Saturday, August 6, 2011

Troubling Trends: Signs of the Decline of Gaming
By James "Caffeine Rage" McKinley

It's amazing just how much games have changed and evolved in my lifetime. I've seen the rise and fall of gaming empires, the progression of graphics from 2D to 3D, and the rise of online play, among many other things. But, for all the advancements that I have witnessed, I've recently noticed some rather disturbing trends in the modern gaming industry. Trends that we cannot allow to continue; that we must respond to before they grow out of control.

The most dire of these trends is the rise of overly restrictive digital rights management (DRM). For PC gamers, DRM is simply a fact of life. It has been around ever since publishers realized just how easy it is for a PC to copy an unprotected game. But the lengths which consumers have to go to today just to play the games that they rightfully bought is wholly unbelievable. Requiring a player to always be connected to a server for a single player game is unnecessary and causes far more trouble for the legitimate users than it ever does for pirates. Also, having to worry about uninstalling games when I go to reformat, so I don't lose my game activations, is uncalled for.
Just slip these on, swallow the GPS homing beacon, and connect to the server; then you can finally start playing your game.
I don't know about you, but I don't like being watched as if I were a thief, waiting for the publisher to blink so I can make ten thousand copies of their game. If I buy a game, I want to play it. I don't get games so they can look pretty on my shelf or in my Steam library. I don't want to worry if my connection goes down while I'm playing a single player game. I don't like counting the number of times I installed a game and hoping I remembered to unauthenticate all my games, lest I lose one of my installs which leaves me begging to customer support, if they still even support that game. It is amazing that anyone would want to put up with this, let alone defend the companies who put such restrictions on their customers.

Of course, if DRM was my only issue it would be a rather short rant. My next three major issues are closely intertwined, to the point that each one is now feeding the others: cutting content from a completed game for sale as down-loadable content (DLC) and the increasing abundance of overpriced and content-lacking DLC. I see both of these are major issues because they are cash grabs by the developers to raise more money per copy of a game sold, without doing the necessary work to develop new content.
Ever have a feeling that there is a piece missing?
Overpriced DLC is always very tricky to talk about because of how subjective the term "overpriced" can be. For some, any price is too much. Meanwhile, there are many players who have no qualms about paying fifteen dollars for four mulitplayer maps. It is completely subjective. While I cannot set in stone a price scale for DLC because of this subjectivity, I do implore gamers to examine the DLC that they are buying more closely. Don't just grab it and think nothing of it. Look at the value more closely and consider it. Does the developer really deserve a reward for developing this DLC?

Of course, if the DLC has little meaningful content or is completely content-less, the answer should be clear. But, what do I mean by content-less DLC? There are two types which I consider belonging in this category. Shortcut DLC, which is normally confined to racing games, which unlocks content that the player would unlock over the natural progression of the game (see Burnout: Paradise). Being able to pay a few dollars and unlock the top cars in the game without playing anything else is rather sad. In years past, this would have been the realm of cheat codes. Press a button combination and you suddenly have all the cars or a ton of money. But now, players have to pay real life money for the exactly the same result. As bad as this is, it isn't this type DLC that really drives me off the deep end.
I know that I bought something, but what?
On disk DLC is what dives me nuts. The simple fact that the DLC was completed so far in advance, that it could be included on the disk, yet is being sold is insane. These disks aren't conjured by a wizard overnight. They have to be pressed weeks, if not months, in advance of the launch date in order to have the number of copies required to do a proper launch. In my opinion, if you buy a game disk you should have the right to play everything on that disk. There shouldn't be a section of it in which you have to pay extra in order to access after you bought the disk in the first place. Any DLC which you buy and is only a couple KB is very likely one of these content-less DLCs, which shouldn't be sold in the first place.

This brings me to cutting content for DLC. This practice isn't as uncommon as you may think; in some it is simply less transparent. Over the course of creating a game, there will be some features or ideas that either don't fit in or won't have the time to be developed fully. I have no issues with developers going back to partly completed or half-baked ideas, which didn't have enough time or weren't developed enough during the creation of the game, for ideas and content for DLC. It was never finished and now is the perfect time to finish it and make a bit more money from it.

But, cutting completed content is something else entirely. Pulling content out of a game, which was ready for the game's launch, to sell for five or ten bucks is a disgusting practice which shouldn't be supported. But, there is one issue; it's sometimes hard to tell what was or wasn't cut during production for sale. Was that zero-day (launch day) DLC cut from the game for sale or was it just developed alongside the game? Sadly, the only way you can really tell for sure is to look for the hooks in the game itself. Are there dead ends in the game which just happens to lead into where a DLC would take place? Does someone say comeback later for another job, only to never have that job for you? Maybe that DLC that the developer is selling is that job, cut from the original game. Start looking for these things in your favorite games, which have DLC of course, and you may just be surprised how many of them have holes where content was cut, only to be sold to you later.

Which, speaking of cutting things, brings me to my last concern. It greatly worries me just how so many developers are turning their backs on the modding communities that were supported their previous titles; communities which made great mods and extended the lifetime of a game by years. Modding is one of the great strengths of PC gaming. With mods, a game's content can remain fresh for players by adding new content and features for players to enjoy. This boon isn't just for players; developers and publishers enjoy sales far longer on PC than they do on consoles because many gamers want to experience some of the amazing mods which a game's community produces.
Wait. What do you mean that, “I'm not allowed to do that”?
So, why would publishers and developers not want mod communities backing their games? There are many reasons. Greed for one: mods can cut into the sales of DLC. Why pay for extra content when you can play a mod which offers something similar for free? As developers move to more DLC-based models, some of them look to the modding community as a possible enemy. So, they either limit their modding tools or refuse to publish them entirely. Another reason that they may not want mods in their games is simply arrogance. They see their game as perfect the way it is and anyone mucking about with it only detracts from that perfection. They see modders as nothing more than amateurs who couldn't hope to produce something worthy of their game. Which, is of course, very wrong. Modding, apart from creating a full game, is one of the way budding programers and artists cut their teeth in game creation. There are mods which rival full games in both scale as well as quality. Finally, there is ignorance. They simply don't understand how important modding is to their game. As amazing as it may sound, there are some publishers who simply do not value the modding community. They see modding as insignificant to the long-term sales and growth of their game's community. As a result, they demand that support for it be dropped in favor of spending time in other places. They simply don't understand the impact that a thriving modding community has on long-term sales.

All of these issues, in their most basic form, comes down to controlling the player in one form or another: saying where they can and cannot play, what they can and cannot access in their game, and what they can or cannot modify in their game. It is coming to the time where we have to make some hard choices. Choices, which can affect the industry for a very long time. We need to show developers and publishers that we do not like these practices. That we, as their customer base, have the right to say “no” and go elsewhere for our entertainment. The gaming industry is a large place. There are many other games to play, we don't have to put up with these things. It is time to vote with the one thing that developers and publishers want from us, our money. If you agree with me on any of these troubling trends, do not buy the games which cause them. Tell these companies which do these things what you think of their DRM, their DLC practices, cutting content and features to sell later. Let them know that we will no longer just take it; that we are ready to fight back.