[Featurama] Locked Out: A Dalliance With Offline Gaming
About a month ago, my cable and internet began behaving erratically. Two weeks ago, they ceased to function at all. No television, no Xbox Live, no Playstation Network; just a blinking red light above the word ‘Broadband’ on the modem. It wasn’t until a week ago that our services were restored.
During that interruption, I was unable to see what my friends were playing or what new games, content, and demos were available for download. These are minor issues to be sure and warrant no apocalyptic reactions. Most of my complaints boil down to inconvenience, but over the course of my time offline, I began to notice a trend: gaming has becoming increasingly unfriendly towards offline players. I don’t pose this argument as a revelation, but rather a reaffirmation of a truth we continually ignore.
Whether dealing with digital rights management restrictions or exclusion from ranking systems among friends and competition, the trappings of online play have become barriers to offline players. If this wasn’t apparent in the issues arising from DLC and Online Passes, it’s no longer the case that you can simply purchase a game, put it in your system, and play the full product. Even giving in to publisher initiatives and paying to “complete” a game is not an option for some; their product remains incomplete without that connection that nurtures games post-release.
“OFFLINE WARNING: Any scores achieved while offline cannot be saved to Xbox Live Leaderboards. Consider reconnecting to Xbox LIVE.”
Getting a headcount on offline players is something of a burden. The lack of connection immediately diminishes the ability to accurately pinpoint the size of this group of gamers. As an example, I want to consider the Xbox 360, whose offering of services, both paid and unpaid, depict a hazy but working image of the group in question.
At CES in January, Microsoft revealed that the company had sold over 66 million Xbox 360 systems. Meanwhile, its online service, Xbox Live, hosts 40 million users (including both Gold and Silver accounts). While it is unknown what figure console replacement can attribute to a chunk of that gap, the previous high failure rate does not account for the remaining 26 million consoles sold. A significant portion of these 360 users are playing offline.
So what does this mean? If you’re not connected to the internet, you don’t have access to a social service, new content, demos, and even patches for games that need updating after launch. Whatever system you’re playing on, if you’re offline, you’re missing out. Throw into this mix the growing dominance of multiplayer and the dwindling stock of strong single-player-only titles, and what will be left for offline gamers in a few years?
Maybe I have gotten a little apocalyptic now, considering the internet will likely continue to spread its influence across the world, connecting more and more players. The point I’m trying to make is that our desire to reward connected gamers has proven—like Newton’s second law of motion—to provoke an equal and opposite reaction for offline gamers. Flourishing online-specific features represent building blocks for the wall that is already under construction to divide online and offline players.
“The downloadable content you require is not available. Press A to return to Grand Theft Auto IV.”
Problems with DLC and DRM are nothing new to the Xbox 360. The system licenses content to your Gamertag to prevent illegal or profitless sharing. As a result, circumstances such as replaced consoles—a recurring issue with the console—or downloading content with a different Gamertag create avenues for interruption of use.
Lately, my roommate and I have been reliving the glory days of Grand Theft Auto; since introducing him to GTA IV, the latest installment of Rockstar’s mega-franchise, we have been spending our nights trading the controller and sewing chaos all throughout Liberty City. This activity began after my roommate had begun replaying some of the older titles on Playstation 2, specifically GTA: San Andreas. Because I had wanted to show him the newest iteration’s ties to the past, some of which were abandoned in the recent, realistic entry of the franchise, I had intended to boot up GTA IV’s expansion The Ballad of Gay Tony. The parachute, APC, and over-the-top weapons featured within hearken back to GTA’s chaotic garage days and would make my roommate feel right at home while he adjusted to the new mechanics.
Despite being a member of Xbox Live for more than 8 years and downloading the expansion to my unique console and Gamertag, I was unable to access that content. Through years with the Xbox 360, I have had my share of red ringed-consoles and assorted repairs; somewhere along that timeline, some downloaded content became alien to my Gamertag and console. By no fault of my own, I had lost the ability to play some games and expansions without being connected to the internet. The message you’ll find introducing this section appeared to me onscreen; it was like heading to your enjoyment vehicle only to realize you had lost the keys.
There is a laborious process to transferring licenses on Xbox Live, which allows blocked content to be played offline again. Unfortunately, it involves deleting and re-downloading the content, a luxury not afforded to offline gamers, if they are lucky enough to score a connection long enough to purchase said content. Each difficulty encountered is another layer of brush players must cut through to play their game. These issues aren’t rampant, but they appeared enough to inspire this piece. It shouldn’t be so difficult to enjoy a video game.
“YOU ARE NOT ABLE TO USE THIS FEATURE BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT SIGNED INTO AN XBOX LIVE ENABLED GAMER PROFILE.”
Many games, in fact, do nothing egregious to punish offline players. You might miss out on multiplayer, but you can still hop on your console, burn through the game’s campaign, and move on to the next title. Things get dicey when developers, likely under the influence of the publisher financing the game, attempt to grab the widest audience through multiplayer or online features. This problematic paradigm reinforces the notion that online gaming represents the future of industry. How many single-player titles have stepped out of their niche and received unnecessary and underdeveloped multiplayer modes? Bioshock 2, Dead Space 2, The Darkness II, Ninja Gaiden 3. The list goes on but this trend is indicative of increasing demand for and pressure to provide online offerings with every new game.
