Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Always Online DRM and Xbox

Don't know if you heard, but SimCity launch, the latest title from Maxis and EA, was a bit of a flop. Well, yeah, that may be a bit of an understatement: it was the worst title launch ever. Probably. Most probably. I definitely can't recall any other example that had gone so terribly wrong. And least of all, to repeat their mistakes for over a week. And you know the source of all the fuzz? Always online DRM.
SimCity should have been one of the biggest games of 2013
There have been other examples of poor game launches (90% of MMORPGs have problems at start) and even some of them have had to do with 'always-online' nature of some games that didn't really need it (Diablo III anyone?). But none have been so shameful as this one. Not only for the time it took them to get things straight (I'm not sure if problems have ceased already) but because of all the comments and tweets minimizing the problem and, most importantly, reassuring the necessity of the always online nature of the game to work, how the servers were doing important calcs for the game to work or how it would need an important engineering work to get the game to run offline. All of those things have been proven wrong by different modders and hackers.

It's unfortunate enough that you can't deliver a game that works to your legitimate paying customers, too bad that you need several days to fix all those issues, and it took you a couple of them to issue apologies. No, it's not enough, Lucy Bradshaw, head of Maxis, had to lie and say that "it's just not possible to let the game revert to an offline, singleplayer mode because SimCity depends heavily on cloud computing, taking place on a computer other than the gamer's, to run the simulation" (source here). That's apparently a 'misunderstanding' from miss Bradshaw (as published here and as this hacker has proven wrong). I'm sorry, I don't buy it. I think this lady is just plainly lying through her teeth. And I believe that's one of the worst things you can do when you have legitimate customers complaining about a problem you're fully responsible for is lie and try to justify yourself.

Epic fail!

I may agree or disagree with some of the design decisions taken. I believe it's stupid to impose the always-online feature on a game that most players are used to play offline. I think it's a poor decision, but it's understandable. I think there are other poor decisions taken along the way that have been most probably caused by the always online nature (like the 2x2 limitation). But it's their decision, what you should never do is be dishonest with your customers. The ones that paid and bought legally the game, the ones you're not trying to protect from with that stupid DRM.

One of the Team Meat guys has already writen a nice article on how this DRM is doubtfully paying off (here). I'm not gonna reiterate what he says there (which I would subscribe almost 100%). I will say that I was a potential customer that they lost. I hate always online DRM since I fly relatively often and don't have always internet connection available to play games. And even if I have it, I don't like to be imposed this sort of big brother surveillance. I know it sounds a bit paranoic, and I'm not really against DRM. I actually, don't mind it when it's not in the way of my game. I have well over 100 games in Steam, which is in itself a way of DRM. You need to be online to activate games, but that's just fair to me. You connect, activate, and you're ready to play whenever you want. DRM is not in the way. It's not conditioning design decisions. That's ok.

But what does it have to do with Xbox? Well, there's been some leaks of the Durango platform documents (source here) that describe the nature of the next Xbox would be always online. You need to be online for the console to 'work', to play your single player adventure, the one you've bought in a DVD/Blu-ray in your local store but that's installed in your hard drive and associated with your account so that you can't actually resell the game either.

This is a funny mockup of how Durango (Xbox 720?) could look like

I wanted to write my opinion toward that statement. If they really end up releasing an always-online, always-on console they are simply shooting themselves in the foot... with a rocket launcher. I believe there's no easier, better way for PS4 to win the next generation of consoles. Let me elaborate a little about this.

I understand that second hand games are a bit 'unfair' to publishers and, by extension, console owners. In a second hand game only the seller is making money, the publisher, the developer, the platform holder,... those are not seeing a penny of the transaction. GameStop (or whoever) is getting all the money (minus the price they paid for the game). But I believe it's not about the 10 quid you save when you buy the second hand game that's sitting next to the original one that's the reason why this is a bad idea. This is a bad idea because of the guys selling their games. These are normally those that buy them on release day. They play it, enjoy it for a week or two or three, and then take it back to the store. They paid 40 quid for a game and get 15 two weeks later. Suddenly the game's price has dropped to 25 for them, that means they can buy almost 2 games for the price of one new. They probably can't afford more than that, so you really can't squeeze the cow any more. If you take out that part of the business you're gonna reduce significantly the chances these guys will get your console over the competitor, the PS4, which have very nice hardware (possibly better than Durango) and none of the restrictions. And even if they got the console, they'll probably get the other one too and will buy most games (those that are not platform exclusives) in the other system, because they can then trade them in! And, in the end, it's the software sales that determine the profitability of a console, since most are sold with little to no margin. Or even at a loss. And again, the always online requirement is not really a good option for a lot of people. Be it because I don't have a reliable internet connection (there are parts of the world where that's pretty common), be it because I like my console in the basement rather than the lounge, or whatever. Imposing restrictions is not gonna sit well with a large and important part of your potential customers.

