Requiring online for single-player

 Posted by (Visited 11206 times)  Game talk  Tagged with:
Mar 082013

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.
    • Tweets.
    • Dashboards of friends, leaderboards
    • Getting interrupted with messages that pull you out of the immersion
    • Notifications
    • Asynchronous multiplayer features
    • Sharing your gameplay sessions (, 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.

Penny Arcade, "All of the Jokes",

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.

  44 Responses to “Requiring online for single-player”

  1. I don’t know if the publishers will ever go to the changes that will be beneficial to the customer.

    Give me Netflix like, pay a subscription, access to any game at will for a subscription fee? Yes please.
    Try to sell it *and* have server requirements like Origin / Steam / UPlay? I’ll be over in the corner with my GoG games and/or in the retro game store.

  2. This is unfortunate for gamers on so many levels. Well, old-school gamers at any rate. The kids who are growing up with it probably think it’s fantastically convenient or whatever the rationale for renting vs. owning happens to be.

    And I’d respectfully disagree with the cloud-based analogies. My digital music, movies, and tv shows are on my own personal hard drives and once I’ve purchased them (and in some cases, stripped them of DRM), I can use them how, where, when, and with whomever I want. There’s no server involved or any sort of connection that isn’t under my physical control. Maybe other companies will follow GoG’s example and games will be available the same way, but you can see the big dollar signs in dev/publisher eyes whenever someone says always-on or DLC, so I doubt it. Plus, as mentioned, Steam can do no wrong in most gamers’ eyes (for some bizarre reason that I don’t understand).

    I guess the good news for people who are turned off by all of this is that there’s a huge backlog of quality games from the last 20 years that most of us will probably never have time to finish (let alone replay).

  3. My digital music, movies, and tv shows are on my own personal hard drives and once I’ve purchased them (and in some cases, stripped them of DRM), I can use them how, where, when, and with whomever I want.

    The examples I gave were specifically not of that sort. 🙂 That is why I used Spotify instead of iTunes as my example.

    I really do think that people are missing the bigger picture of what is happening. It won’t be long before common household appliances are digital artifacts you 3d print. You’ll be subscribing to a service for your toaster.

  4. Ah ok, fair enough on Spotify. In terms of the bigger picture, you’re probably right, but personally it’s not a matter of missing it as much as it is disliking it and being unwilling to participate in it past a certain point.

    Will be interesting to watch all this unfold, at any rate.

  5. But did these movie, music and document services you mention have such high profile service failures early in their life? If Netflix didn’t work for several days each time a new movie was released early in its life, few would have adopted it. If Google Docs deleted your hard work randomly early in its life, nobody would touch it with a barge pole. Even Steam was more successful in the early days than this always online implementation.

    Perhaps more importantly, you can still watch movies offline, listen to music offline, and write documents offline because streaming services are optional. You can still listen to music albums recorded in the 1950s, and watch movies that are 100 years old, and read books that are centuries old. This is not possible with Sim City, or Diablo III, and it appears that it never will be. I think these fundamental differences in the ability to consume these products will hit them hard.

  6. Instead of answering you, Adam, I am just going to paste in some of the comments I made on the Google+ version of this, since they sort of address what you are talking about:

    I buy CDs still too. 🙂 So I am on that side as well! And much of the reason why is because I have run services from the other side, and know their ephemerality perhaps more keenly than a consumer does.

    See this post, and the comment thread after it:

    Spotify’s core offering requires the connection (stream any music you want). The fact that is also the latest generation of WinAmp clone is a sideshow, I think.

    But I agree about the sideshow’s importance, particularly as justification to the consumer.

    Spotify leaving out the always online piece is basically an MP3 player and a digital download store. If that were what Spotify was, though, nobody would use it because there are a zillion of those. The VALUE of Spotify is in the online-only portion, which lies in giving you access to music that is effectively “DRMed” because it is streamed. That’s why people choose Spotify over any of the other services: the selection of DRMed music.

    If SimCity had offline play, and enhanced online play, nobody would say boo, and it would match Spotify’s general feature set. Alternatively, if SimCity were marketed as an MMO, fewer would be complaining, because there’s no dissonance between customer expectation and reality.

    Games are just behind the curve on doing services intelligently is all. Music had to deal with it sooner because their data sizes were smaller.

    Or as I was just discussing with Tami Baribeau on twitter, I can see this evolving towards platform holders charging a flat fee for unlimited streaming play of “DRMed” (never downloaded) back catalog games, such as from past hardware — and charging a premium for downloadable versions of the current games, that have smarter phone home connections.

