A couple of days back I had some trouble with my internet: it suddenly cut out inexplicably. It turned out in the middle of switching providers our previous provider had shut us off before we'd even had a chance to switch over, and thus no internet ensued. The whole thing only lasted a few days and wasn't really that big of a deal, but it made me think about how much we rely on the internet to game - and indeed how much of that reliance is based on the optimistic assumption that it'll just be there when we want it.
What bugged me most about losing my internet connection wasn't so much that I couldn't play some of my games, but that I really couldn't play any of the games I normally played, many of which were singleplayer, and really had no need for online access.
My lack of internet meant I couldn't play any of my Steam games or multiplayer games (which is most of my PC games); luckily though I do own a lot of console games and a few non-steam old-school PC games which I can boot up on a rainy (no-internet) day; and also apparently some guy invented these things called 'books' recently, so I guess I could have read one of those too.
I'd tried going into 'offline' mode in Steam before, on days when the internet was having teething troubles and generally hadn't found it that useful, but never really thought much of it till the other day – actually I think my only real experiences of using offline mode properly are from back in the dark old days when Steam first became a thing (I vaguely, vaguely, remember playing Half-Life 2 offline a few times) so it came as something of a shock to me that I couldn't even go offline to play my games.
What struck as especially stupid about offline mode's inaccessibility was that apparently I needed to have an internet connection to go into offline mode, when I had presumed the whole point of offline mode was to cope with downtime or loss of connection - why else would I need to use an 'offline' mode if not because my internet connection has failed or is unavailable, and if my internet connection has failed (something you don't usually schedule) how do I login online to go offline...?
Sadly Steam seems to be one of the better online platforms in this respect, Origin doesn't even consider the possibility of you ever having a connection problem – the login screen just prompts you to check your network connection in a sort of condescending tone, as if not being able to connect to Origin is the first you'd notice a failed connection.
The doubly sad thing is platforms like these are on the better side of the DRM argument, some games just go overboard for no apparent reason with DRM. Ubisoft's From Dust, for example, bought through Steam, which I guess requires you to authenticate? (Have we discussed this already?), then asks you to create a login through Ubisoft's proprietary DRM system, through which you have to login each time you play the game.
Now, I understand why they put these systems in, there's a lot of piracy about and publishers and developers want to protect their interests, but there has to be some sort of realistic cost vs. benefit analysis of these systems. What value can a game have if you pay full retail price for it but have to wait for things to be ok with the service provider just to be able to play the thing, even in singleplayer? Is it a fair price to pay for the games we play or are we the ones losing out when we pay full-price for something which can be bricked at a moment's notice?
The sad thing is the DRM doesn't always work either - even with From Dust's always on DRM and Steam security it didn't stop the game from releasing after
DRM-free pirated versions of the game were available, and sadly probably encouraged more people to pirate it because of it's restrictive DRM.
While Steam is nowhere near the worst in terms of restrictive DRM the fact your entire games collection can be made completely inaccessible at a moment's notice does lead one to question the worth of what you've spent your hard-earned money on, and whether we've just traded in something of value for a collection of shiny baubles - albeit particularly shiny baubles.
It also creates something of a disjoin between the aspirational desire of digital authentication services and platforms like Steam or Origin and the actual reality of the situation: they want to push us towards having to authenticate online, they want us to have
to use their platforms so they can check we're online, but the reality is we can't always be
online and that devalues the thing we paid for.
When Steam first launched the idea of a service that demanded you go online to authenticate each time you play was pretty laughable, internet speeds and connectivity weren't anywhere near as high as they are today, so obviously an 'offline' mode seemed an adequate compromise; but even today internet connectivity isn't that much better – people in rural or hard to reach areas still face the challenge of either limited connectivity, possibility of failure of service or just generally mediocre speeds.
I understand why this sort of authentication/DRM system has become increasingly popular with publishers - it's because just as the internet has allowed for the easy flow of information and for us to access and purchase games more easily – and digitally for that matter, it's also meant piracy has become a much bigger problem. Once videogame piracy was something that involved physical copies of a game, and potentially hardware/machinery to copy the information over to blank discs/cartridges, so it was usually something small-scale and traceable, the arrival of digital downloads and easy access internet has changed all that and made piracy a lot easier (and a lot more convenient for that matter.)
I also get that for much the same price as we've been paying for a decade or so (give or take that prices have shifted a bit) we're getting a lot more for our money in terms of game quality these days than we used to – we've gone from a games industry dominated by small groups of people working in cramped offices to companies with hundreds of people working on a game at any one time, and as gamers we've benefited greatly from those changes as games have improved.
The question is though, at what price? Aren't we inadvertently trading in our rights to the 'thing' we buy when we purchase a videogame, when we let changes to our rights like this, slip by? Shouldn't publishers be more upfront about the way our rights to the 'thing' we buy when we buy a videogame have changed over the years, and are changing?
When we buy a game on any of the platforms what do we expect from it? Do we think of it as a sort of one-payment 'subscription service' that we're buying into or do we feel we own that game, the box, the disc, the digital information stored on that disc, and that it's our right to play it when we want or do with it as we like?
Pre the digital revolution and the rise of the internet (or about a generation ago in console terms) videogames very much fell into the camp of consumer goods, much like a toaster or a book or a DVD, a videogame was a thing, a physical object, that you bought and then used through your gaming system. True, even last generation (and the generation before for that matter) there were people who poked around on a disc and fiddled with stuff or shared it on the internet but for the most part a game was an everything in one package, that you paid for and then it was yours. Much like with a book or a DVD.
Obviously with games though it's not quite as simple as that, a game is a piece of software, so in effect what you are getting is more than the sum of it's parts – you get a disc, with a collection of data on it, sure, but if you just looked at the disc and opened the manual out there's nothing really there of value, blank discs are cheap to buy, and pamphlets are sold for pennies. The game is more than that, it exists only when the right hardware interprets it and creates an image on your screen for you to interact with through your input device, and it's only then that it becomes worth it's retail price and 'entertainment' – though I guess flipping game discs at your neighbour's cats can be quite fun too : /
Games fit into their own category in terms of consumer goods in that sense, they're entertainment, they can be physical goods but not necessarily, and you need particular hardware/software to be able to interpret and play them properly otherwise they're just a collection of non-descript data files. Games, much like with a movie or a piece of music only gain their true value/worth when they're interpreted properly (ie, played on a piece of machinery that knows what to do with them), if you examined the individual pieces – the frames of the film, the audio, etc, individually they're obviously something but they lack the value that the sum of the parts have together.
This means we're reliant to some extent on the hardware/software providers to deliver the thing we've paid for - so whereas books and DVDs can't really be controlled as easily (since there are usually many, many different ways to access them, most of which can't be properly regulated) games can, for the most part: Think about it, apart from PC gaming and the big consoles who else makes their own games platform? And what's the likelihood of anybody entering the market with their own platform?
Yeah, it's unlikely.
What we're left with, and indeed what we seemed to be moving towards then, is a more subscription-style service; whereas before we bought a game and then were pretty much left to ourselves by publishers and developers (atleast until they had something new they wanted us to buy), buying a game now is becoming more and more like a contract, a long-time service with a one-off payment, but a service which publishers can renege on whenever they like and keep from us if they so want to (like in the case of not having an internet connection.)
But doesn't that change how we should view games? If a game is no longer going to be a thing like a CD or a DVD, that you can slip into a piece of hardware and just use then shouldn't we re-evaluate how much we think these games are worth?
Whatever we decide one thing's for sure: Games are changing as a medium of entertainment, and if we're not careful they may change before we've even had a chance to make our input into the debate.