C&C 4 is one of those games I'd love to play (in spite of the negative reviews) but won't do it because of the DRM

Some people may think I'm all against DRM in any kind and form, but that's not the case. Actually, as I said before, I'm quite a fan of Steam. If you look at it, it's still pretty 'intrussive'. You have to register your game online for it to work, and you can't resell that game then. So effectively second hand sales have been removed (and are actually almost non-existent) in the PC market. Yet that's a big deal for console gamers. Why is that?

I can only guess here, but I believe Valve is guilty for that. You know why? Because they are nice and honest and not too greedy, or at least that's the perception from the outside. They have developed this immense digital distribution system called Steam, which gives you so many things for free you just want to have your games there. First, you can download your games as many times as you want and from any computer you own. No restrictions to the number of activations, and no other bullshit. Once you've activated it you can play your games offline. No need to be online everytime. Steam will tell you you're offline and the features that need you to be online will be disabled (ie saves in the cloud) but it will just work fine. It has achievements, stats, multiplayer support, forums, workshops, greenlight,... It's a lot more than a digital store, it offers so much more I don't think anyone cares about the DRM. It's actually just a side effect of you being able to download your game as many times as you want and from any computers. I don't remember hearing a lot of noise about that at the time, and I can't certainly hear many now.

Gave Newel's company has put the user, the gamer, at the center of their business, asked themselves what would their users want, what would be cool to offer them, and they implemented it. And they are very open, honest and approachable about it too. All these bundles like the Humble Indie Bundle offer you copies of Steam products, but for those activations Steam is not getting a penny. They are technically losing money with them since many people is using their bandwith to download those games (myself one of those). So, why do it? Well, I suppose it's because that's the best way of getting more customers. I suppose they (rightfully) believe they have a great product (Steam) and that any customer that uses it will want to remain in there so they try to expose to as many people as possible. That's why (I believe) they have a 70% market share on digitally distributed PC "hardcore" games. They are a very competitive store where to buy your games, they advertise some after you play a game in Steam. You can turn that feature off, if you want, but I don't because they expose me to new games I may like or old games that are now on sale. More users means more exposure which means more sales in the end. Just like freemium, I'd say.

My Steam library. How convenient is it to have all your games in the cloud?

Let many people put their games in our system, let them register users that have paid somewhere else, but then we have these users, which are happy, and want to keep using Steam, that will be subject to our publicity, that will see our main store page when they open Steam every day to play their games, exposing them to great new games for which we will take a cut. I believe that's their reasoning and I think it's great. It's a win-win situation. The developer wins because they can sell their games in other places on top of Steam which may be an important source of revenue some times. The user wins because they may make use of a great system that offer them a lot of great features but don't enforce almost anything on them, and all that's enforced is done for a reason (ie, you can't sell your game because you still hold a copy in your Steam's game list). And Steam wins because it becomes more popular increasing it's market share and thus their sales. Everyone's happy, no one loses. I believe that's the way you should conduct business.

But that's not what's happening with the new Xbox. They want to enforce arbitrary measures which don't seem to be justified by anything else but their interest in removing second hand copies and piracy, which is not a service for the end user. You can't just enforce arbitrary restrictions on your users without alienating them. You need to have a really good reason and/or offer something really good in exchange. MMOs require always-online to work, no one questions that, you're playing with hundreds or thousands of people all over the world, you can't do that without an internet connection. But if your game is mostly played offline (ie SimCity) then you shouldn't ask your customers to always be online to play. They are not going to understand it. The online features are not compensating for all the disadvantages. Not to mention the feeling that you don't trust your customer. I'm a paying customer yet I'm required to demonstrate it every time I run the game and if I can't (because my internet connection is temporarily down for instance) it won't let me in. Even if I paid and have demonstrated it numerous times before, they still don't trust me and need me to demonstrate it again. That's going to alienate your customers. And if you alienate your users but someone else doesn't (Sony, Nintendo or even Valve with their Steambox) they'll end up leaving you and going somewhere else. And regaining that confidence is going to be hard... and expensive. And that's why you do all this, isn't it? To make more money.

So EA, Activision, Microsoft, please look at what Valve does and immitate them. Don't let greed ruin your businesses. I love playing your games. But don't worry, if you fail someone else will benefit from your fall. Maybe it'll be for the best?

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