  7. We’ve been returning to an old cycle – before the era of PCs, all computing access was via networks. No network (and centrally controlled privileges), no computing. All single user apps required a remote connection.

    Then PCs allowed us to compute/play without a network at all (In fact, early network integration was painful)! Some benefits were lost, but now anyone could build apps and that kicked ass, and computing (and games) exploded, world-wide.

    Then networks and stacks got better, and we got the Web (via nearly ubiquitous Internet) and we’re now seeing a reversal – a return to central control with all the benefits and costs of doing that. Ironically, for single user software.

    I own the MP3s on my iPhone vs. renting them via Itunes.

    I will resist buying always-on single-user software as long as I can – as this “feature” not inherently required – no matter how well it works. There’s no $60 (paid up-front) game I need to play so badly that I’m willing to tolerate complete failure to run because of the flaky network connection in my den. I don’t care if someday I’ll be in the minority.

    And, even if your predictions come to pass, the pendulum will swing back and “you can own a copy of this game and run it any time you want (without a connection)” will return as a market competitive advantage.

    I hope it’s soon.

  8. It’ll happen when there’s software that can’t run remotely. That’s what’s always swung the pendulum: power. When mainframe power is greater, we get cloud. When local power is greater, we get PCs.

    Since cloud CPU cycles will likely stay bigger for a long while, it’s probably bandwidth that will cause the swing back.

  9. > It won’t be long before common household appliances are digital artifacts you 3d print. You’ll be subscribing to a service for your toaster.

    Brand new, top of the line toaster completely free of charge! 5 cents per slice, but only 8 if you toast two slices at the same time! Even that is free if you let us cook some convenient offers into your toast – get up to date on the new movies in theaters before your morning paper has even loaded onto your Kindle. And that’s just the beginning: Concerned that your friends are getting more carbs in their diet than you? Don’t worry – we’ve already connected you to our innovative new ToastBook ™ social platform! Constantly updated carb and calorie leaderboards for you and all your friends, based on an intelligent scan of your breakfast choices and burned right onto your meal – just hit the big blue iToast button. Never toast alone again, thanks to the magic of the internet!

    What’s that? Worried that you won’t get your breakfast because Robot-President Bieber malfunctioned and started World War 3 and broke the internet? Well – you have an oven, right?

  10. I buy CDs, I buy DvDs and I mostly buy single-player offline games. And even though I use Steam, I can use it Offline…which is not the case of SimCity. This is the only problem here, the ability to be able to play Offline. It’s not the first time this happens, remember the bad press Ubisoft had because of this, or Blizzard with Diablo 3. Of course they still made a lot of money, but maybe people will start to think about it now, before pre-ordering or buying a game. I have no problem with the always-online stuff, but give me a back-up for when online ain’t an option.

  11. Nice pile of BS you have going here. Only a couple problems:

    You can still buy dvds and cds. Those programs you listed are programs you pay a low monthly fee for, it;s obvious you rent.

    You are still paying the same price for these rented games, so no, this isn’t the same thing.

  12. Both DVD and CD purchasing are on extremely rapid decline (and no, BluRay has not taken up the slack). These days when you buy a CD on Amazon they helpfully tell you that they pre-rip it for you into their Cloud Player — attached to their Amazon Prime subscription service. Netflix has been working hard to move you off of discs and to streaming.

    These changes aren’t done happening, in that I agree with you. But the trend lines are strong.

  13. Raph,you can still buy these cds and dvds. These services offer a low monthly rate to rent. Yet these game companies are making you pay the same price to rent what you once bought.

    This article is simply click bait.

  14. Alan, where did I say you can’t buy CDs and DVDs right now? Sheesh. What I said was that the service business model is rapidly overtaking home entertainment.

    Physical goods sales for all of these things are plummeting. There’s no reason to believe that this is going to slow down. What is replacing these sales is services.



    Yes, some of these services are renting the physical object (RedBox, Netflix). But far more digital download services are springing up to compete with them.

    Digital download is an interim step. As content providers discover they can instead set up services with ongoing fees, that is what the industries have been moving to. Music is ahead — likely because the sizes are smallest, and audio streaming has clear analogies in radio. Hence stuff like Spotify, where a subscriber basically gets access to the entire catalog for a periodic fee (and being datamined to a fare-thee-well). Then came movies.

