Recently, I’ve been trying to get into Bloodborne. This isn’t a result of my disliking the Souls franchise as a whole, just that it’s never quite overlapped with my particular interests. But I’m giving Bloodborne a solid go, even if at the moment I’m playing offline for no real reason other than that’s how I chose to play. The game does have online functions for those who want to duel people or play with friends, and that’s cool.
What would not be cool is if the shutdown of those online functions shut down the game. But that also wouldn’t be the same as an MMO shutdown.
It shouldn’t really be necessary to say this, but apparently it is, especially in light of a recent YouTube video that misunderstands an article I wrote back in 2017. It’s a bad reading that basically involves tilting at a strawman, but it’s also conflating MMOs with single-player games, two things that are peripherally related but don’t have a nice correlation. Railing against MMOs while complaining about a games-as-a-service design is actually weakening your argument.
Let’s start by covering the elements that are, in fact, the same. Any game with an online component can have the online component shut down. Also, both MMOs and “service games” (I’m calling that because it’s faster in the moment) are both video games. So that’s the same.
At a core level, Diablo III is designed to be a single-player game. It (sort of) has content updates and the like, and it has online functionality tied chiefly to the way that the game handles its multiplayer functionality. But the game is meant to be played as a single person. There is an entire game there that you can play, front to back, and you can play it all without any other people. The game’s economy and mechanics are designed for a single player.
Overwatch is a multiplayer game. There is no story mode of any sort, and the closest you get to single-player gameplay is going in yourself on a server filled with bots. Again, the same servers are used for the multiplayer matchmaking.
Last but not least, World of Warcraft is an MMORPG. It has a great deal of single-player content and things you can do alone, but the game is built on the idea that it keeps running when you aren’t playing. Anyone can log in at any time, and the game world is up there (except when it’s down for maintenance).
You may notice the difference already, but let’s make it explicit. In Diablo III, the servers are there to let you play with other people, just as with Overwatch. But in the case of WoW, the servers are literally the game world. You aren’t running the game on your computer; you’re running the portal to connect to that world, something that we have all long understood to be the case.
Consider the difference between buying a Blu-ray and having a Netflix subscription. You understand that your Netflix subscription is actually just giving you permission to connect to their servers and see the things the company has on offer. If all of the Netflix servers exploded tomorrow, you didn’t buy any of that. You had it until it was gone, and your subscription allows you access to the service. Owning the disc, on the other hand, lets you watch its contents whenever.
It’d be really awful if you loaded up your Blu-ray and got a message that said, “Sorry, but we have discontinued the viewing of this film.” That’s something entirely different from going to watch Gremlins 2 and finding out that it’s not on Netflix.
When I load up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, the game needs to connect to Ubisoft’s servers. It’s doing that so that Ubisoft can sell me things (unsuccessfully, since I purchased the game at a discount that already gets all of the DLC). However, based on the way that the game industry works at the moment, there’s always the possibility that those servers will get borked and then I’ll no longer be allowed to play the game that I have, in fact, purchased to play. That’s not good.
But it’s entirely different from the fact that there is a WildStar game disc in my house. That disc still works just fine. It was bought to allow access to the game servers, and when the game connects to those servers, it’s trying to connect to the actual game world. The online element is crucial for the game to function.
Trying to conflate the two actually makes your argument about service games weaker because it allows an easier job of reframing the discussion to “you didn’t buy this single-player game; you bought access to it until such time as the company decided otherwise.” We know what we’re buying when we buy an MMO (the rare ones that are actually bought these days, anyhow). I can’t count how many places on the box of Final Fantasy XI mention that the game is online, and if the servers go down, that’s it.
This is also where things like emulation enter the mix. The point is preservation of these games, and if the current events surrounding the rogue servers for City of Heroes prove anything, it’s that there’s a lot of interest in these titles even when the worlds themselves are shut down. It’s about preserving these games that literally cannot be played without the servers because the servers are what provides the world.
It is not, however, about games where the servers are required because the game is forced to check them even though they are entirely optional or there only to sell you things.
Your favorite MMO is going to die, and as I said back in 2017, the result of that is that you need to make peace with that fact and develop healthy ways of coping with the inevitable grief. At some point FFXI is probably going to shut down, and I will be sad, and it will hurt.
But my favorite games that are not MMOs do not need to shut down. There is no reason that, say, Bloodborne would need to shut down… unless the developers decided to completely screw over people who own the game because they can. Even if the servers no longer work, the game is there and functional. I don’t need Warcraft III to stop working even if its multiplayer functionality is no longer there.
These are not games that rely upon the servers to work. They rely upon the servers to do online things. Excising those online things should still leave a functional game. And if you want to be angry at developers shutting down these single-player games when the wholly optional online functions shut down, be mad about that, not about games that have a wildly different dynamic in terms of online functionality.