A Zombie of a Chance: Looking Back at the Left 4 Dead 2 Boycott
In general, gamers aren't very effective at organizing to effect change in the game industry. Sure, there are hundreds of online petitions demanding everything from a "Full House" game to a generalized end to game hacking, but the vast majority fail to garner much attention or support. Even well-organized and well-publicized efforts, like those seeking LAN support in StarCraft 2 or further support for the Earthbound games are met with official responses ranging from polite refusal to teasing hints, and rarely with real change.
But this year, many gamers took a different tack to protest what they saw as a betrayal of a publisher's past promises. Mere hours after Valve announced the planned November release of Left 4 Dead 2 (L4D2) at June's Electronic Entertainment Expo, a group calling for an L4D2 boycott popped up on Valve's own Steam user community. The group's first public message asked a simple question that would come to define its cause: "Where's all the content and the updates you promised for [the original] L4D, Valve?"
The somewhat impolitic logo for the boycott group.
By casting their disagreement in the form of a boycott, the tens of thousands of gamers that joined the L4D2 boycott group immediately set themselves apart from the Internet petitioners that came before them. A petition is just a polite request for someone to change their mind, if they would, please. A boycott, by definition, is a statement of collective action -- a way for a group to flex its economic power to force change. It's a way for a community to effectively put its money where its mouth is and demand that its case be heard. It's a cause that brings up images of patriotic movements, civil rights struggles, international incidents and other momentous events that seem much more important than a silly argument over the timing of the release of a videogame sequel.
But, in the end, was this boycott any more effective than any of the other failed grassroots petition efforts undertaken by gamers over the years? Now that Left 4 Dead 2 is actually available for sale, can those that took part in the boycott argue they achieved their goals? Did Valve change its plans to gain the approval of the masses, or did it effectively pacify the Internet throngs with nothing more than a couple of plane tickets and a hotel reservation?
In other words, was the boycott successful?
Well, it depends on what you mean by "successful."
An explosive start
From the start, the Left 4 Dead 2 boycott effort was definitely successful at attracting a lot of attention. Thanks to mostly bemused coverage from gaming Web sites during the high-traffic E3 news window, 5,000 Steam users signed up for the group in its first three days of existence. "We gave interviews to just about anybody that asked," said Walking_Target, the pseudonymous founder of the L4D2 boycott group, in a recent interview with Crispy Gamer. "[We] responded to questions from our members and benefited from a lot of press exposure, even if a lot of it was negative. In the end, it was so successful [at attracting members], because this was a group made mostly of Valve fans who just wanted to let Valve know that they expected more for L4D."
But getting people to click a button and sign up for an Internet protest group is simple. Getting them to actually accomplish something is the tough part. Luckily for the group, Walking_Target realized this early on in the process. "To simply talk about the release of L4D2 and the issues we have with it are not enough," he wrote in a June 4 message to the group. "It is only half the battle. A storm of words without action is no more potent in its ability to move our cause forward or make our goals happen. It is time we took some action as a community."
But first they had to figure out what those goals were. So, after a quick poll to gauge the group's "official concerns," the boycotters put together a 325-word manifesto that laid out their commitments, beliefs and requests for Valve. Crucially, the manifesto started off by recognizing Valve's need to make money off its games, and that "judgment cannot be passed on the quality of Left 4 Dead 2 until its release." But those concessions didn't change the stark reality of the group's demands:
While the requested changes to the price and format of the sequel were important, it was the idea that Valve was somehow abandoning the original Left 4 Dead that animated the most passion in the boycotters. "Left 4 Dead has not yet received the support and content which Valve has repeatedly stated will be delivered," the manifesto argued, and not without justification.
A scene from the trailer that led to the boycott.
