Face Off: Should single-player games always be playable offline?

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Requiring an Internet connection to play seems to be becoming the DRM du jour for high-profile, non-Steam games like SimCity and Diablo III. Why do developers consider a constant hand-hold with your ISP to be an acceptable requirement for playing an offline game? Even if it deters pirates, doesn't it simply inconvenience legitimate customers?

In this Face Off debate, Logan and Evan debate whether this form of DRM represents a fundamental attack on gamers' rights, or whether its effects are actually an overstated inconvenience that (gasp) might actually have benefits?

Jump over to the next page for more opinions from the PC Gamer community, and make your own arguments in the comments. Debate team captains, BEGIN.

Logan: Single. Player.

Evan: You win! Just kidding. Listen, as Satan’s advocate in this matter, I get that people are philosophically uncomfortable with the idea of having to rely on some distant verification server in order to access what’s on their hard drive. In concept, I guess you could say it’s like calling Ford before you start your car. But in practical, actual terms, the outcry against this as an issue seems totally disproportionate to the modest inconvenience it occasionally poses. Have you really been wronged by this form of DRM?

Logan: Oh hell yes. I’ve been thrown out of the middle of a level when my wireless network went down for a few minutes. I’ve been unable to launch a game on a plane because the Wi-Fi wasn’t working. And while it hasn’t happened to me personally, I’ve heard the frustration of gamers who pre-order games only to end up competing at launch with thousands of other players for a green light from the authentication server. I’m OK with DRM. I’m OK with developers discouraging piracy. But locking me out of my single-player game because the dog chewed on my router cable is not cool.

Evan: If you have a router or connectivity issue, you fix it—wouldn’t you want to do that anyway? And if you’re okay with DRM, wouldn’t the alternative to online connection-checking be horrific junk like SecurROM, which has a brilliant history of locking users out of games like Fallout 3 because they dared to have something like disc-burning software installed.

We should be amenable to the idea that asking players to be online while playing might be the least-obtrusive solution in some scenarios. Compared to other DRM, it strikes a compromise between developers’ interests, the near-ubiquity of internet, and protecting the integrity of features like auction houses or a global commodity exchange, which rely on external verification.

Logan: I see what you did there with the SecuROM boogeyman. Yeah, I’d rather have the online requirement than that menace on my PC, but that’s like saying I’d rather have packing peanuts than broken glass for dinner. And I’m not sure that access to a stable connection is as ubiquitous as we might think. What about rural communities? Laptop gamers in the park on their lunch break who want to fight some bears? Or soldiers abroad? And what happens to our games when the developer decides to shut off the server? Compromise on DRM is necessary, but “be online all the time and enjoy the game until we stop supporting it” goes too far.

Evan: What precedent is there for people losing access to single-player games because a verification server was shut off? Again, I think you’re overstating the real-world effect of a rare scenario.

In terms of your offline, lunch break bear-fighter—I don’t like the idea of telling anyone that they won’t be able to enjoy what they love on their own terms. But the cases you raise are outliers, and they’ll become even rarer as online infrastructure catches up with this form of DRM. This notion that it’s gamers’ fundamental right to play every non-multiplayer game in all corners of the Earth, at all moments, is unrealistic. Compromises are a natural part of being a consumer. Paying doesn’t entitle us to everything we want. Take the most egregious recent example of online DRM: Diablo III. PC gamers lambasted its launch week issues, but it was the fastest-selling PC game ever. Do we expect to get the best seat in the house on opening night of The Avengers?

Logan: If I buy a ticket for those seats, yes. Consumers can’t take anything for granted anymore. Even Microsoft sold “PlaysForSure” digital music to consumers and then shut down the authorization servers when the service tanked. You’re right to point out that my horror scenarios are uncommon and possibly overstated, but if I don’t have a guarantee that I’ll be able to play a game when I want to and that I’ll be able to play that game 20 years from now on my holo-emulator, it’s of lower value to me--and that should be reflected in the price.

Evan: What you’re raising really gets at the heart of this issue—the established notion of game ownership grinding up against the trend of modern games operating as services more than static products. Listen, I admit that it’s ridiculous for publishers to arbitrarily ask you to be online. But there are things we get from that seemingly raw deal. We get cloud storing for key bindings and game saves (I hate navigating the directory maze to figure out which random folder they’re stored in). We get social and economic features like auction houses—not everyone loves them, but they're something.

But most valuably, I think, always-online facilitates automated gameplay data reporting. Don’t you think that SimCity will be a better game because Maxis will have access to vast information on the game’s entire population? I suspect it’ll allow them to balance the game better, and kill bugs faster. Honestly, I like the idea of being a part of that give-and-take relationship. Consider the campaign data Valve collected for Half-Life 2: Episode 2 via Steam, and the value it surely had in informing their approach to Portal, and Portal 2, and Left 4 Dead.

Always-online DRM’s inconveniences may outweigh their benefits in some cases, but I don’t think we should universally reject it as a security option.

Logan: I don’t reject it as a security option, and just like there are problems with DRM that developers don’t anticipate, there could be benefits that I don’t expect. The reason I feel like I have to hold the line is that Steam’s offline mode seems like a reasonable compromise; it gives me some limited freedom to be offline and doesn’t make me feel like I’m being punished for somebody else’s piracy. But I don’t want to give up any more ground.

Evan: I agree with you, I just don’t agree about the level of impact that always-online DRM has. Yes, Steam offline mode is a nice compromise, but I’ve probably used it once in my life, during the lull between setting up a new ISP after moving. Ultimately, I don’t mind being asked to give up a modest amount of convenience for the greater good—discouraging pirates and giving developers access to useful player data that will probably improve the game. In the rare instance that my Internet dies, or a login server breaks, the world doesn’t end—I just go do something else.

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