4 New Video Game Realities That Will Kill the Industry
The video game industry is thriving like never before. Back in the day, if you bragged to strangers about the headshot you'd just pulled off, you didn't get a round of virtual congratulations; you got a thorough cavity search by vigilant professionals. But now everybody games -- men, women, kids, the elderly ... hell, there are entire online services just for cats to play video games together in Japan (well, probably not, but you totally believed me for a second, didn't you?). But despite this thriving industry, a lot of sketchy new practices are emerging that may very well end up killing gaming before it even gets a chance to grow old, bloated, and entirely corrupt. If we want gaming to outlive its prime, we have to put an immediate stop to stuff like ...
Massive electronics corporations naturally assume that everyone has dedicated trunk lines feeding into the office buildings where they do their gaming. When the consumer points out that the Internet is not a universal right, nor a reliable service, the corporations swat these complaints away by loudly explaining that "all of our hardcore users have high bandwidth connections!"
That's like making a racist joke at a party and, when everybody turns to stare, protesting: "What's the problem? There are no black dudes in this room!"
But since you're incapable of seeing the folly with persistent connectivity, corporations, I'll break it down for you.
First and foremost: It's not a matter of if our connection works, it's whether or not yours works. My bandwidth just has to deal with connecting to your servers to get your information whenever I want to play your game. You're right: Supposing everything goes according to plan, my Internet connection can probably handle that. But you? Your servers have to connect to millions of games simultaneously, across millions of systems, at all times, forever.
Your responsibilities are much more prone to dramatic failure than the meager shit I'm tackling. Look no further than the launch of SimCity 4 for proof of that concept's failure -- or actually, don't bother. I don't think it's online yet. I think we're all still waiting in the lobby for Maxis' servers to be constructed. I understand they outsourced the building to an obscure Amazonian tribe-state that's barely up to steam technology, and there's a pack of marsupial hyena-monsters squatting on the only lithium cache -- but don't fret! The Glorious Seven, the server-tribe's famous warrior elite, are almost through with the Cleansing Ritual and ready to engage in battle -- so any day now we might be able to play the fucking game we bought last year.
And yet nobody thought to spin the experience as more authentic of the crippling bureaucracy of actual city planning. Way to drop the ball, Maxis PR team.
But even if you're fully confident in your own competence, what fucking magical land do you live in where ISPs are "always on"? Completely leaving rural areas and emerging countries out of the equation (hey, finally something game corporations are really good at!), I have lived in several major metropolitan areas in the U.S., and have switched providers countless times. I have never -- not once -- experienced constant connectivity for more than a few days at a stretch. Internet providers rank slightly lower in consumer satisfaction and product reliability than jury-rigged landmines. I have less faith in Comcast, Time Warner, and CenturyLink than I do in Lord Odin. My Internet service, in one of the most privileged parts of the world, goes down all the time. And you know the first thing I do when it cuts out?
I reach for my offline entertainment. For my books. For the movies I own. For my single-player games.
And yet for some reason, companies keep trying to implement these criteria, even though it has now killed off several major brands -- persistent connectivity played a major role in murdering a successful game franchise and nearly slaughtered an entire console before launch (only narrowly avoided because Microsoft backpedaled like an anarchist on a tandem bicycle). What is it going to take for you to figure out we're not down with it?
Hey, remember when EA promised microtransactions in all their games like it was a new and exciting feature and not a cynical game-breaking cash grab? Remember how we all rejoiced at the prospect, nobody abused the system to pay to win, and gamers everywhere happily spent all of their money on horse armor and virtual stickers? No? It was total bullshit rife with abuse, overcharging, and frivolity? And EA has since frantically abandoned their pledge like frat boys in a hospital ER?
We all know the casual market is utterly corrupted with the microvirus -- just a bunch of screeching, mindless, frothing phone gamers flinging their dollars at power-ups like monkeys hurling feces. But us, we proper gamers -- we're above all that, right?
