have quality or stability problems on some systems literally exactly what options menus are for?

    Granted, looking at the video in the RPS article linked above, the depth of field effect needs to go. It looks like the PC has forgotten his glasses.

    1. Tohron says:

      Admittedly, when tweaking the settings, people expect that the worst that could happen are framerate drops and choppy simulation updates, not freezes and crashes. Yet unless code is rigorously tested, it might cause the latter effects for certain PC configurations.

      1. Asimech says:

        If they’re changing settings through a Performance-Quality slider then freeze/crash level instability shouldn’t really be expected, but they could’ve put this setting under “Advanced Video Settings” and give a pop-up warning that serious problems are possible and at that point I’d expect users to reconsider.

        Of course I’m fully aware that there are people who ignore such things, but I have difficulty believing more than a handful of people would both go down to Advanced Video Settings and be unable to link their tweaking with stability problems.

  4. Chris says:

    I’d like to be playing Valiant Hearts for an Errant Signal short right now.

    Except while it’s out on the PS3/PS4 today it’s not out on the PC until noon tomorrow. HOORAY. Arbitrary delays from one platform to another!

    1. Muspel says:

      You know, I wonder if they do that kind of thing to gather metrics of some kind. There’s probably some kind of useful info that can be gleaned from staggering the releases like that.

      1. Steve C says:

        I think I know why there’s a 1 day delay- timezones. Sony controls the Playstation delivery network. They can stagger the release so it occurs at 12:01am (or w/e) in each region. So the UK release happens at the same time of day as the US release but not at the same moment in time.

        The PC release they don’t have control of the delivery over. Soon as the PC version goes live in Australia, it’s also live in the EU and Brazil whether they take steps to prevent that or not. Sony never wants to be in a position where a pirated copy is available before the actual release.

        Sony don’t want their customers who just want it now (who don’t care about paying or not paying or piracy or not piracy) to have to decide between a pirated copy now vs a paid version 12hrs from now.

    2. Grudgeal says:

      Looks like an interesting game. Looking forward to the analysis of it.

  5. Geoff says:

    My experience with Ubi is exclusively on the consoles, where-as on the PC Uplay is inexorably linked to their DRM apparrently (which is filthy and bad and awful), this isn’t the case on Consoles and does have an upside.

    Most of the Uplay social features go to waste, but in recent years they have been pushing cross connectivity with their games and mobile devices that I actually really like. For instance, in AC: Black Flag, you can connect to the ship management mini-game through a phone app to control it even while you’re not playing. Collect loot, charter new ships, send them on missions, etc. I think that’s actually a pretty slick way to keep your audience involved in your game throughout the day and has some potential for interesting, cross platform interactions.

  6. MadTinkerer says:

    “the pirates and your customers are two different groups of people”

    And some of your customers like to share files of software that are unavailable to buy for any price, games by companies that don’t exist and no one knows who has the rights, games that one would totally be willing to pay normal retail but too few copies were made and thus you have to choose between torrenting a free copy or paying a reseller hundreds of dollars, romhacks that translate games into other languages, romhacks that just do fun random stuff, and other “grey area” things.

    And some of your customers wait until the crack is available because we are willing to pay for our software but not willing to put up with the copy protection on our legitimate purchase. And some games get explicitly overlooked because we don’t want the game enough to track down the crack. Uplay has lost you sales, Ubisoft. From me. Games I didn’t even bother torrenting because I had better things to do, that I would have bought if not for stupid Uplay.

    Some people really like to own games, and playing them is secondary. The more publishers try to make it so we can’t own their games, the more I am turned off. This goes for fucking F2P, MMOs sub or otherwise, all proprietary game servers. Steam doesn’t count because while some games do use the Steam client as DRM, many don’t. (I’ve tested this and found it out myself so don’t argue.) Uplay does count because it explicitly exists primarily as DRM. Origin doesn’t even matter because they called it Origin and I am unwilling to consider using it until they change the name, but I oppose Uplay for consumer rights reasons.

    1. Ciennas says:

      Was with you most of the way… until you complained about Origin solely for its name. Why does the name auto-disqualify it?

