Article | 4 min read

Always online gaming: who wins?

Last updated September 24, 2013

In the age of shared content, publishers across the entertainment and software industries have fixated on the best ways to protect intellectual property against digital piracy. The means publishers used to protect their content (collectively known as digital rights management or DRM) vary widely and have evolved considerably over time—a fairly basic example is the humble “product key” used to activate many types of software.

The goal of DRM in general is to restrict the use of a product to paying customers, but as piracy has become more sophisticated, DRM’s scope has grown to include some distinctly anti-consumer practices, governing not just who has access to the protected material but also what legitimate customers are able to do with products they have already paid for.

Nowhere is this more true than the video game industry, where emerging DRM practices are challenging the very notion of what it means to own a digital product. Among gamers, one of the most pernicious DRM schemes of the day is known as the “always-online requirement,” in which the user is required to maintain a connection to a game’s server in order to begin or continue playing (even when the player isn’t accessing any of a game’s online features).

For publishers, these safeguards offer a treasure trove of information about the way customers use their content, but come at a high cost to the consumer—one tiny server-side glitch is all it might take to prevent players from accessing content that they’ve already paid for. If that sounds like a slippery slope argument, think again—the recent past is littered with high-profile examples of always-online schemes gone awry. In particular, two highly anticipated games (Activision Blizzard’s Diablo III and Electronic Arts’s 2013 reboot of SimCity) saw their launches go up in smoke when players could not connect to the game’s servers.

Given that DRM protections are a necessary evil and the huge upsides of always-online requirements for publishers, let’s look at some ways to avoid customer service meltdowns.

  • Be certain that infrastructure will satisfy demand. If a highly anticipated game involves always-online DRM, the servers to which players will be connecting must be up to the challenge of handling a punishing amount of traffic. Although Diablo III publisher Activision Blizzard was hardly new to massive amounts of online traffic (thanks in part to their long-running multiplayer institution World of Warcraft), the crush of players attempting to connect brought Diablo III’s launch to a screeching halt. Many users experienced crashes and login failures throughout the first several days following the release, and the fallout prompted a public apology from Activision Blizzard.
  • When things go wrong, make them right. Not to be outdone by Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts’s long-awaited update to the SimCity series was a highly-publicized failure. In the wake of the Diablo III fiasco, many fans were skeptical of the game’s always-online requirement, even though it was touted as a feature—an added interactive dimension for a game franchise that had traditionally been a single-player experience. When the servers failed to adequately handle the traffic (surprise!), many users were unable to play the game. But EA did one thing right: while the disaster was unfolding, they extended SimCity buyers a free game download as a makegood, from a selection of surprisingly current offerings. When the offer was announced, they briefly left it open to people who hadn’t yet purchased the game, giving undecided buyers some incentive to ignore the game’s unfortunate reputation.
  • Consider your customers. When Microsoft announced that its upcoming next-generation console, Xbox One, would require daily online “check-ins” in order to play games, the feedback from the gaming press and public was both loud and decidedly negative. So negative, in fact, that the company pulled a rare about-face on their plans. In addition to a handful of other changes, the new system would require only an online connection only once, after which the system could play hard-copy games offline without an issue.

While the episode marked a real victory for Microsoft customers (and the power of the consumer in general), it left many in the industry speculating that pre-order sales for Xbox One were performing dismally prior to Microsoft’s reversal. By not doing more to anticipate the negative reaction that the DRM plan was bound to generate, Microsoft may have grossly miscalculated. As Xbox One’s November release approaches, only time will tell what effect the stumble will have on Microsoft’s share of the console gaming market.