Why Always-Online Isn't Consumer-Friendly
Asking players for a constant Internet connection to access games and services is yet another example of a publisher-dominated player experience.
Editor's note: This feature was originally published in early April, but in light of the game-breaking bug in Diablo III at launch, and the subsequent server woes caused by the title's always-online nature, we felt the topic warranted further discussion.
The rumour that both next-generation consoles will require a constant Internet connection is worrying. If true, this feature will do more than just stop a handful of Microsoft or Sony titles from being pirated: it will create a permanent and unyielding wall between publishers and consumers.
At its heart, the argument against an always-on Internet connection for PC and console games is simple: regardless of whether it's an antipiracy measure or a way to take advantage of added online features, the fact remains that not every single gamer will always have a reliable, always-on Internet connection. While piracy is a consistently recurring problem in the games industry, punishing the majority for the behavior of the minority is an unwise solution.
Restricting gamers to an always-on Internet connection seems like a significant oversight of the fact that not everyone plays the same, a failure to recognise that consumer experiences vary in social, economic, and geographic ways.
It's not ludicrous to suggest that requiring an always-on Internet connection to play a particular game can alienate a significant number of gamers. Some gamers simply cannot afford an Internet connection. Others can experience frequent dropouts, service provider maintenance, or flaky wireless network connections. Some live in areas where connections are slow; others have Internet caps. Not all game servers are reliable. Not everyone wants to play at home.
But more than just the technological limitations brought about by an always-online restriction, there's something even bigger at stake: the loss of consumer autonomy. How often have consumers been led to believe that the games they buy are theirs to play and experience any way they want? How often have publishers consistently undermined this by placing restrictions on the end-user experience?
"The constant Internet connection restriction is a reminder that consumers are increasingly losing control over the products they own."
By dictating when and how a game should be played, the always-online restriction is a reminder that consumers are increasingly losing control over the products they own. If the rumours about the next PlayStation prove true, by locking games to a single PSN account and forcing users to remain connected to boot them up, Sony will be the one dictating how games on the console are played. The same applies to rumours that both Sony and Microsoft are investigating the possibility of blocking used games on both next-gen consoles: it's hard for consumers to control, or even enjoy, the products they own when faced with such an elaborate series of restrictions, penalties, and limitations.
It's hard to gauge what kind of success publishers have had in the past when implementing always-on Internet connection measures; whatever the benefits for the companies, these measures have traditionally been poorly received by consumers. Last month, EA announced that players would need to remain online via Origin to play the new SimCity, a move that, according to the publisher, would serve to emphasise the game's focus on multiplayer and worldwide economies. Clarifying its position a short time later, EA announced that while players must have an Internet connection to launch SimCity, they would not be kicked out should their Internet connection go down. The concession, albeit a small one, did not stop some gamers from asking: what about those who want a single-player offline experience?
In August last year, Blizzard revealed that Diablo III would also require a constant Internet connection, even in single-player mode. At the time, the company said the decision wasn't as much to do with piracy as it was to do with offering persistent characters, enhanced security, and the ability to play multiplayer with in-game characters that can be stored online forever. When asked to justify Blizzard's decision, Diablo III producer Jay Wilson said that 99.9 percent of gamers have an Internet connection; the developer also added that while a player could die in-game if their connection drops out, the penalties for this would not be "harsh" (specifically a 10 percent decrease in durability for equipped weapons and items) unless the player is on hardcore mode, in which case he or she would lose the character permanently.
Even if Blizzard's decision for an always-on Internet connection in Diablo III came from a desire to enhance the player experience through features like Battle.net, online ranking, and the auction house, some gamers found it baffling that a publisher would require constant Internet access for a game that is as much a multiplayer experience as a single-player one. The Diablo III beta produced a lot of criticism in this regard: some called the game out for not allowing players to pause during play, leading to lost progress and removal from the server after an extended period of idleness.
Ubisoft also found itself in trouble with consumers last year, when it revealed that the PC version of Driver: San Francisco would feature its always-on DRM restriction, requiring a constant Internet connection to play even in single-player mode. A month later, the publisher reneged on that decision due to "disapproving feedback," deciding against implementing the always-on DRM measure. (They later made the same mistake with the PC version of From Dust).
But some publishers have proven that it's possible to implement effective DRM measures without alienating consumers. Steam allows users to authenticate a game prior to play in both online and offline modes, as well as allowing for offline play after the initial setup process; digital episodic content publisher Telltale Games also offers its users several avenues for authenticating first-time purchases, either via a login with a username and password, or offline with a serial key provided at the time of purchase. (Both Steam and Telltale have unlimited downloads for games.) Just last month, Witcher 2 developer CD Projekt Red denounced DRM after learning that the DRM-free Good Old Games version of the game was pirated fewer times than the SecuROM retail version. Speaking at the 2012 Game Developers Conference, company CEO Marcin Iwinski said DRM was overcomplicating things for the company and creating problems for legitimate users.
Combating piracy should be a continuing conversation between publishers and consumers, not a self-serving decree that drives a rift between the two. The dissatisfaction shown in the gaming community towards games and services that require a constant Internet connection should come as a warning to publishers that now, more than ever, consumers will fight for their right to be in the driving seat.