What makes video games great?
Simple: the potential for complete immersion.
What a good book or film does with the imagination, or song does with the ear, or massage to skin, Rembrandt to the eye, savory scent with memory; video games can and have done as well, to varying degrees. Yes, video games have smelled, although, perhaps fortunately, they have not yet made us taste them.
Immersion is a composite affect. In a typical video game, it’s produced through visuals, sound and interactive narrative, sometimes even physical sport, all to bring you to worlds as simple as Tetris, as carefree as Wii Bowling, as lush as World of Warcraft or as intricate as EVE Online. Each aspect of a game- everything from economy to voice-over- nuances the whole, and each aspect can excel to accommodate deficiency in the others. But when too many fail the game is generally forgotten, and later severely discounted for a Summer sale.
Flaws in game design are a complicated topic, so I’d rather scale down and talk about something a little more manageable. I want to talk about nonessential systems that are detracting or distracting from potential immersion, often by disabling games in ways that make play unappealing or even impossible.
What unnecessarily hurts video games and their immersive potential? The major issues I’ll cover are:
Dreaded Digital Rights Management
Millions of games are pirated every year. Producers have a right to protect themselves from theft, while consumers have a right to a complete product they can use as they wish based on historical expectations of a purchase. I am excepting rental-type games here, as with many titles (ex. World of Warcraft) you are effectively buying a license to rent server time. Disregarding that, DRM should not restrict someone from playing a fully purchased game in any way.
Unfortunately, DRM implementation until late has been nothing short of atrocious: activation limits, online requirements for single-player games, sluggish and invasive software, unreliable activation servers; all the awful possible, as if to deliberately spite consumers. But after many years of debate and frequent debacle, the war seems all but won, the public heard, and the worst kinds of DRM mostly replaced with reliable distribution platforms like Valve’s Steam, proprietary game launchers like Blizzard’s Battle.net and completely DRM-free services like Good ol’ Games. DRM is not gone, but it’s healed substantially.
Still, it flares up like a sore with some regularity. Recently, the SimCity franchise suffered a disastrous relaunch caused by an unnecessary online-only restriction, resulting in Amazon pulling it from their market for a short time. Ultimately, it became a dramatic worst-case-scenario for developer Maxis, and while people can enjoy SimCity now, few did at launch thanks to DRM (certainly nobody is enjoying it more thanks to DRM). A year after release, the online-only “requirement” was removed from the game, a damning conclusion for the method if ever there was one.
There are still other subtle disables by way of DRM, as well. Blizzard’s recent hit Hearthstone demands an online connection, despite possessing some AI capability that could sate the blood-hunger during regular server downtime. However, online play is the obvious intent with this game, so it feels like a more reasonable limitation, albeit not entirely so. It would be nice to have offline access to the AI even if it is limited, especially when extremely common connectivity issues arise. It’s obviously minor, but nonetheless a free-use issue that peeks its head in gradually increasing ways these days.
Beside these disables, there’s a common fear that Steam, EA’s Origin and Battle.net have become some of the most effective data miners in the industry, perhaps better harvesters than protectors, querying our systems for install information and system processes that could potentially reveal more than we might deem acceptable. It may not be important data, but nonetheless few would willingly disclose it if given an actual choice. The real kicker is that this data may be sold or used for profit, yet it never profits the individual queried.
DRM has not proven tangibly beneficial to anyone, not even the developers, but it certainly has reduced the ability to enjoy games at our leisure.
Frankly, the only reasonable execution of DRM so far has been either 1) standard copy encryption and 2) platforms like Steam.
1) In regards to criminality, I often think of the saying “a locked door only keeps an honest man honest.” While often used to scaremonger about home security, it also refers to the natural fact that, most of the time, all that’s necessary to keep an honest man honest is a fence and a lock, maybe a sign that says “No Trespassing, No Copying”.
The vast majority of people are… “honest”, enough, although you can’t let every XBOX and PC gamer burn discs for his buddies; they’ll do it, and it will hurt the industry. Fortunately, the standard encryption for any release prevents basic disc copy at the consumer level, which is enough to separate the “honest man” from the dedicated downloader who will easily circumvent protection with the help of his “warez bros on the lifting boards.”
There is not and has never been any software that can thwart shrewd pirates from “cracking” copy protection, and almost every game and application released since 2000 has been tossed free to the hounds of the internet typically before the product is released to the public. There seems to be no practical evidence to support the use of DRM software.
2) Steam isn’t perfect, but it works extremely well thanks to the care, thought and experience Valve has massaged into it. An offline mode allows you to play without a connection, many games don’t even have DRM (meaning you can launch the game executable without Steam) and then there’s the dependability that comes with a huge company that can afford to pipe massive amounts of data 24/7 with rare hiccups. When something goes wrong, Valve often uses their weight to get it fixed. Most importantly, the software protection seems more effective than most, as I have had the displeasure of trying to use the Steam version of a cracked game and it was notably more complicated than without.
But, as insinuated before, I still succeeded.
Steam also offers substantial convenience in the form of frequent game sales and a dedicated, active community. It’s the elegant and perhaps sole example of DRM used in an unobtrusive manner with authentic perks to boot.