It’s been a confusing week of ups and downs; I tried to buy Diablo III twice, only to have problems with the currency I wanted to use relative to my location (I thought money was money, but apparently not…), I downloaded Sonic 4 Episode 2 only to be bitterly disappointed with everything but the special stages and I finally got round to playing the first episode of The Walking Dead. At night. In the dark. In a thunderstorm. If you want an atmosphere to turn your belly yellow and your legs to jelly, that’s the one. At one point it crossed my mind that Amnesia: The Dark Descent might be vastly improved (from scary to absolutely terrifying), but I remembered that deep down I’m afraid to go anywhere near that game ever again.
Anyway, it occurred to me as I sat back and watched the credits roll that these three games are all very different experiences, but that I expected each one of them to satisfy me in a similar way; I expected them all to scratch that itch that can only be satisfied by a great gaming experience. Now I don’t want to spend the whole article complaining about Diablo III’s launch and the fact that even for the people whose money was deemed good enough by Blizzard, there have been a lot of issues, but I do want to talk about three things that are doing no good for the industry we love. Anti-piracy measures, an unwillingness to move on and technical issues. What I want to discuss is sort of circular, but I am going to split it up over a small series of articles so I don’t destroy your eyes with too much awesome in one go.
Let’s begin with Blizzard and the rocky launch Diablo III experienced. They should really have anticipated some of these problems. I mean, if only they had a digital distribution platform and some way to know just how many people pre-ordered the game and were going to try and play it in the first week of release… If only… And then there’s the DRM! If I want to play Diablo III (which I can’t) as a single-player game, I still have to be connected to the internet. For people living in civilised locations where the internet comes in 50Mbps chunks and the grass is green, that’s great, but for people with slower connections or, heaven forbid, intermittent ones, then this is a real problem.
Games should be an expansive medium that allow anyone with a computer that meets the requirements to enjoy them, not pile on extra encumbrances claiming they make it better for everyone. The fact is, people who pirate the game don’t have to put up with annoying digital rights rubbish; they just fire up a game and play it. I’ve always had the same problem with buying a film and then being forced to sit through a bunch of anti-piracy campaigning telling me not to be naughty. My reward for being honest is getting harangued by someone who thought that pirated DVDs would ever include such a thing and make the buyers feel a little guilty. All it does is annoy me and make me wonder whose clever idea it was to include it in the first place. And now the same thing has crept into videogames.
I understand that piracy can be a problem with games, but at the rate we’re going, the measures taken against piracy are going to start alienating gamers in droves. For adults with children wanting to play games, the situation is complicated enough simply knowing what console to pick, but factor in the number of codes and bits of fiddling we have to go to so we can enjoy the game we just put into the console and it becomes something that’s not worth the effort or the hassle. Think back to just a few years ago when you bought a game, put it in the console and played it straight away. No online passes, no account registrations or software activation, no downloadable pre-order reward content and no time-consuming updates the day a game is released.
Those really were the days in terms of games being accessible and easy to play. The only console that still does that is Nintendo’s Wii; whenever I put a game in my Wii, old or new, I know for a fact it won’t waste my time in any way, yet I am still pleasantly surprised each time the game just loads and I can play it. Compare this to the, relatively-speaking, angst-ridden experience of trying to play a game on a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox 360 and it is obvious that the whole experience is a slower and more frustrating way to enjoy videogames. How aggravating it is, then, to be shackled to these cumbersome consoles in order to play the latest games in high definition. The Wii is not always a convenient other option for many games because the titles that are Sony and Microsoft’s bread and butter are often nowhere to be found on the Wii.
Let’s think a bit more about those gamers (and parents of gamers) who are not so well informed about the medium and who are confronted with an almost impenetrable wall of jargon, subscriptions and online passes. A well-meaning parent might buy their child a game as a gift, maybe a Need for Speed title, only to discover once they get home thinking their child will be able to join up with his friend, who also has the game, online. Only before being able to play online the game needs an injection of $10 or $15 more, on top of the price of the game, because the parent bought the game second-hand. That’s madness. Publishers are expecting second-hand consumers to pay twice to access the whole game and the well-meaning parent in this example has to either disappoint the child by saying no to buying an online pass, or shell out even more money leaving a sour taste in the back of their mouth when it was a gift meant to bring joy.
The eventual and very possible result of this is that games alienate many of the people who buy games peripherally or without having a full and well-rounded knowledge of what exactly they are getting in the box and what might be inaccessible from the first. That means that spending a lot of time and money trying to get back some of the money ‘lost’ on used sales will have cost far more in terms of sales over time and goodwill from those making purchases. And the same thing goes for DRM and other such anti-piracy measures on PC games; there will come a point where publishers have made gaming so unpleasantly difficult that people will just give up doing it right and either stop buying altogether or turn to the very methods of obtaining games illegally that the publishers were trying to prevent in the first place.
It’s a strange world we live in, but I am baffled by this insistence on making the experience more difficult for gamers who do it properly. Between spending huge amounts of money on proprietary memory cards for the PlayStation Vita, working around an online pass system that will be denying single-player content in all games before long, and trying not to put my fist through the monitor as Steam tries to run an update in offline mode instead of letting me play Alan Wake, I sometimes wonder why I bother at all. I should just throw it all out, dig out my SEGA Mega Drive and just be content with that. Those games had none of these problems and were still fun to play.
Of course, that may also be the reason why developers and publishers are so unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie and insist instead on clinging to the same characters and the same game series year after year (after year etc.). But that’s going to be a topic for next week. In the meantime I might go and see if Sonic 4 Episode 2 really is the polished turd it looks like after the first few levels…
Video games were a part of Chris's life from the Mega Drive onwards. He has many happy gaming memories, including the first time he collected all the chaos emeralds in Sonic 2, collecting all SSBM's trophies (yes, all of them) and, more recently, collecting far too many platinum trophies on his PlayStation 3. In the real world, he has a degree in French and is currently living in Frankfurt, Germany. Follow him on Twitter @DPrime_Chris
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