Suicide on Demand (part two)

Suicide On-Demand
Why I Hope Charles Onyett Is Wrong (part two)

Recently, Charles Onyett over on IGN gave up the swan song for disc-based gaming, wherein he implied that A, the industry will soon be following the casual gaming model of pricing and distribution and that B, this is a good thing. Eventually he concluded that the best solution for the gaming industry will be a move to download-only delivery. I have a lot to say about both topics, so to keep it simple I’m splitting them up into two articles. This is part two, and I’ll concentrate on the dangers of a purely digital future.

What bothered me most about Onyett’s article was a single sentence: “Used games wouldn’t be an issue at all if the entire industry was download-only.”

Before addressing the massive problem I have with a download-only gaming (or any) industry, I’d like to point out one big problem with Onyett’s praise of the PC market: it’s PC-centric. As I write this review on my MacBook Pro, I must reflect on the irony of the fact that almost all of the decent games available for direct download on the Internet — on Steam, for example — will not play on my computer. Keep that in mind and the illusion that computer gaming has conquered the “which console” debate will fade like the fantasy it is. That in between all the PC praising are constant references to an Apple service is an irony I hope isn’t lost on readers. If I’m using the App store on its native OS, I won’t be playing, say, Battlefield anytime soon. (Consider this a preemptive “don’t be an ass” to anyone who tries to rebut me with the words “boot camp,” as that requires me to still go ahead and buy a Windows license and defeats the purpose of hailing downloadable games as egalitarian).

Earlier I mentioned that the real reason the PC gaming market is struggling is due to those three wonderful words “digital rights management.” Recently publishers like Ubisoft have made headlines (accompanied by irate articles) for their decision to continue to push unpopular anti-piracy measures in their games in such a way as to render them extremely frustrating for PC gamers. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard some PC gamer seriously consider pirating an upcoming title simply on the basis that legitimately purchasing the game may result in sixty bucks spent on a game they are stupidly locked out of by a glitch with DRM permissions. Add to the existent problems the new ones — swear words like “always-on” which make even single-player games useless if you don’t happen to have an Internet connection at all times — and there really isn’t any surprise that some people are getting sick of being treated like criminals by the people they’re shelling out hard-earned cash to.

I’ve often quipped (not originally, of course) that anti-piracy warnings on DVDs are silly because the only people who see them are those who have not pirated the movies. That’s basically the way I feel about most anti-piracy measures in gaming; at best, they are inconvenient — at worst, they treat law-abiding customers like thieves and generate a great deal of ill will.

As a rule, I refuse to buy used games. I have on numerous occasions referred to GameStop as a den of thieves, not merely because they profit off the work of others but because they are so relentless in their attempts to do so. Over the course of an average purchase, I am asked no fewer than three times whether I’m sure I wouldn’t rather buy a used copy for (usually only five dollars) cheaper. I have several times actually argued with the clerk and pointed out that in this economy especially, those who create the games deserve to make money off of them; not glorified pawn shops. So I appreciate what companies like EA are trying to do with “Online Pass.” Disincentivizing  used games by ramping up the perquisites of new purchases is a marvelous concept; only in execution, the glow of the concept wears off.

I found this out firsthand when my brother and I, as we’ve done for years, decided to split the pre-order cost for our copy of Alan Wake. I was still waging my way through Final Fantasy XIII so I let him go ahead and play first. At some point, he went ahead and used the token that had come with the game to unlock free access to the first DLC episode of. Later, when I also went to use the code, it (unsurprisingly) didn’t work. If I wanted to play the DLC, I’d have to pay ten bucks. Should’ve bought the game new if you wanted that for free.

Except, technically, I did.

As a single adult male, I recognize that it’s no longer reasonable for me to be splitting the cost of things with my brother as we no longer live together. But for all our childhood, that was the norm: we split the cost of the game, and then we share it. I imagine that’s how it is for everyone else, too: the wealthy notwithstanding, most homes don’t have a console-per-kid setup, or the kind of budget that would encourage each kid having his or her own copy of every game they all want to play. Likewise, as early gaming generations have grown, dated, and married, I don’t imagine too many gamer couples have considered buying a his and hers copy of each new release.

But that’s precisely where the industry is headed. In the case of Alan Wake DLC, I wasn’t too sore; after all, I still had the whole game at my disposal. But what about Online Pass? If two siblings split the cost of the new SSX game, will one of them really be expected to pony up another ten or twenty bucks just so they can each play against their friends online? Or is it just understood that multiplayer games will now cost ten dollars more per player in the house: if you’ve got four gaming kids, expect to pay 100 bucks for everyone to have the same experience.

The problem, of course, is that under a system like the one we’re now pursuing, families and couples are treated like the dirty opportunist thieves the gaming industry sees in every used-game-purchasing, torrent-pirating player they’re trying to combat. Right now, it’s just extra content or multiplayer modes that are considered “perks” of buying new; if we enter the download-only paradise that Onyett recommends, it’ll be the whole game, and suddenly that four-kid household is looking at $250 for everyone to be a gamer. And I don’t know about you, but if gaming had been that costly in my house when I was growing up, I’d never have become a gamer.

Families and friends are the basis of gaming — perhaps even moreso now that social and casual games are becoming such powerhouses. When the industry’s defense mechanism begins to attack its own lifeblood, I have to wonder whether we’re truly moving in an enviable direction. Some see the move towards on-demand, individualized gaming as a beacon of hope in a bright, game-filled future. But me? I see suicide.