I don’t play games very often these days outside a brief excursion into Minecraft or the rare flight simulator, so it’s interesting to experience the “joys” (scare quotes!) of modern gaming after having been out of the loop for somewhere north of 6 months. (Or was that a year?) As it turns out, the Chicken Little sky-is-falling predictions made years ago regarding the looming threat of online-only/online-required game play weren’t so far off. The anti-consumer behavior cropping up across the entire spectrum of game genres and studios is just a little frightening. I’m actually not sure what’s worse: Gamers happily tolerating repeated insults or that they willingly fork over money for the games that insult them! I don’t understand it, so I’ll just wave my cane and yell at you to get off my lawn. I feel out of touch. Or maybe I’m a relic of a bygone age.
(If you believe that last bit, you’re free to stop reading. In fact, I’d implore you to spend your time somewhere else. My drivel is really not that exciting.)
I started to formulate this rant in my mind a few days prior when my girlfriend bought a copy of Dying Light and sent it my way. I’m not keen on zombie games, neither am I much of a gamer, but for her sake I wanted to try it out. She was rather looking forward to having something to do together while she’s at veterinary school during her rare spats of free time. It couldn’t hurt.
Famous last words, right?
Dying Light has received substantial praise since its release, but in my opinion, it reeks of everything that’s wrong with modern gaming. I won’t touch on the game itself: While it looks nice, it won’t work well on my hardware under Linux, so I can’t provide much of a review besides the bits I suffered through at a lowly 15 frames per second. However, the game play isn’t what I think is the most important feature of the game. Nay, what I feel is important, and what I will discuss herein, is a much more subtle misfeature of the game that is sufficiently detracting that it caused me to immediately lose interest, and so it made the fact it was nearly unplayable under Linux on my hardware moot. In short, while the game’s multiplayer and cooperative modes are generally well received, you cannot play with others until you “unlock” cooperative mode by completing the first mission. It doesn’t sound like much, but for someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy wasting time in games, if I can’t jump right in and play with a friend, the game is going to rot on my shelf.
It’s an insult, in my opinion, to advertise the game as having an active multiplayer capability while preventing players from playing with each other until they each unlock a basic feature that shipped with the game. What’s next? Are we going to charge gamers to unlock multiplayer mode? (You could argue most MMOs already do this.) I’m sure the studio would counter with requiring players to unlock multiplayer allows them to learn a bit more about the game mechanics. I don’t agree. I subscribe to the school of thought that experience is the best teacher, particularly with gaming, and sometimes the most satisfying way to learn how to play a game is to jump in, have at it, and make mistakes. Why drag me through a grueling series of so-called “tutorial” missions disguised as the start of the game’s campaign mode just so I can play it with a few friends? If I’m putting a limited amount of time into playing games and it takes me between one to one-and-half hours just to unlock an advertised feature (one that was proclaimed rather loudly, I might add) before I can play with someone else, that’s time we’re not able to play together because your studio decided it was a great idea to waste my evening with false promises. I’d almost suggest it’s narcissism, but I’m more inclined to believe it’s just unadulterated stupidity.
Fortunately, I came upon an easy solution: I uninstalled it. I feel bad my girlfriend wasted money on me like this, and if I were rich enough to have a legal counsel on retainer, I’d demand a refund. (I’d also probably buy her a boat.) But I’d be dumping more money into paying lawyers than I’d get back in return for her purchase. C’est la vie. I never trusted games published by a movie studio. This simply proves why.
Unfortunately, the story won’t end here. Because there’s a subset of the hardcore gaming crowd who believes that anyone who doesn’t have 8 or more hours a day to readily sink into a game has neither the right to play the game nor the right to complain about it, people like me are vilified for our opinions, and my opinion is that games like Dying Light are not worth $10–much less $60–and probably not much more than $5. The response from these “hardcore gamers” is so bad now that in many gaming communities the term “casual player” is used pejoratively to deter new players–and paying customers–from participating (and vocalizing our complaints). Then again, I suppose the casuals are at least partially at fault here: If a game requires a substantial investment in order to play, the easiest solution is to simply not buy it. If enough people voted with their wallets, it’s plausible that the studios might learn a valuable lesson. Either that, or they’d go belly up and blame the players anyway for simply not understanding what a great product they had, and how the free market system is inherently evil because they’re somehow owed the money.
