Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 14, 2013
I’m a developer. I recognize the impact of software piracy all too well. Stating it as simply as possible: Software piracy remains a serious problem for game developers, which also makes it indirectly a serious problem for gamers, too.
Now that is out of the way. But I want it noted that I sympathize with the developers on this point. As piracy continues to clobber profitability, developers and publishers naturally turn to sometimes desperate measures to try and limit its impact. I understand the urge.
But I am not one who believes that the ends justify the means. In my opinion, the means are just as destructive to the hobby as piracy ever was.
My first taste of just how publishers were shooting themselves in the foot was the day I ended up downloading a hack to bypass the copy protection for Wing Commander. I’d wanted to play it again, but couldn’t find the documentation, and it had been so long since I’d played that I’d forgotten the doc-lookup answers. After installing the hack and realizing just how much more convenient the hack made playing the game, I came to the realization: The pirates were actually playing a superior product than the one the honest consumers were stuck with.
I’m talking about what is commonly getting referred to as “always online DRM.” Jealous of the profits from massively multiplayer online games and the buzz around ‘cloud computing’, publishers have started taking the approach of making ALL games have an online component. That way they can have the advantages of a server-based game even for what may be a primarily solo experience, tying every game to a unique user account that must be active and used by only a single user at a time. And it gives them the opportunity to take advantage of social networking and some of those other hot buzzwords while they are at it!
What this REALLY does is the following:
1. It treats the game as a service when it is to the publisher’s advantage for it to be a service.
2. It treats the game as a product when it is to the publisher’s advantage for it to be a product.
3 It screws the consumer over quietly, in a way that they won’t notice until long after their money is spent. Then, when it’s no longer convenient for the publisher, they stop supporting the game. In the old days, that simply meant that there were no more updates, and what you got was what you got. Now, it means the game becomes unplayable. Forever.
Points 1-3 are all about screwing over the gamer.
Now, the publisher is completely within their rights to create whatever steaming pile of “service/product” they are capable of squeezing out, and trying to foist that upon the consumer. Just as it is the consumer’s right to tell the publisher they can shove that “service/product” right back up where it came from. I’m just making a statement here because I don’t want to see the gaming community start accepting this as the “new normal.”
The latest example is EA’s SimCity, a game which already had some pretty serious problems even without the servers being completely incapable of handling the loads forced upon them – a problem which had been long predicted by pretty much everybody BUT EA. Legions of gamers complained that they could not play the game they’d just shelled out big bucks for, and it’s launch week was a disaster.
In response to requests to enable an offline mode – a feature that would have saved the launch in the first place, the Maxis (EA) general manager claimed it was just not possible – online play was just too heavily woven into the fundamental architecture of the game. She claimed, “With the way that the game works, we offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers so that the computations are off the local PCs and are moved into the cloud. It wouldn’t be possible to make the game offline without a significant amount of engineering work by our team.”
Oh, well. There IS that. Then I guess it was really stupid of them to slack off on the load testing and underfund the server farm, then, huh?
Except it is appearing more and more than the statement is – well, there’s no other way to put this – a lie. Whether said general manager knew it was a lie, or it was simply one she passed on out of ignorance, we won’t know.
First, a Maxis insider blew the whistle anonymously to journalists that the game was quite playable offline.
Then people ran tests, discovering the game could run for several minutes even after their Internet connection was switched off. So whatever online component there was, it was a rare event.
Now a third-party modder has created a hack that allows the game to play offline just fine – in fact, better, as you can go outside the very restricted borders of the unmodded game. There is one major problem – no saving or loading – but depending on how that is handled, this could be an issue that is solved before the weekend is over.
Which means that anybody who wanted to pirate SimCity and grab this mod (once the saved game issue is fixed) and doesn’t give a crap about the online / regional features will once again have a superior product to the one the honest consumers are stuck with!
EA is banking that gamers will be short on memory and long on forgiveness, or just plain not give a crap.
I, personally, hope gamers will not let this sort of garbage become the new normal, will vote with their wallets, and make publishers realize that the only way to win in the long term is to play fair with their customers.
Considering EA is a gazillion times richer and more successful than me, I suspect EA’s going to win this one.
Now, I’m not saying that making a game that is fundamentally tied to an online experience and not playable offline is necessarily a bad thing. I’ve MADE those kinds of games, and may do so again. And I’ve played a few MMOs in my time… but many of those MMOs no longer exist, and their boxes and installation discs sit in my “gaming closet” as mute testaments that out of all the money I spent on them, I now have nothing to show for it but some old screenshots and some memories. Which may be enough – I don’t have any real regrets – but I’m also a lot more hesitant to jump into future games that are only limited-time services.
And I really am not keen on publishers redefining what it means to ‘own’ a game in such a twisty way that it deceives customers and ultimately hurts their experiences, and hurts gaming as a whole as a result.
So I guess that’s really the point of my rant. If you are okay with this trend, by all means, enjoy these games! A lot of people worked really hard to make this experience for you. But do so consciously, and do what you can to alert other gamers of the pros, cons, and repercussions. There are far too many games out there to play which are free of these kinds of deliberate crippling that are quite worthy of being played and enjoyed just as much. Your money will determine the course of gaming.
As always, have fun!
Filed Under: Biz, Geek Life - Comments: 13 Comments to Read