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The ECA's Hal Halpin

The US consumer group's chief talks about the ESA, political challenges, and second-hand games

The Entertainment Consumer Association is a non-profit organisation in the US that exists to put forward the views of gamers, particularly when it comes to political matters.

During last month's E3 event, caught up with the president and founder, Hal Halpin - formerly also the founder of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association - to chew over some of the issues facing the industry today. A couple of months back there was a fairly well publicised spat between the ESA [Entertainment Software Association] and ECA - what was the reason for that?
Hal Halpin

I was actually really surprised by the level of coverage - even international coverage - that it received. What I would attribute it to is that the vast majority of time our expectations and our goals and our challenges are going to be the exact same as those of the IGDA [International Game Developers Association], the EMA [Entertainment Merchants Assocation] and the ESA - because they represent the industry and we represent the consumers.

And 80 per cent of the time we'll get along great, but that other 20 per cent of the time we're going to be divergent in terms of our interests on behalf of our members - and with respect to the comment that the ESA issued, I chalk it up to a month or two of frustration on behalf of the individual who made the statement. It was a difficult couple of months and they were under a lot of pressure, getting a lot of bad press, and it was easy to take a swipe. It was unfortunate and I think he regrets it. Is the future of the ESA under threat? There have been some high profile departures already.
Hal Halpin

I would say that the ESA is still very viable and the association is really needed. Because of that couple of weeks of discontent between the associations I think people are under the false impression that we want to see anything bad happen to the ESA - and that is not at all the case.

You know, I think a strong and vibrant ESA is really important to the sector as a whole as far as their membership going forward. They have some really big challenges ahead of them and it's a difficult time, so the show will probably be one of the things that the current membership are looking at in terms of value proposition. In the UK at the moment there is a very interesting debate rolling around about age ratings, following the Byron Review. The impression is that the ESRB does a pretty good job of self-regulation, and most people seem to be happy with it. Is that true?
Hal Halpin

It sounds like a romanticised version of the truth to me unfortunately… Then what is the non-romanticised version?
Hal Halpin

Well, we have our own issues. Whereas with you guys I think it's focused more on the appropriateness of the ratings system and which one of the systems is better than the other - that's not our challenge. Our challenge is more dealing with legislators who, at this stage of the game, certainly know the First Amendment issue is the insurmountable problem for them.

Trying to get the public to look at games and legislate for them in ways more like alcohol, tobacco and firearms, and have criminal penalties that are worse for buying a game than for buying illegal drugs - it's insanity to me, and you just can't be a good legislator especially after nine attempts and nine turnovers.

Those are our challenges, and they're more public educational challenges and working with and toward effecting change. To that end I think ECA's presence at the table...being brand new is a way to effect that and have a true paradigm shift.

The reason for that is because when I ran the IEMA for the previous nine years it would be myself and Doug Lowenstein from the ESA and we'd fly out and testify and the local legislators would say, "Oh well, you're the paid lobbyist from New York."

The point wasn't lost that we weren't their constituents, and it's their voters that they care about - therefore those people that can effect the change. So as the ECA continues to grow and we continue to have more and more of their constituents it's all of a sudden a voice they can't ignore. Our challenges aren't so much system-based but public perception-based, and trying to effect change at the legislative level. What's the ECA perspective on how sustainable the current level of industry growth is, particularly with a view to the wider economic climate?
Hal Halpin

I think one of the main differences between games as a medium and other sectors and the reason we are 'relatively' recession-proof is that we are coming at it from a whole bunch of different angles now. Where the cost of a game is 60 dollars, you could also rent games - so if you know your disposable income is less, you're probably not going to stop being a gamer, you're probably just going to start coming about it from a different direction.

Rental is one path, buying used games over here has become huge and I believe it is starting to really take off in the UK as well. And then there are ad-supported games, so large publishers like Acclaim - and EA is actually releasing one as well - are free-to-play.

So if you're really in dire straits you still can play games, and we're just coming about it from so many different angles that I think it is sustainable because of those reasons. Second-hand games is another hot topic, and a big problem for publishers - how do you see that argument developing?
Hal Halpin

The way that that will stop is that going forward it will be more of a software license than a product purchase. So on the Playstation 4 or 5 you won't have the rights that you do now in order to re-sell a product. That's how the problem will be solved by the publishers - to the detriment of consumer rights - and there's really not much, if anything, that can be done about it. Will consumers actually stand for that, though? The whole DRM thing with MP3s is finally falling down because of consumer pressure...
Hal Halpin

Well, it remains to be seen. And in answer to your other question the validity of rentals and sales with regard to being a good thing or a bad thing for publishers and developers - that's been a raging debate since Blockbuster video entered the market over here.

I've been sitting on panels every year for 10 or 15 years now, where developers especially feel robbed, they feel like they aren't getting the second swipe at the apple the way that retailers are.

My counterpoint was always that you are also allowing the opportunity for people who wouldn't otherwise be playing those games to access them at a much lower price point, and convert people to become consumers.

If your brand's that good and your iterations are that good year after year, maybe I am going to buy an old copy of Madden used - but I'm probably going to buy the new version when it comes out at full price. So it really goes back to the quality of the product, in my mind anyway.

You know I understand because I have really good friends who are developers that feel that this isn't always going to be the case - there will be people who will always be renters or they will always buy used product.

But I don't think that's because they are being cheap and they feel the value proposition isn't there - I think it's more that that's what they can afford and that's what their threshold is for the entertainment.

The same thing exists with the movie sector where if you can't afford the 10 dollars it takes to get into the movie theatre and the 20 dollars it takes in order to get popcorn and soda - then maybe you'll wait for DVD and rent it. You know, their counterpoint to that is that the film industry is getting two swipes at the apple - one at the theatres and one with the it's a difficult problem and one that I have sympathy for, but one that I think will end shortly.

But I think you're seeing that whenever DRM become a little over-reaching, consumers well up and the publishers back off proportionately. Well there are at least 11 million people in the West that are familiar with that concept, because that's how MMOs work, really...does that argument hold any water?
Hal Halpin

Well, there are two different value proposition challenges - with an MMO and online gameplay the world is constantly changing, so therefore you can rationalise the expenditure, because theoretically you're buying something new all the time.

With a fixed game that's with fixed parameters, you essentially purchase that - without additional content or gameplay it's hard to rationalise additional expenditure. What are your thoughts on the rest of this year - it should be a pretty healthy time for the industry?
Hal Halpin

It seems so. Some of the games I've seen here have been just as impressive as years past, where you look at it as you go past, and your jaw drops. That's always a good thing, and it instils confidence. If that's the best thing that comes out of this week, that's a pretty good thing.

Hal Halpin is the president and founder of the ECA. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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