    I am not saying that physical goods for these things will vanish altogether. Rather, I bet we end up paying a premium for them instead, to make up for the loss of business intelligence and revenue that the providers get from streaming customers.

    Not sure how you’re getting “BS” and “click-bait” out of this, honestly. As an experienced video game executive, let me just state it baldly: there are NO good reasons for larger companies NOT to do this. They will make more money, and understand their customers better. And if they do it well, most customers will actually PREFER it. It’ll take a while for this to manifest more fully in the games spaces, but Steam, Origin, what Ubi did with their PC titles last year, are all clear harbingers. I don’t thin games are doing it well yet at all, FWIW.

  15. Well, as of now, games like SimCity burden the paying customer (While I’m sure pirates will make themselves a fully working copy), while giving you less for the same price you pay for something that isn’t an always on connection.

    The point about the services is that people buy them because they offer things you can’t get. Dvds and bluerays can cost anywhere from $1-$30 or more for one movie, whereas the services cost little for access to lots of movies. Of course you rent them, but the service has value.

    SimCity 5 has no value. You won’t play this 10 years down the road, you won’t play this 2 years down the road (Knowing EA). SimCity 5 has less value then other games that don’t require always on connections, and as such isn’t a good comparison with the dvd and cd services mentioned above.

    And even if they fix the server issues, things that SimCity fans (Like me, my first SimCity game was on an old tandy 1000 when I was 7) used to do a lot, such as destroying cities, won’t ever see the light of day. SimCity 4 is easily a far better value, or cities XL…

    In the end, I doubt that this march towards renting as a service will continue as unquestioned as you think, esp. since the service is the same price for less now. If there was a game rental service, then sure, people would not complain, but if game companies are going to make people pay the same price for far less, it’s going to be a bumpy ride..

  16. And one final thing, sorry for calling your article click bait and BS, but if you honestly think that having always on games for single player helps you understand your customers better, you are dead wrong. SimCity is not Madden, it’s not a game where you buy a new one every year. For those of who have been fans of SimCity for a long time, EA has killed one of our favorite franchises (And again, an always on connection, and saving online, destroys things like, destroying cities and reloading saved games). Before pulling this crap, companies need to try and understand how their own games should work before trying to understand customers better.

  17. SimCity 5 actually does have a bunch of online features tied to the regions stuff. It may not be the game you want, but those features do require a server behind them. So I don’t think it is accurate to say that the game doesn’t have value added from the service.

    Whether or not this works out as a compelling value to the consumer really depends on what is on offer. Prior to the server issues, SimCity had been universally extremely highly rated by critics. Had the launch gone seamlessly, would the outcry now be occurring? Probably not. People would see the online elements as a value-add.

    I don’t doubt that companies will get better at striking the balance on value versus service.

  18. Your “when they came for…” analogy really rustled my jimmies.

    > “when they came for your music collections (Pandora! Rhapsody!), you did not complain.”

    Actually I did, because “we are not permitted to provide this service to non-Americans.”

    > “When they came for your DVD collections (Netflix! Hulu!), you did not complain.”

    I don’t know Hulu; it is yet another “we will not do business with you.”
    I concede that Netflix has replaced the local video-rental store, but not the purchase of published movies, because Netflix rotates its inventory and there are some offerings I cannot watch again.

    > “When they came for your office documents (Google Docs! Adobe Creative Cloud!), you did not complain.”

    YES I DID! and I still do. “There is no such document you requested.” “The Google account associated with this account has been removed.” and Microsoft screwing up their certs for the Azure cloud service meant all their customers were locked away from their own assets for days.

    > “Now they are coming for your games (Steam! You love Steam, don’t you?)”

    I can use the products offered via Steam without requiring an online connection, but your article is about games that cannot be played without an online connection. Steam is an inappropriate example for your analogy — a better example would be Sony’s “Gaikai” service.

  19. Moses, you seem to have forgotten all the issues that plagued Steam for a very long time as regards inability to play while disconnected. We take the connectivity for granted now, but it’s actually not hard to end up with an unusable Steam library — just leave your machine off the Internet for a week. It phones home on a regular basis, and there are games that simply won’t run — Civ is one example.

    Again, these are points on a spectrum. If I had to forecast (and this is really a reiteration of what I said in the post): first the companies will overreach and underplan, and then they will reach the sweet spot where they get most of the benefits they want, and the consumer doesn’t mind because of added value. Steam is just farther along the curve than EA is. They don’t yet have all of the benefits, but they have a better consumer experience.

