Middle-earth: Shadow of War hasn’t been without its share of controversy over the past few months, but players may have found their breaking point with the latest debacle.
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment has already faced criticism for the way it’s been handling the Shadow of Mordor sequel, taking what was a much loved single-player adventure and changing it into a case study of everything that’s wrong with modern AAA games.
Fans have been irked by the $300 special edition, the premium DLC that has already been announced before the base game is out and the addition of randomized pay-to-win loot boxes available via microtransactions. It’s not a great direction for the series.
The latest news, however — that of the Forthog Orc-Slayer DLC — could perhaps be a step too far unless Warner Bros. reassures us in explicit, precise terms that the revenue isn’t being used improperly.
What’s going on
For those not up to speed, Shadow of War’s executive producer Michael Forgey tragically died from a brain tumor last year at the age of 43.
Forgey, who leaves behind a wife and three children, was a much-loved member of the team and a member of Monolith’s in-house band, Orc Slayer.
Shadow of War developer Monolith has added a character to the game based on Forgey to pay tribute to his memory. The character, Forthog Orc-Slayer, wields an axe shaped like a guitar and will occasionally appear to kill enemies.
But Forthog Orc-Slayer isn’t just a nice tribute, he’s being sold as a $4.99 downloadable character. You even pre-order him.
But this may not be a terrible thing. “WB Games will donate $3.50 of every Forthog Orc Slayer purchase to the Forgey family through December 31, 2019,” the trailer for the character explained.
Let’s get the first potential issue out of the way, because it’s easily explained. The reason $3.50 goes to the family and not the full $4.99 is likely because the platform holder takes a cut of money made from digital sales. On Steam, for example, this amount is 30 percent, which amounts to $1.50 in this situation, so that element at least seems to be above board.
The issue, then, isn’t the amount going to Forgey’s family. The issue is the extremely small print that appears at the bottom of the trailer (it’s more prominent on the DLC’s Steam page), which states:
“Donations will be made on purchases from any 1 of the 50 [United States] or [District of Columbia] (but, excluding purchases made from AL, HI, IL, MA, MS and SC).”
In other words, if you live in Alabama, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi or South Carolina, none of that $4.99 will be going to the family of the deceased.
This is likely because those six states have registration requirements regarding commercial co-ventures between a company and a charity, so Warner Bros. would need to register with those states before being able to give the money to Forgey’s family. It’s not clear why it won’t do this.
The agreement is also invalid everywhere else in the world. Buy Forthog Orc-Slayer in Canada, the U.K., Australia, Germany or any other country that isn’t the U.S. and it would appear that Forgey’s family won’t be seeing a cent of it.
I’m not just speculating here, it’s been confirmed. The official Shadow of War Twitter account was recently asked by a Canadian player if this meant his money wouldn’t be going to Forgey’s family if he bought the DLC.
You are right about that, but you can also help by spreading the word. Thanks for your support.— Shadow of War (@shadowofwargame) August 31, 2017
At first glance, then, it would appear that unless you live in those 44 valid states, that $3.50 will be going in Warner Bros.’ pockets instead. Making money from selling DLC that was advertised as a way to contribute to a charitable fund is pretty gross.
Here’s where it gets confusing, though. Warner Bros. recently released a statement to Eurogamer saying: “Neither Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment nor Monolith Productions will profit from any sales of the Forthog Orc-Slayer DLC regardless of the territory in which that DLC is sold.”
If you buy this DLC in another region — be it Chicago, Chile or the Czech Republic — that $3.50 won’t be going to Forgey’s family. It also doesn’t seem like it’s going to any other charity. So where’s it going?
It’s a question that has to be answered without any uncertainty. Warner Bros. and Monolith aren’t being punished for a nice gesture, fans and the media are just asking for transparency about where the money will be going.
Many people outside of the U.S. will be handing over their money for what they believe is a good cause, when in reality there’s currently no way of telling where that cash will actually go.
There’s a better way to do this
Regardless of where the money goes, this could all have been handled in a much clearer way. Studios have paid tribute to colleagues they’ve lost in the past, and it’s almost always been done in a tactful way that didn’t involve players having to get their credit cards out without knowing for sure where their money is going.
The best examples that springs to mind is EA Sports’ FIFA series.
When Simon Humber, the FIFA series’ creative director died from cancer in 2015, his EA Sports colleagues promptly got in touch with his favorite team, Portsmouth. The team was in the fourth-tier league in England at the time; certainly nowhere near deserving of special treatment above any other team in the game.
Rather than adding a simple tribute to Humber, EA Sports actually added Fratton Park — Portsmouth’s stadium — to the game, complete with a wreath lying next to the goals. This was available as a standard stadium in the game, fans didn’t need to pay anything to see it.
The following year, when Brazilian team Chapecoense was involved in a plane crash that resulted in the tragic death of 19 players and the team’s coach, EA added the team’s logo and uniform to its Ultimate Team mode (even though the Brazilian League isn’t included in that mode), and gave them to every player and made it a non-tradeable item so that opportunistic players couldn’t sell it in the game’s auction house to anyone buying the game later.
This is how you pay tribute. You make it something special that everyone can see, not just those willing to pay. Giving directly to good causes or the departed’s family is also a noble act.
When you put a price on a kind act and say the profit, minus platform fees, will go to a good cause, you’re putting the onus on the player to raise that money. The money his family receives will ultimately depend on the DLC’s popularity, and that makes the whole thing uncomfortable.
Warner Bros. could announce that it would match donations if it wanted to win back some of the good will of the fans. Making the character free and simply making a donation directly to the family would be even better. We now have a situation in which the gaming public — who will already have given Warner Bros. anything from $60 to $300 for the game before taking microtransations and other DLC content into account — is being asked to provide the donation.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros., in coming up with what initially appeared to be a noble act, is in fact not publicly giving a single penny to Forgey’s family out of pocket, and — until it can definitively prove otherwise instead of a vague “nah” — may actually be making money off it.
We asked Warner Bros. where the money would be going, along with the other questions raised in this piece. The company responded with its previous statement: “Neither Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment nor Monolith Productions will profit from any sales of the Forthog Orc-Slayer DLC regardless of the territory in which that DLC is sold.”
I live in Scotland. If I was to buy this DLC for $4.99 (or the equivalent amount in pounds), where exactly will my $3.50 of that be going? Saying “we won’t profit off it” isn’t good enough: we deserve to know exactly where it’s going, otherwise I suggest we don’t buy the DLC and instead give money directly to Forgey’s family ourselves.
These aren't just words: I'm sending the money I made from writing this article to a cancer research charity. If I can do it, so can Warner Bros. Here’s the page to donate directly to Forgey’s family, in case you’d like to give directly.
Chris Scullion has been a Scottish games journalist for more than a decade. He currently runs his own site, Tired Old Hack.