Unbranding the Sheep – Why I Almost Pulled The SOCOM Review

Last Friday, I reviewed the new PSP game SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals Fireteam Bravo 3. I gave it a fairly positive write-up, and had no problems getting into the online component of the game, even if there was a sparse number of people due to my review going up before the game’s release. With that said, I haven’t picked the game up since I finished it last week.

I have a nasty taste in my mouth right now, after the game’s release on Tuesday. One that not only is probably going to keep me from picking it up ever again, but nearly caused me to do something I’ve never done: retract my own review.

After the game’s release on Tuesday, an article came up on IGN explaining how Sony was fighting piracy within SOCOM. Their new way of fighting piracy involves having to register the game via the Playstation Network in order to use the online component of the game. For digital copies (i.e., mine), this is done automatically, but for retail, UMD copies of the game, this requires a code enclosed within the game, not unlike what I’ve found before for the Live Season in recent versions of NBA Live. Here comes the problem: the code is a one-time use, and costs $20 to replace. Even considering its recent price drop1, this means that in order to buy SOCOM used and get full functionality, it would cost $52.99. This for a game that, while above average, is only worth the full $40 to truly dedicated shooter fans.

Here’s where I got upset: we didn’t know anything about this. As I stated, my copy of the game is digital, so I had no clue about the code. NO ONE knew before they put their reviews up. In short, Sony pulled a fast one, and then spun their way out of it while talking to a friendly site that parroted its take on “fighting piracy” (more on this in a bit). I felt that my review of the game had been compromised.

So what does one do when they feel their review of a game isn’t accurate anymore? To me, it was simple: you pull it, and post a retraction notice.

I figured this wouldn’t be popular with Alex or DJ. Alex is of course our Editor in Chief, and DJ is our PR rep, or more specifically, the person who gets us games from Sony. Nobody in charge likes hearing the word “retraction”, and Alex was no exception. In his explanation to me, he told me that this technically couldn’t be done because I’d reviewed a new, digital copy of the game – one that isn’t affected by this since you can’t sell bytes used – and therefore, since this can’t be taken into account in a review of the game itself, I technically couldn’t even dock the score2. I COULD – I had the option – but it wouldn’t be right, and would cause more journalistic harm than good. After awhile, I had to begrudgingly agree with Alex, partly because every time I’ve gone against Alex’s advice has turned out poorly for me.

He did say it would be good “UTS fodder”, though. Not exactly the most comforting term I’ve heard used about my work, but I work with what I have.

As a reviewer, this gives me a pit in my stomach. I feel like we – the reviewers – got taken for a ride here, and it reflects in my review. My fear isn’t for people that went out and bought the game on my review this week. My fear is about someone a year from now, looking at a used UMD in Gamestop for this game, and deciding to buy it on my review. The chances of that are remote, especially considering our standing among the IGNs, Kotakus and Gamespots of the industry, but the chance is there that someone’s going to read my review, buy the game, find out that there’s a $20 kicker to enjoy the other half of the game, and feel betrayed. Maybe I’m naive, but I take that seriously.

As a pro-consumer journalist and a consumer myself, this makes me furious for a number of reasons:

* First off, shame on IGN for not calling a spade a spade. The title of the article is “SOCOM Fights Piracy On PSP”, which makes it seem like it’s with Sony’s efforts to combat piracy. It’s a line that could have been written by a PR hack. Furthermore, the questions served up were mostly softballs. Why wasn’t Sony pressed about the timing, or the lack of an announcement before release? Give credit to them for asking how fans would react, but if they didn’t ask that, or if it got edited out, this article would have been a journalistic catastrophe. In short, this reads to me like a piece intended to keep Sony happy. The headline of which is most infuriating because…

* This is NOT a fight on piracy. Sony already fights piracy via their constant, agonizing firmware process. This is a fight against the second-hand market. Every big-name publisher is trying to find a way to kill the second-hand market so that every sale of a game at least sees some profit. On the surface, this is reasonable, as companies don’t see any profit from second-hand sales of games, but the only way companies are going about this is to once again take rights away from the consumer, while turning purchases of tangible media into nothing more than the purchase of a license. It’s taking away the ownership of the game away from the person actually spending the money. This line of thinking isn’t going away, either; Electronic Arts is trying the same thing with Project Ten Dollar. For John Koller to say that this is a fight against piracy is disingenuous, and that’s being nice. Speaking of Electronic Arts…

