The Dark Side of Online Gaming
by the Video Game CriticOctober 21, 2014
Over the last ten years online gaming has evolved from a niche market to the standard mode of play for many gamers. Video games are increasingly designed for online play and the latest generation of consoles practically assume the system will be online at all times. At the same time the industry is moving away from physical media and embracing the download model.
There are clear benefits to keeping your console online. When my best friend moved out of state we were still able to play sports games via Xbox Live. We would even "catch up" by chatting on the headphones between plays. Playing online lets you challenge the best players in the world, so if you're dedicated to a franchise like Madden or Call of Duty, it's a natural option. Digital distribution makes it easy to purchase games without having to going to the store or messing with discs.
But as with any new technology, there are significant trade-offs. As a long-time gamer I'm concerned with the current direction the industry is trying to take us. With an eye on new revenue streams, publishers seem intent on forcing gamers online even when it's not in our best interest. I'm concerned that many gamers have wholeheartedly embraced the new paradigm with little regard for the consequences.
The connected experience is marketed as social and convenient, but are gamers making a deal with the devil? The fact is, the always-online model benefits publishers far more than the customers. Game producers can cut corners with their products and save money by eliminating the middle men. Customers on the other hand are expected to sacrifice privacy, security, ownership, and control, as well as their valuable time. I believe the negatives outweigh the positives, and this article explains why.
UPDATES, PATCHES, AND DEGENERATING GAME QUALITYOnce your console is online, you're forced to sit through daily system updates and game patches that bring the fun to a screeching halt. It's bad enough most modern games require lengthy installations, but having to sit through multiple updates is unbearable. Publishers and online services must not think our time is worth very much. Are these patches truly worth the wait? Probably not. Since I took my Xbox 360 offline the only thing I've been missing are those slow-moving progress bars. Some gamers give the industry the benefit of the doubt, but I don't have time or patience for this nonsense. In my mind, these pesky patches and updates are reason enough to keep your system disconnected.
An unintended consequence of the online model is deteriorating software quality. Originally console games were held to an extremely high standard of quality control. Once a cartridge or disc was mass produced, there was nothing that could be done to address major bugs outside of a huge and expensive recall. But with the advent of online gaming, publishers have adopted a cavalier "ship it now" attitude. Patches are released early and often, and customers are expected to dutifully download and install these starting from day one. This is the kind of nonsense that drove people away from PC gaming in droves. To be fair, PC developers have to account for literally hundreds of different possible hardware configurations, so bugs and glitches are inevitable. Console games don't have this issue which makes their lack of quality unforgivable.
As if to expedite the industry's mad dash toward a download-only model, publishers have cheapened the quality of their physical product. Games are now packaged in ultra-flimsy plastic cases and publishers have ditched the manuals which were once an integral part of the gaming experience. Perhaps the biggest joke is how this was all done under the guise of being "environmentally friendly". As if the landfills are overflowing with discarded games and manuals.
PEOPLE DON'T KNOW HOW TO ACTWhen my friends play online they almost always disable the voice features. This is due to the fact that a large segment of the gaming population does not know how to behave online, and can be remarkably immature. Much has already been said about the sexism, racism, and homophobia that seems to run rampant online. Apparently some people freely say rude things online they would never even consider saying to a person on the street.
The first time I took my Xbox 360 online to play one of the Call of Duty titles, I could hear the other players talking over my television speaker. It soon dawned on me that just about all the other players were children! One even mentioned to a friend "Isn't it great how we don't have to go to school tomorrow?" This was supposed to be a Mature-rated (17+) title meant for adults only! Apparently parents are pretty permissive about violent games in this day and age, and that's kind of disturbing. Suffice to say, if you're looking for a mature gaming experience in the company of adults, you probably won't find it online.
Since publishers can't account for all online interactions and don't want to be held liable, they have become quick to foist EULAs (End User Licensing Agreements) upon us. This may be the single most egregious sin ushered in by online gaming. Are we really expected to thoroughly read and understand these lengthy legal documents? Did I just sign over my life insurance policy to Microsoft?! EULAs should never be necessary to play a video game. It's insulting, and just another example of the industry shifting the burden to the customer (the latest trend). Reference EULA Gotchas [PC World].
NO PRIVACYWhen you take your console online you're no longer in your own little world; there's always someone looking over your shoulder. This is even the case when playing single-player modes on a connected console. Rest assured the online service is tracking what you are playing and learning your usage patterns. This allows them to create a "personal profile" of you to sell to advertisers. I wish I could say you're providing marketing information for free, but in the case of premium services like Xbox Live, you're actually paying for the privilege. As with Facebook, you are a product. Apparently this kind of intrusive behavior is inherent in all online media, including e-books (reference Adobe e-books [Ars Technica]).
Not only do online services retain your credit card information, but they solicit other personal information including email and social network accounts. There's no good reason to provide any additional information, especially when you consider these companies do NOT have a good track record of protecting your private information (I'm looking at you, Sony). Reference Playstation Network Hacked [Wikipedia].
DLC (Downloadable Content)There was a time when games were shipped complete with all the bells and whistles developers could come up with. But with the advent of DLC, publishers realized they could withhold chunks of the game and resell it to the customer later (or in some cases, right away). There have even been cases where the DLC purchased was already contained on the original purchased disc (reference Street Fighter X Tekken [Wikipedia]). In a perfect world, DLC would be a cost-effective way to provide additional content and extend the life of a game. But like any new technology, it can and will be abused to make an extra buck at the customer's expense.
