“Always online” is something we’re becoming increasingly familiar with as more and more games remove single player options from their offered experience. On the surface it’s a sensible step. Games with a multiplayer focus can scrap underplayed single player content and use the time and resources they save to provide an improved online component. It’s a good idea that should benefit both the player and the developer. Unfortunately however this is the gaming industry, and the gaming industry of recent years doesn’t exactly have a reputation for putting consumers first and “always online” often proves to be little more than a lazy way out at best, and a game-breaking form of DRM at worst.
When Ghost Games first announced that the next game in the Need for Speed franchise would require an “always online” connection the response from fans wasn’t exactly glowing. Now they’ve come out and explained their logic. It all comes down to the autolog and how they want it to incorporate your friends scores into the game’s narrative. It’s all about giving the gamer a more immersive experience and it can only be done through the wonders of always online. It sounds great, it’s a feature most of us would love and it’s something that can’t be done offline. So far everything that Ghost Games says seems fair enough. However… there is another game I can think of that has a feature that allows you to interact with other players during your time with the core narrative. There is another game where online functionality increases player immersion. There is another game where this functionality can only be done through online play. There is another game that offers all of that but also allows you to play in offline mode for those times when your connection is acting up, the servers are down for maintenance or you simply don’t feel like playing online. Indeed Dark Souls is a far more interesting experience when you play it online, it is designed to be played online, some of it’s most basic principles are related to online play, yet still they offer consumers an alternative because despite the importance of the online component it’s still a relatively simple matter to offer an offline mode.
Could Ghost Games offer an offline mode that simply doesn’t make use of autolog and just sticks to a basic default narrative? Most likely it could and it could do so with ease. After all, there have been many games doing exactly that in recent years. Always-on DRM has proven to be extremely controversial in the past. When games like Diablo III and Sim City required gamers to be online even to play single player content there was universal uproar. When those games then proved to be unplayable at launch due to server issues it became even worse. The start of this console generation proved an utter disaster for the Xbox One, thanks almost entirely to their determination to have an always-on requirement. For a while it looked like the console wouldn’t leave the starting post but thankfully changes to this policy saved the day and the console is now going strong and insuring healthy competition int he market. The reason for the uproar was that these requirements often served no discernible benefits for the consumer, or in the case of the Xbox One did not offer sufficient benefits to make up for a potential total loss of functioning. Companies were quick to take note following repeated bad press and were left with two choices. They could scrap the idea of anti-consumer always-on DRM or they could slap some coloured paper on it, finish it with a bow and hope that they could pass it off as a thoughtful gift for loyal fans. Naturally they appear to have chosen the latter.
Personally I can see no discernible reason as to why Ghost Games cannot implement an offline mode with relative ease. The autolog is a wonderful bonus feature of the game but the key word here is bonus. Regardless of how the developer may try to portray Need for Speed, it is a racing game that has existed long before autolog was a thing and has previously seen autolog and offline exist side by side in peace in earlier titles. It simply does not ring true that Need for Speed needs to be always-on because of this feature. This is not a grand gift for the gamer designed to improve their overall experience. Instead it is simply a way of making always-on DRM seem a little more palatable.
There are ultimately two types of online games out there. Games that rely on multiplayer as a key mechanic and games that use multiplayer for bonus functionality or replay value. The former include standard MMOs like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV, or Guild Wars as well as MOBAs like League of Legends or Smite. It also includes games who opt to focus entirely on player v player interaction, games like Titanfall or PlayStation 3’s ‘Mag’. Perhaps it could even be expanded to include exploration games like No Man’s Sky where the entire community is working together to discover and learn as much as possible about the game world. Nobody is going to complain that WOW requires you to be online (well actually there’s always going to be one person) because being online is one of the key defining features of that game. Then we have the other category of online games. These are games like Dark Souls, Need for Speed, Watch Dogs etc. These are games that can be played to great satisfaction by yourself that are further enhanced by online functionality. You’ll likely have more fun playing online and the experience will be better online but you don’t actually need the online features. You don’t need to read helpful, or harmful, tips in Dark Souls, you don’t need to participate in jolly cooperation, you don’t need to invade somebody else’s game and slaughter them as they innocently roam the friendly lands of Lordran. That said if you had the option you’d be mad to miss out on it.
Unfortunately even with today’s advanced technology we don’t always have that option. There are those of us living in technologically advanced countries who just don’t have the stable internet connections needed to cope with always-on. We live in a world where you can live in a house that only has the option of 2-3mb broadband knowing that 5 minutes away people have access to 100mb. We live in a world where servers can and do go offline due to an overload or simple maintenance. We live in a world where publishers and developers can decide to pull the servers a year after a release to try and strong arm you into buying a newer version of the same game. We live in a world where love-starved teenagers can jump on a computer pay a couple of dollars to access a software and use that software to take down the entire network affecting millions of consumers across the globe. These are the sad facts that we have to deal with when we want to play games like WOW, LoL or Smite. We don’t like it but we put up with it because these games simply wouldn’t work if we weren’t interacting with real people. The same cannot be said for Need for Speed or any other games that boast always-on simply for a mildly enhanced experience.
Normally when issues arise in the games industry there isn’t a simple solution to the problem. Issues like pre-owned games, or spiralling development costs are complicated matters. This however is about as simple as it gets. Don’t be cynical and pretend it’s all for our own good as you increasingly remove functionality from consumer products. Don’t be lazy and just throw in some added bonus function that you can use to make your DRM seem more appealing. Offer consumers an offline mode so that they can enjoy your product, even if it is slightly more limited, and in doing so you also guarantee that your game can still be recognised and enjoyed in a decade’s time. Now who’s up for some Need for Speed Underground 2? Luckily that game was around before DRM became such a big thing or you’d probably be left with a worthless disc thanks to long dead servers. Right now we’re just seeing another example of a company slapping gamers in the face and expecting a thank you in return.