On Video Games, Consumer Rights & Always-Online

Anyone keeping up with the world of video games of late will no doubt have caught wind of the disastrous release that was the Sixth (or Fifth depending on how you count them) instalment of the venerable Sim City series. And “disastrous” may be an understatement for the ages here. The resulting fall out quite rightly doesn’t seem to want to go away, and I thought I’d lend a few thoughts to the whole thing from a consumer’s perspective.

Firstly, before I get into it, this won’t be an Electronic Arts bashing article, I feel the slew of “ZOMG EA IS TEH SUXOR” sentiment that flooded the internet has allowed anger to muddy the issue somewhat, this also won’t be going too deep into the concept or technology of always-on DRM, as I’d wager smarter people than I could do a better job of explaining why it was unnecessary, nor will it be commenting on the quality of the game itself as I simply do not wish to own it (despite SimCity being a personal favourite series of mine). No, I’m going to write my opinions of the consumer implications of it all, and particularly my dismay at how other gamers don’t seem to be willing to do much to prevent it happening again.

As we creep ever closer to an age of total digital distribution of media, those who distribute it is looking for more and more ways to control their product. We see this in the sudden proliferation of closed systems such as iTunes, the Kindle Store and EA’s own Origin system, and it is all ostensibly in an effort to make distribution easier and cheaper and at the same time safeguard us against poor counterfeits of “official” products. While it is understandable that a company wants to protect its revenue streams, these methods are becoming more and more invasive to us, the consumer, and somewhat bizarrely we seem to be accepting it rather than questioning why it needs to be so.

In gaming, Always Online authentication, usually justified in a myriad different ways depending on the publisher and game, is one such system, and one that seems to be gaining popularity amongst publishers. Now creating a game with online multiplayer is not something I have issue with, although most multiplayer games are not ones that appeal to me, neither is a game that is online only, such as World of Warcraft and its ilk. It does, however, become an issue in my eyes when the online component becomes a requirement to run a game in single player. In an age where we’re still downloading and/or installing the majority of the game’s information into our local area this strikes me as unnecessary.

Now, one common counter to this is “But you’re rich enough to own a computer to run this, you’re able to have an always on internet connection.” There are 2 problems I see with this argument that totally ignore the issue: 1. Always on internet may be commonplace, but that does not mean reliable. I live in a well populated area in a major Western Nation and my internet provider is terrible, I wouldn’t trust them with handling anything for any great length of time, and 2. it ignores the rather pressing question of what that always on authentication is doing. If, as they often say, it’s there to protect us from inferior “pirated” product, why always on? Surely a single activation code like the CD-keys of the old days on install would suffice? But the very fact it is essentially constantly looking over your shoulder, and often apparently refusing to work if it cannot do so, strikes me as a lack of trust in the consumer. It honestly feels like the companies distributing the product are going on the assumption that without constant supervision we’ll all be doing devious things with their technology even after paying for it.

And therein lies my major objection to always on systems. Regardless of intention, it feels like the companies that engage in this kind of thing are assuming you or I, the average consumer, are potential criminals. In an attempt to protect their revenue stream from the relatively few people out there who actually do pirate software they are happy to lump all consumers in the same boat. Also, the fact the system requires a remote server to give it the go-ahead adds another alarming level of control over the consumer: The servers can be switched off. Years from now, if the game doesn’t sell well or if it’s superseded by the next game in the series, the publisher can go along to the servers and flick a switch, disabling them and rendering the game you spend £20-60 on totally useless from afar. Again this is something I find staggering as a consumer, the fact the game is essentially not property but a long-term rental with no set due date, something that seems to have happened without any fanfare or consultation.

Ordinarily I’d say all this would risk alienating their clientele, but curiously this doesn’t seem to be the case. Yes, there exist people like myself who refuse to have any part in such activities and are vocal against it, but the fact that these games will still make money, hundreds-of-thousands to millions will still buy them thus promoting the rather dodgy practices, and allowing them to continue, and further eroding our positions as consumers. The only way to stop practices so hostile to consumer rights is to vote with your wallets, and refuse to pay into any organisation that promotes it.

There have been people who have said, in regards to the server issues that plagued SimCity upon release, “Oh give it a week/month until they iron out all the problems and then I’ll buy the game.” The issue I have with this is they won’t have solved the problems, the server issues (which boiled down to not stress testing them as far as I can tell) were not the root problem but a symptom of the invasive levels of control present in the game. The only way those problems can be solved is with a shift in thinking with the publishers, and the only way we can bring about that is if we don’t pay for the pleasure of having our rights eroded.

I, for one, have decided to not buy from any publisher that espouses an always on component in all their titles, regardless of what. They could be bringing out the next SimCity, Mirrors Edge or Deus Ex, but if it requires the publisher looking over my shoulder like I’m some kind of naughty schoolchild I want no part of it, and I urge others to adopt a similar tact.

–Not A Happy Gamer.

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