* This is NOT the same as Project Ten Dollar; it’s much worse. For one, EA was very upfront about their intentions. We knew how the Cerebus Network worked before Mass Effect 2 was released, and furthermore, the service gives gifts within the game. It’s rewarding people for buying the game. Sony didn’t mention a single thing, waited until they were asked about it post-release3 to say something, and were ready with PR babble. Furthermore, there is absolutely NO value-add with this. The Cerebus Network gives players things to use within their game. SOCOM adds an unnecessary hurdle to use a major part of the game, doesn’t give the player anything, and takes it away from anyone ignorant enough to purchase the game used.

* Comparing to the Cerebus Network again, the entirety of Mass Effect 2 can be played even if it’s bought used. In SOCOM, the loss of online play, as mentioned, literally takes out half of the game. The campaign, not counting the tutorial, is only eight missions, and there’s only so long someone can play custom missions for CE Points; to get the most out of the game, online play is required. By locking up half of the game without telling us ahead of time, Sony is flat-out lying to us about the DRM – and yes, it IS DRM – within their game.

* In the IGN article, Mr. Koller spun his way out of most of IGN’s questions by either not answering them or bludgeoning them with the P-word, an admirable job considering the fact that Jim Reilly couldn’t have made it any easier on him if he was giving him a foot rub while asking him these questions. However, no amount of positive spin can make his answer to the last question any easier to swallow. When asked how consumers will react to this, John goes onto say that we’re going to be HAPPY about it, with his reasoning being that by charging pirates and/or second-hand purchasers to go online, Sony is fighting the good fight, and therefore making it possible for them to bring us more AAA titles for our enjoyment. Where did Mr. Koller do his market research, an S&M club? For him to say that this sequence of events is something we’re going to be gung-ho about shows that Mr. Koller is out of touch at best, and lying to our faces at worst. Thankfully, most comments on articles dedicated to this are rightly calling this as bullshit.

Anything that causes people to potentially pay for something they purchased twice – especially for a struggling franchise on a badly struggling system – is sure to leave a bad taste in the mouths of the people Sony relies upon: their customers. To do that, and then lie to them about why they’re doing it, is blatantly disrespecting them, and leaves lasting discontent.

It also leaves me with a review I badly want to forget ever happened.



1 – Despite being out three days, SOCOM has already seen a used price drop, going down $2 to $32.99. That still leaves the cost for anyone that buys a used PSP game at above $50, and the sell-in value has probably plummeted as well. Worse, Gamestop’s drooling, minimum wage help is either too ignorant or too lazy to inform their shoppers that they could be about to buy a half completed game.

2 – I might not be able to dock the score in the actual review, but I can sure as hell can do it here. Miscellaneous – our personal slant on the game – just plummeted down to “Worthless”, our lowest grade. Also, Modes goes down to “Mediocre”, since online play features so heavily. Due to this, I have no choice but to call the game “Decent” instead of “Above Average”; it’s still not *bad*, but this affects how I see the game in those two areas significantly.

3 – In fairness to IGN, it’s possible that the article in question was embargoed by Sony until after the game was released.


Christopher Bowen is the Associate Editor at Diehard GameFAN, and was previously a columnist at Not A True Ending. Having worked in the IT industry as a network security engineer for over five years before coming to DHGF, Christopher brings a unique, pro-consumer perspective to his work. His thoughts on how the gaming industry works behind the scenes, and how it affects the everyday consumer, can be read every Saturday at Diehard GameFAN. In addition, he writes DHGF’s weekly Nintendo and Playstation Network download wrap-ups every Tuesday and Friday, respectively. Follow Chris on Twitter, or email him with questions and feedback.



