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Persistent Online Requirements: How much is too much?

The issue at hand

For the most part I think we can all agree that the development of the internet has so far been a positive experience, especially for gamers. We can now play with our friends anywhere around the world, share secrets and cheats without the use of a handbook or magazine and even enjoy an entire genre of video games – the MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online – insert additional second genre here). The internet has allowed us a to compete and play together at an unprecedented level, and it should come as no surprise that there are those who would like to further experiment with the still young technology. This has led to tremendous successes such as the video games Demon Souls, Dark Souls and the recently released Dark Souls II – a game series which utilizes a persistent online connection allowing players to share hints, view each other briefly in the game world, and even invade one another’s world in violent and highly entertaining conquest. This feature has been very well received and is, more importantly, completely optional. But what happens when similar features are included into other games without the ability for the player to opt out? How well has the online gaming community responded to these developments and how does it look for the future?

 

SimCity 2013 – A Cautionary Tale

When I first learned that SimCity 2013 would require a constant internet connection to function correctly I was admittedly indifferent to the matter. The game had little appeal to me as a gamer, with far too much emphasis on economy and infrastructure rather than slashing and hacking at orcs, robots and other things that would seem out of place in a city-simulation game (though the day they finally combine them is one I eagerly anticipate). My indifference however was overcome by the enormous debate that such a design feature sparked in the video game community, with the larger part of the consumer base rallying against publisher EA Games rather than with it. My interest was piqued and with a muted but eager anticipation I watched as one of the most compelling controversies in recent video game and internet history played out.

SimCity 2013, the game that could have been.

SimCity 2013, the game that could have been.

Up until the release of SimCity 2013 the series had been entirely single-player focused, with virtually no online connectivity whatsoever. This changed dramatically with the new installment, with each player’s city connected to several other players’, requiring that each one rely on the others for trading commodities and the like. Though this seems relatively uninteresting at first the revelation that the online connection would be mandatory in order for the game to function quickly drew the combined rage of the internet against EA. Despite the various pleas for an offline mode EA insisted that the game would not function correctly without an online connection and that they were more than equipped to handle the launch of such a technically demanding and high profile game. This was not the case. Not long after the game launched server errors and connectivity issues prevented players from enjoying a game whose predecessors had suffered no such drawbacks. To make matters worse it did not take long for people to discover that the game functioned just fine for a limited time when their internet connection was severed. The controversy was amplified when a modder inevitably created his own offline version of the game, allowing people to play at their own leisure without requiring an internet connection. Ultimately the controversy proved to be disastrous for EA, with reviews of the game lambasting them for the shoddy launch and deliberate misreadings. It has gotten so bad in fact that EA has recently announced an offline version of SimCity, to be released soon.

This is a visual representation of EA's PR department a mere day after the release of SimCity

This is a visual representation of EA’s PR department a mere day after the release of SimCity

The puzzling factor in this matter is the motivation for EA’s deception. Why not simply add an offline mode from the beginning? More puzzling, why develop a game that can function almost completely free of error in an offline environment and yet force it to connect to the internet for it to work? Certainly this must be more expensive for EA, with the cost to maintain servers that can handle constant traffic rather than allow the player computer to bear that burden. So what on earth could justify such a decision? Of course we can only speculate, as EA would never openly admit it, but the glaringly obvious answer would be to curtail video game piracy.

It is commonly believed that video game piracy is more significant in computer games than it is for consoles. After all the platform more openly allows people to work around the protection barriers that developers create to prevent such an event. SimCity, being a PC game, was potentially more likely to be pirated than any console equivalent would. The use of persistent online feature would make sense as a preventative measure, one that would ensure that the player’s copy was legal as confirmed through their Origin account – EA’s personal online store. The problems created by the disastrous launch however, more than anything, hurt their chances of selling more copies than they likely would have lost through piracy. There is no way to confirm this of course as no one can yet gather data on how much an online commodity did not sell as an effect of piracy, but nonetheless the damage was done and EA’s reputation took a hit. This is not an isolated incident though, with other publishers trying similar things with their own varying degrees of success.

 

Stoking the fire

The case for a constant online connection has been made by many companies over the last few years, the most major of which have each run into their own fair share of resistance. One of the most obvious that comes to mind is Microsoft and the initial reveal of their Xbox One.

The Xbox One, as the successor to the successful Xbox 360 console, had a simple task to do to ensure it would continue its predecessors success: be more powerful than it and maintain a large video game library. Microsoft however decided to include an internet connection requirement in order for the console owner to access and play the games they had installed onto their machine. The connection would only have to be made once every 24 hours, but it would still have been mandatory. This caveat essentially ensured that those without an internet connection would not be able to play the games they had already paid full price for. Even those whose connection status was shoddy at best might not be able to play should they fail to connect for at least a full day. Regardless to say the outrage among the gaming community was palpable, and after some time passed the feature was eventually dropped. This was done despite their claims that the requirement was built into the core of the machine’s operating system. Truly if that were the case it would not have been so easy for it to have been removed, but that was the story Microsoft went with.

It should also be mentioned that the Kinect camera was mandatory as well. Because that just screams privacy.

It should also be mentioned that the Kinect camera was mandatory as well. Because that just screams privacy.

Other companies such as Blizzard Entertainment, who produced and continue to develop the MMORPG World of Warcraft, have included similar always-online requirements for one of their newer games which has been part of traditionally offline series. Diablo III requires a constant internet connection to Blizzard’s servers to function, and despite a rocky launch Blizzard has no intention of providing an offline feature. At the moment the game is stable but with the upcoming expansion to soon be released we may see the servers taxed once again.

 

A Lesson Learned?

These are just the more notable recent examples of how persistent-online-DRM can succeed and fail. In Microsoft’s case we saw how a radical decision to force an entire library of video games to rely on an internet connection to just be accessed drew a massively negative response from gamers, most of which used the internet itself to voice complaints. Blizzard has produced a game with a more demanding online requirement but has enjoyed a great deal more success, even though the internet connection does nothing for people who want to enjoy a single player experience. The SimCity debacle was the more interesting of the three, as it involved watching the web of lies EA had performed come burning down around them, much like a poorly designed, simulated web would.

The question we must ask ourselves now is what has been learned from these experiences? In EA’s case it would seem that deliberately misleading your customers can severely backfire, resulting in the sales of a product suffering. Microsoft saw how a mandatory persistent-internet-connection can lead to incredibly negative responses from their consumer base and has the foresight to drop the feature when it became clear how their competition would respond. Blizzard has more or less stuck to its guns on the matter, possibly due to their experience in online gaming with WoW, despite the continued requests that they do otherwise. Whether or not they will utilize what they’ve learned for their expansion’s release is yet to be seen.

For many the world of Diablo 3 is less hellish than attempting to play the game itself.

For many the world of Diablo 3 is less hellish than attempting to play the game itself.

Ultimately the practice of a constant online connection is one that still has to be refined. One can hardly blame a company for wanting to protect its products. However if they do so to the detriment of their legitimate customers enjoyment it makes one doubt whether they’ve truly found a solution, especially when the price of their games remains the same as older versions did which actually had offline features. In the end you really are paying more for less, at least as far as accessibility is concerned.

I remain skeptical on the use of the internet as an anti-piracy tool, at least in its current form. With some locations in the developed world still struggling to maintain reliable internet connection it certainly doesn’t seem fair to make the service itself mandatory. Perhaps some day when the internet is more developed and its use is more commonplace than it is even now we will see this kind of protection more often. For now though, it seems more reliable and certainly kinder to give your customers the benefit of the doubt.

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