Pulling the Plug: The Dark Side of Online Design

Role-playing survival game is willing to take risks

Recently Atlus announced that after 3 years, Demon’s Souls‘ servers for online play would be turned off this May. This means that the co-op function, hint system and being able to view player’s deaths will be effectively removed from the experience.

While I am sadden, this is not the first time that a game I played has had its functionality diminished. EA is notorious for turning off servers for both their sports and strategy games. I haven’t written about this topic yet, but as online functionality becomes commonplace, gamers could be seeing a new problem of the digital age.

Online interactivity has been one of the major growths of the last decade in the industry. Early on, multiplayer games were the primary use for online play, such as Madden or Team Fortress 2. As designers saw how much online play and new content could extend the life of a game, now single player games are getting the online treatment. This can come in the form of new content updates (DLC), patches or simply online integration for friends or social sites. However while all this sounds great so far, it does raise some questions about the future of game longevity.

With sports titles, it’s to be expected that fans upgrade to the next iteration each year. This is how EA makes a lot of its profits and why their sports divisions are so popular. No one blames them for not supporting online play for Madden 08 in the year 2012. But when EA took down the servers for Battle For Middle Earth 2, a game that I enjoyed, they effectively killed it.

There were no new sequels to the series meaning that for people who wanted to play that type of game online, BFME 2 was their only option. But thanks to EA, no one can play the game online anymore, either on console or PC. If a publisher cuts online support for a game with multiplayer features, what does that bode for single player games?

More and more single player titles are released with DLC and content that needs to be downloaded. However what will happen to those games when the servers are no longer supported and that DLC becomes unobtainable? In ten years, will we still be able to play the DLC from Dragon Age or Fallout 3? This fear is something that critics of digital retailers have been saying for years: video games these days come with an expiration date.

I’m going to sound real callous here, but whenever I hear publishers cry that they can’t keep paying money for servers to support their games, I have to say “tough shit”. They knew full well when they were developing the game that there was going to be additional content or just online services. In some cases, they knew explicitly what content would need to be downloaded. They made their bed, and they should have to sleep in it.

There should be some kind of regulation in place or third party to continue support. At this point I trust Valve with Steam and Blizzard with Battle.net to continue support. But other companies I’m still leery of. As a case in point, I’m really excited about the new SimCity game coming from Maxis. However the two points that have me really nervous are A: it will require Origin and B: It will require online connectivity for single player.

Given EA’s track record, what promise do I have that I’ll be able to play it in 2, 4, or even 10 years from now? Last month I played SimCity 4, which is 9 years old without a hitch as it didn’t require any online connection to enjoy. Ubisoft’s system also needs to be mention, requiring online access for single player content; we haven’t yet seen their stance on long term support.

Personally I think that this is an oversight that publishers did not think about. More games with online features= more servers needed to maintain which also means more money to support titles. This is why I like Valve’s stance with Steam. They have gone on record stating that if there was ever a point that Steam would be shut down, they will still provide servers to allow people to keep downloading their games.

Going back to Demon’s Souls and the end of its online features. The other causality is that there is an item that can only be earned while online that after May, will become unattainable. This also has me really worried about the long term plan of Dark Souls. Dark Souls has a lot more online content in the form of factions you can join, unique invading situations, and more items available from online play and of course all the features from Demon’s Souls. If Dark Souls’ servers go down at some point, that would effectively be the nail in the coffin for a good portion of the game.

There are several spots in Dark Souls that are just plain annoying and frustrating to play solo and the summon-able AI partner may not be enough. While expert players will probably scoff at that statement, but people who are new or returning to play could use backup. As I mentioned in my 2 part analysis, there are several hidden areas that no one would know about without being online and getting a tip. If I wanted to return to play Dark Souls in a few years and there are no servers, I doubt I would have the patience to relearn all of it without the co-op features in place.

Once again I get to end a post saying that I wish I had a perfect solution for this, but I don’t. I do know that we will have to deal with this problem sooner rather than later. I’ve talked about in the past as a supporter of game preservation, and online integration poses a valid problem. We may someday lose access to our favorite games, not because of the game itself, but because someone flipped the off switch on a server somewhere.

Josh Bycer