So how do you explain the hardest of the hardcore gamers, the simulation junkies? If you tried to purchase every microtransaction for your casual iPhone racing game, you might be out a few hundred bucks. If you tried to do it for your hardcore sim game, you'd drop the GDP of Paraguay buying all the different versions of a coal train's steam whistle. But even if you have the interest and the disposable income to enjoy microtransactions, they're still hurting gaming. Allow me a personal example:
I love the Dead Space series.
Combining my childhood dreams of astronauts and bloody murder!
I love the sci-fi horror genre. It merges everything I want in an entertainment experience -- nifty gadgets, spaceships, mad religions, and screaming bloody death -- into one flailing multi-limbed abomination of a good time. But I make it a point to not buy EA games based on their mandatory inclusion of fuckery in every title (and all around Bond-villain-caliber inhumanity, of course). And yet, as soon as there's a Steam sale, I impulsively hurl my wallet at the television because I have the self-restraint of a drunken toddler. So it was that I bought Dead Space 2, and now I'm stuck with a wonderfully crafted priceless antique ... sold to me wrapped in a bundle of filthy diapers by a sketchy conman who only launched into his pitch after I caught him trying to break into my garage.
I accidentally bought a version of Dead Space 2 that came pre-loaded with some sort of "incentive pack." Normally, free shit is great, but in this case the installed pack of microtransactions transformed the game. Ideally, the player should be immersed in the role of a terrified engineer trying to sob their way past an alien zombie Hellraiser blockade. But thanks to these bullshit microtransactions, I can stop in at any in-game store and -- completely without charge -- stock up on flaming spinning laser whips and power armor. If these power-ups didn't come pre-loaded, I would never have purchased them with real money -- but I just accidentally bought this pack with the game, and now there's a rocket launcher that fires other, smaller rocket launchers sitting in the store with a flashing price of "0 credits" beneath it.
I am but a man, with all of man's weaknesses.
Of course I stocked up on all the game-breaking weapons, and after a few gleeful moments of mowing through the Necromorph horde like Iron Man wading into a rage virus outbreak (DEVELOPERS PLEASE NOTE: I would totally buy that game as described, in other circumstances), I am now bored with Dead Space 2 less than three hours into it. Microtransactions ruined the carefully crafted system of risk and reward that makes a great game -- and I didn't intentionally buy a goddamn thing.
That's the scary part: Since the inception of microtransactions, we've all been saying that it's no big deal -- if you don't want them, you don't have to buy them. I was even one of those people. And now it's become so commonplace that they come bundled in with your purchase. Your games can be pre-ruined, even if you willfully abstain. What was once a frivolous practice is now the norm, because that's how the consumer market progresses. Which brings us to another worrying point ...
If you're not a casual gamer, you've probably never heard of wait gaming. Let me explain it to you: If you download a free (or even sometimes a cheap pay) game, it will only allow you so many rounds, minutes, or lives. Then, when you run out, a countdown pops up, and you cannot play again until it expires. Of course, you could always just pay to bypass the waiting ...
That's right: The new "feature" in casual gaming is Fun Cockblocking. A virtual time-out corner that you're automatically placed in for the crime of enjoying yourself too much.
And if you didn't just spit involuntarily at your computer screen while reading that description, you are a blight on society and you need to be purged.
Well, that was a bit excessive, wasn't it?
What's so wrong with the wait gaming model? It's not so bad when it's a free game: Candy Crush Saga is so addictive, and you paid nothing to start it! Surely a few bucks here and there is a reasonable expense. You'll get tens of hours of gameplay out of it, and you'll still probably ultimately pay much less for the experience than you would for a full-price Xbox game. And you'd be right to think that, of course. If it stopped there. But it doesn't: Now wait gaming is leaking into pay games -- still casual stuff, and on a very small level. Knights of Pen and Paper, for example: It's a pretty decent retro tabletop game for Android with a lot of heart, and it only costs a few bucks! There's a microtransaction store, but you can avoid it. The only wait gaming occurs when you buy new armor: Then you have to sit for eight real-time hours before the blacksmith finishes it. But not if you pay some gold -- just a few bucks' worth, of course. Then you can get your new armor right away!
