I read something today that I found hard to digest. It wasn’t that the concept of what I was reading was difficult, it was the implications of what is going to happen that I struggled with, and it started my mind ticking away about whether we’re going to have an evolution or devolution in the gaming world. The news in question was that when Sony switch off the Gran Turismo 5 online servers later this year, certain DLC will not be available for download, even if you’ve paid for it and have it in your download list. My first thought was an inquisitive “They’re shutting the GT5 servers down? It’s only been 3 years…”, then I moved into indignant outrage about content I don’t own that I’d no longer be able to access on a game I don’t play any more, before entering a more thoughtful state about the future of games that require server upkeep for the multiplayer portions. What is the realistic impact of this to the average gamer? This could be particularly important as we move into the age of digital distribution where some games don’t have a disc backup.
Let’s get the GT5 portion clear first:
- The servers are being switched off on 30th May 2014, after this you won’t be able to access any of the online features.
- On the 30th April 2014 all DLC will be removed from the PlayStation store.
- Gran Turismo TV will stop working on 14th March 2014.
- Two DLC packs, the Paint Pack and the Racing Gear Pack, will not be re-downloadable from the store.
Leaving the argument about switching the online aspects off and removing all DLC to one side for a moment, the biggest issue here for me is taking content away from a customer who has legitimately paid for it. It might be low value content that isn’t essential for the playing the game, but it is content that people expect to have available for the life of the PlayStation Network once they’ve transferred their money. If you’ve bought the game with the content already on a disc like a game of the year edition, or complete version, then there’s less to worry about as you’ll always be able to access it. The two DLC packs in particular are an odd choice to remove from the store, there’s nothing that states they are online only items and there’s nothing significant in the contents that makes it clear why they can’t be used after 30th April. Licensing is the only thing I can think of that would preclude removal, the race suits are NASCAR and WRC driver specific, but there’s nothing from the paint pack side that stands out (unless there are liveries that aren’t mentioned).
Regarding switching off the servers, this isn’t something that’s new, and will always happen to games when it becomes unprofitable to keep them running. I’ve played several games over the last year where the multiplayer aspect has been removed, we even reviewed one for Cost of a Coffee not long back, and it didn’t spoil the games. If we’re hitting that stage then the chances are the game in question is old and doesn’t have a thriving online community so even if they were active it might be no fun anyway. GT5 has a dedicated community, but I have to assume that it isn’t consistent enough to keep running the systems in the background. What doesn’t feel right in this case is that all DLC is being removed as well. There are numerous car and track packs available for Gran Turismo 5, none of which need online connectivity, and though you’d only be able to play them in arcade or custom race modes you could still use them. Why are these being taken away from potential new customers? There’s also the fact that this will likely remove the ability to platinum the game, it’s unclear on whether this will work with just the PSN (though I doubt it). I know I would never get full honours with it (I don’t have the requisite 600+ hours spare), but that doesn’t mean others aren’t nearly at that glorious double-ding point.
There seems to be a general feeling that this action is being taken to force people into buying Gran Turismo 6, and I can see why. We’re only 3 months since the latest iteration was released and we’re being told support and DLC for the older version is being stopped, you can understand the thinking. But is it actually a good idea? From a business point of view it is, absolutely no way around that, and it is something you see all the time in other markets, particularly consumer hardware and software. Think about what’s happened with the iPad, it was less than 3 years before the original stopped being eligible for upgrades, and that was a £400+ piece of hardware. You can continue using them, but the manufacturer has stopped supporting it for all intents and purposes and you’re forced to upgrade to get the newest features. Most Android phone manufacturers also do the same, and it’s usually in a shorter timeframe as well. Bear in mind I’m comparing the principles here and not the firmware update vs online functionality, it just shows that stopping older product support isn’t an unusual thing to do, and for the most part consumers aren’t that concerned. It’s only if the majority are vocal that things change, like Microsoft’s continued support of Windows XP.
It still doesn’t get us away from the DLC removal. What does manage that is what we all signed up to with the PSN:
“16. Software Updates and End of Service
16.1. Software may be updated from time to time, which may include adding to or removing existing functionality.
16.2. We and other publishers sometimes find it necessary to cease online support for a game. This means that features such as online multi-player and leaderboards will no longer be available. If a game is an online-only title you may no longer be able to use it.
16.3. If we decide we need to turn off online support for a specific game, we will endeavour to announce that decision with at least 90 days’ notice via our game forums and at eu.playstation.com/gameservers.
16.4. Other publishers may withdraw online support for their games and may notify you of forums or websites you should check for updates.”
So where do we go from here and are we going to see more content removed from the online stores? We’ve had Outrun Online be removed from the PSN and XBLA due to licensing expiring, and that was only on sale for less than 2 years. If you bought it and have deleted it, you’ll never get it again. Flappy Bird is the most recent example of removed software with the developer deciding (weirdly) to remove it from circulation. It might have been free but you can now expect to pay a fortune for it on eBay. We’ve also seen all the Marvel properties (excluding The Amazing Spiderman) be removed from PSN, XBLA and Steam in January. Again, licensing is to blame with Disney moving contracts away from the established publishers, and this also means that disc copies will also stop being produced as well, though they won’t be taken off sale. It’s safe to say that things aren’t going to change in these respects.
There’s good news though, because there are a few trends that aren’t disappearing, despite what the analysts and experts will tell you.
- Digital copies are no good as collectors editions and we all like a fancy packaged box with useless tat inside (come and check out my Arkham Asylum bat-a-rang if you don’t believe me!).
- Game stores and online retailers are better priced than the digital copies. We’re all dumbfounded by the decision to sell most games on the respective stores at (usually) 20% increased cost, and this has always driven me to buying a retail copy.
- You cannot trade in a digital copy. Microsoft tried to stop game trading with the Xbox One, we all know how that turned out. If there was a desire to go all digital from the target markets there wouldn’t have been the uproar we saw.
- Internet infrastructure is not capable of the game sizes in all regions. We’re lucky in the West with our internet access and speeds, but even then we get massive variations. What might take me 10 minutes to download could take Andy, only 40 miles away, 2 hours. If you’ve got a 30 gb file for a game and know you’ll have to wait a day for it, but it’ll take an hour to get to a shop, what would you do?
What we want as consumers is choice, we want the option to get the things that we want in the most convenient way possible. At retail it’s called multichannel shopping, or omnichannel if you want to keep up to speed with ever changing words. If we went completely down a digital distribution route it would actually be restrictive and something that not many of us would like. There’s scope to change this in the future and that we’ll some day not get games on discs, but I doubt it’ll be any time soon. I’ll leave you with a bigger and more controversial question though, does everyone really need access to old games and content as the generations progress?