Sometimes, connectedness isn’t the answer: Why we need offline gaming

July 8, 2013

Game developers are set on the notion that always-connected gaming is the trend of the future, but core gamers are having none of it. The ability to play games offline and avoid having to connect to a verified server is something that gamers will continue to fight to protect, because always-online gaming comes with a lot of trouble that could prevent a large portion of the audience from having any fun.

Rumors have been flying that Electronic Arts is currently mulling over an expansion pack that will allow users to develop cities in an offline mode — a huge piece of news considering the major backlash the game experienced after server problems made the game unplayable for a large portion of the audience. While the game’s always-online policy was designed as a way to prevent piracy and promote social interaction between players, frequently overloaded servers kicked users off, made some features unusable and would often eliminate save data wholesale after freezing on a player.

The always-on nature of our modern web-connected lives has brought so many amazing apps, services and companies that we couldn’t imagine living without. But Sim City is really one of the latest examples of why everyone needs the option of offline gaming. No exceptions, no concessions; offline gaming is essential for games that aren’t specifically tied to a massively multiplayer online experience — particularly for these key reasons.

Gamers demand uninterrupted play: This is deceptively simple, but gamers don’t want to wait to play the games that they’ve bought, and they definitely don’t want to be forced to reload it after a server error. Uninterrupted gameplay is the reason why people love games — to be immersed in a world that allows them to complete exotic objectives and play roles that exceed their own powers.

Online games require a connection to a server that can become incredibly tenuous when a bunch of players are on at once, and not all gamers can afford to access the types of fiber broadband services that we often write about. Even if developers had the bandwidth to meet the overwhelming demand of their high-end titles, the slightest risk of a frozen game, losing data or just having to wait will be too much for most people to handle day-to-day.

Everyone has a right to be anti-social: Single-player games exist because they allow players to get lost in their own private worlds. There’s no possibility of forced interaction with strangers or even “friends” — and there’s less distraction from enjoying a game at a steady pace.

Gamers love to be social, but they also want the choice to be anti-social. That’s why multiplayer servers exist in games alongside single-player campaigns. Also, no one wants to hear from a troll or a sore loser — neither of which are avoidable in multiplayer scenarios. Games that could be enjoyed without an online component shouldn’t force one just for the sake of connectivity.

Extra hurdles in the name of DRM will not fly: Whether it’s single player or multiplayer, always-online gaming is seen is an unnecessary hurdles for gamers to go through in the name of preventing piracy. This isn’t only a subjective preference, but also one that has been met with backlash. The DRM issue sent Electronic Arts back to the drawing board with Sim City, influenced Microsoft to drop always-on in the Xbox, and forced UbiSoft to give up the method on its PC collection.

Gamers react so strongly to this particular point for one simple reason: the internet is required to play a game even when it is not crucial to gameplay mechanics. A game like Sim City, for example, does not need the internet to be enjoyed — users have been building cities in previous versions of the franchise for more than twenty years. By Requiring gamers to log into a server, developers create an unnecessary frustrating step that alienates a large percentage of users who paid for the game legitimately in order to catch a small percentage of people who try to download the game illegally — sacrificing the experience of the many for the punishment of the few.

Gamers want to own games forever: Always-online games require a devoted server or cloud system in perpetuity. Because they are structured to accept a finite verification string by these servers, the game will not run without them. What happens when a much-loved game, which reaps rewards that come with hours of play, gets shut down by a developer forever?

Gamers love their games, and they don’t want to have to worry about a day they can’t play them anymore. Always-online strips a sense of ownership from a gamer, potentially placing an invisible timer on the playability of a game. Right now, if the proper equipment is close at hand, a classic gamer can fire up a copy of the original Space Invaders and play as long as he or she wants. But always-online practices put gamers at the mercy of the discretion of developers and distributors, and it’s genuinely scary.

Players don’t trust developers to do the right thing and let games live when they begin to “take up space.” And as such, they will never trust always-on.

(c) 2013, GigaOM.com.

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