Back in the Day

Back in the Day

I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of the Internet. How amazing is it that we can connect instantly with someone living on another continent and speak face to face? When I was a kid, our only connection with people overseas came in the form of pen pal letters our teachers forced us to write. But instant access to information comes at a price. Some people can’t agree on which information should be available and to who. But that may be a whole other blog post.

I talk a lot about things I like on this blog. Today I’m talking about things I don’t like. Namely, the change to business models that has accompanied access to the wonder that is the Internet.

1. Digital Rights Management (DRM) and Access to Limited Devices
Back in the day, you bought a CD and you could play it in any stereo you wanted. Go over to a friend’s house, take it with you. Play it in the car. CD player dies, buy a new one. No big deal.

Because it’s so easy to transfer data from place to place these days, companies across the board panic about maintaining control of their content. And let’s make no mistake; control is what it’s all about. Digital Rights Management (or DRM) is probably the number one cause of piracy today. Ironic because that’s exactly what it was created to combat.

DRM is my number-one complaint about digital media today. Often I’d gladly buy a game – except when I buy a game that comes with an installation CD, it’s now programmed to stop working after I install x number of times. What if my computer breaks? (Which happens every couple of years.) What if I upgrade to a new computer? (Again, this happens every couple of years.) At a certain point, I’m not going to be able to play that game anymore. That might not be a problem for most people, but I still play the original Diablo (because it’s frekin’ awesome).

I can rip all the music from the CDs I bought in high school, plop them on my MP3 player and listen to them whenever, and wherever, I want. And perfectly legally (since I paid to own them). However, if I buy new music on iTunes, I only get to use them on so many devices before I have to call and pitch a fit over wanting to use music I paid for. I didn’t run out and upgrade my entire DVD library to Blu Ray and, sorry, but I’m not re-paying to use all my music just because my old handheld devices wore out. Whatever happened to the concept of owning something you bought? Which leads us to…

2. Downloadable Content (DLC)
Back in the day, I bought a game box and the CD inside contained the whole game. I installed it, played it and got the full experience.

People rarely buy from game stores anymore, especially if they’re buying a computer game. It’s easier to deliver everything via the Internet, even if it means a couple hours of downloading before you can play. The benefit is the ease of patching games; if the developers find a major mistake, they can fix it within days rather than having to wait for an expansion. The downside is many developers are starting to take advantage of this to exploit their fanbase – and yes I do mean exploit. It’s that severe.

The game we used to buy on a CD is now developed the same way, cut into pieces and sold to us in parts. You get three-quarters of the game (if you’re lucky) when you buy it. A few months later you’ll get sold the extra, missing pieces in the form of downloadable content (DLC). Many companies take it one step further these days and offer you bonus content if you preorder. Bonus content if you buy from certain retailers. Bonus content if you buy the special game-specific controller.

All that bonus content adds up.

In theory, DLC is a great idea. I love that I can buy a game, enjoy the experience, and purchase a new adventure a few months later. DLC means not having to pay box price for an expansion. It also cuts down the wait time, since content can be developed in smaller chunks. Unfortunately, this isn’t the model most companies use to deliver their DLC. There’s been more than one controversy over the past few years regarding how and when DLC is developed. Pretty much every triple-a title now ships with day one DLC that’ll cost you an extra $10. That on top of the extra money you already paid if you purchased a collector’s edition of the game with, you guessed it, more extra content. If all this content is extra – above and beyond the initial game development – I wouldn’t take issue with it. But how can you claim DLC was developed separately if it’s available for download on release day? Unless the content is purely cosmetic (which is often not the case), this behavior is unacceptable.

DLC is taking its toll on the video game industry. Games are released with less content than they were five or six years ago. That content, which used to be yours for regular price, is now sold to you as optional enhancements. Worse, because it’s so easy to patch games, there are often glaring flaws in a game at release because developers can release fixes over the first few weeks. If anything encourages lazy game development, this is it. If ever there was a money grab in games, this is where it started. Now we have micro-transactions popping up in games you pay to play. Some games are even designed around pushing a player towards micro-transactions by making the game incredibly difficult if you don’t buy power-ups, or making the amount of in-game experience or currency required for certain unlockables ridiculously high. Have to squeeze as much out of the players as possible, right?

3. Always Online DRM
Back in the day, playing a game online was an novelty.

Revolutionary to the control of digital media (because let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is all about control) was the idea to re-brand games as services rather than objects. Certain games have always required internet connections, such as MMOs. Now game developers design offline games around always-active Internet connections. Because you can’t pirate a game if you can’t play it outside the official servers, right? Except that paying customers usually get caught in the storm of bugs and deficiencies surrounding launch while pirates get to actually play the game.

