We're not always online; games shouldn't be either
Companies promoting always-online need to understand the real world, says Rob Fahey
"Defective by design". That's how opponents of strong DRM characterise the object of their ire; software systems which are deliberately created to restrict, undermine and generally break the functionality of the content to which they parasitically cling. DRM, at this extreme, is a direct assault on the rights of the consumer - rights which had been enshrined both in law and in common practice in the pre-digital age, but which are now subject to a land-grab by the grim-faced lawyers of media companies the world over.
Games, for all our occasional harping and moaning on this subject, have been fairly tame and sensible in their implementation of DRM for the most part. It probably helps that many senior figures in the games business are pretty technologically competent compared to their counterparts in music and film; it's hard to imagine games companies continuing to pour money into a ludicrous, abortive, hugely expensive abomination like the film industry's bewilderingly beloved Ultraviolet system, simply because for all their flaws, games companies are quite good at understanding and accepting when a technology has simply failed.
In games, a handful of "tough" DRM concepts have flared up briefly before being extinguished - either the technology didn't actually work, rendering it pointless, or the restrictions it imposed on legitimate consumers were so onerous that DRM actually ended up damaging the commercial potential of the game and its sequels. Again, credit where it's due - even those in the games industry who are most ideologically inclined towards DRM based solutions to piracy have generally been quick to accept facts ("this isn't working" or "this is screwing over our paying customers") and back down in such cases. Indeed, no matter what your view may be on microtransactions, paymium and F2P - and I maintain that we're going to have some very very tough years in the core gaming space as companies and designers repeatedly fail to apply microtransaction models sensibly for core consumers - it's still a great big gold star in gaming's copybook that the industry has actually gone out and thought about what a post-digital business model might look like, rather than just going crying to governments about how big nasty technology has come along and stolen everyone's lunch money with its "innovation" and its "progress".
"In games, a handful of "tough" DRM concepts have flared up briefly before being extinguished"
There is, however, one daft approach which the biggest and most generally sensible of games creators don't seem to be quite able to shake off. Creating always-online games - shoving a client-server model borrowed from MMORPGs and other multiplayer titles into the heart of your singleplayer games - seems to hold a siren call for developers, in spite of high-profile and humiliating failures. When Blizzard did it with Diablo 3, it was met with resistance and anger from players that unquestionably coloured the critical and commercial reaction to the game - now seen as a distinct low point for a company which could do almost no wrong for the previous 15 years or so. Now EA has stepped up to implement similar ideas in the new Sim City, in the process fomenting a backlash that has almost entirely eclipsed years of superb build-up and excitement around the resurrection of this beloved franchise.
The problems with demanding an internet connection for a single-player game are both severe and obvious. It is absolutely a question of making a game "defective by design"; it takes a game which has always been playable offline and suddenly tells players that no, they may not play it on the train, on the plane, while visiting relatives who don't have wi- fi, during the two weeks it takes to get ADSL installed in your new flat, in your bedroom where the wi-fi connection doesn't reach very well, or at any other time when an internet connection isn't to hand.
"Even if your own internet connection is working, you'll also be unable to play if the servers are experiencing a problem"
Moreover, even if your own internet connection is working, you'll also be unable to play if the servers are experiencing a problem. In the early weeks, they'll probably be massively overloaded (they were for Diablo and they have been for Sim City, and if Blizzard and EA are both utterly incapable of getting this right, I don't hold out a great deal of hope for anyone else), but even later on you may find that the couple of hours you've set aside to play will land in the middle of a server crash or scheduled maintenance. Your experience, as a fully paid-up legitimate consumer of a bloody expensive game, will be notably worse than it was back in the good old days when single- player games didn't feel the urge to run off to the Internet every five seconds like a rude teenager who can't put down his smartphone.
