Folks, Electronic Arts/ et al isn’t a non-profit community service organization. It’s a business whose primary function is to make money for stockholders. Your in-game protests, your web-based petitions, and your e-mails to Origin staffers will make no difference. There are only two messages that Electronic Arts will listen to: more money and less money.

How many of you now-ex-counselors are going to keep paying Electronic Arts for the privilege of playing UO? How many of you are going to quit? How many of you are going to urge your friends to follow your lead? Again, those are the only two ways to get Electronic Arts’ attention. I suspect that the reaction will be a collective shrug, however. There is simply no way to have been a counselor past 1998 without realizing that Electronic Arts is a soulless company with no conscience and that its primary online game has no future. And for you would-be apologists, please note that not having a conscience and not having a future are two completely separate issues that are only peripherally related.

Originally, the Counselor program was designed to help players with questions about the game. There’s nothing that’s questionable or immoral about that; call it the path paved with good intentions. What it became, however, was an unfunded tech support and community administration staff. It was allowed to become this because Origin realized that if it could push off tech support and administration to a volunteer staff, it would achieve a greater profit margin than if it actually paid an in-house technical support staff. Nobody can deny that the Counselor program became tech support and do it with a straight face, and as to whether it was part of the community administration, who was on the first line of response when players complained about players with offensive names or conducting themselves offensively?

A lot of people – most, I would hope – joined the Counselor program because of an honest desire to help others. Some joined because it was the next logical step in their “advancement” of the game, and wanted to position themselves in the halls of power. The latter are inevitable in any such situation. They’re predictable, and they don’t concern me much; I recognize sleazy politics when I see it. What intrigues me is the former. Why did people with a desire to help others stick with this program? Some of them didn’t recognize the fundamental disconnect of a for-profit company using a free tech support staff. Of course, some people don’t see the problem with sweatshop labor, either. Tech support isn’t charity work. Helping players in an online game isn’t working at a soup kitchen or delivering meals to the infirm. If some of the participants in the Counselor program were innocent of the implications of giving away their labor for free, I can’t really fault them for that, although I hope they’d see things a little more clearly in retrospect. Some of the rest became jaded; certainly, some of them stuck around just to see how absurd the situation could get, they wanted front-row seats to the punchline, as it were. I can relate to that.

So what happens to the player, now? Is Electronic Arts likely to hire sufficient tech support and administration staff to deal with the paying customers on its US servers? Given’s actions of the last year, absolutely not. Having had the equivalent of a support subsidy for the last three and a half years, they now have to actually pay for labor. They’re going to find out that their margins are cut back. Don’t get me wrong, UO – even the US portion of UO – is a profitable venture.

Will it be profitable enough for the suits, bean counters, and stockholders? Yes, if they continue along their current path, ie that of introducing UO into fresh markets. The US UO market has been written off. The sequel has been yanked, support for the US servers has been deemed more expensive than it’s worth if they have to pay real labor costs, and the volunteer firing is going to motivate a chunk of the US playerbase to quit (those of you “waiting” and continuing to pay EA for your UO account on the basis that it will become more valuable on ebay are about to see the market drop considerably as more veteran accounts hit the auction block). The future of UO lies in taking it to new markets, and continuing to service it in markets with decent computer saturation and where slave labor is still considered a valuable endeavor: much of Asia, for example.

In the US servers, however, those players wishing for the return of the “good” old days of no accountability and grief play are about to get their day in the sun. It certainly would be ironic if their numbers offset those of people leaving the game because of the abandonment of the Counselor system. Particularly when Counselors start re-appearing on the US servers.

Hint: They’ll be playing from Asia.