Why is everything a live service?

2022-10-14  News and opinion

I caught a streamer I follow playing Marauders recently and the game looks fantastic. For those who don’t know, it’s a sci-fi FPS that has players jumping between ships as space pirates in search of loot. Visually, it struck me as an interesting fusion of No Man’s Sky, Wolfenstein, and Fallout.

As is the case in other shooters in its subgenre, during the raids you’re faced not only with AI-controlled bots, but also other players. The unpredictability lends an almost horror-like pacing to proceedings as you creep through the dark corridors wondering what might be lurking around the next corner.

But the truth is that I’m just not that fussed about playing online. I don’t have hours per day to hone my skills in a particular game, and those who do will always blow me away. But Marauders looked like fun, so I went searching on Steam to find out whether I can play it offline if I want to chill out.

There was no mention of offline play on the store page, and every forum post I found on the topic suggested that it’s simply not possible. This was disappointing in the context of this game, but feels all the more alienating against the backdrop of wider changes in the games industry.

Everything, everywhere, all online

First FIFA went online, and within a few years Ultimate Team was the main game mode. Since 2010 or thereabouts, changes to the match engine and Career Mode have been minor, with the developers’ focus clearly on raking in as much money as possible from players for digital trading cards.

The same has happened to racing games. Gran Turismo 7 was unbalanced as a single player experience because the economy had to work on a global scale. Cars were riced at the equivalent of tens of hours of grinding in an attempt to push players towards microtransactions. And the F1 series is starting to follow a similar path, with an increased focus on the purchase of tangental items like race suits and victory radio messages.

And even games that have no business connecting to the internet now enforce it. The Hitman series might be fantastic in gameplay terms, but there was no excuse for it to require an internet connection to earn unlocks in single-player missions that have no online gameplay components at all.

Perhaps Marauders can be forgiven a little for its online focus - it is an early access game after all, and it will need to receive updates as new features are added. But the question can still be asked: Why, when all the ingredients are there - environments, weapons, AI - can the game not be played offline?

Lessons from the past

Put bluntly, forcing players online is making gaming a less enjoyable hobby overall. At best it’s inconvenient, and at worst a series like FIFA or Gran Turismo goes from being an enjoyable, high-quality offline game to a product where the gameplay sometimes feels secondary to the publisher’s desire to extract additional money from you over and above the box price.

The other significant drawback to online-only games is that they become inaccessible once the developer deems they are no longer profitable to run. Even Hitman is patched to be properly playable offline someday, if I boot up my copy in 20 years once the PS4 servers are down and said patch is unavailable, I still won’t be able to play the full game from the disc alone.

By comparison, look at favourites from previous generations. Pro Evolution Soccer 5, Formula 1 ‘97, and Gran Turismo 3 were all standalone games, presented in their entirety on a single disc, and if I put that disc in a console in 2022 they run just as well as they did they day I bought them. While the downloadable bug fixes introduced during the Xbox 360 generation were a useful new tool, the modern trend towards games that don’t run - or are severely limited - without an internet connection is a step too far.

Maybe I’m clinging to the past and the days of complete, offline games are numbered, but it’s consistently disappointing to see an interesting-looking game only to find out that it requires the internet to function and will die the moment the servers are shut off. Our only hope is that gamers wise up and vote with their wallets, but at present that doesn’t look very likely.

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