For many PC gamers, the recent trend toward always-connected games – sometimes referred to by the name of its top-hat-wearing, mustachioed alter ego, “always-on DRM” – is an oncoming black cloud. Developers, however, insist that there's a silver lining. The likes of Blizzard and id, for instance, argue that they'll make up for a tiny loss of control with a heaping helping of convenience. "In the end, it's better for everybody," id's Tim Willits told Eurogamer. "Imagine picking up a game and it's automatically updated. Or there's something new you didn't know about, and you didn't have to click away. It's all automatically there.”
And then Darkspore's dark days happened. As originally discovered by RPS, Darkspore is an absolutely chilling example of what could possibly go wrong. For nine days, new players were completely unable to access the game they'd purchased. Nine days. Nine days of pleas on the game's official forums. Nine days of moderators saying, “Please, be patient.” When your system's supposed to keep you connected to players like never before, that level of distance is absolutely unacceptable.
But let's face it: Darkspore is nowhere near as big as, say, Diablo III. Unless something goes horribly, catastrophically wrong, Blizzard won't neglect its hell-borne hack 'n' slash until the actual End of Days. And so, truth be told, I'm not all that concerned about Blizzard's games, given the level of support we've seen for WoW and and the always-on DRM of StarCraft II.
Darkspore, though, doesn't have the kind of popularity or public visibility needed to make it a worthwhile long-term investment for its publisher. So – while depressing – it's not entirely surprising that EA didn't have some sort of giant red “Break glass in case of Darkspore emergency” button lying around. And therein lies the problem: What happens to these smaller games without huge followings as time takes its toll? EA, especially, has been known to shut down multiplayer servers altogether – sometimes for games as little as two-years-old.
Gamers, of course, have feared this kind of slow degradation for a while now, but imagining the big, bad boogieman and having him actually chase you down the hall, cleaver in hand, are two entirely different things. Now, it's always possible for a game to pull a From Dust and patch out authentication requirements after launch. If server upkeep becomes a strain on bank accounts, then severing the server is an option (at least is some cases). But that takes work – especially when games are increasingly designed around the online requirement, and some games can't survive a server-ectomy procedure.
So that's the dilemma. Granted, Darkspore's not quite at the point where it needs to make the call between either shutting down or cutting the cord – or at least, it shouldn't be, having only released earlier this year – but the uncertainty makes its players' plight all the more upsetting. As always, gamers and the press will speak up in favor of keeping games we paid for playable. The question remains, though: Will developers and publishers listen?