      It has way better reasons to pick from, if I understand properly.

      1. Ronixis says:

        I’m guessing it has something to do with Origin Systems, the Ultima and Wing Commander developer which EA bought out a long time ago. (A thought I’ve had lingering for a while: compare fan responses to Dragon Age II and Ultima IX.)

        1. Spammy says:

          Yeah but, it seems like Dragon Age II has some defenders. Who out there is defending Ultima IX?

          1. MadHiro says:

            Once it got patched, it was actually marginally more fun to play than Ultima VIII?

            I think, at least.

            Granted, that’s not saying much. And any of the lore, plot, story, whatever present in Ultima IX is so atrocious that it’ll make you bleed from the nose and mouth if you stare at it too long. But I’ll take the crappy jumping puzzles in U9 over U8 any day of the week.

            1. Humanoid says:

              I have an irrational fondness of U8. Sure in the cold light of day it was a clear flop, but it was probably the game that was my gateway drug into RPGs (I was primarily a strategy/management gamer prior). And post-patch, the platforming was easy enough to not be too much of a hindrance to the good parts of the game. I actually am genuinely fond of it in terms of atmosphere, as well as thematically, and if anything my estimation of it in those regards have gone up since I was a kid. I could just wander around Tenebrae for hours fooling around without having to deal with the crappy aspects of the gameplay, and I’d have a ball doing it.

  7. Irridium says:

    It’s funny how they claim they took out all that rendering stuff the mod adds for performance issues considering the base game runs like crap on a good amount of systems and this mod makes it run better.

    And maybe I’m not looking in the right places, but so far I’ve seen nobody raise any noise about a downside to the mod. Maybe this will change, but it’s been out for a while and seems to work fine for the people who use it.

    1. FRI says:

      You haven’t been looking in the right places for downsides: Aggressive DoF, 0.8 version being broken, the ‘performance improvements’ are the mod defaulting textures to high (ultra being the source of stuttering for many), some people complaining of performance downgrades (on whirlpool and reddit), the dynamic rain lighting being just outright broken and blocking the entire vision, cities overall being brighter no matter where you are (light pollution? No idea what causes that).

      If you’ve actually SEEN comparison screenshots between the two (most people just post ‘WORS3 MAKES IT LOOK BETTER RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE UBISHAFT’ when most people who use the mod go back to the base game because it looks better) you’d see clear downsides between the 2 if they aren’t doctored or manipulated screenshost to unfavourably show one side better than the other.

      Also, not one of Shamus’s better articles. Seems like clickbaiting just to get up on the rabble and tide of places like /r/pcmasterrace.

  8. Exasperation says:

    The UbiSoft PR dept. also announced that the individuals who discovered the unused settings have had to eat all of their birds.

    Except those birds. They will be eaten tomorrow.

  9. Paul Spooner says:

    Loved this article. It just seems so focused, clean, and concisely critical without being mean spirited or slipping into hyperbole and sensationalism. I didn’t think it was possible, but I think your writing is getting better than it already was! Keep it up!

  10. James says:

    They don’t care because they don’t have to. Many people buy their products regardless of how poorly the previous experience was.

    1. kingmob says:

      This is likely what they think, but it is not true at all. Making money (even a lot of it) does not automatically mean you are doing everything right. Ubisoft is very much a case of making money despite their actions, not because of them.

  11. MTB says:

    “But high-level incompetence is intolerable to me.”
    Than be happy not to work for a big corporation. Seems like the * = const. With a decidedly non-linear function that ties together ‘hierarchy bloating’ and ‘company size’.

  12. Grudgeal says:

    Personally, I’ve been boycotting Ubisoft for the last five years over stuff like this (not much of a sacrifice since I’m not much into AAA-gaming anyway — it’s things like Child of Light and the abovementioned Valiant Hearts I’m missing out on), so this may just be my irrational bias talking when I say I think you’re being much too kind.