Sometime after this experience with Dying Light, my father remembered I had purchased a copy of Planetary Annihilation for him. Yet, once more, the genius insight that only a gaming studio full of self-righteous idiots could invent presented a curious challenge. He couldn’t play the single player mode because he had to sign-up through PlayFab for an account–on a Steam title–for single player. Wait, did I say single player twice? Yep, that’s how stupid this is.
I get that Steam is essentially nothing more than polite DRM wrapped up in a shiny package with a fantastic store and loads of great deals on thousands of games. I don’t like DRM, but I’m willing to live with it if it stays out of the way, which Steam does reasonably well. However, if you release a title and expect me to sign in to your service just to play the single player mode, you’re only going to upset me. Your game is going to be shelved like Dying Light and the two or three dozen other games I’ve never touched, either because they’re terrible or because I bought them twenty-to-a-pack from one of the various holiday sales, Humble Bundle, etc., and I won’t be back. It’s very unlikely I’ll buy your sequel, if your studio lasts long enough to make one, because you’ve already proven you have no respect for my leisure time. The only thing that burns me more is that you now have my money, and I therefore cannot meaningfully vote against your product for a design that I feel is fundamentally flawed.
The thing is that these aren’t just isolated incidents. This is a problem that’s endemic to the entire gaming industry. Take Torchlight II for instance: Single player mode works great, but the moment you want to play it in a multiplayer capacity, you have to first sign up through Runic Games, create an account, and then figure out how to get your friends into your game. I realize the intent was most likely an effort to provide a third party platform for multiplayer matchmaking that allows them to sell the game through channels other than Steam, but I honestly feel that (as a player), Steam’s built-in multiplayer APIs are so much easier to use and so much more convenient (I already have a Steam account), that it’s outright infuriating to be required to jump through a series of hoops just to waste a few hours with a buddy.
And what happens if their services go offline or they go belly-up? That’s right: You cannot play their precious game anymore.
As much as I hate the Left 4 Dead series (see my comments on zombie-related games), Valve has it right. Stay out of the way when people want to play. You’re not selling an MMO. Your game isn’t that important (no, really, it’s not). Heck, your studio doesn’t mean squat to me. I just want to spend some time with a friend or two, and if you’ve demonstrated that you aren’t even going to afford me the courtesy of using the APIs of a service I’m already signed up for (hello, again, Steam!), you’re just going to piss me off. Flip me the finger, and I’ll toss you in the can.
Of course, I realize I’m in the minority. No one these days gives a second thought to signing up for a flavor-of-the-month service every time a new game or product comes out. Yet at the same time these are likely the same people who’ve expressed moral outrage that the United States has collected information on its own citizens via the auspices of the NSA.
Yeah, I’m really angry about them collecting all that information about who I talk to, where I go, where I work, what time I eat my dinner. But, oh, hey, look at this shiny new game. Did you say you want my social security number, too? No problem! How about my credit card, too, while we’re at it? Oh, baby, it comes with DLC, too? I’ll take five if you take my firstborn.
Like the causal gamer, I guess we’re part of the problem. Or rather, complacency is.
For years now, privacy advocates have been beating on the drums, shouting loudly, and doing much arm-waving, yet their voices have fallen on deaf ears. As angry as the public gets about certain privacy infractions, we nevertheless happily hand over whatever information nets us our next free service. We’ll sign-up for whatever it takes to sink 50 hours into a half-finished, bug-ridden, over-hyped triple-A title from one of the major studios who, as an added bonus, run their programmers through a high tech sweatshop. Coffee in, code out. If we want things to change, we have to stop encouraging these companies. To do so, we must stop purchasing their products. The problem is, Steam makes it so easy. Too easy, in fact.
On the other hand, there’s a rather vocal group of people whom I assume is a relatively small minority, but like most such minorities, they’re so absurdly vocal, they drown out contrary opinions. Criticism of these game studios, like mine, is often lamented as misguided, stupid, or old fashioned. “What’s the big deal?” they’ll insist.
