Pretty much every game that comes out these days has some sort of online function, whether it’s something as simple as photo sharing, or as extensive as full blown multiplayer. It’s safe to say that online game consoles are here to stay. There’s plenty of good that has come from that, but as with most things in life, there is a dark flip side to all the positives. Ever since the PS2/Xbox era, the function of online consoles has been changing and evolving, not always for the better. Join me, friends, as I take a look at the best and worst parts of online consoles. And we’re going to start with the bad so that we can end this on a more positive note. It’s important to stay positive in these uncertain times.
And as a side note, I hope that you, the reader, are holding up okay in the middle of this waking nightmare currently called life. Times are difficult and uncertain for everyone, and if you’re anything like me, your anxiety is probably at an all-time high. I don’t have much of a solution for you, just hope that you’re doing well and staying safe. We’ll get through this. Be good to yourself. Be good to others.
Online features are so common that it’s easy to forget there was a time period where, once a game was shipped, that was pretty much it. There was no taking back the product you had made. Sure, certain games might get reissues if a game breaking bug was found, but apart from that, you had to actually complete a game before you shipped it. Or you could just ship a broken or bad game. It happened all the time.
These days, everything can be patched out later. Big name franchises regularly ship out a final product simply littered with bugs, some amusing, and some total game breaking. Levels not working right, a feature not working as intended, and even ones that stop you from proceeding with missions or quests. The excuse is that “it can be fixed later.” Fallout 76 is the most recent example of a developer releasing something that is blatantly unfinished, with the game having so little in the way of meaningful content and so much in the way of totally broken mechanics. Then, instead of fixing the game, or you know, adding actual gameplay and story, Bethesda instead charged players for a bottomless storage box (where in previous games you could store as much as you wanted in any container) and said box would then swallow items into a grand, dark abyss, because, like everything else they develop, it was buggy and broken.
Look, game development is extremely challenging. It’s why games developed by one person are extremely impressive, even if they’re short. You have to do a painful amount of planning just to figure out what your player character will look like, and that’s not even mentioning things like level design, combat, music, and story. It’s time consuming and I would imagine it means that mistakes are easy to miss. The incident I mentioned above? That’s not a mistake. That’s theft. It’s promising something and giving the paying customer a broken product instead. It’s no different if you walk into a jewelry store and buy a watch that’s promised to work, and then when you try to set the time, it catches fire.
I have no idea if Bethesda has fixed this issue. I’m going to assume so, or would at least hope so. But why would such a big name developer with so many resources at their disposal release something so blatantly broken? The answer is laziness and forgetful consumers. It’s the mentality of “just patch it out later.” Meeting a deadline must be stressful, particularly when the project is as big as something like Fallout 76 or the new Assassin’s Creed games. And I would love to say that people have wizened up and don’t buy into these kinds of problematic transactions, but this was from a game released in 2018. Online consoles have been around since the early 2000s, and this is far from the first time a big name company has so blatantly given the middle finger to their consumer base.
Capcom has managed to turn themselves around quite a bit, consistently delivering pretty great games like Monster Hunter World (more on that in a bit) and their resurrected-from-the-dead Resident Evil series, but back in the early 2010s they started charging real money for bonus characters in games like 2012’s Street Fighter X Tekken and even more recently with Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite…except the code for the characters shipped with the game disk. Meaning players weren’t paying for a bonus character. They were paying for a few lines of code to be removed. Understandably, fans were not happy.
Then there was the whole Star Wars: Battlefront 2 loot box debacle in 2017 that I won’t bother recapping here. The greed displayed by EA was so blatant that they had to drastically alter the game’s progression system and totally rework certain aspects because, understandably, people were mad that a key part of what the game promised (playing as famous characters from the Star Wars franchise) was locked behind progression so slow that the only way to unlock a hero without losing dozens of hours of your life was to pay for them with real money.
I keep hearing that the developers, Dice, have “turned the game around” and that it’s absolutely worth playing. Here’s the problem with that: to me, the damage was done as soon as they put out that godawful reasoning for their predatory progression system being linked to a “feeling of accomplishment” on the player’s part. That is the kind of excuse you expect to hear when you catch a kid with their shoe in a blender. They might say, “I was just seeing if you made a good purchase with this blender” when in reality they’re just being a stupid kid. EA is the kid in this strained, idiotic metaphor. Point being, their reasoning was so insulting, so blatantly a middle finger to the consumer, that the game has forever joined a personal black list of mine. I will not play the game now, because the publisher behind it showed exactly how little intelligence they think I, the consumer, have, and to me, all the patching and content updates don’t change the fact that they were expecting the Star Wars fan base to be so blinded by their love of the franchise that they wouldn’t notice EA trying to get their grimy fingers in their pockets. Then again, Disney did the same thing with the movies.
