For those of you who are not aware in August of 2013 the Age of Empires Online support page leaked that the Games for Windows Live service would be discontinued on July 1st 2014. Microsoft quickly removed the post, but that didn’t stop the games press from posting all sorts of speculation regarding the leak. Since that time, Microsoft has not commented on the validity of this post and have also not made any sort of official announcement about the service or its discontinuation. Prior to the leak Microsoft had announced plans regarding the shutting down of the Games for Windows Live Marketplace during the migration from Microsoft Points to the use of real world currency on the X-Box 360 platform.
The possibility exists that the post was intending to say that just Age of Empires Online was being shut down instead of the entirety of the Games for Windows Live service. Unfortunately, I think that there is a strong possibility that the Games for Windows Live service really will be shutting down. This wouldn’t be the first time that Microsoft has discontinued games services such as, X-Box Live for the original X-Box, which was shut down on April 15th 2010, and the Games for Windows Live marketplace in 2013. Following the shutdown of the marketplace all free to play titles, published by Microsoft, on Steam were removed, further any game that required Games for Windows Live to activate has since been removed due to the Games for Windows Live Marketplace no longer being able to provide keys. I do not blame Microsoft for choosing to end a service that is no longer profitable, keeping such services active doesn’t make sense for any company.
This situation has raised the issue concerning what a consumer is actually purchasing when they buy a video game, especially digital purchases. When I buy a product there is an expectation that I truly own what I just spent money on, that I should be able to do what I please with it and that it will be usable even if the producing company shuts down. It would be strange if a person purchased a physical product and after the producing company shut down, that the product ceased to function. This is slowly no longer becoming the case, the new trend is that when you purchase a game you are no longer purchasing the game but are only purchasing a license which allows you to use the game. In addition, many video games now have online services that are attached to them to add functionality; however, sometimes these services are required for the game to even be playable.
Some of these services that are added to the game are peripheral, like leader-boards, while others are more integral to the product such as anti-piracy efforts like Digital Rights Management (DRM). The implementation of DRM services has become quite diverse ranging from a simple check to see if an official cd or dvd is in your computer, to the worst types of DRM services which require a constant internet connection while playing, like the Games For Windows Live service. These services will end game play if you experience even a momentary disconnect from the internet, making the game completely unplayable until internet connectivity is restored. These services only serve to frustrate customers, by providing poor user experiences, limiting the customers who legitimately purchase a game by dictating how many computers it can be installed on, and restrict where the product can be used. Worse still all of these services have proven to be completely ineffective at stopping piracy. Large numbers of games have the DRM cracked, sometimes removing the DRM within the first 24 hours making them freely downloadable from piracy sites. The ones that cannot be broken in that time will be broken eventually, the existence of private World of Warcraft servers should demonstrate this.
When Spore was first released it had a very intrusive DRM for the time. The game required an online connection once every ten days to verify that the game was a legitimate copy and the “license” of the game could only be installed on five computers total. The DRM was cracked and it went on to become the most pirated game of the time. The DRM was completely ineffective at stopping the piracy and it only served to punish those who had purchased the game. Many owners of Spore were no longer able to play it where and when they wanted to. Always on DRM services, like the one used in Assassins Creed 2, are slightly more effective at combating piracy, Assassin’s Creed 2 was cracked in approximately 1 month instead of a few hours; however, when these services go down the game is rendered completely unplayable. This is exactly what happened when the DRM service for Assassins Creed 2 shut down just after the launch of the Windows version of the game. Ubisoft claims that the service was shut down because they were the victim of a denial of service attack and offered players compensation. However, if the DRM was not there in the first place Ubisoft’s customers would have been able to use the product that they paid for even if Ubisoft was affected by a denial of service attack. DRM, as stated previously, can also cause an extremely poor user experience, as was the case with the release of EA’s new Sim City. Sim City was unplayable for weeks after its release and full functionality of the game wasn’t achieved for months after, because the developers decided to make online connectivity an essential component of the game which could have largely, if not completely, been a single player game (EA claims that an internet connection was required because most of the processing of the game was completed server side, but the recent release of the offline mode makes that claim questionable).
What I now fear is if the Games For Windows Live service shuts down all of the games purchased, through the service, would permanently cease to function. I am not concerned about the ramifications of losing online games or MMORPGS, which have been shutting down with high frequency after failing to meet publisher expectations; however, I would be concerned about losing what are supposed to be single player games. When I bought Bulletstorm, Dead Rising 2 and Fable 3 I didn’t have the time to play any of them immediately. I have a job, a kid, bills to pay and an otherwise busy life to lead. My expectation was that those games would still be there when I eventually get around to them. It however, may very well be the case that they are not going to be there when I want them to be.
Thankfully some developers have, or are currently in the process of removing the Games for Windows Live service from games such as Batman Arkham City, and Batman Arkham Asylum. From Software is “exploring options” into the removal of the Games for Windows Live service from Dark Souls and they will hopefully be able to remove it so the game can continue to be enjoyed. However, many games still use this service and their developers have no plans to remove the Games For Windows Live service from their product. A comprehensive list of these games and their status can be found over at Joystiq. So be sure to check out the list and to see if you have any games that are currently using the Games for Windows Live service. Further, downloading the games you own, that are on that list, and trying to finish them first may be the only chance you have to enjoy the products you purchased.