In an October 2008 interview with VideoGamer.com before the original game's release, Valve Co-Founder and Managing Director Gabe Newell compared Left 4 Dead to Valve's own Team Fortress 2 (TF2), a multiplayer staple that had received frequent free updates since its late-2007 release. Newell said that these updates had proved key to the continued success of TF2's online community, and that Left 4 Dead would receive the same kind of attention. "We'll do the same thing with Left 4 Dead where we'll have the initial release and then we'll release more movies, more characters, more weapons, unlockables, achievements, because that's the way you continue to grow a community over time," he said.
When Valve announced Left 4 Dead 2 in early June, this was beginning to look like a bit of an empty promise. True, the company had released a collection of small tweaks and new modes as a "Survival Pack" and had provided a beta version of a software development kit for eager modders. But these tepid additions didn't come close to matching the robust updates being provided for Team Fortress 2.
In fact, the depth of Valve's support for TF2 set a precedent that may have come back to bite Valve during the slow rollout of new Left 4 Dead content."I do think that a bit of the issue falls on Valve for training us for such good free content," said Brent Copeland, host of The Safe House, a Left 4 Dead-focused podcast. "I almost think if L4D came from a different company that there wouldn't be as big of an issue." Walking_Target agreed that Valve's handling of TF2 led people to think of it as a different kind of company. "It made a reputation for Valve as a company that supports their games. It was probably a bad idea to compare support for L4D to TF2 so early on though."
Fair or not, Walking_Target and his growing group expected Valve to live up to its reputation for supporting existing games, rather than quickly abandoning them for sequels. What's more, they wanted to give Valve a chance to explain itself. In another split from the petitioners that came before them, the boycotters worked hard to start a conversation with Valve -- a company that they still respected for creating the first Left 4 Dead -- rather than simply shouting their demands into the Internet ether. The group sent its manifesto as an open letter to the company, and followed it up with further requests for information and dialogue as the boycott went on. "It's never been 'us versus them,'" Walking_Target recalled later. "People took the wrong view of it. We've been talking with Valve since the first few weeks of the boycott, because in the end, the only way to get anywhere is to work with the people who you have an issue with. Whining at them gets you nowhere."
Valve's first public response to the controversy came in a statement to Kotaku on June 10. By that point, nine days after the boycott's creation, the group had grown to include nearly 25,000 members. In the statement, Newell tried to allay the growing group's fears by arguing that nothing had really changed. "Doing a sequel in one year is new for Valve," Newell admitted, but "providing ongoing support for our titles after the initial launch ... has been part of our philosophy since Half-Life was released ten and half years ago," he wrote. "We see no reason to change that and will continue to support the over three million customers in the L4D community. Some in the community are concerned that the announcement of L4D2 implied a change in our plans for L4D1. We aren't changing our plans for L4D1."
But the boycotters weren't satisfied with what they saw as a vague assertion of support. Less than 10 hours later, a posting by boycott group co-moderator Agent of Chaos answered Newell with a polite demand for more concrete information. "While we are excited about the idea of new content, we are still in the dark about it," he wrote. "What sort of content is it? For all we know, it could be a new main menu screen. Is it a new map, is it new monsters, is it new weapons, etc...? We'd like to know what is going to be in this new content. Furthermore, when will this content be released? Is there any sort of timetable within which the content will be made available? These are all questions we would like Valve to elaborate on."
Looking back on the eve of Left 4 Dead 2's release, Walking_Target theorized that Valve could have nipped the entire boycott movement in the bud at this point, simply by providing those requested details. "If Valve had simply talked to people more about what kind of plans they had [for L4D support] and approximately when it could be expected, the boycott would never have gotten off the ground," he said.
But when Valve actually did announce more new content for L4D, over two months later, the boycott's leaders were not mollified.
Crash Course crashes the party
The announcement of Left 4 Dead's Crash Course downloadable content (DLC) pack on Aug. 4 addressed many of the boycotters' requests for details about continued support for the original game. The DLC, set for a September release, promised "new locations, new dialogue from the original cast, and an explosive finale," as well as balancing tweaks for the game's competitive Versus mode. While the content was likely in the works before the boycott started, and wouldn't actually be released for weeks, the August announcement was exactly the kind of concrete information the boycotters said they were looking for.
