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Always-online requirements are ruining mobile gaming

Ben Johnson Sep 18, 2014

I’m not a true gamer, but I love playing games on my tablet. As a New York commuterthough yes, I do spend time readinggaming is a key part of my day. Or at least it used to be. Recently my commute has very little game play in it, thanks to the growing popularity of a feature I absolutely hate in mobile games: the always-online requirement. 

More and more, the mobile games I’m downloading and trying to play on my phone or tablet use this, and in the process renders my gaming experience at best annoying and at worst impossible. The early versions of this road block started with getting a generic error message or pinwheel suggesting the game was having trouble booting up. Now, it’s more direct: “Error! No Internet connection available. Please make sure your device is connected to the Internet.”

The worst. 

Requiring a constant internet connection for PC and console games to work has been around for a few years. For game makers, it seems to serve some different purposes, some of which it can probably be argued do benefit the user. It makes it easier to deliver updates, have a more dynamic, changing game environment, especially in the case of massively multiplayer online games.

That hasn’t stopped big controversies from blowing up over what has also been called “persistent online authentication.” Remember the “Diablo III” release? OK, that was back in 2012. How about EA’s “Sim City” always-online foul-up a bit later? Followed a few months later by the resignation of the company’s CEO John Riccitiello? The most recent example would probably be not game-based but console-based. When it looked like Xbox One would have an always-online requirement built in, gamers revolted, and Microsoft reversed course so quickly that it made you worry the massive tech company might sprain an ankle.  

In the mobile game space, this requirement seems to be about everything from getting me to spend more money with in-app purchases, to incorporating some sort of bogus “social” aspect of the game that is more often than not a nudge for a free bit of advertising. But it doesn’t at all seem about making my experience as a game player better. I can’t fix it or toggle it in the game’s settings (which ought to be a no-brainer). I can’t even easily tell while I’m shopping for games whether the requirement is part of what I’m buying unless I go through reviews with a fine-toothed comb. Basically 99.9% of the time, the benefit of always-online for the user seems nonexistent. 

That might be because the benefit for the user is actually nonexistent 100% of the time. The always-online requirement is also a form of DRM, or digital rights managementessentially, a way for publishers to be sure that you aren’t using a pirated copy of a game. I get that, but it seems to me that pirated copies of video games aren’t a particularly popular form of personal copyright infringement.

And until the day the entire globe is magically blanketed in free WiFi shooting out of Google unicorn horns, making the mobile game player be online when they want to play hurts the user and the publisher. Why? Because the company that makes the game is cutting my potential in-app time in half, and making me not want to spend any money on games made by hardworking developers.

For the record, I’m happy to be convinced that making games this way is somehow essential, but I just don’t see it as a user. For now, I hope that mobile gamers are one day as engaged with the products they buy as real-deal gamers, and that they too consider revolt. 

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