    A lot of folks have similarly argued that indies will be. But the fact is that indies sign up with Gamecenter, Flurry, etc etc as soon as they can because it earns them more revenue in the long run. This will then allow those who do go down this road as a class to outcompete those who do not, as a class.

  20. PS, yes, lots of people did complain, I agree. *I* complained. 🙂 But the market is speaking nonetheless.

  21. I totally understand why EA requires the log in. It may have been you Raph that said client side code is in the ‘hands of the enemy’ and thus it is best to keep some server-side, the only real way to prevent pirating. However, I would never buy a game like this unless the company guaranteed they would release an offline version before shutting down the servers. I have zero trust in EA to do this. In fact, there are some EA games that I purchased with multiplayer modes and the servers had already been taken down so they had no multiplayer. I hate to imagine where this Sim City will be in 10 years. I would not be at all surprised if it were completely unplayable by then because EA would shut the servers down without releasing an offline mode or sufficient code for the fanbase to recreate the server.

  22. I’ve loved online games ever since I got my first 300 bit/s modem. I also like single-player games with multiplayer options. But “single-player” games that REQUIRE me to be online? Pass. Dumb terminals are dumb.

    On the plus side, this might be the irritant that prods me to actually invest in a Kickstart like Civitas.

  23. All it is is a way to steal more and more information that they can turn and sell to whomever offers enough cash. We have an expectation of privacy. We are not “yours”. Slavery has been illegal in this country for a good long while now. You want ‘data’ about how I use YOUR software that I PAID for? Then hop your hippity happy ass on down and cut me a check. Don’t like that? Then get the bleep off MY line and MY system. I find pretty much everything you said up there intellectually deficient and insulting. You equate this to a rental. Ok Raph, then explain how Netflix and Blockbuster prevent you from watching the movie you rented whenever the hell you want to? Seriously, show me how Hollywood has safeguards on their discs preventing you from putting it in a portable dvd player and watching it while you drive from San Diego to Long Beach. Explain to me how Netflix, Blockbuster, and big evil Hollywood are stealing data about me because I watched a movie that I rented? you compare apples to oranges and then suggest its our fault? The one thing that is our fault, the narcissistic nonsense that has consumed this nation, you and your ilk have not fought against it, in fact you have made it 100000 times worse through your practices that you refine after learning from the data you have mined from us in a manner that would have made Joseph Stalin green with envy

    Hell, I came over here hoping beyond hope to find some information about how you and Lord British have teamed back up for Shroud of the Avatar and now, I genuinely hope that you have nothing to do with it.

  24. Severius, you seem to be laboring under one big misapprehension.

    I didn’t say I WANT this to happen. I said “it is happening.” In fact, I pointed out that I have big misgivings about it. I’ve actually been warning that this is happening for at least a half dozen YEARS.

    How does Netflix prevent you from watching the movie you rented? On streaming, this happens by not paying the sub and not being logged in.

    How does Blockbuster prevent you? By going bankrupt and no longer being an option, because they didn’t embrace streaming.

    How does Hollywood datamine you? By getting access to the databases that can be put together by every streaming source, such as Netflix, Hulu, and your friendly cable provider’s on demand service.

    The fact is that just about every online service you use is datamining the heck out of you. I see your email address is with a big company. They are datamining you right now. That is why the account is free. And they are not cutting you a check.

    That is what I meant by consumers gladly signing up. It has just been more gradual for games. It takes some work to activate “playing offline” in Steam, for example (, and few people do it because being online is convenient.

  25. Confirmed re: Steam. My router went down last week and I couldn’t play any of my Steam games because you have to initially activate offline mode while you’re online. I was… steamed.

  26. The nasty thing is when you are unemployed or poor, if you can’t pay the “subscription” fee, then you loose the ability to play all your games. (and suffering a depression like that one might want to be able to relax with some games for therapeutic effect)

    Or take a modern bank for example, if somebody are unable to pay their ISP bill, then they will be unable to go online and login to the bank to pay their….ISP bill…yep progress indeed. Some might say that you could just go to the bank instead, issue however is that many banks are now moving towards digital with only a few main offices around the world.

    Until an individual is guaranteed 99.99% access to the internet when they need it (regardless of their situation, financial or technical), then the way things are headed now could potentially head for disaster unless there are offline options.

  27. It is end of my gaming, no more money for video cards. Sorry nVidia.
    Privacy is more important that gaming.

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