There is a conversation I've had three times in the last week, and it goes a little something like this: Cory Doctorow has been talking for a while now about an event he calls the 'civil war on general computing'. The gist is that, over the last decade or so, Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been establishing a paradigm in which consumers are free to buy and sell computer hardware, but their ability to run software - even software they've paid for - is controlled, in real time, by distant corporate entites. Doctorow suggests that if we, as consumers, don't rise up and demand open standards and other forms of digital emancipation, we will find ourselves in a situation where the general public are forbidden from using computer hardware for anything other than certain sanctioned activities.
If this sounds like exaggerated, Orwell-inspired cyberpunk scaremongering to you, here is a short example of how it has already begun to manifest in my own life: I bought an iPhone 3G three years ago, and of course I've been slowly installing apps and games on it since then. At least I used to. Apple have released a number of iOS updates since I bought my phone, and when they stopped supporting my phone... well, I just shrugged and stopped buying new things for my phone. But what really made me sit up and get mad was when I was lying in bed one night last year and wondering if there were any good arcade cabinet deals going on eBay; I reached for my phone in the darkness, tapped in the unlock code, tapped on the eBay app and was given a digital brush-off.
"This app requires an update to run" ran the message, or words to that effect. I hopped onto the App Store, went to the eBay app page and hit Download. "This software requires a newer version of iOS", it shrugged. I knew what was coming next, but I asked anyway - had Apple released a system update for my three-year-old hardware? "No new system updates are available" came the final response, shutting down any hopes I had of browsing through pages of Golden Tee cabinets from the comfort of my bed. I'm used to being given this kind of runaround by immigration officials, each and every deskbound form-stamper sending me to another department and rolling their eyes at the fact I haven't had some previously unmentioned form signed by the Deputy General Of Paperwork, but I don't appreciate this kind of attitude coming from my own phone. Slowly but surely, apps on my phone that have previously worked are now locking me out, even though nothing has changed within the boundaries of its fully-functioning hardware.
Podcast listeners will be aware that I recently bought a new Android phone. I vowed not to get another iPhone because of a number of shitty experiences I had with the last one - to be sure, it's a nice bit of hardware and iOS is far more robust and pleasing to use, but the amount of bullshit hurdles I've had to jump over the years just to do anything OTHER than download stuff from the App Store is ridiculous. And like I say, I couldn't even do much of that 12 months after I bought the thing - the only task I still routinely use it for is downloading new podcasts to listen to while I go down the shops. My new phone feels much more full of sloppy little quirks and bugs, and Google's own Gmail app is HORRIBLE compared to the built-in iOS mail app, but I have zero regrets in making the change. The difference is that it just does what I ask it to.
When I want to rejig the music on my Android phone, I just plug it in via USB and drag and drop albums within Windows. To update my iPhone I had to use iTunes, which won't even install on my 64-bit desktop for some reason, but even if it did it would just give me all kinds of shit about having a limited number of activations, or deleting everything off my phone whenever I tried to sync it with a new machine. Similarly, I bought the iOS and Android extensions for Game Maker just before Christmas. To test an Android build of my work I can just export the project as an .apk file, copy it to the phone memory card like any other file, then instruct Android to install it; to test an iOS build, I would have to BUY A MAC(?!), register as an Apple developer (which requires an annual fee), set up a load of security keys and then use iTunes to manage the installation.
It's completely ridiculous. But this is the DRM ecosystem that Apple are keen to develop, and until Steve Jobs went the way of my eBay app their success seemed inevitable. Now, with their stock price arcing back down to Earth and their new products receiving much more critical receptions, Apple's future is less certain! Still, many software companies are now looking to emulate Apple's digital business model, and (as ever) there's no reason not to think of commercial videogames as anything other than consumer software - Ubisoft, for example, are well-known for their ridiculous 'always on' DRM systems, which will punt you out of your legally-purchased game and drop you back at your desktop if you happen to lose your internet connection during play. As per Doctorow's fears you might own your hardware, but you cannot truly 'own' a copy of these games - at best, you can pay the necessary fee to become a license-holder, subject to the terms and conditions of their user agreement, which include a number of cases in which your access to the game will be revoked without recompense.
That's part one.
Part two is this: What is the lifespan of a videogame?
The whole concept is nebulous and weird, but I'm talking in terms of how much time in a typical player's life is taken up by playing a certain game. You could expand on this a little more by thinking about how many players will still be interested in playing the game years after its release, but I'm not worrying too much about that right now - I like the idea of digital archiving, but I'm also willing to assume that most games will drop off to a small fraction of their peak within 5 years after launch. I saw a bunch of graphs at GDC last year saying that console players (you know, those people who can still actually 'buy' and 'sell' their games) usually trail off onto other games within three months, which is why it's become so important for developers to get DLC out during this period. I digress.
Try making a list of the top ten games you've spent the longest total time playing. Because you're a smart, sexy Midnight Resistance reader, I wouldn't be shocked if your number one game ran into thousands of hours - Civilization, perhaps? World of Warcraft? For me, it's almost certainly Pokémon. But what about your number ten game? I doubt it would be more than a few hundred hours, if that. What about number twenty? Thirty? And how many games in total have you ever played?
