Online-only games are the future

You may not like it, and I may not like it either, but it’s true.

You’ve probably heard about the rocky launch of the SimCity reboot. If not, here’s the skinny: EA shoehorned online-only DRM onto SimCity and didn’t have enough/stable servers on launch, and people who shelled out $60 couldn’t play their single-player game because of that.

I admit, I was pretty lenient with Diablo 3 when Blizzard did the same thing. Perhaps it’s because I really wanted Diablo 3’s new auction house to work (I am a sucker for games with markets). But I can still see the line of reasoning Blizzard had:

  • Diablo 2’s trading was very difficult.
  • We can implement an auction house (cribbed from WoW) to solve this.
  • games of D2 were super-popular because items were stored server-side and therefore not duped.
  • Limit Diablo 3 to games so that NO items are ever duped.

I get that. I don’t really agree with how it turned out, but I get it.

EA’s though process for online-only can be most charitably described as:

  • Players can create cities together in Regions to work together.
  • These Regions have to be server-side, because you can’t guarantee everyone will be online at the same time.
  • Therefore all cities must be server-side because of reasons (*cough*DRM*cough*).

It’s pretty obviously one of those things that was tacked on to justify online-only DRM, especially because it leads to egregious and obvious abuses. For example, imagine I’m selling your city power from my fancy nuclear power plant. I wait until your city is well and truly dependant on me and have just finished a new expansion. I then sell my nuclear power plant, dooming my city (which I never really cared about), but also dooming yours to crime, fires, and destruction. Worse, I could simply, honestly, just lose interest and stop playing. My city decays, and so too does yours, if it relies on any of my utilities. This is really going to happen to a lot of people.

But here’s the thing.

In a few years, none of this is going to matter. EA, Ubisoft, all the big publishers are going to keep on doing this, and people are going to keep buying those games regardless. And while this is happening to single-player games, actual multi-player games that literally don’t work without a server directing the action are going to continue to be popular as hell. In time, the technology and techniques required to reliably scale and handle these players are going to be well-understood. And your internet will be always-on, too.

Eventually, people complaining about always-on DRM are going to look like people who complained you needed a videocard to play a game. And some time after that, they’ll look like people complaining you need electricity. Online-only DRM is absolutely going to be subsumed into what we expect out of “a game”. (There will of course be exceptions – you don’t need a videocard to play NetHack, for example. But NetHack is an outlier.)

I don’t like it, obviously. But I recognize I’m part of an old guard that grew up without the internet, and without walled gardens, and revelled in the freedom we had there. Kids today… I’m actually writing these words: Kids today don’t know the world I grew up in, and don’t appreciate what they’ve lost.

Of course, by the time they’re my age, they’ll likely be ranting about something even more frivolous that kids of the future don’t appreciate (like actually holding physical phones, maybe), so I can’t be too upset.

What we can learn from Peter Molyneux
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  • Gman



    Kids today… They don’t know Obama!