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17:4319/10/2014Posted by Dave Stuart5 Comments

The advent of online gaming in the last two decades has fundamentally changed not only the way we play games, but the way they are designed as well. Not only does it allow players to play together, ether co-operatively or competitively, but it allows the worlds they inhabit, the very games themselves to become living, breathing creations, malleable and ever-changing to add content, fix bugs or in some cases, to make wholesale changes to the original game. It also allows developers to react to the players in near real-time, rolling out hot-fixes, daily challenges and gameplay tweaks based on real-time data they can collect once a game has been released. Much of this is good, but there are potential downsides as well, elements which are starting to worm their way into seemingly every big new release, single player or not, that have ramifications for the medium as a whole, and also great swathes of potential players so simply can’t play many of the titles they want to.

Technology marches on but not equally, and not everywhere, something that is easy to forget for those of us with superfast internet speeds and top of the line PCs / consoles. But this isn’t the case in significant portions of not only this country, but large portions of the world as well including the more rural areas of the US and I worry that often the voices of the disconnected are lost because, well, how would you hear them?

Server problems have been an unfortunate side-effect of nearly all big, online focused game releases in the last few years. From the SimCity debacle that left players unable to access even the single player mode for potentially weeks, to Diablo 3’s shaky start and, more recently, issues with FIFA and NBA 2k15. A certain amount of this is understandable, we may not like it, or think it is acceptable, but in the first weeks of a game’s life you would expect to see the biggest spike in users, and coping with this load is a difficult task for even the biggest of firms. If this was easy then it wouldn’t keep happening. Similarly day 1 patches, title updates and firmware changes have become par for the course when console gaming now. Not to mention huge file downloads and DLC updates, which can often range in size from a few hundred MB to several Gigs. For those of us lucky enough to live in an area with superfast fibre broadband this is not a significant issue, and it can be easy to ignore those with download caps and bottlenecks whose gaming time is often spend staring at download bars, and waiting for games to install and update. Planning a gaming session with friends will often now involve sending messages hours beforehand to make sure everyone’s system and game install is up to date, many times I’ve had a proposed session be delayed or even cancelled due to a required patch having to be downloaded by members of the party. Often these patches include the DLC data, but have to downloaded by everyone who owns the game, whether or not you have purchased the content, a minor bugbear perhaps, but one that speaks to the lack of forethought or consideration given to those in this position.

What frustrates often is that these processes have not really been smoothed out in the transition from the previous generation to the current one. There have been some concessions, games will now let you start playing after only part of the file has been downloaded, the idea that the rest loads in the background. Some games have also started pre-loading on PS4 so that the game data is ready go when midnight ticks over for big releases. But these don’t’ completely help those who just want to play a new game without the hassle. The standby mode on the PS4 doesn’t seem to always pick up new game updates and patches overnight, often I’ll turn the machine on in the morning, and it’s only after going into a game that it detects that an update is available. Same goes for system updates and the syncing of cloud saves.

What is even less forgiveable is the lack of control Sony gives you over your downloads, this is an area Microsoft have vastly improved on in the Xbox One since launch, but on PS4 you still can’t queue, pause or order your downloads at all. Instead you must sit and wait for everything to finish, and with the push to digital games, not to mention the free games being released each month on PS+, this is not an issue that will go away or get smaller.

Now these may seem like minor gripes, but I think they speak to a wider issue that is slightly more worrying than a few delayed gaming sessions. These practices are actively shutting potential gamers out of experiences, and bringing the supposedly straightforward console experience worryingly closer to the complexity most associate with PC gaming. I’m not sure there is an easy solution, those without broadband, or with restrictions will either not bother with the new consoles, or stick to disks, but games that require updates, or even an online connection at all times for you to play single player content actively push back against this. Often these things are done for good reason, to act against piracy, for example, but can backfire. Games have always been a bit different than other forms of entertainment in terms of consumption, but you wouldn’t expect to buy a book, or a film that you could only watch online, or that you had to download extra data just to get to the content that you had paid for, but that often happens here.

But what about those who are connected, who are involved and up to date? Even then I think the notion of games becoming fluid and changeable is one that needs to be carefully approached. The ability to pull out an old game and experience it just as you did at the time is something that will likely not exist in the future. This has long been an issue with games curation, how do you authentically restore the experience of World of Warcraft at its peak, or when it was released, when every year the game is expanded and fundamentally changed? Maybe we should start seeing games as more transitory, the game you get at launch may not be the game a year down the line. Games-as-service is a well worn phrase, but it is becoming applicable to more titles all the time. For some this is great, it keeps experiences fresh and exciting, you get to be part of a game as it grows and changes in response to its audience. But to others this lack of continuity, or focused vision is not something they want to lose completely.

Games have always pushed at the forefront of technology, even now they barrel along a desired all-digital future that much the world’s infrastructure can’t cope with, but we will get there. This pace of change can be good; it allows for new experiences and brings people together. It can keep games from becoming stale, and ensure communities grow and stay with specific games for months and years at a time. But it should be the right tools for the right job, and publishers seeking a slice of the pie from successful examples often shoehorn unnecessary content and restrictions into games that don’t suit it. Not every game needs an always-online, connected multiplayer experience.

Ultimately what I don’t want it is these practices to be implemented in a way that puts people off, and drives focus away from the core of the games themselves. I don’t want this to leave behind those who aren’t connected, or those who enjoy the solitude that comes from the single player experience. I don’t want this march of progress to prevent us from revisiting games we connect to emotionally over time, and sharing them with our friends and family in the future. Because it’s that experience, that feeling, that keeps us coming back. This is what makes us gamers, and ultimately everything else should work in service of that, not get in the way. Let’s hope that as games continue to expand and grow, this isn’t forgotten in the scramble for the new.

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