In the days before ubiquitous high speed Internet people the idea of having games that were only available when you were online were few and far between with the precious few usually being MMORPGs. As time went on however and the world became more reliably connected game developers sought to take advantage of this by creating much more involved online experiences. This also lead to the development of some of the most insane forms of DRM that have ever existed, schemes where the game will constantly phone home in order to verify if the player is allowed to continue playing the game. The advent of cheap and ubiquitous Internet access then has been both a blessing and a curse to us gamers and it may be much more of the latter for one particular type of game.
Way back when an Internet connection was considered something of a luxury the idea of integrating any kind of on line experience was something of a pipe dream. There was still usually some form of multiplayer but that would usually be reserved the hallowed times of LAN parties. Thus the focus of the game was squarely on the single player experience as that would be the main attraction for potential gamers. This is not to say that before broadband arrived there was some kind of golden age of single player games (some of my favourite games of all time are less than 5 years old) but there definitely was more of a focus on the single player experience back then.
Today its much more common to see games with online components that are critical to the overall experience. For the most part this is usually some form of persistent multiplayer which has shown to be one of the most successful ways to keep players engaged with the game (and hence the brand) long after the single player experience has faded from memory. We can squarely lay the blame for this behaviour at big titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield as most multiplayer systems are seeking to emulate the success those games enjoyed. However the biggest blow that single player games has come from something else: the online requirement to just to be able to play games.
Now I’m not specifically referring to always on DRM, although that is in the same category, more the requirement now for many games to go online at least once before they let you play the game. For many of us this check comes in the form of a login to Steam before we’re able to play the games and for others its built directly into the game, usually via a phone home to ensure that the key is still valid. Whilst there is usually an offline mode available I’ve had (and heard many similar stories) quite a few issues trying to get that to work, even when I still have an Internet connection to put them into said mode. For modern games then the idea that something is truly single player, a game that can be installed and played without the need of any external resources, is dead in the water.
This became painfully obvious when Diablo III, a game considered by many (including myself) to be a primarily single player experience, came with all the problems that are evident in games like MMORPGs. The idea that a single player experience required maintenance enraged many players and whilst I can understand the reasons behind it I also share their frustration because it calls into question just how long these games will continue to exist in the future. Whilst Blizzard does an amazing job with keeping old titles running (I believe the old Battle.Net for Diablo 1 is still up and running) many companies won’t care to keep the infrastructure up and running once all the profit has been squeezed out of a title. Some do give the courtesy of patching the games to function in stand alone mode before that happens, but its unfortunately not common.
It’s strange to consider then that the true single player games of the Internet dark ages might live on forever whilst their progeny may not be usable a couple years down the line. There’s a valid argument for companies not wanting to support things that are simply costing them money that’s only used by a handful of people but it then begs the question as to why the game was developed with such heavy reliance on those features in the first place. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like this will be a trend that will be reversed any time soon and our salvation in many cases will come from the dirty pirates who crack these systems for us at no cost. This can not be relied on however and it should really fall to the game developers to have an exit strategy for games that they no longer want to support should they want to keep the loyalty of their long time customers.