G4's Adam Sessler was not one of the boycott's biggest supporters, to say the least.
But it wasn't enough for some. While Agent of Chaos did acknowledge that the announcement of a new campaign was "a good thing," he went on to argue that they deserved more. "Only two chapters?" he wrote. "Come on now. Are your employees on vacation? Is that good enough for our 8 months of patience? I'm sorry, but it's a really ? bad attempt to get away with your past promises. ... How about something valuable that can extend L4D's replay value in a broader way? New special infected, and weapons? 4v4 matchmaking? Bug fixes? Personally, I'd take any of the aforesaid over two new chapters any day." He even joked that, in this case, DLC actually seemed to stand for "delayed lackluster content."
While many rank-and-file boycotters wrote comments echoing Agent of Chaos' anger, the Crash Course details seemed to take some of the wind out of some boycotters' sails. "After the announcement the number of new members dropped off sharply," Walking_Target admitted later, and the boycott's comment threads after the announcement help show why. "[I] think we should *maybe* give Valve a little bit of breathing space and actually indicate that this is a very big step towards the kind of support for L4D that we have been looking for," commenter [UCF] TerranUp16 wrote. "Really, if you maintain this kind of ambivalence, if Valve has alreayd [sic] not just said 'FU' they surely will," he added. "I don't think this is a very good thank-you," commenter Crunchie wrote. "Valve have listened to us and are clearly trying to please us. Be thankful that they even bothered at all. ... If we really want to get the message across, you must stop being so arrogant." Commenter Kabolte put it more succinctly: "I've lost respect for this group. See you guys."
But the official announcements from Walking_Target and Agent of Chaos kept up their indignant, occasionally conspiracy-laced tone. "By not adding anything in the way of meaningful content [to L4D], they still hope to interest us in buying L4D2," Agent of Chaos wrote in one post. The group had gotten a bit bolder with its demands, too, asking for limited access to the L4D2 demo shown to press at E3. "In fact, the only reason I could see not to give certain members of the community access [to the L4D2 demo], is that L4D2 is *not* that different than L4D," Walking_Target wrote.
At this time, Walking_Target was also growing somewhat suspicious and tired of the increasingly negative coverage his boycott was receiving in the wider gaming media. The tone of this coverage was perhaps best exemplified by G4's Adam Sessler, who, in June, posted a scathing video where he argued the boycotters were being "kind of juvenile" and that their actions reflected "this amazing sense of entitlement that exists in the gaming community." Walking_Target saw these kinds of reactions to his efforts as a sign that the media was in Valve's pocket. "Main stream [sic] gaming media won't run an intellegent [sic] piece on us because they are scared of losing money; all we get is a knee-jerk reaction to avoid angering their main source of income," he wrote.
Through its statements, the boycott leaders were building up their reputations as hard-to-please, outside-the-mainstream firebrands. The us-versus-the-world rhetoric arguably animated more members than it turned off, and the supportive comments and members continued to flood in. When the group's membership swelled to a high of over 40,000 members in early August, the boycotters were probably at the peak of their righteous fury. They saw themselves as angry outsiders, beating on the castle walls, and they wouldn't be happy until they were let inside.
So it came as a bit of a shock when Valve opened the doors and, literally, let them inside.
"The Trip" and the beginning of the end
On Aug. 14, Walking_Target hinted to boycott members "there may be something else coming up in the near future, but we can't discuss that right now because the details are vauge [sic]." By Sept. 5, they were teasing that their "big announcement" had to be delayed by a few days. But on Sept. 8, the boycott leaders could finally reveal what they'd been working on for the past few weeks. As Walking_Target memorably put it, "Valve took the course of Facta Non Verba [deeds, not words] in dealing with myself and Agent of Chaos. Rather than trying to explain everything via email, they invited us out to their offices in Bellevue, Washington."
Boycott leaders Walking_Target and Agent of Chaos with Valve Co-Founder and CEO Gabe Newell (center).