    I feel you’re right on the money when you say it’s “That’s “I don’t respect you enough to invent a plausible lie” level of lying.”, because that’s what it is. It’s the sort of statement that goes beyond damage control and right into outright contempt. They just picked the most bald-faced and blatantly untrue thing to say, so as to spit in our eyes with “I know that’s not true, you know that’s not true and more to the point you know I know that’s not true — what are you going to do about it?”. That sort of stuff just confirms my bias that Ubisoft is being outright hostile to its PC market.

  13. RTBones says:

    I’ve never seen the logic in treating your legitimate customers like they were criminals. I’m not Steam’s biggest fan – and there was a lot worng with it when it first came out – but at least I’m not thought of as a thief in Valve’s mind. I think the last Ubisoft game I played was Far Cry 2, though there may be a stray game in there somewhere. If its got UPlay, I just don’t bother as I simply cannot be arsed. NOTE TO UBISOFT – do you get that? I am not bothering with your products because of your asinine DRM. In fairness, I have much the same attitude with Rockstar and their Social Network (Max Payne 3, anyone?) and EA with Origin – though I might *consider* an Origin-based game if Bioware made it…once the community has played it, that is (I will not be having another Mass Effect 3 moment, thank you.)

    Question for Ubisoft: if, based on your public comments, you dislike PC gamers so much, why make games for the PC at all? We would seem to be an anathema to you. You obviously don’t like spending money on UPlay, given the amount of time it DOESNT work. Just avoid us and spend your money on the console market.

    Ask yourself this – how much money does a developer spend on JUST the game, then ask how much MORE money they spend to get it to work with their favorite flavor of DRM? Want to cut costs? Avoid developing games and just work on your DRM. (I kid, I kid.)

    1. Ciennas says:

      While I recognize howling at the wind rhetorical questions, having posed a boatload of them through my life, I have to point out one potential counterpoint.

      We expect the CEO’s of a software development company to have at least a vague idea how software development works: What’s possible, how well it’s expected to sell with a given audience, what you can ask from your product development teams, etc.

      However, even if we got the Golden Child of Game Making as a CEO, they could still be hamstrung by the one part of the company that we don’t get mad at, because of structure reasons:


      An investor gets to act like the entitled child of the process, and it’s too energy intensive to educate all of them to even vague notions, because most of them are either unwilling or disinterested in knowing ‘possible’ because they’re just wanting to see their money increase.

      Ideally, there’d be a little quiz you’d have to take about a company right after you purchase the stock, but that’s clearly not the world we live in.

      So, Ubisoft could recognize that Uplay is objectively terrible and driving buyers away. They’re stuck with it though, because taking it away would be like exposing/admitting a weakness and make the investors flee, even if it immediately improved things for all parties.

      So, they’re stuck trying to justify their decisions, and can never admit failure or defeat, lest their funders crucify them at the first stumble.

      (I don’t really know the inner workings of Ubisoft though. Just saying I can see at least one of the big threads that ties them together.)

      1. RTBones says:

        I certainly acknowledge your point. Lets face it – Ubisoft (and any developer, really) is a company in business to make money, end of.

        In the interest of full disclosure, I have no hard metrics in front of me (and the engineer in me would distrust statistics anyway – but that is another story, and I digress) for this. But since we are dealing with the rhetorical and hypothetical, let us consider this. If console games are your bread-and-butter bread winner, UPlay largely exists as a form of DRM for PC games. From a business perspective, if UPlay is driving your customers away or at least contributing to a declining profit line, either because it is costing you more cash than you thought (fixing it or making it work with your games), or because people are being driven from Ubisoft products, you are faced with a few choices. First, fix UPlay. Empirical evidence would suggest they haven’t got a clue how to do that. Another option would be to get rid of it. OK, but now how do you “protect” PC games? You can invest in a different DRM strategy (how many have Ubi tried now?) which just costs you more money with no guarantee it will be better than UPlay, or you can trim costs by *getting out of the PC game market*. The piece of Uplay that customers complain about (DRM) can be scaled back (UPlay is not *soley* DRM). Development budgets are cut because you are no longer developing for the PC as a platform.

