Editorial: Progress for the Sake of Progress?

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Digital distribution’s greatest asset.

Get off my lawn, Lusi-readers, because today I am going to discuss technological progress and how it might not always be the best thing. In an industry so tied to technology and its newest forms, new developments can be seen cropping up all the time. Since I began playing in the 1980s, console and PC gaming have changed dramatically to include numerous improvements and conveniences. Some of the most prominent among them include online play, the ability to patch games, and digital distribution. I have come to enjoy every single one of these major improvements and additions to gaming, but more and more these days I see something related to these improvements become twisted and extorted. It is enough to make me wonder if these amazing jumps forward are going to begin acting like steps backward.

To begin, online play has become a featured component of most high profile games on all platforms, including handhelds. It, like most of the things I will discuss here, is not a new addition to games but is new in its application. With the increasing internet infrastructure and the growing network of fiber optics across the world, online play has become a component more and more players can take advantage of. Thus, its popularity has soared. Today, most games that feature a prominent single player aspect also have a multiplayer component that can add replay value or just a fun diversion from the single player campaign. Many games have released in recent years that only feature a multiplayer component, such as Blacklight: Retribution, League of Legends, as well as the ill received MAG for the PS3. In the case of MAG, the game’s flagging player base has seen to it that Sony has shut down the servers for the game, rendering the game completely useless. It is here that I begin to see the downsides of online play rising to the fore. MAG might well be a poor game, in fact I own it and found it to be quite bland, but should general opinion mean that a game is no longer allowed to be played by anyone? With an online only game, and the costs associated with maintaining one, the answer to that question has been found to be in the affirmative. Likewise, as the number of players who have a constant internet connection grow, so too does the publisher justification of always-online digital rights management (DRM) bandied about in the guise of a multiplayer game. Two popular examples include Blizzard’s Diablo 3 and EA’s SimCity (2013). The former used its requirement to include a suite of features that can only be possible in an always online game, while the latter simply added the requirement to keep its paying customers on a tight leash. Add to this that these requirements exclude the not-insignificant number of players who still do not have a constant internet connection, and it seems to me that the increase of online play is resulting in the decrease in my options as a consumer.

Within its first year, I think it's safe to say SimCity's possibilities ended.

EA’s SimCity (2013) was one of the more egregious examples of DRM masquerading as a feature.

Perhaps even older than online modes in games are patches: small or moderate updates to a game that allow a finished and released product to continue to be refined when problems arise after the general public receives the game. The benefit of patches is probably the most widespread and therefore might be the easiest to overlook. It allows development of a game to continue past its release date so that problems can be addressed as they come about, and with increased online connectivity these problems can be identified and resolved in very short order. In particular, games that feature a heavy multiplayer focus can benefit extremely from an observant development team looking to fix balance issues or exploits that never came up in play testing, especially with more complex games. However, the ease of patching a game can also mean a dependency on them. For example, Bethesda’s Fallout: New Vegas released in a wholly unplayable form. Glitches were not merely present, they were manifold and game killing. But with the ease of patching a game, Fallout: New Vegas was allowed to ship in a broken state in which things as benign as stealing a certain NPC’s hat would permanently lock the player out of the story missions. To the developer’s credit, the game was made playable after many patches were released. But it does not take away the fact that people paid full price for a game that shipped in an incomplete form. And worse, people who do not have a means to connect their console to the internet will never be able to play a game that never warned or advertised about requiring a connection.

Finally, I come to the much newer feature of digital distribution. This has proven invaluable to me in many regards, or perhaps there is a value that can be assigned to it. Steam sales at drastic discounts have likely saved me hundreds of dollars over the two or so years I have been a regular user of the service. It has also provided a convenient method for adding to my impressive backlog collection as well as provided a singular place to access what now constitutes the majority of my collection. Add to it the ease of use, the helpful community and the open support of modding and indie games and Steam has proven itself a shining example of how digital distribution can work. Yet through no fault of its own, Steam’s successful business model has been coveted by other, less beneficent companies like EA which has since launched its own storefront service, Origin. The fineness of Origin is well documented, but among its faults are poor customer support, dubious privacy policies, and a noteworthy lack of price flexibility despite being a digital storefront with no brick-and-mortar overhead. But above all, the presence of Origin means EA games are no longer available on other services like Steam. Perhaps an improvement in the eyes of some, but I happen to enjoy some of the properties held hostage by EA and find this outcome to be a sad negative side effect of an otherwise amazing leap forward for the gaming industry. Digital distribution has also risen along side an increasing anemia of physical box copies of games. Manuals, sturdy cases and even the option to buy a physical copy at all can be considered collateral damage of digital distribution’s popularity.

And I shall leave it there, though doubtless I could list a few more things. I use and enjoy all of these services and features of the gaming industry but a part of me feels conflicted when the rise in one feature means the death of another. So what of it, dearest reader? Is this a valid concern or the ramblings of a Luddite afraid of change? Is it fair to criticize a thing just because some aspects about it go awry? Should you, in actual point of fact, get off my lawn? Berate me in the comments.

3 comments on “Editorial: Progress for the Sake of Progress?”

  1. Ah, I was just lamenting the disappearance of physical manuals with a friend the other day. It is almost like a subliminal message from the publishers to buy digital, because you now literally receive nothing but cheap plastic when you buy a physical copy. Also, I never schedule a vacation day on the release of a game or expansion due to Bethesda. I once took a day off because I was excited to play the Fallout 3 expansion The Pitt, which if you will recall was literally unplayable at launch. There is simply no excuse for not properly testing your product before placing it on the market.

  2. Yeah. I agree with Tsubaki about the nonsense that goes on with patches. I believe Lusipurr once said that game developers are now just letting the customers be the play-testers and I feel like that is exactly what is happening. When Hideo Kojima was developing Metal Gear Solid 2, he was getting dangerously close to the release date and still had a way to go before the game would be complete. So in the last couple months or so, he hired something like sixty more people to get it done faster and the game released bug-free. Of course, PS2 games are not patchable and those were not play-testers that he hired. I just bring it up because I can’t imagine any developer doing that these days. Instead they would either delay the game (which is not a big deal) or just release it and plan on patching it (which is a big deal)!

    That was a great editorial, Mel. I hadn’t thought that the loss of proper game manuals might be because of digital distribution. I had always just assumed that companies were just being cheaper and cheaper across the board.

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