It was an unprecedented move for Valve, and indeed for any game publisher dealing with an Internet protest. Absent overwhelming numbers, or wider support and pressure from the media, the safest thing a company can do in handling any sort of protest group is to politely ignore it. To do anything else risks giving the protesters the attention and appearance of influence they crave. Even at 40,000 members strong, Valve probably could have followed the standard playbook and ignored the boycotters' concerns without much consequence for the bottom-line sales of their sequel. Instead, it threw open its doors and its wallets, purchasing flights and hotel rooms for two guys who, four months before, had just been a couple of random Left 4 Dead fans on the Internet.
Looking back in an interview with VideoGamer, Valve Writer Chet Falsizek, who initially extended the invitation to the boycott leaders, said he felt it was important to show them they were paying attention. "We have 3.5 million people playing Left 4 Dead 1. 40,000 said something," he said. "They are passionate about our games. They play our games. So we always take the feedback seriously, because we're gamers as well, and these are people who are playing our games and will probably play our games with us. So we always want to make sure we're listening and understanding the issues."
Newell later explained his rationale behind the trip in an interview with GameSpot. "We tried to find people who were sort of articulate spokespeople for that skepticism [about the sequel] and bring them in here and show them what we were doing and say, 'Look, this is exactly what we're doing, these are the people who are doing it, ask them whatever you want, play the game.' And that proved to be a pretty effective way of communicating with these really hardcore members of the community and reassure them this was a good thing rather than something they should be skeptical and worried about."
So, depending on your perspective, the trip was a huge concession to the power of a new kind of Internet protest, a powerful demonstration of Valve's commitment to maintaining good relations with its fans, or a shrewd move to pacify the company's most vocal opponents. In the end, it was probably a bit of all three.
It was definitely the trip of a lifetime for the two boycott leaders. After a guided tour of the studio, which Waking_Target described as "kind of a cross between an office and a LAN party filled with modders and an art studio," they got a chance to sit down with Newell, Faliszek and Software Developer Steve Bond to discuss their concerns. The pair came away with assurances that the bug fixes and more substantial DLC they were seeking for the original Left 4 Dead were indeed in the works. This time, Walking_Target seemed more willing to take these assurances at face value. "They have every reason to [follow through with their promises]," he wrote shortly after the trip. "Not to mention that they would look like fools if they did not follow through with it at this point, after having invited Agent and I out to talk to them. Any short-term gains they would have made by inviting us out would be cancelled out by the betrayal that folks would feel after being lied to directly."
During the trip, the boycott leaders also got a chance to try out the Left 4 Dead 2 demo that they had been clamoring to see since July. After the short play session, both leaders reported back surprisingly positive impressions of the game they had spent the last three months loudly protesting. "As for L4D2, things seemed balanced and 'tight' and did not feel like a rushed job," Walking_Target wrote. "What we can say with confidence is that the quality of gameplay in Left 4 Dead 2 is not in question; and it will only get better." Agent of Chaos added that the game "carries Left 4 Dead gameplay which we all love, and our long-requested bug fixes / content. It's exciting stuff..."
The rank and file boycotters definitely noticed this post-trip change in tone and focus, and many of them were far from happy about it. "Guys, what happened to your believes [sic]? You're a sellout!!" commenter Icelander wrote. "Screw this boycott, the leaders betrayed us. ... Pathetic. I shoulda known these assholes would evetually [sic] succumb." wrote user vvnew. "Really hope you are not selling out over a free trip... because that is what I am getting out of it," added Comrade_Jasper. "Awesome, our boycott founders abandon us. We fail," wrote [FI] Kharmasi. "THEY DRANK THE KOOL AID!!!!! IT'S ALL OVER!!!!" wrote an excitable NightStalker.END.
A promotional image for the Crash Course DLC for the original Left 4 Dead, announced in August and released in September.
