Friday, February 01, 2008

The Importance of Being Online

My first Op-Ed article: How important is online?. I hope you enjoy it, I am working on my style and really appreciate any suggestions. Also, make sure you post your opinions, as they will be read out on the podcast next month! In this article, I will be discussing online and what it adds to and subtracts from games.

Online has, up until now, mainly something that PCs, and PCs only, do. Yes, the original Xbox connected to the internet, and technically so did the PS2, but even the Xbox was quite a lot of trouble to get it online and most games weren't even Live enabled. This has changed greatly in this generation. All current-generation consoles have online capabilities, in fact, I would go so far as to say, that online is what this generation is about. Great graphics barley make up half the market share, motion sensing is also about half the market share, but all 3 consoles, for better or for worse, have online. Not only this, but online is making stories for all 3 as well. Xbox Live has a massive reputation, obviously, but that isn't it, the PSN is trying to be a free, better version of Xbox Live and is one of Sonys main points to push. The Wii, also in the news about its online capabilities, namely how they are under-used, over-restricted and generally disappointing considering the Wii has built in Wi-fi. Finally, the PC's online is changing too, with Windows Live coming in to play, where some users are now paying for a service that used to be free. So to say online is at the forefront of gaming news would be a bit of an understatement, but how important is it really? Is it even a bad thing?

It is possible that online detracts from the games quality. As many of you will be aware, I recently purchased and completed Halo 3. I did so on the second to hardest difficultly, did not play it obsessively and managed to complete it in a matter of days (less than 5) For a game which has been in production for over 2 years, is that not a little short? If I had paid £40 for this game (as it happens, I managed to get it pre-owned) and did not have any intention of getting Live, I would be very disappointed with the game. While online may be very wide-spread, it isn't 100%. Some people could argue that, if you don't have online, you don't get Halo. I agree, but why should they miss out on a fantastic, albeit brief, game. Besides, it isn't just Halo. Call of Duty is another example (And I am sure Metal Gear Solid will be too) Some of this shortness can be attributed to the fact developers need to make amazing graphics or otherwise their title will just be shunned (that is what next months article will be on) However, I don't think it can be entirely responsible, as many of these games use pre-built engines anyway.

Also, as game developers are presuming the game is going to go online, they are delivering un-finished games. This used to be limited to PCs, where developers would just release a patch a month after launch. This was infuriating for the consumer, and when games are costing upwards of £40, it really isn't acceptable. That is not the worst of it, however. Some games take content out that had already been produced at the games launch to sell for more profits. Games aren't cheap, games are short, half the market is PAYING for online anyway, there really shouldn't be additional fees, particularly for horse armour.

That brings me on to my next point, cost. If assuming that you need online to enjoy a game to the full, you are going to need to spend some money. The 360 is the most guilty of this. If, firstly, doesn't have built in Wi-Fi. This is in itself shockingly bad, given that even the underpowered Wii does. But it gets worse, Microsoft charge £60 for the Wi-Fi card. It isn't a special card, it is a USB wireless adaptor, something that you can buy for PC for under £20 without going budget. It isn't even reliable, my friend has got through 4 since getting his 360 this Christmas. Surely Microsoft has taken enough of your money now? No, you have to pay for online. I mean, come on, that is ridiculous. Yes, Live is better than both the PSN and, obviously, the Wii, but £40 a year better? The truth is no, but it won't change because everyone, myself included, will keep buying it because they want to play their games online. It isn't just Microsoft who will rob you though, the PS3 has got a game coming out later this year BUILT around the idea of micro-transactions (Home)

Despite all that, online does have many good points too. The most obvious one is how it extends the game. Single player, no matter how long, will eventually get old, in theory, a decent evolving online game won't. Case in point: Halo. In 5 years time, Halo will still be a blast to play online. Offline multiplayer requires organisation, online doesn't Online means you can pick the game up for 5-10 minutes, play and go. Online means you can meet your friends online and be able to play them with out breaking commitments to other ties.

Also, many game developers will release more content after launch. Sometimes you will have to pay, sometimes you won't. It means that if they find something that isn't balanced, it can be fixed, increasing the longevity of the game. Halo periodically releases new maps that eventually become free. This, once again, keeps players coming back and helps to keep the game fresh. Yes, micro-transactions aren't cool, but if the content is right, then why not? You pay for games. I am not talking about horse armour, something I will never forgive Bethesda Studios for, but extra missions, new maps, different variants etc.

Finally, one of the key things about technology at the moment is user generated content. Take a look at any modern "Web 2.0" site. Post comments and write blog links are everywhere. Games are starting to embrace this, most obviously with things like Mii creation, but also more crucially things like screen shots and movies. Last generation, there were loads of movies created by fans using their favourite games, just search YouTube for Halo 2 Red Vs. Blue if you don't believe me. Or Halo Music Videos But this generation, things can get a little more advanced. With the ease of online, users can work together to make really good content. The online community is ready to embrace you.

So, do we need online? It definitely makes developers lazy, both with length of single player and bug fixing, but mulitplayer is usually the most fun element in a game and online multiplies that tenfold. I recently marked Metroid Prime 3: Corruption down for not having it. It would be, quite frankly, hypocritical to say no to online, as I just finished a Halo game online. However, one thing that might be possible if a developer was feeling really kind, and in some ways Metal Gear Solid is going to do this, is ship the offline portion on the disk having spent all the development time creating it. Then, because it will take a few months for everyone to complete, they develop the online portion and deliver it digitally. People who don't have online won't receive it, but it doesn't matter, because they won't be using it either. However, this won't happen as people are buying short games at full price. What I think we are going to see, however, is single player stuff being added later for a fee. Please leave your thoughts, comments and suggestions how I can make these articles better in the remarks button below.
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