Diablo III is a prime of example of always online DRM gone wrong. People wanting a single-player experience had to wait hours in queues to get access to the game. And screw having optional co-op, if your friends want to drop into your game they can, whenever they want to. You’d think other developers would learn from the disastrous launch, but EA followed it up with Sim City which turned out to be worse. Their claim the game ran a sophisticated simulation too powerful to be run by most CPUs turned out to be BS – the sims don’t even have houses, they just go to the nearest house and the nearest job. The original simulation didn’t even allow sims to take alternate routes to their destinations! On top of a host of other problems (being unable to access servers without waiting hours in queues, limited city sizes, and the need to manage multiple cities in a region to keep your city afloat) decrypters proved the game actually ran off a computer’s CPU for up to an hour offline without changes to the base code. It simply wouldn’t save anywhere on the server.

Somewhat ironically, EA has now announced an offline version of the new Sim City. Gee.

But if games are services, then customers have to rely on that service being active in order to access the game. When a developer takes down their servers – because maintaining them costs money, you know – the game will pass into oblivion. If the player base of Diablo III stops making Blizzard enough money to maintain their servers, you won’t have the option to run an emulator and access an old game ten years down the road. So it doesn’t matter if you paid sixty dollars for it, it isn’t actually yours.

Then there’s Steam, which is a whole other monkey. Steam is, itself, a form of DRM. You can’t play your steam games if you aren’t logged in to steam. But many games still work when Steam is in offline mode. (Just remember to put it in offline mode before you go anywhere, because you have to sign in online to activate offline mode. It makes tons of sense.) In addition, Steam adds to the community in ways other forms of DRM do not. For one, it’s a distribution platform that runs frequent sales. There’s a benefit to buying your games through steam. Second, it is a community. Steam offers a matchmaking service that makes it easier for players to play games with friends and developers to include multiplayer in their games. Most games also save to the Steam Cloud which now allows you to download and install all your games on a new PC without having to scour your PC files to transfer the saves manually.

Unfortunately, if Steam ever falls by the wayside, so will your Steam Library. On top of that, other developers now want a peace of Valve’s pie. They’ve developed their own distribution plaforms; Ubisoft has Uplay, EA has Origins. And if you buy a game that works off one of those platforms from Steam, you have to open BOTH community tools in order to play the game. It’s hard to say what the future of Steam will be; I certainly don’t see it falling by the wayside. But I’d like to see it drop the DRM.

4. Pre-order Sales
Back in the day, you lined up on release day to get the popular game/console/whatever.

Today you pre-order with the click of a button. Every popular online retail outlet allows you to pre-order pretty much anything. You can also pre-order if you go to a store. They’ll stock your product and hold one for you on the day. It sounds great, in theory. It’s convenient and hassle free.

Except it also fosters apathy among game developers. Gone are the days of polished releases. Developers don’t need to impress us; they already have our money. When a name sells, developers and publishers feel safe moving forward whether or not the product is the best it can be. There are a multitude of complaints on release day for games that are buggy, sometimes to the point where they can’t be played until patched. Yet people keep forking over their money for products, sight unseen.

Now that’s not to say no developers take pride in their work anymore; I’m generalizing. And most buggy games do get fixed. But the fact remains, the number of games with poor releases is going up, and most of these bad releases can be linked to a high number of pre-order sales. Even more unfortunate, we can hardly expect developers and publishers to step away from a model that makes them money. We, as consumers, need to stop throwing money at things until they prove worth our time. Which brings me to…

5. Early Access Sales
I’m not sure how I feel about early access sales. I believe they’re growing more frequent due to crowd-sourcing; indie studios that might not have enough money to fund their game can sell an unfinished product and earn enough to see it to completion. I would consider that one of the positive things about early access sales. People who purchase generally know they’re getting an unfinished product and usually become invested in the final outcome. Minecraft is an example of the stupendous success gained by investing a community in a game’s development. (Minecraft sold more than four million copies before it was considered complete.)

Unfortunately, that’s the only logical reason to release a game unfinished. If you want the community invested, if you want their feedback to shape your game, by all means. The developers of Starbound have adopted the early access model for that very reason. I don’t think the model works for larger companies. Essentially, you end up paying to beta test the game’s bugs. There are play-testers that get paid to do that. Why should you throw money at something that isn’t finished? Because the fact of the matter is, if a game makes enough money during the early access periods, the developers might decide the game never needs polish. Minecraft might be the perfect example of this as well; the developer eventually abandoned it to make another game, leaving it to other members of his studio and the community to fill in the gaps. Perhaps the most notorious offenders in this category are MMOs. Who ever finishes an MMO anymore? As long as it’s good enough to make money, why bother with the polish?

I’m watching early access sales with a weary eye. They could be good for the video game industry. But they could be just as bad.

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