"The Internet is for porn", Avenue Q famously declared, and it certainly had a point - but it doesn't take much reading around to draw an even more depressing conclusion. The Internet isn't just for porn - it's also for conspiracy theories.
As long as humankind has existed, there have been soi-disant intellectuals convinced that their own warped mental pathways and peculiar beliefs chart a far straighter path to The Truth than any number of facts or any application of conventional logic ever could. With the advent of the Internet, they've been put in touch with a vast flock of people endowed with the seemingly contradictory qualities of being simultaneously suspicious of what they're told, and utterly gullible.
Worse yet, the increasingly break-neck pace of internet news reporting - and the feedback loop it often turns into - has turned even some of the more wacky conspiracies into an odd kind of accepted wisdom. Monday's left-of-field interpretation of an event becomes Tuesday's "well, obviously!" comment on a thousand blogs (each just parroting the last, but none willing to admit it), and by Wednesday it's enshrined on Wikipedia as historical fact.
As conspiracy theories go, it's not exactly on the same level as AIDS denialism or telling people with a straight face that September 11th was the work of the international banking conspiracy, but this week's amazingly rapid acceptance of malicious intent in Capcom's actions regarding Resident Evil: Mercenaries 3D follows precisely this classic path of the Internet conspiracy theory.
If this storm in a teacup has passed you by - perhaps you're a coffee drinker who has precious little engagement with teacups - then here's a rough summary. Capcom has released a game for the 3DS, Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, which packages the multiplayer component from Resident Evil 5 up for Nintendo's new handheld. It's designed to be played co-operatively, and it's entirely mission-based - there's no storyline, and what progression there is comes in the form of unlocking new characters and upgrading their skills.
The furious tempest threatening to overspill onto the saucer and moisten the digestive biscuits, however, comes from a sin of omission on Capcom's part. The game saves progress data to the cartridge, as is standard with 3DS games - but doesn't have any option to delete that data and reset to factory settings, so once you've unlocked something in the game, it stays unlocked no matter what.
For most players, this isn't even something they'll notice - I've been playing RE: Mercenaries 3D for a couple of weeks now without ever realising something was amiss - but one consequence is that if you buy a second-hand copy whose former owner had played the game a bit, all the skills they unlocked will be available to you.
Occam's Razor suggests that this is a slightly silly but not terribly damaging oversight on Capcom's part. Since the game doesn't support multiple profiles or anything like that, there was no requirement to build a save system - but as a result of not doing so, they ended up without a data reset option. Daft, but understandable.
A handful of online commentators, however, have a different explanation. This, they reckon, is a secret and sneaky conspiracy by Capcom to reduce the second-hand sale value of RE: Mercenaries 3D, since you'll be lumbered with someone else's save game (although that has arguably minimal consequences on the play experience itself). Far from being a silly omission, it's a deliberate assault on the second hand market, long the bete noire of game publishers.
Capcom's devious scheme is hardly devious and barely even a scheme. If this really is a conspiracy, Capcom really ought to hire a better plot-hatching cabal.
As conspiracy theories go, it's not entirely nuts, but it's still unproven and completely unsupported by any solid evidence. Moreover, it makes some startling leaps of non-logic - starting with the assumption that a large number of second-hand buyers are the kind of people who read online forums to find out about relatively obscure game features or drawbacks before making their purchase. If that were true, Capcom might indeed have a devious scheme on their hands. Since it's patently not true, Capcom's devious scheme is hardly devious and barely even a scheme. If this really is a conspiracy, Capcom really ought to hire a better plot-hatching cabal.
What's interesting to note, however, is the reaction to this conspiracy theory in two key quarters. Firstly, there's the online gaming news establishment, which took all of about twelve hours to go from reporting this as a slightly wacky theory to stating it as solid, unquestionable fact in stories about the game. No further evidence emerged to support the theory in that time - indeed, the only recent development is a slightly bewildered comment from Capcom stating that it doesn't think this will impact the second-hand market at all.
Rather, what happened was a classic example of the kind of problem that's come to define the games media in recent years. A few blogs picked up on the story, and ran it questioningly and hesitantly. Then dozens more picked up on those original stories, and ran them more stridently. A few rounds of thinly veiled copy and pasting later, and all nuance has been lost; now you have blogs, some of which are plenty big enough to know better, posting innuendo as fact. The original posters of the theory, seeing the popular blogs post their theories as fact, post again to say "look, told you it was true!", and the cycle begins anew.
That's a well-understood news cycle, and it's a poison that afflicts the media outside games as well - as a phenomenon, it often gets labelled as "churnalism", and it's an inevitable consequence of the insistence of publications to try to be first with the news, and to obfuscate the sources of their reportage, rather than striving to be accurate or insightful (which wins a modicum respect, but not a whole lot of traffic from Google). In this instance, the net result is simple - for every article saying "hang on, there's no evidence of a conspiracy here", there are a dozen accepting the now-widespread "conventional wisdom" that Capcom are plotting against the second-hand market.
The second interesting reaction is from, as it happens, the second-hand market. In the UK, retailer GAME has barely batted an eyelid at the controversy, saying that it'll continue accepting trade-ins of RE: Mercenaries 3D in spite of the problem. HMV, on the other hand, has announced that it's going to bar all second-hand trade-ins.
In a way, it would be interesting if GAME had followed suit - it would be a good experiment to check and see what the actual impact of second-hand sales is on new-product sales, although it's not exactly a new experiment. Most retailers stopped accepting trade-ins of PC games many years ago, after all, and look what happened there - far from a huge upsurge in first-hand sales, the retail market just imploded upon itself (there were, in fairness, other factors at work here as well).
HMV's response, though, is interesting in another way - in that it's an oddly reactionary knee-jerk from a huge retail chain, and it illustrates, I believe, just how nervous stores like HMV are about the prospect of losing second-hand sales. As online retailers, supermarkets and digital distribution have steadily eaten their way into the hegemony of the specialist stores, second-hand has been the lifeline that has kept them afloat, for the most part. Even a whisper suggesting that a publisher might have done something to damage that market provokes a strong response - a protective instinct that speaks volumes about where retailers are really making their money, or where they hope to make their money in the lean years to come.
The reality is that publishing has an uneasy but not entirely negative relationship with second-hand. Publishers don't like seeing their wares sold second-hand for five quid less than the brand new copy in the next shelf along
Yet in this instance, the whisper is really just that - a whisper - and the evidence for that is simple. I referred to second-hand as the "bete noire" of the publishing industry earlier in this column, and although that's certainly true, it doesn't tell the whole story. The reality is that publishing has an uneasy but not entirely negative relationship with second-hand. Publishers don't like seeing their wares sold second-hand for five quid less than the brand new copy in the next shelf along, a week after launch - certainly, that's true. But I've yet to speak to a senior publishing exec who says outright that he wants the second-hand trade dead.
There's a good reason for that - economically, everyone knows that trade-ins are propping up the first-hand market, and are helping to expand and sustain the industry's reach in younger, lower-income and less committed segments of the market. Publishers want second-hand to change, certainly. They want to see a cut of the revenues, absolutely - that's what things like EA's Project Ten Dollar are all about. But do they want to kill the second-hand market off? No, they don't.
That's why the Capcom conspiracy theory makes no sense to me; it implies a hidden objective which I simply don't think any publisher holds. Like every other publisher, Capcom would like the second hand market to serve it better - that's a given. But let's also not forget that like every other publisher, Capcom also sometimes makes mistakes - and unless solid proof to the contrary emerges, it's only sensible to treat the sin of omission in Mercenaries 3D as precisely that.