Steve Williams, of Xbox World Magazine, discussed three factors perpetuating the boon of online gaming. He mentions “the enticing profits of the area’s leaders, the ability a server connection offers publishers to ‘combat’ used sales and piracy, and simple novelty.” As the industry continues to promote online features, it necessarily creates more methods of exclusion for offline gamers. To make matters worse, these features are not predicated upon genuine innovation, but instead tactics to increase profitability or prevent revenue loss. Nowhere in this equation are unplugged players considered against publishers’ protective, and frankly maddening, practices.
During my time offline, I was constantly reminded of my status. Messages like the one heading this section popped up during menu navigation, sometimes only provoked through accidental button taps. It’s not so much that I mind playing in isolation. Most of my gaming takes place in offline-safe modes, such as the main campaign, but I enjoy being connected to the online services. Since my consoles are typically enjoyed from the comfort of my home, complete with internet, I had forgotten the differing experience for offline players.
Many Xbox Live Arcade titles—which require a connection to download, whether purchased from Xbox Live or at game-specific retailers—such as Trials Evolution provide online multiplayer components but also bolster their single player with pseudo-multiplayer features, such as leaderboards and ghost racers. Part of the game’s appeal is to not only earn gold medals, but best your friends’ times on each track. As you race the clock, friends’ names appear as invisible competition, egging you on and providing an additional layer to simple and insular gameplay.
I’m not personally attached to leaderboards or even competition, but the asynchronous multiplayer helps to make the game feel less desolate. I was disheartened during my attempts to play offline due to the game constantly reminding me that my times would not be communicated to my friends. Now that a game enabled me to engage cohorts even when our activities didn’t match up, I felt deserted as a result of my disconnection. Because I had been muted from the conversation—dull as conversations concerning race times tend to be—I felt like my input was wasted, so I decided not to talk; in other words, I stopped playing the game.
This entire experience is denied to offline players who can only compete with themselves. They may not have experienced the loss of connection but they also cannot experience the game’s wonderful sense of companionship amidst an empty, dusty racetrack. Don’t get me wrong; Trials Evolution is a fantastic game whether played online or offline, but there’s still something to be missed. The detriment of this situation may not even reflect so much on the games themselves as the communal, shared experience that the medium offers, unique amongst its colleagues.
“Your console can’t connect to Xbox Live.”
This message is probably not unfamiliar to offline gamers. Substitute Xbox Live with any other online platform, dolly up the phrasing, but the message remains the same. To those without internet connection: you can’t connect with the rest of us gamers. This is the conclusion I arrived at after my brief bout with connectivity deprivation.
I worry about a future where the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 have become retro consoles. Unlike the NES or Sega Genesis, we won’t be able to go back and replay games as they appeared during their heyday. We currently take advantage of our online connections, which allow us to fill in the gaps that our games inevitably release with. How would Dead Island have fared against its buggy launch without the help of patches? Would Elder Scrolls games ever be complete? How about the Catwoman section in Batman: Arkham City? That content is held captive in the high tower of online gaming.
Let’s face it: gaming almost can’t survive without being hooked up to the internet. This problem finds its roots in new development doctrines and priorities, often complicated by the necessity of money. As games increase the number of online specific features, I can’t help but feel like the mad prophet looking ahead to the time when our dearest titles are rendered incomplete. Maybe you’ll get all your content and patches downloaded before servers disappear, but not everyone will fare as well. We’re headed straight into the belly of a beast intent on dissolving all that is solid and dependable about our hobby: the game itself.
While we ponder the threats of the future to current gaming, there is already a section of the populous that is experiencing this loss. Maybe they don’t care all that much; plenty of games offer additional content but can stand independent as well. Maybe they’re ignorant of what they’re missing, though I find this unlikely with the Xbox 360′s incessant need to remind players that they are offline. Maybe they’ve just accepted their loss; depending on the geographical and economical environment, not everyone has access to the internet. All these maybes and more are nothing in the face of the idea that we’ve forgotten about members of our culture. Gaming is a culture and, for some, a way of life. Most of us have outside interests, but we always come back to these endlessly imaginative worlds. They provide a doorway to somewhere else and it’s only accessible through these little, pricey husks filled with computer parts. Whether we go through that door alone or with some friends in tow, we like to share our experiences.
Unfortunately, some of our comrades have gone missing or lost their ability to communicate. Even now, this cry for awareness will fail to reach their ears. So what then is the solution? Respect. The same way games need to move towards supporting handicapped gamers, games need to remember that not everyone has an internet connection. I know this argument can get lost in all the dollar signs being dumped on publishers like Activision and EA, but we need to respect offline gamers. Business inevitably pushes games away from offline and towards more lucrative, internet-ready pastures, but publishers and developers alike need to be cognizant of their entire audience, not just those with the fattest wallets or online connections.
Don’t sell us unfinished or broken games. Don’t lock content behind online barriers and force us to jump through hoops to acquire it. Don’t barrage my screen with reminders of my status; I’m aware. Don’t neglect single-player in order to catch the eye of the wider, multiplayer audience; as the maxim goes, dance with the one that brought you. Make good games and make them accessible to everyone, whether they play online or not. If nothing else, let’s just remember that there are gamers out there playing offline and we want them to enjoy games as much as we do. Publishers, please take note.