Are recent online play server closures a sign of things to come?
You may not have realised it, but some time last week (March 16th to be precise, fact fans!) four PS3 games lost their online play functionality forever. These cuts are in addition to a further six games that lost their online play capabilities in February, and which you may remember having read about on this very site.
This is in itself unremarkable, and hardly a reason for concern. Realistically we cannot expect companies to maintain servers for games indefinitely, as it simply wouldn’t be practical or financially viable to do so. Old games therefore routinely have their online play components shuttered in order to make way for newer titles. Sad though it may be, for most of us this won’t be the end of the world.
But lately it seems that the criteria for what constitutes an ‘old game’ is shifting. Two of the games to recently suffer the cuts have been on the market for little more than one year.
In light of this, does it bother us that many of the games we now buy are effectively subject to a time limit on much of their content? And as paying customers are we concerned that developers seem to be ever reducing this time limit, whether we like it or not?
Online play is most definitely one of the biggest selling-points of the current generation. More often than not you will find it listed as one of a game’s key features on the back of the box, or on the spine in the form of the natty little Playstation Network logo. In many cases the online mode is not merely an additional bonus but rather the main draw of a game. Franchises such as Call of Duty and Battlefield increasingly rely on online multiplayer to sell games and apparently it seems to work.
The problem with this is that online play isn’t forever. The truth is that many games still being sold in shops or online, both new and pre-owned, simply no longer have access to many of the features that they advertise on the box.
Previously this hasn’t been such a problem. The relative scarcity of online titles meant that games retained their online functionality for a surprisingly long time. Indeed, you can still go online with some comparatively ancient Playstation 2 titles such as ‘Burnout 3: Takedown (although this too will see it’s servers close on April 15th, so make the most of it while you can).
In contrast we now have an abundance of online enabled games all competing for server space. A great example of this in action is annual release sports titles such as Madden NFL which see a new instalment receive a cross-platform release every year. It is easy to appreciate that maintaining severs for multiple versions of a game over multiple platforms incurs fairly heavy costs, so we can probably agree that discontinuing support for the ’07 iteration is fairly reasonable. The fairly recent ’08 iteration has had online support removed too, but two years is a fairly long time in gaming so we can probably let EA off on that one as well.
But what if I told you that last week Madden NFL ’09 also saw it’s online terminated? At barely more than a year old surely that would be one cut too far?
Many gamers may upgrade the title yearly anyway and so remain unaffected, but by stopping support for last year’s version it seems a lot like EA are basically forcing this decision on everyone who wants to play online, regardless of whether or not they want to upgrade. Additionally the newer ‘upgrade’ often won’t be as good as the version that preceded it due to alterations that didn’t quite work out, or gamers will simply just prefer the older edition for some minor or purely idiosyncratic reason.
But if the trend for removing online support after only one year continues then anyone who doesn’t cough up for the next instalment will be efficiently robbed of content they have paid for and will be stuck playing on their own, like it or not.
Another issue that has come about with the rise of online play is that many games now lack any kind of local multiplayer option whatsoever, having had it completely replaced with an online version. The sad decline of local multiplayer in recent years is an issue for another time, but what it means is that many titles can only be played multiplayer at all online over the PSN. For such titles, and the gamers who enjoy them, the loss of servers would be a bitter blow.
Consider this: Older generation games with stand out multiplayer modes can beyond enjoyed for time immemorial, but for some great multiplayer experiences on the PS3 time is limited. Inevitably the servers will eventually go dark on even great multiplayer experiences like Uncharted 2 that are only playable over PSN; they simply cannot last forever.
Of course, we will probably have Uncharted 4 by the time that it happens, which will hopefully be even better than it’s predecessors, but I for one will still rue the fact that I can never go back to Uncharted 2 multiplayer for old time’s sake. (Plus Uncharted 4 might turn out like Indiana Jones 4, then you’ll all wish you’d listened to me harping on about the loss of Uncharted 2′s multiplayer…)
You may remember that earlier I mentioned two games had been disconnected after only a year on sale. The second is another EA title, developed by Pandemic Studios. I speak of course of the critically panned Lord of the Rings Conquest.
Yes the problem of having online removed prematurely is far from limited to big yearly franchises that put a lot of strain on a companies servers. Any game that doesn’t have a high enough share of online activity is at risk of having it’s online component removed, regardless of the amount of resources it may or may not consume. For the vast majority of us this won’t be a problem but for those die-hard fans who do still enjoy the online mode it will seem incredibly unfair that they can no longer play the full game they bought, especially when the purchase was made such a short time ago and nothing has come along to replace it.
Trophy-hunters will be affected too, if the trend for removing online continues. How many trophies in every title are now reliant on online multiplayer modes, for example? If the online is removed then so with it goes any chances of ever attaining these trophies, which could be just plain frustrating.
The observant among you may have noticed that the games mentioned as having lost their online components are all EA titles. Now before anyone cries foul it isn’t that they have been singled out for abuse. It just so happens that they were good enough to put out a press release, which you can read in full here, detailing both all of the impending closures and also those that have already transpired. They also put the information out there in plenty of time before the changes came into force, which is something.
So should we be worried? As more and more games make the move to online, and as more and more gamers are playing them, will we continue to see servers being taken offline earlier and earlier? It is difficult to say just yet, but EA is a fairly influential publisher and it is quite possible that where they lead others will follow. It is often commented in this age of DRM that we only own content at the whim of the developers, and to me it seems to be coming truer by the day.
As always, we’d love to hear from you. Whether the idea of being forced to upgrade your sports titles every year to continue playing online annoys you, or if you’ll now be forever living in fear of the day that Uncharted 2 online goes dead, sound off below!