, ,



20 responses to “Unbranding the Sheep – Why I Almost Pulled The SOCOM Review”

  1. Schalken Avatar

    Great commentary. Over on another gaming website today, in a discussion of Ubisoft’s new dreadful PC DRM the point was made that professional reviewers need to factor these kinds of things into their scores. It’s one thing for Spore or whatever to have 1 or 2 stars out of 5 on Amazon, but it’s another when it has an average of 30 on Metacritic because of the DRM.

    You guys chose not to adjust your score — I don’t agree with that — but addressing the issue so honestly in this column was about the next best thing. Bravo!

    And remember, console gaming folks — you can laugh or shrug your shoulders at the PC gamers getting saddled with DRM nonsense, but you guys are next. We all gotta stand together!

  2. Alex Lucard Avatar

    This is very similar to what happened with the DS version of Rhapsody a year and a half ago.

    People that recieved beta copies for review had access to extra content that was eventually taken out of the US retail release version, even though Nippon Ichi advertised it on the US site.

    After the review went live, we (as in reviewers on multiple sites) learned the content was pulled when gamers emailed us asking how to get the extra content to show up when in our versions, it was just there.

    Since this was bonus content, it didn’t actually affect the game as a whole, so I neither retracted my review nor changed the score. Instead, I added a notation to the review explaining to gamers what had happened and why there was a disconnect between review copies and retail copies and that if this is a make or break issue, people shouldn’t buy it.

    With SOCOM here, we have something than only affects the secondary market and as it’s a review of a new game, it would be like docking a DLC title because you can’t trade it in. That has no bearing on the actual game itself or how it plays unless you are doing a reto review of a title long since released. The best thing one can do in this situation is add a clarification or even an entire column to warn buyers that this would be a foolish purchase ont he secondary market and that the game should only be purchased new or digitally if you decide to get it. Which of course, is no doubt what Sony wants. By this spreading around the net, it ensures there will be no secondary market for this game and Sony will directly reap the rewards of the game with each purchase.

    We also refuse to review PC titles with DRMs like SecuROM here at Diehard GameFAN. We’ve actually returned some games to publishers and PR companies because of it.

  3. Danny Avatar

    This is an awesome idea by Sony, and hopefully they can help to end used games, and make people want to buy the game new, instead of giving Gamestop all the power over their game. And the review should be based off if you were to buy the game new, and to those new buyers, the game is unaffected.

  4. Mike Avatar

    While I agree with anything that hurts Gamestop. I also think that putting policies into action that hurt ALL second-hand retailers is pretty horrible. That’s not even the point though. This doesn’t fight piracy. There was no need for a company the size of Sony to put some gross, disgusting, mutated version of the truth out as their PR campaign for one game. I hope their sales of any games that have this idiotic policy attached to it plummet so hard they have to fire whatever imbecile came up with the idea.

    I would also like to point out that second hand stores are some of the only places you can find rare games (earthbound, secret of mana, ogre battle). An attack on them is an indirect attack on any consumer that wishes to play old games. I also take it as a personal attack on the warm fuzzy feelings I get whenever I think of saturn valley. LEAVE MY WARM FUZZY FEELINGS THE FUCK ALONE!

  5. […] review went up, and after the game was released. For our full stance on this, please refer to my Unbranding the Sheep article from Saturday, February […]

  6. Christopher Bowen Avatar

    Danny – I agree that Gamestop is a horrible company, and should be put into place, especially for their practise of only stocking new stock if we preorder it. With that said, this isn’t just about Gamestop. It’s about our rights as consumers. If I were to pay $40 for a UMD copy of this game, it’s with the knowledge that I OWN the game. I can sell it back to someone else – via Gamestop, ebay, or what have you – after I’m done with it. Now? There is no right. I COULD sell it back, but my price is going to go down significantly (I tried calling two Gamestops to get their sell-in price since their trade-out price went down, but both of them said I had to come in first. And the game isn’t on Toys ‘R Us’s site), and anyone that buys the game is going to get a broken game.

