Online connectivity in games. A disaster waiting to happen.

Apparently Burnout Paradise can now be played online on Steam, in case you’re interested.

Today, a friend of mine came up with a great idea: “Are you in for some Burnout Paradise?” he suggested. And then, I remembered what a great game it was. I never bought it, since I am not really that much of fan for racing games, but I rented it for some time and I can safely say that this was the only sandbox game that I actually had fun with, plus the only racer that I played for far more than any other racing game.

“Sure, but since it’s pretty old, my only hope is to buy it online” I replied. So I searched Steam first. The price was set at only €15 which was good enough given the age of the game. There was a legal notice below however which stated that  “EA has the right to cancel online services yadda yadda” . I was aware that EA started removing its games from Steam, so I checked for other sources I could buy the game from. I then came upon Origin, EA’s new electronic distribution platform, which amazingly provided Burnout Paradise: Ultimate Box for only €6, less than half the price of Steam. And since this was an EA game to begin with and with no legal notices regarding the availability of online gameplay as in Steam, I entered my credit card’s details and bought it. 

 

However, while I was waiting for the game to download, that thing regarding the availability of online gameplay bugged me. So I searched the forums and the bugging became fear. You see, there were a lot of messages from PC, Xbox & PS3 gamers all stating that the servers were offline for quite some time now and what was more worrying was the official shutdown of the Burnout store, a place where you could purchase little extras for the game, about 10 months ago.

“To hell with that noise” I exclaimed, trying to maintain a positive stance. Eventually the game was downloaded and I was ready to dive into it. Aaaand this was where fear became reality. Upon entering my online profile details (the ones I got when I signed up with Origin) I was almost immediately “greeted” with a message which stated that the servers were unavailable. I tried everything I could think of to no avail. I was so decided to play a multiplayer session on the damn thing, I was ready to use Hamachi if I had to. Only… no Lan or custom server connectivity was allowed.

 

So, I just bought a game that’s pretty much missing the half of it (or more, if you are the type of person that mostly does multiplayer). Oh great… Seeing that I had no way to engage in multiplayer neither the time to play the single player all over again, I felt that my measly 6 bucks were wasted. I contacted the tech support, who put me through some meaningless tests. One of them involved performing a traceroute using a custom tool of theirs. True enough, the tool encountered some black holes and dead nodes but the server they wanted me to tracert to was reachable. I didn’t argue long for this matter with the support technician, since I could tell I hit a “brick wall” and I didn’t have the patience to explain how IP routing works and why the game server was in fact reachable. Apart from that brick-wall thingie, he was quite helpful in giving me a no questions asked refund.

 

In any case, I wouldn’t really mind not getting back my €6. I mind have ended up playing the single player portion again. Perhaps. But imagine if I had spent €60 buying the game on its release, only to find out that it had an expiration date. Suddenly I would have lost the multiplayer portion and, had I invested in any purchasable DLCs, *BAM*, I’d have lost them too, since upon a reinstallation the DLC needs to be reactivated online… with a server that had been officially taken down. Whoops.

I can understand how online restrictions help the companies deal with piracy and why we no longer see LAN-mode support in vritually any game today. I have no real problem with that, as long as it works (I DID have a problem back then, since an internet connection was not always available but these days it’s a non-issue for most countries). The problem here is that it clearly does not work. If I am to play an old adventure game from the DOS era, it may not work under Windows 7 (it almost certainly won’t) but there is a plethora of solutions available, be it a VMWare machine or DOS Box. Even if the solution is not plug-and-play as everything else wants to be in this Apple-simplicity world we live in, the alternatives exist.

Instead, Burnout has no real alternative. There isn’t any kind of burnout-server binaries leaked, nor could I hack the game in order to connect to my own servers. The online community is annoyed over this matter, but we remain pretty much powerless while the developers plus the support teams won’t help. This is what Burnout turned out to be with its online DRM: A novelty that you rent but never own marked with an expiration date, upon which you’re screwed.

 

Still, I mentioned before that I can understand the usage of DRM and I don’t mind up to a certain point. I do mind a permanentware TSR on my PC that will run even when I’m not playing the game. Or a Blu-ray player that needs an internet connection in order to phone home and verify my intentions. Or a video card and a display that should both support HDCP otherwise I’m treated with worse-than-DVD picture quality. But I digress though (although at this point you can safely assume that I consider Movie executives the most clueless and malintented people on earth and Satan would be proud of them. Just saying’s all). Thing is, the expiration date could have been done away with a minimal cost to the game studio. They could make LAN gaming available with a patch should they decide to kill their servers. They could even release the server binaries for free and allow us to setup custom servers or even provide patches for them like the Oblivion community does.

“But then who would buy the game?” one may counterargue. True, there are few people like me that may give €6 for a 4 year old game. But that’s exactly what they are: Few. At this rate, it would take 10 sales to match 1 sale during its “golden” era and since this is such an old game, I doubt they’d make 10 sales per month these days. Potential gain is an invalid argument here.

 

The worst part in the above is that, if you don’t really give a damn about multiplayer, you can easily crack the game and end up with the same features an honest gamer would end in a few years, only with none of the cost. I’ve long argued that proper incentives are required to make the game appeal to every kind of consumer, not only the multiplayer kind and honestly, this is not a difficult thing to achieve. In fact, it’s been done already, years ago. Go a decade or two back and have a look at the game boxes. They included maps, huge manuals that were essential and (usually) fun to read, figurines, accessories and stuff you wouldn’t believe they were provided. These were not limited to “collector’s editions”. they were the “standard issue”. You simply got more value for your money and you could clearly see which of the game developers really loved their creations (I remember a game including a map on a fake skin. I cannot remember its name -it was an RPG, but the fake skin thingie still amazed me. Larry 7 had an odour releasing scratching pad that you could scratch at specific screens of the game and feel more immersed in the game).

You may honestly believe that these are nothing more than gimmicks, but if you’ve actually lived through the transformation of the huge A4-sized boxes to the tight and slim DVD cases you know how it feels. It feels like… “less”. And as if that wasn’t enough, they managed to go to even lesser, this time completely killing the data medium and its case.

Still, while online authorisation no longer requires you to have the CD into the drive and endanger its condition, CD-authentication would allow you to play offline with no “parental approval” from a remote server. Online authentication takes this kind of control out of your hands. They now only need to provide you pure information, no substantial proof of ownership of the game and if one day the game studio closes its doors, you are boned. Pure capitalism, where the consumer always gets the short end – one way or another, and the game companies lose money thanks to their own stupidity (the lack of engaging gameplay comes to mind but this is reserved for another day).

 

I am not making a distinction between “indie” studios and large established developers here. I don’t want to, since the following request is essentially the same in both cases. You’ve decided that your server’s electricity bill is not worth supporting the last 50 online gamers of game X? Pull the plug, but give an alternative to those people. You’ll only have to do it once, e.g enable LAN play or allow them to make their own servers. It’s simple, it’s moral and it shows that you care – and you will need that when the time for the sequel comes. The other way is to become an even worse a$$h… like Capcom here. It’s not that they don’t want to protect themselves from piracy (the old and tired excuse), they want to protect themselves (never you) from… you, even when the game becomes irrelevant and a bunch of sequels have been released.

In any case, I refuse to be bullied around in this manner and simply accept the “change of things” and the “wave of the future”. It’s still our right to own what we pay money for (and not simply rent it) and it’s mostly their wrong for making unimaginative and repetitive games. You should too, since we have the power to boycott them

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