GamesBeat

EA server shutdowns another example of why online passes are a bad idea (editorial)

Video game publisher Electronic Arts recently announced it is pulling the plug on servers for nearly a dozen games whose player base has shrunk. Online services for these titles will end on April 13 as the company shifts focus and resources to more popular products. We think this will make players think twice about getting Online Passes.

“The development teams and operational staff pour their hearts into these games almost as much as the customers playing them and it is hard to see one retired,” EA says on its Service Updates page. “But as games get replaced with newer titles, the number of players still enjoying the older games dwindles to a level — fewer than 1 percent of all peak online players across all EA titles — where it’s no longer feasible to continue the behind-the-scenes work involved with keeping these games up and running.”

Some of the games affected by the shutdown are fairly recent releases, such as EA Sports MMA (17 months old), Spare Parts (14 months old), EA Create (16 months old), and EA Sports Active 2 (16 months old). Other titles affected include Boom Blox Bash Party, Burnout Revenge, EA Sports Active NFL Training Camp, FIFA 10, The Godfather II, Need for Speed ProStreet, and The Saboteur.

A publisher phasing out support for some of its less popular games is nothing new, and odds are many of the titles on the list won’t be terribly missed. But what is notable is that at least one of them, MMA, features EA’s Online Pass, a single-use code needed to access bonus or multiplayer content. The codes are included in new game purchases, but those who like to buy used must hand over an extra $10 if they want to play with their friends over the Internet. Seen by many as nothing more than a cash grab by a greedy publisher, Online Pass remains a controversial and unpopular form of digital rights management, especially when incidents like the server shutdown highlight its flaws.

It’s also worth noting that Boom Blox and Create heavily tout online features in their marketing. Boom Blox calls itself the “ultimate social gaming experience” and has versus, co-op, and team play modes, while Create allows players to share user-generated content over the Internet. The shutdown will effectively cripple a large portion of both of these kid-friendly games, but unsuspecting parents probably won’t know that when they pluck a copy out of the bargain bin at GameStop.

Then there’s The Saboteur, a third person action-adventure with no multiplayer features. Players will no longer have access to a piece of downloadable content called “The Midnight Show” once servers are taken offline. The DLC contained gambling mini-games and topless dancers, and while I’m sure gamers won’t miss a couple of digital boobies and blackjack tables, its loss sets an alarming precedent — the permanent removal of single player DLC.

It’s not known at this time if the shutdown will sever access to The Midnight Show for people who have already bought and installed it, or if it’ll simply be unavailable for download in the future. I’ve attempted to contact EA for clarification. However, it’s not hard to see how this could cause trouble for consumers down the road. Just look at Ubisoft, a publisher that utilizes both online passes and always-on DRM. Its recent decision to move some third-party data centers to a new location caused Assassin’s Creed — a single player game requiring online authorization — to become completely unplayable for several days. So what will happen if the company decides to one day shut down the server permanently? Will it remove the DRM restrictions? Or will it look at the precedent EA has now set, shrug, and say, “Sorry?”

Although the server shutdown might make sense from a business perspective, it will no doubt seem unfair to anyone who recently shelled out their hard-earned money for an Online Pass. Gamers will now need to get used to the idea that “online” doesn’t always mean “forever.”


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