Remember: You already paid for that game.
The dangerous thing here is assuming that this stuff won't affect you just because it hasn't so far. Every time you see a worrying new development like this, you need to watch and see if it succeeds. Because if it does, it's coming for you like a very slow missile sculpted out of kiln-fired bullshit.
You resisted buying the flamethrower, but now it's there for free because you weren't paying attention when you bought a special pack. You avoided wait games, but millions of others didn't, and so two years from now you'll only be able to hawk-stab three guards in Assassin's Creed XIV: Birdman Edition before a screen pops up prompting you to spend a mere 16 Ubipoints (only 86 real cents! But you have to buy them in packs of $15, which of course does not divide evenly by .86) to continue your murder spree.
A few weeks ago, I wrote this post on my own site about Sony's unveiling of the PS4 at E3, where I stated that -- amid all the cheers of relief that Sony would only be using the normal strap-on to fuck us, instead of the new bladed one that Microsoft just unsheathed -- we overlooked the fact that the PS4 was now allowing third-party DRM.
A very, very bad idea.
And a very stupid thing for me to say. Because apparently this practice was not new at all: Some thoughtful, erudite, and almost certainly heartbreakingly beautiful readers of mine pointed out that the PlayStation 3 has allowed third-party DRM for years. It's just that most people don't use it as viciously as they potentially could.
Surely that kind of unmediated self-restraint is going to last forever!
I got out of console gaming for just this reason. There's plenty of fuckery and DRM bullshit on every platform, but at least on a PC, it's your choice exactly how, where, and when you get fucked. Buy a gaming PC and you can avoid the games and services that screw you, even if it means you miss out on a lot of awesome stuff. Buy a console and the entire platform decides, universally, just how much deep dicking your consumer loyalty can take.
Don't forget that, by its very nature, your console is a type of DRM. It uses its own architecture and its own formats to lock the games to that device. That's the most basic form of electronic security. You're already giving up a little bit of ownership by agreeing that this separate product, the game, is only for use in conjunction with this other product, the console. It's not like a DVD player -- you can't play that game on a Vizio brand PlayStation 3. It's proprietary. That's DRM.
Probably a good thing, overall.
And that's totally fine. It is well within a company's rights to do this, and we all know what we're getting into. Nobody's leaving the store pissed off that their N64 game won't plug into their phone. But then the consoles started introducing more restrictions and penalties -- persistent connectivity, online passes, no used game trading (never forget that they tried), fucking spy cameras in our living rooms with no hardware off switch -- and all this in addition to whatever the third-party company feels like heaping on? Software runs into all sorts of problems when it has to interact with other, non-native software. If Android only ever had to work with Google-developed apps, it would be almost entirely stable. But it doesn't: That third-party software works as best it can with Android, but at some point it's going to do things its own way, and that's when shit goes sideways. Because of this, every level of third-party DRM, by its very nature, takes functionality and reliability away from the consumer. Steam is a fine example of a DRM platform: It has always been pretty stable in my experience, it allows me to play offline, and there are enough benefits to make the security measures worthwhile.
But that's all native stuff.
Steam also allows Ubisoft to launch Uplay, their own Steam-like service; they allow EA to make signing into their servers mandatory; Games for Windows Live prompts you to either sign into or create a profile before you can launch your game. Now you're launching a DRM service that launches other DRM services inside of it -- it's an Inception level of meta-fuckery to the consumer, and there's no reason for it.
Developers, come on: You will never stop piracy. Have you ever -- ever -- even made a dent? Or are piracy levels now -- even in this age of psychotically rabid DRM -- much, much higher than they have ever been before? The solution to piracy isn't to violently fuck everybody at the door, just in case they might be a pirate; it's to make the door look enticing enough and open it wide enough that all the non-pirates will flock inside.
The pirates are not your customers, and they never will be -- they've proved that already just by existing. Why are you fucking bothering with them? Worry about the customers you do have, or you won't have them anymore.