Turning Off the Always On – Internet Connectivity in Games
by Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)
Everything these days are moving towards an “always on” status. That is, they’re constantly pinging some server somewhere for whatever reason. Whether it’s an iPhone getting push alerts, a PC checking for updates or even a learning thermostat. More and more devices are relying on connecting to a server for one reason or another and it’s a trend that’s making its way into video games.
There are a rising number of video game publishers incorporating the aforementioned always on connectivity. There are a myriad of reasons as to why this is both a good and bad concept. Which side of the spectrum the reason falls on depends on whether you’re the publisher of the game or the gamer playing the game.
The first reason is on the corporate side of things. The thinking is that if there’s a game that always has to ping for a license check, then it’s less likely that game will be pirated. After all, a pirated game is less likely to be able to pass the check and become playable for the owner. This gives the publisher peace of mind in knowing that they control the market supply of the product. Controlling the supply of the product also means that used games sales are decreased and day one sales will be loftier so they can brag about the numbers.
Another reason is—again—on the corporate side of things. In the case of the required connectivity, gamers aren’t really “purchasing” the games any more; they’re licensing them. That gives the company more leeway in terms of determining a lifespan for the game. The publisher can choose how long to continue supporting the game, while also providing opportunities for gamers to update the game when appropriate. For instance, if sports games go with the always on, it’s possible that new iterations (new, yearly releases) could be purchased in-game with ease.
On the gamer side, things get much murkier. First, a game that requires an Internet connection to play even a single-player mode relies completely on the stability and availability of servers. If a highly anticipated game is launched and legions of fans flock to purchase it, if they can’t actually log on, they can’t play. That’s pretty troubling if you’re a gamer who’s really excited for the game, but can’t play it because the servers aren’t available for playing.
What’s more is what if you’re in a location with spotty or bad broadband? Does that just mean you’re out of luck and can’t play. Many areas are well-equipped with high speed Internet, but if you’re in a more rural area and rely on something like a satellite service for broadband, you’re going to have little or no luck at all in connecting. If you can’t connect, you can’t play and chances are you’re not getting a refund since you’ve already opened the game.
Secondly, a game that has to be connected wreaks havocs with game reviews.
Often, a gaming site will get the game ahead of time and given an embargo date for when their reviews can go live. In the case of a game where an Internet connection is required, it’s more likely than not that the publisher will provide the reviewers the chance to play in a controlled environment where server availability may not be a problem. Being able to play may not be problematic, but reviewing it may be. Gamers rely (fairly or unfairly) on their favorite sites’ scores and with so many games being released, those scores typically dictate which games their money goes toward.
There’s an evolving debate regarding video game reviews and what’s actually being reviewed. In the past, the reviewer would play the game and offer their thoughts. Now, the concept of reviewing the game as a service is coming forward, with some sites considering revising their scores in instances where a game is launched and is unplayable due to server woes. MMOs have always been an example, but with those games you knew what you were getting. You’re not quite expecting to have to be connected in a single-player game.
The simple fact is that for a publisher, requiring a game be always on is a no-brainer. It gives them control of the end-user experience. For a gamer, it’s a lot more onerous. There’s a relationship between gamer and publisher and if a game is touted as requiring an Internet connection, the gamer has a choice to buy or not buy. That choice comes with a faith in the developer that on the game’s release date that an infrastructure will be in place to support their playing the game. Customers don’t care about the business of running a business; they want to enjoy the product they’ve paid for.
If publishers are determined to go this route, there needs to be some sort of happy medium. For instance, maybe charge less for the game than the current, full asking price. Or offer offline single-player modes so if the publisher’s servers can’t handle the initial load, gamers can still play the game they’ve just paid for. The spectre of piracy is one that’s too often called upon when it comes to selling products and many times paying customers are caught in the net and pay the penalty.
It’s wholly possible this conversation would have happened sooner had the Nintendo Entertainment System boasted an Ethernet port (and a network to support it). With the announcement that the PS4 will always be on, there seems to be a trend towards all games requiring it. The publishers will keep including as long as the gamers keep buying the games, which is a tricky proposition. If it is going to be something that becomes the norm as opposed to the exception, publishers need to make sure they invest in the infrastructure to support the game.
The excitement of watching a loading game progress bar quickly diminishes when it stays at 26% complete for what seems like forever