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Huge downloads and 'always-on' demands frustrate gamers

Monday, April 29th 2013 by Dean Reilly
The games industry is making increasingly bold moves into bandwidth straining download requirements and strong-arming players into being constantly online to access their titles. So what happens when things go wrong?

Unsuspecting PC gamers got a bit of a surprise after picking up a copy of Bioshock Infinite on launch day. Not such a bad thing, you’d argue. Bioshock has always had the ability to surprise – it’s one of the strengths of the series. Well, yes – but the surprise in question cropped up before the game was even installed.

Unlike many of the in-game twists, this one had no real logical reason behind it, and wasn’t particularly pleasant either. You see, after unpacking their freshly purchased physical copy of Bioshock Infinite, PC gamers found that, upon install, they were required to connect to the Steam network, where – and this is the surprising bit – a compulsory download of the game would begin: all 14GB of it.

Seemingly overlooking the fact that the game was already sitting there across three DVDs, just begging to be loaded up and played, gamers had to wait before starting to explore the floating city of Columbia. Essentially, those that went out and snapped up an actual boxed version of the game, maybe because they liked the act of owning something they could pop on a shelf, had to wait as long as gamers who decided to download the game from the net - longer in fact, as the download is triggered around 25 minutes into the install process.

Now there’s probably a bunch of business based decisions behind this. It could be concerns about piracy. It could be they’re testing the water for the eventual move to games being exclusively distributed via download. That’s all fine. But I’m not in the games industry, my broadband is patchy, and I like a shelf full of games boxes. So all of that puts me in a position to say categorically that this move by Irrational Games is, to be blunt, stupid.

Within a few hours of release, forums started filling up with complaints, concerns, requests for work-arounds and gamers begging for patches to avoid the hefty download. Very quickly, the gaming community started to discuss whether a cracked and pirated version of the game might be a better bet. Ooops. Probably not the intention of Irrational Games’ move, but still the end result. If you take the UK average net connection runs at around 12Mbps, that’s around 5 hours of waiting. Not great customer service after players have forked out up to £40 to play it.

Worryingly, this isn’t the only example of the games industry presuming that A: everyone’s got super speedy net connections, B: no one is limited by download limits and C: we all want to be playing online, all the time. So, I’m going to give you prior warning of where this post is going. If you’ve been affected by issues raised after the launch of a game that rhymes with Dim Chitty, skip the next paragraph or two. It’s too soon for you to read this. You’re still going through one of the five stages of grief. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

Right, still here? OK then, let’s think about the train-wreck that was the abortedly disastrous launch of Sim City (along with its always online requirement) a little while ago. From day one, servers crashed and the game slowed to a crawl making it clunkier than my 48k Spectrum version. That didn’t matter though, because a lot of players gave up after the several hours of waiting in game lobbies to play the game. How dare they? Don’t gamers just buy these titles to act as fancy bookends or expensive coasters? One can only assume that the powers that be in places like Electronic Arts regularly buy groceries to watch them rot away in a bowl, buy goldfish to see how long it takes them to die when placed on the carpet, or release games no one can play (disclaimer: only one of those points is true).

It’s not a Digital Rights Management issue, they proclaimed. It’s a design thing, they had us believe. Then to thank gamers for, and I quote “all the support we’ve received from Sim City fans over the last week”, they offer a choice of premium titles to say “cheers, guys!” Not sorry, because sorry implies blame and some semblance of responsibility. To say thank you. Now let’s pick this apart: to call the treatment EA received at the hands of gamers during the Great Sim City Debacle of 2013 supportive is the worst abuse of language since someone coined the term “friendly fire”.

To their credit, the games Sim City players could get as their (ahem) 'thank you' were pretty good, but bizarrely included the deluxe edition of Sim City 4 - the prequel to the title that caused the problem in the first place. That’s akin to going out with a particularly attractive young woman, only to be offered the hand of her older and less attractive sister by their dad, and eventually finding out that the elder sis was, in spite of her advanced years, actually far sexier than her sibling after all, had a better heart, would be more fun to be with and actually worked.

See what you did, EA? Happy now Irrational? You made me go all shouty. Now to restore balance to things, I’ve got to offer a more objective final paragraph to ensure journalistic integrity. Here goes...

Still, perhaps PC gamers shouldn’t complain too much, though. Maybe we should be thankful for these trembling and rather clumsy journeys into always online experiences or broadband straining downloads – no matter how shambolic the initial outcome. Maybe they will, one day, lead to something fun that enhances, not blocks the gameplay experience. And look at it this way, whatever your net connection speed now, if Bioshock Infinite was released back in the days where dial up ruled and 56K modems were the norm, the 14GB download would take (wait for it) 34 days of constant downloading. Then we’d really have something to complain about…

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