    It’s about our rights. If major studios have to pull stunts like this in order to keep their profit margins, they’re doing something wrong beforehand, and they’re making up for it by milking consumers that don’t know any better. Not only is this going to hurt Gamestop – something I quietly cheer for – but it’s going to kill eBay. How many people are going to sell “NEW + SEALED” copies of this game now, when the game is anything but, and the code’s been used? “It’s the consumer’s fault” doesn’t count if the consumer’s been lied to.

    Let’s be careful, in our zest to hurt Gamestop, that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  7. brianTAMPA Avatar

    wow… I’m not quite sure what to think of all this. I agree that publishers/developers would benefit from additional ‘new game’ sales but I find it apalling that I wouldn’t own the “full” game. Maybe original purchasers could be privy to a special server or given online credits where as a second hand user wouldn’t. How that would be policed I have no idea. What if I decided to play ‘my game’ on a friends account, hmm….

  8. Dirk Avatar

    Why is this suddenly about Gamestop? They are following the law and make no secret they are a business out to make money selling used games based on what I understand is called the “first sale doctrine”. What SONY is doing could be considered sneaky at one end and possibly illegal at the other. Microsoft found this out when someone resold there copy of Windows — the courts in the USA said this was legal and Microsoft had to have a method of transferring the product key if the software was registered — which all you have to do is called them.

  9. Mark Avatar

    No Danny, its not “an awesome idea by Sony”

    Find your nearest bridge and jump off it.

  10. Alex Lucard Avatar

    I guess I’m a little confused on this desire to “hurt Gamestop” as well. They buy used game and then resell them for 2-3 times what they paid for them, but how is that any different from say, Amazon.com’s used game store, Game Crazy, or even a Pawn Shop?

    This topic really shouldn’t turn into something about Gamestop because even mom and pop game stores resell used games for more than they paid for them. This should be about whether or not it is ethical (or perhaps even legal) for Sony to do what they have done and why one feels the way they do.

  11. Sean Avatar

    First of all the statement “This is NOT a fight on piracy” is really bad journalism. At best it’s a bad assumption, at worst it’s malicious reporting. Given that retailers and developers have complained about the problem of piracy with the PSP, Sony responding is a good thing for those people with PSPs to keep games coming to it. After 4 odd years of firmware updates, it’s clear that another firmware update isn’t enough.

  12. Christopher Bowen Avatar

    Well, I’m less against reselling for a higher price than buying – that’s simple economics – than I am Gamestop’s methods of enforcing them. Then again, that’s not what this is about, especially as whatever “hurts Gamestop” also hurts us as well. I’d rather see Gamestop hurt for their employment practises than anything.

    My biggest issue isn’t just that I can’t sell the game. I can’t even lend it to my friend without him also using my PSN account (security issue). Granted, if I lend it to a friend, they’re likely only playing the campaign only, but again, it limits what I can do with my friends, not to mention resales.

    I also would like to see if companies are willing to work with Gamefly. I can’t rent this game and buy it because there’s no code (unless I buy it full new, which defeats the purpose; I use Gamefly for it’s keep rate). Here’s how it should work: I keep the game from Gamefly and get a code, the company gets more sales, and they work with Gamefly to use a new code based on that purchase. Sadly, big companies are getting a little greedy and that won’t work for them. It won’t work with their shareholders, either.

  13. Tommy Avatar

    It’s a good idea by Sony, but $20 is waaay too much. $5 would be much more fair and accurate.

    It’s the dev’s rights to fight the used game market. Let’s be real here – devs are closing doors left and right because they arent making enough profit.

    Considering this is just a PSP game, and $20 is a ridiculous amount of money, Sony is going about it the wrong way here.

  14. Christopher Bowen Avatar

    Honestly, Tommy? I wouldn’t be writing this if it was $5. I wouldn’t like it, and I especially wouldn’t like how the news was dropped on us, but $20 is obscene. In a sense, it’s no different than what EA did, only giving Live Season (NBA Live) or parts of FIFA’s game to new buyers. But $20 – on top of $32 used – is insane.

    Sean, how is that bad journalism? Because calling a spade a spade is bad journalism? If I was reporting this as news, I would have just linked IGN’s story. Unbranding the Sheep is 70% journalism, 30% opinion. I went a little towards the latter side with this piece, but I felt it necessary to not take Sony’s spin – read that interview, it’s spin city – as gospel.

