Saturday, October 21, 2017

How the Internet Is Ruining Gaming

TL;DR

Unlike for other media such as books or movies, the internet connection makes it so that we play games while stuck forever in a game store with a salesman harassing us every five minutes.

More detailed breakdown:

DLC


The cost of developing a triple A game has increased dramatically over the last two decades. As a result studios have had to find ways to milk more revenue out of them. Downloadable content (DLC) is one common approach. With the spread of broadband internet in the 2000's, consoles started to see regular DLC and updates during the PS3 / XBox 360 era.

Most players do not mind DLC that feels like a genuine expansion - a separate story that isn't necessary for completing the main game. However game studios have become more cynical with the practice and now regularly cut out plot essential content from a release only to resell it later often as on-disk DLC (meaning the content is already on the disk you paid for, you just need to shell out extra money to access it).

Game companies have begun pushing this even further with the trend of selling separate "season passes," with games. Every big title that comes out now includes a $20 - $40 season pass promising access to future DLC. This has incentivized companies to release barely finished versions of games. Capcom has done this twice recently with Street Fighter V and Marvel vs Capcom Infinite. They get away with it by promising updates (released over several months and years) and eventually more content (which you will have to pay for) all downloadable for you to enjoy.

While it is good that internet access allows for patches and bugfixes, the negative consequence has been companies treating version 1.0 players like beta testers. Several games have launched totally broken. Ultimately what is happening is that gamers are being conditioned to tolerate poorly tested "minimum viable product," games in hopes of hooking them into a games as a service model.

Loot Boxes / Microtransactions


The whole point of the "games as a service," model is to change the basic nature of what it means to buy a videogame. You are no longer purchasing a discrete, well-defined piece of reusable content that is solely yours. Instead, because of the internet, you are now purchasing the right to temporarily access some company's private servers. Many games now just don't work at all once the company shuts down their online service. This is intentional. The game is a means to a constant internet connection and the internet connection is a means to get in your wallet. The paradigm has switched from 'make a good product and sell it' to 'leverage the consumer's connection to our system to continually extract money from him.'

Loot boxes and microtransactions are obvious manifestations of this. The former is a version of the latter. Microtransactions are often what make free-to-play games profitable. Like DLC, they are not necessarily harmful. If someone wants to spend $3 for some virtual furniture, that's their business. It gets a bit annoying when it is shoved in your face, such as fighting games that show you selectable characters and skins but then take you to a shop when you try to use them. It becomes even more of a problem when the microtransaction system starts getting in the way of playing the basic game. We have seen this in the several of 2K's sports games, Forza, and Gran Turismo, to name a few.

Loot boxes add an additional shady element of gambling to the wonderful microtransaction mess. Forza 7, Injustice 2, and Star Wars Battlefront 2 are just a few of the recent games relying on these randomized goody bags to generate additional revenue. Nothing makes you feel more like a number on some big corporation's spreadsheet than paying real money for the privilege of spending hours clicking through loot boxes in hopes of finding that one cool skirt for Supergirl.

eSports


The internet has done a lot to make eSports popular and lucrative. I'm not really a fan, but I don't have a problem with the concept per se. While I may not be interested in watching a professional StarCraft tournament, I do not begrudge the people that enjoy it. I think it is great that there are more opportunities for hardcore players to pursue their passions and win recognition.

The problem is that, now that there is so much money to be made from eSports, game developers are beginning to cater more toward that scene than traditional fans. Some recent examples can come from franchises I have already mentioned: Gran Turismo Sport, Marvel vs Capcom Infinite and Street Fighter V. In the case of Capcom's recent fighters it was clear to anyone who bought them at release that they were half-baked games released as quickly as possible to get in on fighting game tournament revenue. Particularly in the case of Street Fighter V, if you were not interested in online competitive play, there just wasn't much to do in the game.

With Gran Turismo Sport, the issue is a bit different. Gran Turismo Sport is not a half-baked game. Given that it is not meant to be a complete official entry in the series (Gran Turismo 7 is still years away) I did not have a problem with the reduced car count and simplified tuning options. I was however frustrated by the lack of single player content and the fact that the game needs to always be online.

