Keep the lights on
When Final Fantasy IX first released, it had a whole companion website, PlayOnline. The site was an in-depth interactive walkthrough for the entire game, filled with database information, all the stuff you could possibly want from a site devoted to a single game. The site was also designed to work with people who had bought the strategy guide, which tied into parts of the website wherein players could enter codes and see additional tips and tricks about a given area of the game.
That was dumb all by itself. But it makes the owners of the strategy guide look even more silly now, because that walkthrough site is gone. It doesn’t exist any more. The URL is now devoted to Final Fantasy XI, after Square’s grand ideas about that service’s functionality fell through.
You might say that it’s irrelevant, and it certainly is. But it speaks to an issue with a lot of games that were launching around the same time that the century turned, and one of the features that gaming is still struggling to deal with. Everyone knows, of course, that online functionality is important. It’s also not free, and the graveyards are littered with the bones of functions that got torn away.
Our most recent reminder of this fact came in the form of Games for Windows LIVE, which was essentially Microsoft’s attempt to capture the Xbox Live market but on PCs instead. What they succeeded in doing was chiefly destroying my save file for Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, which makes me very glad that I finished those games before that happened. Still, though, at least those games got the functionality removed, even if the removal was handled like a surgeon from the middle ages with a hatchet; it beats playing one of the games which required Games for Windows LIVE to function that simply weren’t touched.
They are not the only games. Load up a game from ten years ago and see what functions don’t work any longer because they were tied to platforms that just didn’t work out, services no longer offered, ideas that seemed like a bright idea at first but couldn’t go the distance. It’s especially bad for games that by definition were tied to online functionality. I’ve mentioned before that I have a boxed copy of Warhammer Online by my computer, which is particularly useless to me. It still beats the online functions of Warcraft III at this point, though, which has gone from being a massively popular title to being, well, that game that’s been out forever and is no longer played by anyone.
At the same time, the alternative plan of ignoring the Internet until it goes away certainly doesn’t work. Online functionality is a welcome addition to many games. But eventually, Pokémon Y is no longer going to be a happening thing, and when that happens online functionality or lack thereof is going to become a big deal.
The result is that a lot of games keep online functionality as a sideline, simply because the designers don’t want the game to break if you can’t use those functions. Mass Effect 3 tied its multiplayer into its single-player, and while the multiplayer itself was excellent, it means that getting the good endings with just the base game is a lot more difficult at this point. It’s part of why the game had a website rather hastily retrofitted to account for that functionality, to prevent the game from being too punishingly difficult to play as intended.
It’s why we’ve seen only so many attempts to tie single-player games to online elements. Diablo III tried it, and that didn’t work out so well; players weren’t as interested in playing a pseudo-MMO as the designers thought. But at least the game works… for now. If the servers ever go down, so does the game.
Content generation is the most common way of having your online cake and eating it offline, giving players a means of sharing their experience without actually tying directly to the online functionality. Players put forth what they’ve created, and then everyone can enjoy it! Assuming that what they enjoy are dicks, because that is what people will be sharing. Pictures of dicks. I do not know what part of human psychology seems to respond to a blank canvas with the immediate urge to draw a dick, but nearly every man and woman I’ve met gravitates immediately to doing so when given limitless freedom. Perhaps you’re more mature than the people I know, I fully allow for that.
Even if you wouldn’t draw a dick, there are plenty of people who would, thus valiantly assuring you that your long nightmare of not having a dick-monster in Spore will be alleviated.
This also ties into online functionality and what breaks. Nintendo’s approach for its games with online functionality is a team of human moderators, which is obviously the best option… as long as you’re fine with paying those human moderators to constantly be on the prowl for this content. Otherwise, offensive content gets through once the moderators start being trimmed back, and before you know it your servers are overrun with people who have more dedication to putting up dicks than the mod team has to taking them down.
By contrast, EA prefers to employ automatic systems, which results in ridiculousness like The Sims 4 not allowing you to put gay Sims on the game’s built-in browser. Considering that the franchise has always been inclusive of sexualities other than “hetero,” this is kind of ridiculous, and the company has outrighted stated it’s a glitch rather than a feature. That’s the obvious down side; the up side is that if the servers are still on in seven years, the presence of moderators or lack thereof will not result in a tied of unmoderated genitals.
Still, these features all assume that the online functionality will continue to work. If you have a game that explicitly works in the online space despite being a single-player game, how do you make sure that it still works later? Gaming, in general, has a problem with keeping its past vibrant rather than allowing older games to pass into memory, but how do you ensure that these new games don’t become entirely unplayable in a few years as technology marches on and the platforms no longer work?
I don’t know the answers to these things, but they’re the questions that need to start being answered. Game companies seem to be stuck in a perpetual state of coming up with what works now and not bothering to think about what will happen further on down the line, but it’s pretty clear that this Internet thing is sticking around. Time to start thinking about happens and what needs to be done to keep the lights on after the launch sheen has faded.