I've been thinking lately that most games have a pretty short lifespan, really. A long RPG might take 80+ hours to complete, and you might realistically play it through five or six times in your lifetime, but only the most heroic nerds would go beyond that. That's fine too, but they are outliers. I'd say that the really long games - the ones you play for thousands of hours - are those based on systems and simulations. World of Warcraft's dynamic social environment, Sim City or Civilization's countless permutations, any kind of competitive game like Counter-Strike, DOTA, StarCraft or Street Fighter IV, the endless, emergent soap opera of The Sims, or games with a broad scope for slow, grinding personalisation, like Minecraft, Diablo or Pokémon. The fundamental pleasure of these games come from their systems, rather than their content - every session of play feels unique, even if you're performing the same basic actions tens of thousands of times.
What does this mean for smaller, content-driven games? Last weekend I played through Christine Love's Digital: A Love Story and Analogue: A Hate Story. They both take less than an hour to complete, and neither make a very compelling case for replayability. That's fine - they're still good games - but when I think about their lifespan they seem like tiny blips, lost amid a rolling sea of franchised entertainment commodities. Is this a problem? I'm not referring to this dumb idea that games need to be at least a certain length to be worthwhile; what bothers me is the way that big, emergent, systematic games seem to 'drown out' smaller, content-driven games in people's minds. It seems like content-driven games have been trying to counter this with steady flow of fresh DLC, but I don't think this is a sustainable strategy, and it's starting to leave a bad taste in people's mouths. Mass Effect 3 is a prime example - its DLC has been of generally decent quality, but the thing putting a lot of people off buying it is just that they just want the game to shut up and stay finished.
The competition between companies these days - not just in games, but in the digital sector generally - is as much for your attention as it is for your money. Blogging sites, including Facebook and Twitter, rely on users' egotism to provide an immeasurable flow of free, addictively empathetic content; Google records all kinds of data about your browsing habits to make its advertising platform more appealing to clients; TV networks are constantly telling you to go online and 'join the conversation' about their programmes in their efforts to dominate the second screen. You pay for these products with your time, and fractional amounts of effort that they'll bundle up and market to someone else - including other users - as their product.
It bothers me that games - both online and offline - are being increasingly tuned to hold players' attention for longer periods of time. Attempts to shape player behaviour are nothing new - the legend goes that the original Final Fantasy games were deliberately designed to be drawn-out grind-fests to prevent players from simply renting them for a few hundred yen and finishing them in a weekend - but always-on network connections and sophisticated analytics are now being leveraged to produce much more precise models of player behaviour. Given the power of these tools, what kind of social responsibilities should game developers be subject to in their employment? At what point, if any, should a game developer stop players from playing their game?
Have you ever killed a game? It's difficult. I mean, logistically, it's hard work - just ask those guys who are systematically hunting down and destroying every copy of Shaq-Fu. Your task becomes a lot easier if the game relies on a connection to a central server, but even then it's often possible to redirect clients to a fake server and run the game privately. But it can also be difficult from an emotional perspective... when you've spent years of your life creating a rich game space in which a community of players are enjoying themselves, it can be difficult to tear it down. Still, in the case of centralised, online games it's almost always necesssary sooner or later - such games obviously come with certain practical pre-requisites, chiefly that the company must be making enough money to keep the servers online.
Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate comes out in two months, and I'm really looking forward to it! However, I'm also feeling pretty bummed out by the news that they're turning off the Monster Hunter Tri servers a few weeks after launch. Their position is understandable, but I'm sad because it means my usual monster hunting team will probably never play together again. In the six month period we played together I racked up over 70 hours on my save file, almost all spent in the multiplayer mode. Of course, I can always just load up in singleplayer mode and keep playing like that, but that file represents more than just data, more than just the time spent grinding out potions and shock traps or building up armour sets... it holds a lot of memories for me.
Still, I wonder. Given the timing of the server shutdown, it's impossible not to view this - at least in part - as a sort of 'forced migration' event. After all, what's the point in releasing an expensive remake if people are going to keep playing the original game? Considering that Capcom are only shutting down the online component of the game, which they have never charged an additional fee for, this doesn't sound so unreasonable. But what implications could this philosophy have in the age of DRM? If every copy of Shaq-Fu required a live internet connection to run, it would take no effort at all to have the verification server instruct every connecting copy of the game to delete itself. When you've already released a game that players cannot stop playing - when the greatest competition to your new game comes from your previous game - what profit-driven corporate entity WOULDN'T push the button?
Is this the future of commercial videogames? When devices can reliably fling data around over the airwaves without a second thought, should we expect developers to be releasing games that monitor your behaviour and adjust their content to ensure you never stop playing? And then - once the appropriate signal is sent out - lock themselves down and tell you to upgrade, or lose your invested time and money. This is a bit like what Apple go through whenever they release a new iPhone, banking on the idea that people have invested so much money into iTunes and App Store purchases that they can't afford to lose it all by moving to a rival platform. If they hadn't frozen me out of the market by discontinuning support of my hardware so quickly, it could have worked on me too.
There isn't much of a part three to all this, except to say that id Software are pretty cool for releasing open-source versions of their software once it becomes commercially redundant. I love the idea that, once a game has reached the end of its natural life, it be put out in public and documented for any interested parties to study and toy with.
Support open standards. And don't take drugs.