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Value Added?

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By Nelson Schneider - 02/12/12 at 03:24 PM CT

This generation of consoles has seen numerous changes – with most of them coming in the form of things I dislike. One of the most obtrusive changes is the way in which online functionality has permeated every facet of our consoles. Once stand-alone bastions of simplicity, consoles have become just as dependent upon the Internet as PCs.

Had online functionality been implemented in a console-minded fashion – that is, simple and unobtrusive – it would have been an obvious choice for the title of “Best New Innovation” of the generation. A simple and free service to provide matchmaking for online games, mandatory software patches, and a digital marketplace: This is the bare minimum of online functionality, and it’s all we really need. Yet the recent greed of the game industry has lead them down the dark and twisted path of “software as a service,” in which they bleed users dry through subscription fees and microtransactions while simultaneously driving users insane with in-your-face advertising and the relocation of essential functionality behind a paywall.

Not owning an Xbox, I’m not an expert on Live. But I know everything I need to know about it to know that it’s bad: It costs money. While Microsoft supposedly provides a higher-quality service than their console competitors due to the fact that they charge for it, the fact that a Gold Membership is required to do things completely unrelated to online multi-player, like watching Netflix, says otherwise. Why should Xbox users who don’t want to play online have to pay to use their Xbox for other things? And shouldn’t the paywall in front of online matchmaking ensure that a higher caliber or player participates in these matches? Instead, Live has a reputation of being overrun by insult-shrieking pre-teens. Is the dubious privilege of being called a “nigger” by a 10-year-old really worth $60 per year?

And then there is PSN. Oh, PSN, how can we count the ways in which you have gone astray? At first PSN seemed like a superior alternative to Live, as it was free and provided all of the necessary functionality of matchmaking, patches, the PS Store, and even Netflix streaming. Sure, the stability was not quite as good as Live was reported to be, but it was free! But before long, Sony began adding “value” to PSN and ruined it in the process. Let’s set aside their massive security breach (hey, it could happen to anyone) and look at how Sony has “improved” PSN: PlayStation Home, What’s New?, and that annoying ticker under the clock on the XMB home screen. Home is just a glorified visual chatroom frontend for microtransations where female avatars attract hoards of drooling sycophants, while the What’s New? icon and the ticker are utterly worthless advertisements. Of course, Sony has proven to be the King of Missteps this-gen, and decided to add an “optional” subscription modeled on Xbox Live Gold, called PlayStation Plus. Plus provides “free” downloadable games and exclusive DLC to members as well as a cloud backup service for game saves. Except these games aren’t actually “free,” as they become inaccessible in the event of a subscription lapse. And the exclusive DLC simply breeds ill will among a gaming population that already chafes at the idea of paying for unlockables that used to be free by tying specific unlockables to, not just a one-time payment, but an eternal payment. The worst foul committed by Plus, though, is the cloud backup system, as it encourages developers to copy-protect the save files for their games, making it impossible to back them up via the traditional method of copying them to a USB flash drive. Instead, the security of these saves, which may have hundreds of hours sunk into them, is held hostage behind the PlayStation Plus subscription fee. How is Plus adding value when it takes away so much other value?

Nintendo largely stood by the wayside this-gen with regard to the Online Value Added Wars. Yet by doing barely anything, Nintendo managed to completely screw-up the idea of ownership of games purchased from the Wii Shop Channel. While not recording credit card data turned out to be a serendipitously brilliant move on Nintendo’s behalf (Hackers can’t steal your credit card information from Nintendo if you have to type it in every time you buy something!), the lack of a persistent account to which to attach purchases also prevents users from redownloading the games they “own” on a different Wii (should their current Wii die or should they want to play a WiiWare game at a friend’s house). We still don’t know how Nintendo will handle the mass-migration from the Wii to the WiiU with regard to digital purchases, but the fact that Iwata has declared the upcoming “Nintendo Network” to be focused more on services than functionality leads me to believe that they are falling into the same trap as the others.

At this rate, consoles are rapidly losing the simplicity and friendliness that has always differentiated them from PCs. With Microsoft’s next Xbox supposedly declaring total war on used games and our content being held hostage by online “services” packed with garbage disguised as “value,” it looks like the next generation of consoles won’t be holding a very strong hand. Why should gamers put up with this nonsense? PC gamers have been putting up with Steam for years now, and it has finally refined itself into a usable service, despite being a thinly-veiled DRM scheme. If Live, PSN, and the Nintendo Network present such a loathsome and user-unfriendly façade, consoles will lose their main advantage over PC gaming and encourage staunch console gamers to, at best, flee into the arms of Steam and Good Old Games, at worst turn to piracy.

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