The reaction from these boycotters obviously got to Walking_Target, who responded with a somewhat passive-aggressive answer to the charges that he'd been somehow bought off with the trip. "It doesn't matter what course of actions we could have taken, or how 'assertive' we were with Valve, you folks would not be pleased," he wrote. "If we refused the invitation, you would say we aren't doing our jobs. Accepting an invitation got us called 'Traitors'. Complaining and whining is not going to get you anywhere, because nothing we could possibly do would make you happy and I'm through trying."
But the damage was done. By opening their doors, Valve had effectively co-opted the leaders' message, giving the consummate outsiders the appearance, at least, of being fawning insiders. As Ben Kuchera from Ars Technica noted at the time, the trip marked "the shift from boycotting the game because of the timing to feeding the group's followers information about the game." He accurately predicted that "that the air will likely be taken out of the movement. The two men who used to rally gamers into avoiding the game now seem enthusiastic about the title, and will begin to share their enthusiasm with their readers."
The boycott effort continued after the trip to Valve, but the fire seemed to go out of the fight. Agent of Chaos continued to argue halfheartedly that a sequel discount for L4D owners "shouldn't be out of the question," but he had to concede that the full, standalone release for the game that the boycotters were fighting against was "inevitable. Despite this concession, he seemed mostly satisfied that Valve was "close [enough] to their original promises ... to tackle most important issues."
Walking_Target seemed similarly pacified by the trip. "We're going to continue to talk to Valve and ask questions as needed," he wrote. "However if the frantic pace which we had seen people working at is any indication, we're not going to be left in the dust. The staff seemed to honestly love the original 4 Survivors and many said that 'we're not done with them yet.'"
But he also insisted he was still in it for the long haul. "We're not giving up just yet though," he wrote. "We will both be here up until our individual concerns are addressed and sticking with you folks. I'm not leaving, I'm not satisfied with the support of L4D yet and I'm definitely not going to be buying L4D2 until Valve shows that they are supporting L4D; Nor will I be buying L4D2 at full price. ... I don't believe in an 'all or nothing' stance, but that doesn't mean I'm satisfied either."
Through late September and early October, though, the leadership's announcements to the boycott group started focusing more on general L4D community news and less on ways to advance the boycott's cause. Announcements posted after the late September release of the bug-laden Crash Course DLC assured readers that Walking_Target "just spoke to the guys from Valve" and that "Valve will not allow obvious bugs to persist." Comment threads increasingly were taken up by trolls, flame wars and spam. The rank of members shrank from over 40,000 to a current level just above 35,000, and it's unclear how many of those remaining were still active in the boycott effort.
On Oct. 14, Agent of Chaos and Walking_Target finally gave up the ghost. "Effective Wednesday October 21st 2009 at 12:00 PM Eastern Standard Time, this group will be closed," Agent of Chaos wrote in an announcement. Despite the closure, Walking_Target still urged members to use their wallets to vote their consciences. "Does the closure mean that you should go out and buy L4D2? No, it certainly does not," he wrote. "The boycott has served its purpose and it is now up to you all as individuals to decide what is right for you." Indeed, in the immediate wake of the game's Nov. 17 launch, many boycotters seem to be following through on their promise not to buy or play the game.
It's easy to see the boycott's early closure as a sign of its ultimate failure. Now that the game has been released, the boycotters objectively failed to achieve two of their original three goals -- that "Left 4 Dead 2 not be released as a stand-alone, full-priced sequel but as either a free update to Left 4 Dead or an expansion with full compatibility with basic Left 4 Dead owners"; and "that Left 4 Dead owners be given discounts for Left 4 Dead 2, should it be released as premium content."
Valve Writer Chet Faliszek, who extended the trip offer to the boycott leaders.
But as the leaders officially shut down the boycott they had started four-and-a-half months before, they focused instead on the successes the group had achieved. "We have accomplished everything we can on our manifesto," Agent of Chaos wrote. "Our goal wasn't to steer people away from L4D2, it was to get Valve's attention and have them support original L4D. We succeeded and that's where our mission ends; nothing more or less." He added that Valve's promised updates were "as good as it can get, people."