Let’s compare this game to the original 2005 Battlefront 2. That game shipped with a huge amount of maps (with both foot and space battles being readily available to players), had a generous helping of game modes, with a single player story, a galaxy conquest mode, and numerous ways to play the game with others. And it allowed the player to play as characters from the movies right out of the box if they wanted. You paid for the game one time and you got a really generous amount of content. Sure, it’s rough in spots (the graphics have aged rather poorly) but it really was the complete package you had to pay for exactly once.
All of this is to say nothing of how cosmetics are almost always relegated to paid DLC these days. For instance, in 2005 Ultimate Spider-Man dropped to mixed-to-good reception. It’s a flawed game, but still a fun super hero title, and one of the fun parts was collecting Spidey’s costumes. There weren’t a ton to unlock, but it was a really nice nod to the variety of outfits he’s had over the years. You could unlock these by completing in—game challenges. Simple, classic game stuff. These days, like in Batman: Arkham Knight, there are plenty of outfits for the caped crusader to wear, and they’re all pretty cool. Except they’re locked behind pay walls. You can’t unlock them in any other way than by paying for them.
I could go on about predatory DLC practices (and the article could almost exclusively be about how EA is the absolute worst company in modern gaming) but that’s a topic for another time. Point being, online connectivity has allowed developers to cut corners in ways they couldn’t back in the day. Back in the early 2000s, Ubisoft used to be a developer that pretty consistently delivered polished, well made products like the outstanding Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy. These days, they release open world shooters with copy-paste formulas that make them all blur together, and in some cases, they’re entirely broken, like Assassin’s Creed Unity back in 2014. A big reason for these cut corners and awful, insulting business practices is undoubtedly pressure from the higher ups in a given company. I like to think that, if you’re doing something as difficult as making a game, you wouldn’t deliberately make it broken or ship it with downright evil microtransactions. A lot of it is pressure from those lovely shareholders. But I think there’s another issue that can be traced back to the beginning of the online console era that has set the precedent for all these awful parts of online gaming.
The Xbox and PS2 were both the pioneers in allowing players to play with each other online. Microsoft introduced the idea of Xbox Live. It was a service that allowed dedicated servers for a variety of games and required an internet connection (something most people have to pay for). It allowed the likes of Halo 2 to become the stuff of multiplayer legend. Then the 360 rolled around, and with it, something called Xbox Live Gold was introduced. If you had the internet, you could sign up for Xbox Live and access things like the online store and technically speaking, your games could be connected to the internet. But you couldn’t play them without getting Gold. And in order to get Gold, you had to pay a monthly subscription fee.
Where do I even begin with this? Let’s break it down. If you wanted to play Halo Reach online at launch, you had to drop 60 bucks on the game. Then you had to make sure you had internet connection, which can be anywhere from 75 to a few hundred bucks if you had it with a cable bundle. THEN on top of all that, in order to actually be able to access the online servers for Halo Reach, you had to make sure you were paying the monthly subscription fee. That’s, conservatively speaking, about 170 bucks you have to pay just to play Halo Reach multiplayer. That is three separate times you are paying to play something that is considered a main feature of a big release. Meanwhile, PC gamers could play anything online as long as they had internet and the game in question had a multiplayer mode.
And sure, you get free games each month with Gold, and the newer Game Pass is an interesting experiment to say the least. But that does not change the fact that Microsoft set a horrible, greed-filled precedent when it came to online connectivity with consoles. And now Sony and Nintendo, their main competitors, have jumped on board, with Sony similarly offering free games each month with PlayStation Plus, as well as access to online multiplayer, and Nintendo, as always, being horribly behind the times and not really offering much in the way of online bonuses. It is now the standard for consoles to charge for access to multiplayer, and to me, that has caused a terrible domino effect of opening the doorway for all the other bad stuff mentioned above.
Folks, we need to be smarter consumers. The fact that these practices have become as commonplace as they are in the gaming industry is disturbing and more than a little sad to me. I won’t tell you how to spend your money, but I will encourage you to simply consider what you’re paying for and, in many cases, how many times you’re paying for it. Just be mindful of not only what kind of in-game content you might be getting, but whether or not that content is worth the money, and what kind of message you’re sending to publishers by paying for what you’re paying for.
Of course, it would be wrong to say it’s all bad…
So many good things have come from consoles with online connectivity, and many of them are the best parts of PC gaming. For one, I have been able to stay connected to some of my oldest friends despite all of us being scattered around the country. We regularly play games online together, and it’s allowed us to remain friends in a way we might not have in a less connected world. Hell, I was just in one of their wedding parties, and I’ve known the guy since second grade. It’s how we catch up and check in on each other.
