The Unrelenting March Toward Always-Online

A week after E3 2013, gamers celebrated what they considered a decisive victory, as Microsoft dropped its much-maligned always online plans for the Xbox One. The policy reversal, along with Sony’s chest-beating embrace of offline support for the PlayStation 4, assured gamers that they could look forward to another generation of playing games when and how they wanted to. However, the recent and prolonged network outages for both systems during the holidays have placed the consumer-driven triumph in its proper albeit depressing context; gamers may have won the opening battle against always-online, but we’re losing the war.

To give credit where credit is due, Microsoft and Sony both responded to the impassioned (and at times invective) pleas of gamers and have stayed true to their word: The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, once properly updated, are capable of playing games offline. That hasn’t stopped publishers from finding a new, more appeasable way of skinning the proverbial cat, however. Now, many publishers have their own cross-game online service, and they all come bearing gifts. Official game websites chronicle your exploits with a cornucopia of stats. Jumping through registration hoops rewards you with exclusive in-game goodies. Mobile apps keep you connected to your games even when you’re not playing them. Make no mistake, these freebies do have a price: They’ve been inching us toward the always online playing field gamers have been resisting.

The end of 2014 served as a serious wake-up call. During the holidays, both Microsoft and Sony suffered DDoS attacks that crippled their online services for days, rendering online-only games like Destiny completely unplayable during the outage. However, a surprising number of single-player and (supposedly) offline games were affected as well. Games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and Far Cry 4 start by logging in to EA and Ubisoft’s respective servers, a superfluous yet somehow mandatory step even if you’re playing the game solo. There are no in-game options to cancel or skip the sign-in process, and no indication that the games will eventually start up offline after the defunct servers time out. Some gamers discovered that this lengthy wait could be bypassed by manually unplugging your console from the Internet, but that information is never conveyed to the consumer, and the ambiguity of the situation is a little disconcerting; despite being predominantly single-player experiences, games like Inquisition and Far Cry 4 are built to be played online, and little care is paid to what happens when you don’t have a connection to the publishers’ services. Did EA and Ubisoft seriously never consider the possibility that their servers or the larger networks their games depend upon might go down at some point?

This slow (and some might say sly) creep of online dependency is already leaving people behind. Rarely does a month go by when we don’t receive letters from readers opining the state of gaming in rural areas where high-speed Internet isn’t available. There are no good answers for these unlucky players; this generation of games is simply going to be less fun and, thanks to the increased reliance on post-release patches, increasingly broken without access to the online world. But this holiday season’s outages proved you don’t have to live in the boonies to be affected, and gave many an empathetic glimpse into the lives of unplugged players. Without the ability to download mandatory system updates, countless gamers opened up shiny new nonfunctioning consoles on Christmas morning a colossal disappointment that might just make you wonder if you were actually on Santa’s naughty list.

For those who are connected, accepting our increasingly always-online world would be a more palatable proposition if its biggest proponents weren’t so damned inept at delivering on their vision. Despite 2011’s 23-day service outage and the fact that Sony now charges consumers for online play, the company’s PlayStation Network is still painfully vulnerable to outside attacks. Xbox Live which Microsoft has always charged consumers for didn’t fare any better during the holidays, and both companies were slow to provide updates to their consumers or explain what was happening behind the scenes (the full story of which we’ll likely never hear).

Above and beyond Sony and Microsoft’s continued and embarrassing inability to stop mischievous hackers from bringing down their online services for lulz, 2014 was plagued by facepalm-worthy server problems. Even some of the biggest and most established series like Halo and World of Warcraft couldn’t get things right. If this is the future publishers are trying to sell us on, is it any wonder that gamers aren’t buying it?

The unrelenting march towards always-online gaming isn’t going to stop. As a global community, we are becoming more connected, and more dependent on our connections. Video games are on the front line of our ever-advancing technology, as they should be; part of what makes gaming so exciting is the breakneck speed at which our experiences continue to improve and evolve. I’m glad game companies have realized they can attract more flies with honey than vinegar, but I’d like to suggest a few more ingredients to entice begrudging gamers with as we head toward our inevitable always-online future: transparency, reliability, and a better back-up plan for playing our games the next time we find ourselves unexpectedly unplugged.

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