In the wake of what has been happening with SimCity 5, a lot of folks are asking what the future holds for single-player games that require an always-on connection.
It’s not going to stop.
The future is that
- Connectivity keeps getting better, which softens the blow for consumers.
- Developers find the sweet spot between “always on” and “phone home when you can” that mobile games have already had to solve (because bandwidth and connectivity for mobile are far more erratic).
- Metrics usage explores in the single-player market, to match what is seen in Facebook and mobile.
- Yes, this means, with all the good and bad that brings to the table. The fact is that publishers simply won’t be able to resist it. When used right, it makes for better games. And even when used wrong, it generally adds to the bottom line.
- Single-player games will continue to evolve towards being services.
- Ongoing updates, because again, as seen on mobile, publishers won’t be able to resist the loyalty factor, the boost in retention, the revenue from re-acquisition… in the presence of things like charts showing popularity of games or top grossing games, there’s huge value in doing this even for games that don’t have ongoing revenue streams.
- For games that do (be they sub, DLC, or microtransactions), it’s of course a no-brainer.
- Really, the single-player model did this already, just without connectivity. Always on just makes it cheaper and better.
- Ongoing erosion of the pure single-player experience, as I stated would happen ages ago.
- Achievement system metagames.
- Dashboards of friends, leaderboards
- Getting interrupted with messages that pull you out of the immersion
- Asynchronous multiplayer features
- Sharing your gameplay sessions (Twitch.tv, Everyplay, etc)
Basically, we will continue the march towards “everything you used to buy, you now rent as a service.” With all the good and bad that entails.
Gamers may protest now, but if I may draw an analogy: when they came for your music collections (Pandora! Rhapsody!), you did not complain. When they came for your DVD collections (Netflix! Hulu!), you did not complain. When they came for your office documents (Google Docs! Adobe Creative Cloud!), you did not complain. Now they are coming for your games (Steam! You love Steam, don’t you?), and no one is left to complain on your behalf.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I keenly feel the drawbacks. As an example — as someone who cares deeply about the history of our medium, I shudder to think what happens to preservation efforts for games from this time period. We’re not going to be able to emulate things without reverse engineering dead server apps — which will mean reverse engineering every rule and bug.
Or another — we’re used to platforms obsolescing away the ability to play a given game. But when business realities mean shutting down a server as soon as the opportunity cost makes it not as profitable as doing something else, we’re going to feel like even single-player games have gotten to feel a lot like that TV show we loved that wasn’t allowed to finish out a full season and left us on a cliffhanger.
But for any business owner, the advantages greatly outweigh the disadvantages. Even with the issues SimCity has had, I am sure that right now the takeaway within EA is not “don’t do this” but “do it better.” The fact of the matter is that running a service seems to be one of those things that you have to learn by doing, stumbling along the way, and it’s a big adjustment for any organization that has been used to retail-style sales.
And the fact is that if it works seamlessly, customers will start to say “I like my Games On Demand” and sign up willingly.
It may be that at some point we see a swing back from the cloud — if the power on our devices exceeds that available in the cloud (if this happens, it likely will be due to bandwidth, not CPU cycles). But I don’t see that changing in the near future.
Instead, we’ll see disconnected games using their disconnected nature as a selling point, at first in contrast to the rocky services and later on as a premium offering for hardcore folks who want to keep going after the game is sunset.
Am I crazy about this scenario, all things considered? No. It has many pitfalls, and some old lessons are getting to be more relevant than ever. But at the same time… I design online games. I’ve been part of the problem the whole time.
Best of luck to the SimCity team with resolving the issues. I’ve been there.