And not only that, but the potential to make new friends you may never meet in person is there, too. I’ve heard story after story of people really connecting over their shared love of one game or another, and as a result, friendships or even romances that last a life time are formed. It’s a unique, special thing I think, one that was not possible in decades past. Of course, the flip side to this is that you have to deal with a lot of annoying people, but to me, it’s no different from interacting with the general public.
Then there’s all of the wonderful things developers have done with DLC and giving their games online multiplayer. Going back to Monster Hunter World, Capcom has supported the game since day 1 with consistent and frequent updates that add new monsters to fight, new armor to forge, and new maps to play on. They’ve added story quests, crossover quests with The Witcher, and lots of cool new weapons, some of which are fan made. And the best part is? It was all totally free. The only thing you have to pay for, aside from some cosmetics (and believe me when I say there are more than enough armor sets to make in game that the cosmetics don’t feel necessary at all), is the brand new expansion pack Monster Hunter World: Iceborne. It packs in a jaw dropping amount of content. So much so that it almost feels like a sequel that you pay forty bucks for. It’s more than worth the money and you still get an almost overwhelming amount of content even if you don’t buy the expansion pack.
And really, there have been some great examples of DLC done right. The much loved Borderlands 2 felt like a complete, satisfying experience, and all of its expansion packs felt like extra content, with some of them such as Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep outshining the main game. Xenoblade 2 delivered a full blown, 20 hour prequel story in the form of Torna: The Golden Country that can be enjoyed as its own stand- alone experience or as an expansion of the main game, but said main game is still completely enjoyable without it. The incredible Breath of the Wild added new mechanics and the fantastically tough Trials of the Sword with its DLC, and even gave more story content to go with it, as well as a motorcycle. Because video games. Then there was the 2018 Spiderman game, which gave players three new mini-campaigns and a whole bunch of cool new costumes to unlock with its DLC.
DLC used to be referred to as “expansion packs” in the early days of gaming, and that’s because it’s just what they were: brand new content that expanded or extended the mechanics of the main game. And all of the above examples are satisfying, complete experiences without any of their DLC, which makes that extra content feel all the more worthwhile.
And this is to say nothing of what it’s done for indie gaming. We are living in a renaissance of independent gaming, with some of the absolute best releases coming from teams of small, motivated developers with singular creative visions. Hollow Knight is an incredible Metroidvania, easily standing tall amongst AAA efforts like Dark Souls and even surpassing some, such as the 3DS game Metroid: Samus Returns. Team Cherry is only a few people and they managed to make something massive, mysterious, and impossible to put down. Then there are games like LISA: The Painful, which I’ve already written about on this site, but stands tall as a masterful example of storytelling in gaming or any other medium.
And a lot of this exposure for indie teams wouldn’t be possible if consoles didn’t have online features. Sure, plenty of games sell well on services such as Steam, but digital store fronts allow them to reach that many more players. Exposure for any independent artist is extremely difficult, and the simple fact of the matter is that many do not have the resources to create physical versions of their games. Online distribution allows them to share their work with people who otherwise may not know their game even exists.
The absolute best marriage of significant DLC and indie gaming comes with Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove. Yacht Club games had 4 planned story modes for the game, with each one allowing players to take on the role of new characters. And they’re all dope. Each one plays differently from the other, in the case of Specter of Torment and King of Cards, levels have been totally redesigned and new mechanics are added that were not seen in the base game. Arguably, those latter two installments are the best content in the Shovel Knight franchise. The wonderful thing about it, though, is that you only had to buy the game once, and each time a new game dropped, the price of Treasure Trove would increase, except those who already owned the game received the update completely for free. I paid 15 bucks for the original game when it first came out, and because of that, I didn’t have to drop a penny on the wonderful expansion packs. The game as it is is 40 bucks not on sale and even then, it’s an incredible price for a great series of platformers, but the way they handled the DLC was generous and accommodating to fans that have stuck with them since the beginning.
All of this is to say that, for all of the problems it’s brought to the table over the years, online consoles have allowed developers to do some pretty great things. And while it’s annoying and disheartening that so many developers release unfinished or buggy games, the flip side is that it has also allowed developers to deliver some great additional content and, yes, to fix problems they might have missed during development. Like most things in life, there’s a lot that’s awful about it, but there is so much to love, too. A lot of the good things I mentioned here simply would not have been possible if consoles didn’t have online connectivity. As consumers, we must take the good with the bad, and all we can do is try and support developers that put real effort into their products.