It could be argued that the release of Crash Course and the promise of more DLC for the original game removed the initial motivation for the boycott. As Walking_Target wrote back in July, "we also dropped the hint that a decent DLC at the end of summer would probably go a long way to making people happy. If they provide at least one meaty DLC before L4D2 drops then it will go a long way towards their promise of continued support and updates." By that standard, the threat of the boycott created an unmitigated success.
But even on this point, it's not clear that the boycott actually affected the change it claims. After all, Valve had promised to provide such updates from the start, and was seemingly working on the Crash Course DLC long before the sequel announcement or boycott (a Valve representative did not respond to a request for comment for this story). "As for forcing a change in planned support, no one knows that but Valve," Walking_Target told me later. "We did get Valve to open up and talk to their community, that's all we're going to claim we did. Anything else is speculation."
While opening up that community discussion was an important victory, it's hard to argue that the boycott was able to do what most successful boycotts are able to -- flex its economic might to force change. Valve certainly hasn't seemed to pay much of a price for ignoring the boycotters' two sequel-related demands. In an October interview with GameSpot, Newell revealed that Valve data showed boycott members were more likely to reserve the sequel than non-boycotting owners of the first game. Agent of Chaos spun such preorder reports by saying "[L4D2's] successful sales only confirm that we'll get to slaughter more zombies in future, not that we have failed," but the argument rings a bit hollow for a group created specifically for people who pledged to not buy the sequel.
Looking back on his fateful trip to Valve, Walking_Target argued that the group simply ran into a brick wall on its two unmet demands. "We presented the requests for a discount on L4D2 for current L4D owners and were told it was not going to happen," he said. "We also asked about the possibility of it being brought out as DLC or an expansion pack on PC and were told it could not happen, it was implied that this was in part due to technical limitations of the Xbox 360. There's no point in arguing the point further if the CEO of the company says it's not happening. Myself and Agent of Chaos came to terms with this, so did many of our members, other people didn't."
In the end, it was coming to terms with the fact that there's "no point in arguing" that really killed the boycott. When a truly powerful boycott movement faces resistance to some of its core demands from the powers that be, it digs in its heels. It galvanizes its membership to be strong in the face of adversity and urges it to make sacrifices to prove its point. It exercises the power of its numbers and shows its economic strength. Instead, the Left 4 Dead 2 boycott group effectively accepted that some of its demands would never be met, and settled for the ones that had.
Then again, perhaps that was the right call. With Valve meeting the boycotters in the middle with open promises of continued support for the original game, ending the boycott on a compromise doesn't seem so crazy. "L4D2 is beside the point," Walking_Target said in an interview with the Escapist after his trip to Valve. "The reason we're boycotting L4D2 is because we feel that L4D has been supported poorly when compared to what Valve said was coming." In other words, Walking_Target believes the group achieved its most important goal, even if it didn't achieve all of its goals.
And given the complete lack of success for most other gamer protest movements, even this partial victory can be seen as a breakthrough. The success has already spawned imitators: Modern Warfare 2 saw a collection of hastily arranged boycotts in response to the late announcement that the publisher would not provide dedicated servers for online play. These efforts never really had enough time to grow, however, and those that signed up seemed less than fully committed to the cause.
In his interview with the Escapist, Walking_Target said he wasn't sure what his group achieved was entirely replicable. "I don't honestly know if the boycott will lead to more open and assertive discussions with game developers," Walking_Target told the Escapist. "I don't know how likely it will be in the future due to certain unique circumstances in our case. Our community has benefited exposure, excellent timing and most importantly, a few talented and mature people at the outset. Without any one of those, we would not have been as successful."
But addressing the members of his boycott in his final announcement back in October, he was a bit more optimistic about the impact his boycott might have on the future of the industry. "As a collective we have done more than achieve a few goals," he wrote. "We have paved the way for Developer-Community relations in the future. No matter what the press or other gamers say, we have made an indelible mark upon the future of this industry. You should all be proud, we certainly are."
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