Why is Gran Turismo Sport so focused on online play? Because they plan to be formally licensed by the FIA and do several big eSports events every year going forward. Very cool. Unfortunately it means that the things old-fashioned car nerds cared about are no longer a priority to the developer Polyphony Digital. No longer is Gran Turismo that one game where you could probably buy your IRL car, tune it up like crazy, and then race it on famous tracks. For my money, nothing was more fun than crushing the campaigns in Gran Turismo 2 with my tricked out Mitsubishi Eclipse, the same car I got from my older brother when I was in high school. Gran Turismo Sport is so online focused that players can't even access single player campaign content or even just save their game data without an internet connection. The game is virtually unplayable when the servers are down for maintenance. As eSports become more popular I can't help but wonder which franchise will be ruined next.

Piracy


There is some debate about whether or not piracy really hurts company bottom lines. I have read stories of small studios that claim to have been ruined by piracy. Others argue that it is just a way to test a game before buying it. As a software developer I am somewhat biased and in general I don't agree with most of the justifications individual pirates offer.

Leaving aside the question of its effect on sales, what is unarguable is the awful consequences of studios trying to fight piracy. For one, it means fewer games get ported to PC, since the internet has made piracy as easy as a Google search. It also means more "always online," functionality baked into games and more intrusive DRM to eat up your CPU cycles. Companies also use piracy as a justification for things like season passes, loot crates, DLC, and microtransactions, as they argue that they need to monetize more aggressively to make up for lost revenue. And so we end up with a vicious cycle where the industry uses piracy to justify bad practices and pirates use the industry's bad practices to justify piracy, with neither side willing to change until the other side unilaterally changes first.

Honorable Mentions

Dishonest Marketing and Hype: These are not new problems, but the internet has made them worse. No Man's Sky is a good recent example. The carefully crafted trailers from E3 - the slow tease over years that results in a final product that looks nothing like what was promised. The constant contact studios have with consumers via the internet gives them more opportunities for dishonesty and goalpost shifting.

Politicization: I wrote about GamerGate years ago on this blog and my opinion remains unchanged. Similar to the NFL anthem protests what I find sad is the injection of politics into a space that should transcend such divisions. Both sports and gaming have had political moments (Metal Gear Solid 2, the Olympic black power fist, etc) but they have been the exception and not the rule. I never wanted a new normal where every Sunday I get to look forward to some new political protest no matter what the cause. Likewise I'm not crazy about implicit diversity quotas in games, endless pearl-clutching about sexy female characters, and on-the-nose anti-Trump commentary in every other open world game. At the very least let's at least be artful about this stuff. Greater character variety is good. Tackling mature subjects can be good too. But please, spare me the sermons.

Toxic Communities: Maybe it's my own fault for being terrible at Dark Souls. The fact that every game these days has an online component seems to have energized a wider community of griefers and trolls. Most gamers know what I am talking about here. I don't dare play any first-person shooter online with people using microphones or headsets. I have received some pretty horrible hate mail from defeated opponents in fighting games. I have had people sabotage my game multiple times in Souls titles each time forcing me to start over. The pseudo-anonymity mixed with the sense of power is apparently a drug to some people.

Conclusion

The internet has done a lot of good things for gaming too. It's created new communities, new game genres (MMOs), and a range of new possibilities for competitive and cooperative play. Unfortunately the market has sort of failed us in terms of incentivizing game companies and publishers into doing right by the players. We have the industry that exists today because people are willing to pay for what is offered. As a result there are no easy answers to improving things.

If it were up to me, I would say that triple A games should just cost more. Perhaps if they cost between $80 and $100, publishers wouldn't have as much of a need to bilk players every five minutes. Then again, maybe it wouldn't make much difference. The existence of the internet connection just fundamentally changes the game (pun very much intended). It gives the suits a seat right next to you in your living room, hounding you with paid extras, loot crates, and cool new costumes after every load screen. The logic of capitalism makes it hard for companies to ignore that.

All I can do is be more discerning as I get older and play fewer games anyway. I can't help but imagine how much worse things can get as a new generation grows up playing games with no memory of how things used to be. Maybe it's better that way. No nostalgia to ruin their fun.