WHAT ARE YOU PAYING FOR?Most online features require a premium membership that runs roughly $60 per year. I try to use prepaid cards instead of providing my credit card number because I noticed the Xbox Live interface is designed to make it really easy to purchase games and items. What's the only button doesn't come with a confirmation prompt? "Buy".
And what are you buying exactly? When you own a cartridge, disc, or other physical media, it's yours forever to keep, sell, lend, or give away. Media you download however has all kinds of strings attached (reference Digital Rights Management [Wikipedia]). You are basically licensing the content, and as some e-book owners have discovered, publishers have the right to yank it right out from under you (it's in the EULA). If you can't hold a game in your hand, you don't really own it. Consider it a long-term rental. Would you pay full price for that?
Having bypassed the production chain and retail middlemen, you would expect digitally-distributed games to be sold at a deep discount, but that's rarely the case. In fact, downloaded gamers are sometimes even more expensive. With download-only games, all the publishers have to do is maintain a web server and rake in the dough. The customer does all the work and consumes his own resources (time, bandwidth, hard disk) in the process of acquiring the game. The artificially high cost is often justified as a "convenience fee", not unlike the ridiculous fees banks charge for ATM usage. In an ideal world technology would be used to save customers money, but in realty it's used to line executive pockets.
DOWNLOADABLE GAMES ARE MOSTLY JUNKSome of my friends insist downloadable games are the best thing to come out of online gaming. I can't dispute the fact that many download-only titles like Guacamelee (PS3) and Shovel Knight (Wii U) rate higher than most disc-based games. Smaller publishers can exercise more creative freedom and produce niche games that would otherwise never see the light of day. Quirky and artistic, many download-only titles feature classic 2D-style gameplay big publishers seem to dismiss.
Unfortunately, for every gem there are about dozen other games that are absolute junk. It's like the videos on YouTube. Sure, there are some great ones but the vast majority are garbage. I tried to review download-only games from Xbox Live but gave up when I realized it just wasn't worth my time. Even disc-based games I've graded an F look like masterpieces compared to most of the games I've downloaded from Xbox Live. The bar is very low for downloadable games, and frankly it shows.
CONNECTION ISSUESAs someone who's made heavy use of EA and 2K servers to play sports games over the years, I can attest that the performance is generally awful. The interface for setting up a match is awkward and time-consuming, and the action itself is prone to hiccups and abrupt disconnects. Games that rely on a remote server have an Achilles heel that's completely out of your control. Some digital software is only functional if it can "check in" with a server - even for single-player modes. That's unacceptable.
Storing your games, saves, and other media on the "cloud" or some other remote service is a risky proposition. Sure it seems convenient now, but you have effectively abducated control of your data. In fact, depending on the EULA it may no longer be "your" data! Technical glitches and outages may prevent you from accessing the data. The services do not guarantee your data will always be there, and if a mishap occurs, you may be left with nothing but an apology. Ultimately the cloud service will go away or be replaced with something else, and when that day comes your data will be gone for good. It's no substitute for physical media.
And then there's your Internet Service Provider, which is probably your cable company. Cable companies like Comcast enjoy a level of popularity on par with ISIS, Ebola, and perhaps that new U2 album. Do you want these people standing between you and your video game collection? That's the direction online gaming is headed. Not only do cable companies have terrible track records, but many are in the process of devising "caps" to set on your bandwidth. Will this affect online gamers? We'll have to wait and see, but one thing is for sure: there is no guarantee that bandwidth will alway be cheap and unlimited.
DEATH OF SPLIT-SCREEN?When I play multi-player games I prefer to play with friends in the same room (a quaint notion, I know). With the advent of huge flat-screen televisions, you'd think split-screen action would be more popular than ever. But now developers have an incentive to exclude these modes altogether. Why should they take the time to incorporate split-screen when you could limit the multiplayer modes to online? That way you force all the players to buy their own copy of the game. Again, the customer is getting the short end of the stick. There's nothing worse than having a friend over to play a game and realizing you can't play cooperatively unless he goes home first! Chalk it up to yet another unintended consequence.
CONCLUSIONConnected gaming may be the trend of the future but it's not all rainbows and lollipops. There are serious downsides gamers need to consider. Companies like Sony and Microsoft will downplay these issues or bury the them in the fine print of their EULAs. The industry is trying to blur the line between physical media and downloadable games, and many sites and periodicals have been complicit. Fortunately today's gamers are becoming increasingly aware of these tactics, which is why Microsoft took so much grief at the 2013 E3 Conference for unveiling an "online-only console" (which they later recanted).
All of the issues I've stated can be addressed to some degree, but it will require major market forces to keep the industry in line. Hopefully this article will provide some perspective and increase awareness. Until the balance is tipped in my favor I'll continue living in my disconnected world of physical media. It may not be the future but living in the present really isn't all that bad.
- The Video Game Critic
YouTube (update fail)
Operation Sports (NBA 2K)
Special thanks to Brent C, Jonathan H, Scott Z, Mark J, and Maggie M
for helping me write this.