        But, investors say, there is money to be made in PC gaming – how do we tap that revenue stream? Simple – license the property (in this case, we’ll say a console game the PC community wants ported) to a different software house that specializes in PC ports, and let THEM deal with the headache. Turn UPlay into a digital distribution platform first and foremost. Sell PC titles through UPlay (ala Steam), just not your own.

        An interesting discussion.

        1. Ciennas says:

          The second option (Reconfiguring) Would probably be the most palatable, and the least likely to cost the current CEO their job, which is how they’d judge its palatability.

          Of course, I’d imagine they’d like to see how Origin is doing before they jump into that leafpile.

          I imagine that companies would do better if they could just not get second guessed at every step of the process by every single element of the corporate structure.

          Too many cooks spoil the broth, too many byzantine organizations hamstring a large business and turn it into a lumbering behemoth instead of an agile one.

      2. Of course the peculiar thing is that after IPO, stock price really has no direct effect on company profits or performance. I sometimes wonder if the only reason companies seem to focus so relentlessly on short-term stock movements is the prevalence of stock and stock options as executive compensation. The CEO is in effect one of those shareholders, and as such is motivated more by “What can the company do which will give the right impression to the other ignorant shareholders and juice the stock price so I can unload?” than “What can the company do which will make the company money and cause it to grow?”

        1. FRI says:

          You seem to be half-informed on stock options; many of them have specific dates from which they can be exercised, usually 3+ years after they’re given. ESOs are much about tying the long-term goals of the company with management, and the salaries are for short-term benefits of said maangement, and you seem to think that somehow people who went to university for 3 years and worked for little pay at a financial institution for another 2 don’t know as much about this as you do.

          Short-term share trends downwards kill their earnings past the current horizon and other people have thought more about this with better education than you or I.

          1. So you’re saying that often (though not always) that pernicious motive doesn’t exist until the CEO has been in their position for at least 3 years?
            I’m far from the only person to conclude that all the theory about what stock options are supposed to do motivation-wise has in practice turned out to be counterproductive. Of course that may simply be because the whole notion is based on a flawed idea of what makes a good motivator. Interesting talk on what research suggests really motivates us:

  14. CaptainBooshi says:

    “I just want to point this out as another example of high-ranking executives being fundamentally ignorant and bad at their jobs.”

    Unrelated to the actual topic of discussion, but directly related to this quote, I saw an awesome study last week (but that actually came out last year) about this very topic. These researchers did a study of the S&P 1500, and found that, in general, the more you pay a CEO, the worse they perform. Not only do the companies they run under-perform companies run by lower-paying CEO’s, but on a personal level, they consistently choose worse times to cash in stock options. The effect ramps up, too, so the highest-paid are the worst performers. Obviously, there are going to be some individual exceptions, but this pattern holds true for almost everyone.

    The paper theorizes that this is because of overconfidence. Basically, the more you get paid, the more you feel justified in ignoring evidence or employees contradicting what you just know must be true.

    I just found this hilarious, and what you said reminded me of it, so I thought I’d share!

  15. Dreadjaws says:

    You know what’s the worst part? There actually is people stupid enough to believe their lies. In every comments section I’ve seen in gaming websites, there’s at least one or two very, very gullible people who defend Ubisoft by repeating their PRBS.

    And no, I’m not talking about trolls. Trolls are easy to figure out, because they always overdo it at some point, and they’re always looking for more responses.

    Perhaps Ubisoft scans the comments sections and as soon as they find one between 3000 who believes them, they ignore the rest. Well, that’s what I’d think if I believed they ever read comments sections.

  16. Nick-B says:

    I think the really ironic part of the E3 graphics hullabaloo is that, well… They obviously got it to look nice on a PC. 2 years ago.

  17. John says:

    Hi Shamus,

    all I want to say is that you are giving them free advertising. Every person talking about their game (creating a ‘buzz’) is a person not talking about a competitors game. I am sure there are plenty of small developers who would love you to be talking about their game to give them advertising. By posting like this you are not hurting those game companies, you are only hurting the ones that you are NOT talking about.



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