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Did you hear the one about the guys who got so excited over the announcement of a new game that they all banded together and refused to buy it?

It’s not actually a joke. It’s the L4D2 Boycott Steam Community Group and it has about 30,000 people standing behind it, united in anger over Valve’s E3 announcement of a sequel to the hit multiplayer zombie killfest Left 4 Dead. You’ve almost certainly heard about them by now, as the group’s enthusiastic opposition to a new addition to the franchise has received widespread coverage, much of it not terribly sympathetic, in the gaming press.

Their anger isn’t directed at Left 4 Dead 2 so much as it is at the perception of Valve’s inevitable failure to adequately support the original Left 4 Dead, as well as the schism the new game will cause in the community as fans are presumably forced to focus on one game or the other. The group’s manifesto therefore calls for Valve to “honor its commitment to release ongoing periodic content for Left 4 Dead” and that Left 4 Dead 2 be released not as a full-priced sequel but as an expansion to the original game, free or, at the very least, at a discount to owners of the original game.

That seems unlikely. Soon after the game’s announcement, Left 4 Dead writer Chet Faliszek said in no uncertain terms that what Valve wanted to accomplish simply wouldn’t be possible in an update. “It just became very clear that this was a cohesive, singular statement we wanted to make, not a more slow update thing… too much stuff was tied together with too many other things,” he told Ars Technica. “The Common Infected – now there is destruction in different parts of their body, to ship all the new Common Infected, even with an update, would be a huge thing.”

But when I asked one of the administrators of the boycott group about Faliszek’s explanation, he rejected it outright. “Considering Mr. Newell has admitted on other news sources that L4D2 was primarily motivated by the limited DLC system on the Xbox 360, we feel that Chet’s response was not valid,” the admin, who goes by the name Mr. Pancakes, told me in an email exchange. “Looking at the DLC provided for their other major multiplayer title, Team Fortress 2, the argument loses its weight. Every time they’ve added a weapon, update, power-up or drop item, it has ‘changed everything’. Any new variable you add to a game changes the whole landscape, so it’s easy to see that as a platitude rather than a real response.”

It’s a rather presumptive argument and, unless Valve suddenly confesses that it’s all a big lie and this is really just a naked cash grab, one that inevitably leads to deadlock. It also hints strongly at the possibility that no explanation will satisfy the naysayers, no matter where it comes from or how rational it is. Furthermore, calling Chet (and Gabe Newell, and by extension everyone else at Valve) a liar does nothing to bolster the group’s credibility and has even generated some mocking backlash. But Mr. Pancakes doesn’t feel the criticism being directed at the boycott is representative of Left 4 Dead fans as a whole.

“As with anything else that gets popular, there’s always people who have to stand out by railing against it. We just try to take the criticism and insults with good humor,” he said. “If we were really screwing up that badly, I don’t think that we’d have over 27,000 members so far. [Nearly 31,000 at press time.] Unlike some of our critics, we are not comforted by the ambiguous language Valve has been using in its statements as of late.”

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So what happens next? Left 4 Dead 2 is a long way off but I’m nothing if not a bold internet prognosticator so here goes: By the time the game gets here most of the support for the boycott will have long since drifted away, primarily the result of waning interest, although Valve may manage to change some hearts and minds along the way if it does, in fact, continue to support Left 4 Dead as Newell claims it will. When Left 4 Dead 2 is finally released – and I further predict there’s no way in Hell that Valve will have this thing out in November – it’ll be so damn good that the bulk of those remaining will give in and buy it simply because they can’t help themselves. And the tiny portion left will stick to its guns, send angry emails, bitch about it in forums and never buy another Left 4 Dead game ever again.

Sound ridiculous? Sure, and to be quite honest I think it’s a little ridiculous myself; notwithstanding the irony of criticizing Valve for releasing a new game too soon, it all looks a bit too much like people who want something for nothing and are angry because Gabe and the gang won’t give it to them. Yet I have no doubt that there’s more to it than that, and I can very well relate to their outrage and to the determination of the true believers to make a stand.

You see, I don’t buy Mechwarrior games. It’s a long story but the bottom line is this: The last Mechwarrior game I ever purchased, and probably ever will purchase, was Mechwarrior 2: Ghost Bear’s Legacy. I went through a very similar process many years ago, when all this foolishness started: I made a few angry forum posts, sent some shitty emails and swore that I would never again buy another Mechwarrior product unless my demands were met. 14 years later, I’m still waiting, albeit somewhat less hopefully. It’s been a painful vow at times but I’ve stuck to it. I’ve drawn my line in the sand and it remains uncrossed.

But what I didn’t have, unlike Pancakes and his merry band, is easy access to millions of other people, at least some of whom might be of a similar mindset. Because of that, they also have the attention of developers. It’s easy to dismiss an email every now and then as the ranting of an angry, socially-stunted crank; when tens of thousands of people have virtually lined up outside your office window to flip you off, it’s a different situation entirely and one that studios are all but compelled to pay attention to.

Isn’t that cool? I’m not a big fan of social networks myself because I think the internet for the most part is full of idiots, but I do very much like the idea of turning them to a worthwhile purpose. We’re not curing cancer here, no, but the potential is obvious: Gamers are no longer tilting at windmills on a great open plain of isolated indifference and just as important, game developers have access to immediate, large-scale feedback on what they’re up to. It’s still a relatively new phenomenon and its value at this stage is sometimes debatable, but one thing is certain: At this very moment, Valve is well aware that 30 thousand Steam users are unhappy about its plans for Left 4 Dead 2.

I’m reminded of the old saw about how I may not agree with what you say but I’ll shoot 100 guys in the face to defend your right to say it. Something like that, anyway; the point is that while I happen to think the Left 4 Dead 2 boycott is something of a fool’s errand, I also think it’s great that they’re having such success doing it. Will it change Valve’s plan for the game? Not a chance. But it got the company’s attention, and that in itself is unquestionably a victory.

Andy Chalk doesn’t even own Left 4 Dead yet, but he’s working on it. Interested in the boycott? See it in action at steamcommunity.com/groups/L4D2boycott

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