Friday, May 4, 2012

Are consoles going to be too online dependent?

I have a ton of reviews (some quick ones, a few longer) set to go over the next week or so, but in the meantime - I hope you all have a great weekend while I depart with these thoughts:

That title might sound odd - but keep in mind I'm not saying that consoles should not have online - I think it's a great feature and should be used.  But is it going to be taken too far in the next generation of consoles?  Based on what I've been reading, it's a possibility.

Without a doubt, one of the greatest achievements during this generation of video game consoles was the access to online community.  Some of the consoles did it better than others (We're looking at you, Nintendo Wii - here's hopes you get it right with the Wii U), while computer gamers have enjoyed this sort of connectivity for years before there was a PlayStation Network or Xbox Live.  The ability to play with friends, have conversations through voice chat, get updates to gaming content and watch player-made videos have really helped make this generation of gaming consoles the most successful to date because it appealed to a broader base of people and gave them a means of sharing these experiences.




 So, what is my concern here?  I've already had a couple of posts on here where I expressed concerns about whether or not we need the next generation of consoles this year or next (we don't) and if blocking the used game market is a bad idea (it is).  So what's this post addressing?  The talk of an all-digital marketplace.

Don't get me wrong - I do believe we are going to get there.  There were briefly rumors that the Xbox 720/Durango was not going to come with a disc drive.  That seems unlikely now, but the fact that this was even a rumor, let alone one that quite a few gamers considered at least somewhat plausible, means we are getting closer and closer to that point.  There is a certain level of accessibility to be had with downloading a game.  You don't have to head out to a store or worry that it will be out of stock.



One of the other persistent rumors is that the Sony Orbis will require a live internet connection to play any games.  We already see this in some PC games, and it is done as a means of curbing piracy or game-sharing.  While I can respect that goal, it fails more often than not.  Let's be honest, if someone wants a PC game badly enough, they will find a cracked version that circumvents this measure.  The bar is set a bit higher than in the old days where you simply needed a modified .exe file that bypassed online checks, but in the end these DRM policies just seem to hurt the legit players.


I can't help but think that an online requirement would alienate gamers on consoles even more.  For starters, not everyone has access to internet.  I know that sounds ridiculous, and if you're reading that statement does not include you, but I do know quite a few people who have no internet or really, really shaky internet who still play video games.  Also, what happens when Sony is down for eleven hours as they work on an update for the PlayStation network?  Sure, the easy answer would be: go outside and play.  Well, that's solid advice for a kid but after a full day of work if I want to sit on my lazy bum and play a title, I'd like to be able to do so with my system of choice.

There has been no confirmation to this rumor (or really, any of them to this point) - but I'm really hoping this one turns out to be completely unfounded.


Moving on, there are some real concerns about bandwidth as well.  I have run into this one several times, and I suspect it is only going to get worse.  The ISP companies are really in many ways at-odds with digital distributors.  On one level, they are often a competing service as most ISP providers are cable companies, and many people are dropping their cable television services in favor of digital distributors like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon.  I logged into PSN the other night and out of my 11 friends online, 9 were watching Netflix.

The consumption of bandwidth is only getting greater as resolutions go up, games and movies become larger in size and ISPs penalize people who consume too much bandwidth with fees or termination of service.  So while we get faster and faster speeds and the ISPs initially want you to believe it is a wide open internet highway:


In my experience more often than not, it's more like:

If games become completely digitally distributed, I'm afraid that we'll be limiting some of that broad market appeal games discovered this generation.  There is a significant difference between having an iffy connection and doing some light multiplayer and voice chat, and asking someone to download a fifteen GB game.  Not only does it affect your bandwidth;


But our hard drive space as well:


The other thing is pricing.  Don't get me wrong.  Gamestop and other companies who buy used games at a pittance turn around and make a pretty sizable profit when they resell these used games.  A lot of people dislike this practice, and there's justification for it: these companies are making a ridiculous profit and the publishers see nothing outside of the initial sale and perhaps DLC/online passes. 

I saw some online sales today though that caught my eye.  Largely because Microsoft had their Xbox Live Gold deal of the week, and they had four LEGO titles at a discount.  Thing is, that discount still priced each of those games at a higher cost than what I could find the physical disc for on Amazon.com earlier today.  You don't need to chew up hard drive space, you don't risk the wrath of your ISP and you have a physical copy you can sell or trade in later when you beat it.  Other than immediacy, there is no benefit in this situation to buying the game online.

The other example I saw was NHL 12 on PSN and Xbox Live.  The title's been out for awhile, so why are they charging the full $60 for it?  To me that makes absolutely no sense, and when I went out to Amazon again, I found it for nearly 30% off new, and nearly 50% off used.

Steam's model works pretty well.  Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is 33% off this week as part of their midweek sale.  You can pick up the enhanced version of The Witcher 2 for 15% off.  Digital distribution allows the publishers to save money on things like physical copies of discs, boxing, shipping costs - unsold and wasted resources when the title sits on the shelf.  It seems like a title like NHL 12 should reflect not only its age, but savings to the publisher since the only true value to the customer at this point is the ability to purchase immediately.  Then again, if your ISP is slow, it might be quicker to run to your local Walmart than wait for the download to complete.

I do believe we will eventually be a completely digital form of media, but it won't be in this next generation of consoles.  There are still too many barriers at this point, and pushing too hard in that direction will only serve to do damage to the growing gaming community.  Hopefully publishers are aware of this and consider their pricing and practices going forward while they take these issues into consideration.

What are your thoughts on this?  Do you feel we should be moving strictly or mostly to digital distribution on consoles on the next generation over the upcoming 2-5 years, or do you also agree that we are probably closer to 7-10 years out from being able to properly handle this as a gaming community?  As always, I appreciate your thoughts and comments, and thanks for reading!