    Yes, piracy is a problem on the PSP, but it’s a bigger problem on the DS. And if, say, Ragnarok DS held back a major part of their game unless we either registered of paid $20, I’d be writing about them, too.

  15. Mark B. Avatar
    Mark B.

    Personally, I’m not opposed to the idea of developers charging the secondary market for something they give to people who buy a game new (the Cerberus Network, for instance), but crippling the online component is about the most ass-backwards thing a company could do that I can’t even begin to fathom who thought this was a good idea.

    Like Chris said, this COMPLETELY removes the ability to test the game as a rental. Sony, of course, would argue, “Oh, but that’s fine by us because we want people to buy games, not rent them”, but as someone who buys games after renting them through Gamefly, if I can’t test out the online play, what’s to convince me this is worth owning? I only bought Modern Warfare 2 BECAUSE of the online play. If Activision had crippled the online play for used game owners and people who rented the game, I’d never have bothered, and I’m sure that there are plenty of people who feel the same way.

    I agree that the review score shouldn’t be modified, but I one hundred percent think this is inane as well.

  16. Robert Avatar

    I think that Sony had a good idea, but bad execution. I dont care how much of a fanboy you think I am, or how blinded I am, but I do not believe in purchasing used games. It takes money away from the people who worked hard to make the game. I’m also an artist and you can best bet I would be upset if someone was making money of off something I made.

    I think maybe sony should have had the game be able to recognize that it is new hardware (different psp, new memory stick etc.) and allow maybe a 30 day trial of the online play. That way you can still try it out, then buy the code if you dont have one.

  17. Danny Avatar

    Mark, everyone has their own perspective, and mine is this is a way to get people to stop pirate games and some used game sales, which I never liked, sure maybe other people will like to buy used games, but me I buy all my games new and do not sell what I own, so to me I find it like an ok idea by Sony, so if you don’t want to buy it used just buy it new, or go and throw your copy off a bridge, cause its such a horrible idea and affects you so badly.

    And yes, I have almost never bought from Gamestop, cause I never liked them, I went there twice, and paid overprice for new games, and had to put 5 dollars to reserve, and get none of the pre-order incentives promised, and wasn’t given a game, even though I pre-ordered, an it wasn’t such a high demand game, and they wanna buy a copy of MAG bought one day after launch from someone for only 25 – 30 $ ? Seriously?

    And, yes Christopher Bowen, I agree with you, it does have an affect to every other company as well, and I may have overlooked that, seeing the “benefits” I see in this idea, but there are obviously many cons linked to this idea, that I did not acknowledge, and thanks for sharing that with me. :) Made me notice it little more, in the perspectives of others, and the effect on other companies.

  18. SweetPotatoOrgy Avatar

    You know, you make some excellent points…but I can’t help to wonder if your stance is even a bit biased. I say companies do a rather fine job rewarding consumers for buying their product new…that makes perfect sense, you’re supporting the consumer that supports your company.

    Removing the benefits of a new purchase to a consumer who prefers used or previously played product, seems a fair trade as well. After all, consumers paying the premium of a new release SHOULD get a premium product, be it through exclusive downloads, beta access, or extra goodies.

    I just can’t see the negative in this as a consumer when looking at Sony’s stance. It makes sense to the bottom line.

  19. Mohamed Al-Saadoon Avatar
    Mohamed Al-Saadoon


    While there’s nothing wrong with offering a premium service for people who buy the game. The article mentions Mass Effect 2’s system which works fine. Even if I buy Mass Effect 2 used I can still play through the game 100% and Cerberus offers some cool free extras but doesn’t hinder the game.

    Here, Sony are locking an entirely essential part of the game! And charging 20$? That’s just too much.

  20. will_c_75 Avatar

    i think it is smart on their part they need some money back to pay the electric bill on the servers you use. the price is way to high though and if sony was smart they would start lowering the price of the digital copy to start matching gamestop’s pricing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *