Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thoughts - Why XBLIG's Online Requirement Kills Certain Genres

There's a requirement for certain Ubisoft games that you MUST be online while playing said game. The punishment for trying to play offline is the obvious: you don't get to play. If you're a gamer, there's a pretty good chance you already knew about this and have made your long, angry, anti-Ubisoft blog or forum entry. But Ubisoft is a giant Splinter Cell-cranking corporation. Surely it's an isolated incident that wouldn't reach the world of indie gaming, right? As unfair as it is to word it like that, we all know it's been like that for XBLIG since the beginning.

And until this changes, competitive gaming will never be seen on XBLIG.

The reason is simple, but it deserves to be said. Competitive gaming usually takes place in one of two environments. One, like with many competitive shooters, is at a LAN Center, auditorium, or some other local space with the ability to have a large amount of monitors and 1-4 people sitting in front of each. LAN Centers will, many times, have systems networked and connected to the internet, so the problem can be sidestepped. When you're taking things to a high school lunchroom or the basement of a local church, however, you're lucky to have enough tables, let alone a viable internet connection for a dozen or more systems. And because of this, there's no way to actually play any XBLIG titles regardless of how great they'd be as a competitive game.

The second environment is on a larger scale, such as an MLG event or Evolution. The same problem applies, but could you imagine the headache tournament organizers would go through having 50-100 of their own XBox Live accounts, each requiring personal information? That people can possibly access or change on these systems? And then having each connected online? I'll concede that a LAN Center owner deals with that situation daily, but they also have a much smaller operation and a usually loyal customer base. In addition, having a system online opens up the opportunity for some sort of interference, such as people sending messages to certain 360s to distract competitors or just for a hiccup with the connection to cause play to cease.

Obviously the advantage of being able to take your 360 with you anywhere and play XBLIG titles isn't limited to competitive or tournament situations, and earlier this week I wanted to bring mine to a local gathering to play some Protect Me Knight and Score Rush, but that second scenario doesn't actually discourage sales and development like the first one does. With the online requirement, I could see many developers simply deciding not to make a game with a local multiplayer competitive aspect to it, as they may just consider it a waste of time and resources. I mean, what's the point of making a balanced fighting game or a carefully-designed team-based FPS if all that's going to happen is someone plays it at home alone or, if they're lucky, with one other person on the couch or online? What's the point of sticking months into beta feedback if the system itself won't allow a competitive scene?

On the plus side of all this, some developers still go ahead with the idea that people will play and enjoy the finer points of their games. Tribetoy, the developers of XBLIG fighter Chu's Dynasty, not only spent years developing a deep and aesthetically pleasing 4-player fighter but also hang out on competitive fighting game forum shoryuken.com to get input from the players there. I can't help but find it a bit tragic that their game will probably never see a tournament outside of one's living room thanks to Microsoft's online requirement, and it's sadly this reason that has prevented me (and I imagine others) from buying the game due to a lack of reason to play if it'll only be by my lonesome. Even still, it's a great effort, and one I know has won them the respect of said community.

In the end, this odd and admitted to be outdated online requirement does hurt sales, and most people wouldn't even dream of disagreeing with that for a second. But overall sales isn't the only thing hurt by XBLIG's need to be connected to XBox Live, and considering the indie titles are made for gamers by gamers I have no doubt in my mind it stifles creativity and forward movement for XNA's indie developers. And that is something that deserves attention.

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