Then the next time another PSN-style hack occurs, they’ll take to Reddit and complain loudly about the studios’ misuse of their private information. You can’t win.
How dare those companies have this much information on me! I even used that same password on 20 different sites, and now I have to change it! While people in Africa are starving to death, I am morally outraged that you would charge me $10 a month to sell my information that I happily parted with to advertising firms who now want to interest me in asian brides and sexy underwear that’s 4 sizes too small!
Maybe the problem really is that I’m too old fashioned. When I see “single player” stamped on the side of the box, I see that as a feature. I don’t expect the game to require a sign up. Likewise, when I see “supports cooperative play,” I expect to be able to fire up the game, possibly start a server if need be, and jump in it with a buddy. If the game requires too much more of me to play it with someone else, it’s going to be forgotten.
In retrospect, I’d be inclined to call this “laziness” on my part, but considering I’m more than happy to spend an hour or two setting up a private server to play with others on, I don’t think that’s quite the case. Is selective laziness a thing? It’s probably a thing. I’m sure of it.
Back to the point, let’s take Minecraft as an example. Minecraft was (and still is, mostly) independently marketed. It wasn’t sold through the usual channels, like Steam. It required a sign-up (for the most part, although you could still play it in offline mode), but the sign-up was required to purchase the game. If you received a gift copy, you had to create an account to activate it. Creating an account was an artifact of obtaining and activating the game. It wasn’t an afterthought by a game studio that was so convinced it had such a great product no one would ever say “no.”
Humorously, some of the third party services required by certain games on the market are so terrible you almost have to wonder if the studio even bothered to dog food their own product. I’m sure there’s nothing more fun than being booted out of a game just because the studio’s authentication servers went down! (The Sim City developers could have taken a lesson from Mojang here early on–it would’ve saved them 3-4 months of trouble.)
But, what do I know? I just write lots of code these days. I don’t take the time to play games all that often, but on those few times that I do, I want to be able to jump in with minimal fuss. If you think your game is so fantastic that I’ll be willing to waste a few hours waiting to sign up on your service or learn how to play via a pseudo-tutorial that’s more irritating than a sock full of poison ivy, I’ve got news for you: It’s not.
As an added bonus before I sign off on this, there’s a little bit of hypocrisy in my words. But it’s something tempered by youthful ignorance, and it’s really too good not to share because there’s a valuable lesson in it. I’m not sure what that lesson is, but if you’re smarter than me (and you probably are), it shouldn’t be too hard to divine.
At risk of sorely dating myself, the last game I took a great interest in and happily wasted hours and hours waiting to sign up to play was Tribes 2. I left that evening sorely disappointed and empty-handed. Dynamix hadn’t expected their authentication servers were vastly underpowered and unable handle the immense popularity of the game; consequently, many of us tried and tried again to create an account desperately wanting to play. We couldn’t. To add insult to injury, Dynamix also removed “skiing,” which soured many of the Tribes 1 vets against its overly optimistic sequel, but that’s another rant entirely. In the end, they patched skiing back in, but not until after Dynamix was disbanded and the intellectual property rights floated around in limbo for some time.
Naturally, those were different times. We knew the days of freely playable games without the need for authentication services were at an abrupt end. We knew Tribes 2 was ushering in a new generation of authentication services intended to limit cheating and create a platform where bans, scores, and other player-centric features were suddenly more meaningful. We knew it had a dark side, and we did nothing to stop it. It seemed like a good idea. So here we are, some 13 years later, overlooking the precipice where the single player game is dead and where third parties want enough information to supply healthcare coverage before authorizing players to play. Yet others have taken strides in the opposite direction, forbidding you from playing cooperatively until you’ve unlocked it by yourself, all while advertising the game as having incredible cooperative play.
I’ve seen the future, and it looks bleak.
Update, February 19th: So, a buddy of mine (hi, Hunter!) linked me to some interesting information about 2K/Turtle Rock’s latest game Evolve. Apparently studios are narcissists. Here’s a game where the publishers are so convinced you’ll love it that they’ve split the game’s DLC into 44 separate packs retailing for ~$130. Highway robbery is now disguised as video games. Would you believe it?