Of course, when we're playing MMORPGs or their likes, we accept such problems. We may not accept them without swearing or rolling our eyes, but when you start up World of Warcraft and it tells you that the servers or down - or when you go off to the wilderness for a couple of weeks and miss a few guild raids - you understand why that's happening, accept it and move on. You probably load up a singleplayer game that you've got on your laptop for such purposes to fill the time instead - because the understanding we have with singleplayer games, the social contract we have entered into with their creators, is a different one. We accept multiplayer games as a service, of sorts - sometimes the servers can't be contacted, sometimes we'll have to patch the game before we connect, and of course, if there's no internet connection there's no dice. Singleplayer games, however, are a private experience. They don't talk to the Internet unless we want them to. For that reason, they don't have compulsory patches, they don't stop working when the servers go down (whether that's down for a few hours, or down permanently at the end-of-life of the product in a few years' time) and they don't demand a network connection before letting you play. These aren't just technical differences, they're conceptual differences - fundamental differences in how players perceive the product they're buying and the agreement with the developer represented by that purchase.
The most basic and intractable problem with always-online games is that for a very large number of people, the Internet isn't an always-online service. We have to be careful about our own biases in this regard, because we're geeks (all of us, and yes that absolutely does include you). We know about Internet connections and their qualitative differences, at least on a high level, and we do things like picking Internet service providers that give good speeds and no caps, or mobile providers with healthy data allocations, or routers that provide a solid wi-fi signal around the house. This all seems natural and sensible to us, and it can be all too easy to assume that everyone else does likewise - or worse, that people who don't approach data services in such an educated way "have only themselves to blame", forgetting that these are customers we're trying to sell to.
"The most basic and intractable problem with always-online games is that for a very large number of people, the Internet isn't an always-online service"
The fact is that even in developed, advanced countries like those of Europe and North America, Internet services still suck for a large proportion of the population. For some people, there just isn't any option - I've spent the past week in a house where the best possible mobile internet signal is two bars of EDGE, and the only option for installing broadband would be half-megabit RADSL at a prohibitively high cost. Needless to say, I haven't been playing Sim City or Diablo 3 (although I have plugged a fair bit of time into rediscovering Civ 5). This is an extreme example, but not a unique one, and as you move closer to the centre of a theoretical spectrum of Internet access you still find tons of homes with only very limited access, or without Wi-Fi routers, or who simply took whatever broadband their TV provider or phone company offered, and live with low speeds, a very low cap (10GB is not uncommon) and surprisingly regular outages as a consequence.
Moreover, those people who can't play always-online games at home are only a small part of the equation. Far, far more consumers are concerned that even if they can play a game at home, they won't be able to play it anywhere else. Mobile internet coverage is even more imperfect than fixed-line internet - on trains, on the road and in many rural and even urban areas, you'll frequently lose data signal altogether. In Europe, where international travel is very common especially among young professionals, roaming data charges make playing an always-online game over mobile internet while travelling a completely ludicrous prospect.
"Even less appealing is the idea of paying a hotel €10 for Wi-Fi access so I can play a bit of Sim City while on the move"
Even less appealing is the idea of paying a hotel €10 for Wi-Fi access so I can play a bit of Sim City while on the move. Suddenly you're saying, "you can play Sim City on your laptop, but only at home - go elsewhere and it'll stop working". How is it any of EA's business where I choose to play their game? It isn't, of course, and that's not the purpose of always-online - but it is the impact of this decision, and it's not an impact that EA (or Blizzard) seem to have thought about in any depth or with any particular intelligence.
Always-online approaches to singleplayer have an extraordinary appeal for game creators, but they are a terrible idea, exemplifying all of the worst characteristics lambasted by the "defective by design" argument. This is only magnified when the approach is applied to a much-loved franchise like Diablo or Sim City, where players have a completely reasonable expectation of singleplayer functionality which the developer has rashly chosen to ignore. "This will be fine for the majority of players," I'm sure they thought - and they're right, but only in a narrow sense. I could play Sim City most of the time, certainly, so the always- online component should be fine for me - but at many times when I'd like to play it (trains, flights, hotel rooms, Christmas at home, etc.) I won't be able to, and that fact looms large on any purchase decision. I'm in the majority whom EA probably consider to be unaffected by their always-online strategy, but they're wrong; always-online means I won't buy their game, and sadly, it also means that what looks like a genuinely excellent update of the franchise is doomed to be remembered for its aggressive unpleasantness towards players