Should "Always On" Be Turned Off?

Should "Always On" Be Turned Off?

Digital Rights Management systems have had a long and storied history with mass media. From Sony’s rootkit debacle to the unfairness of locking music behind a single account, people have been forced into an odd separation with content they purchased all in the name of copyright and piracy prevention. Since the launch of iTunes, we’ve pretty much grown to live with DRM despite our grumbling and cries for content to be free. However, when DRM reared its head within the video game industry, things got heated. While there are methods of circumventing DRM for music and movies (not that I would know anything about that), doing so for video games isn’t so easy. While DRM is intended to curb video game piracy, or used sales for that matter, problems arise when those protections fail and block legitimate customers behind server errors and outages making play difficult for those who didn’t pirate the software.

The form of DRM that gamers are most familiar with is the “always on” variety in which a game, typically single player, requires a constant Internet connection in order to ensure the version of that game is legitimate. An example of this concept is Steam, Valve’s digital distribution store. Steam requires a customer to be connected to the Internet in order to download and play games. However, the platform offers an an Offline Mode in the event the user is unable to connect online. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the much maligned Games For Windows system represents the worst way to handle DRM through a digital distribution platform. I’ve run into so many issues trying to run and update games that I actively avoid PC titles with the Games For Windows logo. To see just how arduous GFW can be, check out what was needed to get Grand Theft Auto IV up and running.

The cry for getting rid of DRM began last year when Ubisoft announced to the glee of PC gamers that its maligned Always On system would be done away with. In an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Stephanie Perotti (Ubisoft’s worldwide director for online games) said, “we have listened to feedback, and since June last year our policy for all of PC games is that we only require a one-time online activation when you first install the game, and from then you are free to play the game offline.” A noble gesture considering the criticism levied against the publisher over Assassin’s Creed 2’s Always On DRM. Players found that if their Internet connection cut out before reaching a checkpoint, their progress would be lost. This flaw was made apparent after Ubisoft servers were hit by a DOS attack. Always On DRM may have been designed to halt piracy but when it begins to affect legitimate customers, unlocked pirated versions of the game hold a much greater appeal.

The concept of Always On expands beyond tactics to combat piracy. By incorporating online features in single player games, developers intended to create a new layer to gameplay by  encouraging players to work together both cooperatively and competitively. All that sounds wonderful on paper, yet Blizzard and Electronic Arts faced intense scrutiny from players and press over their significant failures to launch. In 2012, the gaming world waited with baited breath for the glorious return of the Diablo franchise. Fans were excited despite rumblings that an online connection would be required for particular features and as a means to curb cheating and piracy. On the day of the game’s release, many who had taken a day off from work or school found themselves locked out, their game screens showing the infamous Error 37 code (“The servers are busy at this time. Please try again later.”). Blizzard scrambled to add servers and get people in, but the damage had already been done with much grinding and gnashing of teeth.

History repeated itself with the release of a new SimCity game. Historically a single player experience, 2013’s SimCity implemented a system that would allow players to work together by exporting surplus utilities and construct a Great Work for their region. These features were not optional and required a constant online connection was needed. The game’s launch proved to be a disaster on the same level as Diablo III. During the first week, players just couldn’t get online without having to wait in a queue or get kicked out of play sessions. In an attempt to deal with the server issues, Maxis released a patch that removed “nonessential” game features that included capping the game’s speed and leaderboards. It sounds rather unfathomable: to get an online multiplayer game working, multiplayer elements had to be taken out. It is worth pointing out that a fair number of gaming journalists did not publish scored reviews of SimCity because they had played the game under the most perfect conditions. Polygon’s review (and subsequent updates) of the game will live on as a piece of history Maxis and EA probably would like to forget.

Simply put, Always On DRM - any DRM - is bad for the consumer. Gamers should have a right to expect that the software they pay for will work on launch day. When they don’t, publishers will find ways to appease an angry consumer base through free software or additional content. However, could it be that DRM as we know it is on its way out? Ubisoft decided to drop their and EA Labels president Frank Gibeau believes “it is a failed dead-end strategy; it's not a viable strategy for the gaming business.”

With the Internet playing a larger role in how games are played and distributed, the recent DRM troubles casts a shadow on the upcoming cycle of new consoles. At the time of this writing, Microsoft has yet to reveal how its upcoming successor to the Xbox 360 will operate, a fact that drew widespread concern after Adam Orth, the now former Creative Director from Microsoft Studios, mocked the criticisms against Always On consoles in a very public and very inappropriate Twitter argument with Bioware’s Manveer Heir (Heir would go on to suggest that the exchange was nothing more than banter between friends). Orth’s flippant attitude towards rural communities with unreliable Internet connections led to speculation that the new Xbox will indeed require a constant connection. It certainly didn’t help that Microsoft HQ was rather quiet about the whole affair which, naturally, fanned the fires of Internet outrage. Microsoft has a plan for their new Xbox and when it comes time to reveal the machine for what it really is, they will be doing so in front of a cynical crowd. On the other hand, should the company show a box that comes out looking better than the PlayStation 4’s positive reception, I’m sure all will be forgiven. Gamers are a fickle bunch.

If Always On is the next step for video games, it goes without saying that the technology must be ready for it. Although there have been positive strides, I still feel like the industry is putting its toes into the water. SimCity and Diablo III certainly suggests that they are not quite ready to relegate gameplay data to servers without the online experience ruining the gameplay experience. Should game developers (and console developers for that matter) be required to offer some sort of launch day guarantee? During the SimCity mess, a good number of people (including myself) sought refunds because the game was nigh unplayable during its first week. Can you imagine what the backlash would be like if a Modern Warfare game broke down the same way as Diablo III? There’d be rioting in the streets! Who is held accountable when games don’t work? As nice as the gesture is, one can’t expect to calm the angered and masses by handing out free games. What paying customers want to know is, “Will the game I bought run on launch day?” That’s not a wholly unreasonable question, is it?

Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.