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All Together Now: EA's "Online Universes"

Money grows on the tree of persistence

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Eurogamer bring the news that Keith Ramsdale, EA’s Northern European boss, has declared that the company wants all of its brands to become “online universes”. That doesn’t mean everything will be massively multiplayer, but rather that each player will never have an excuse to stop playing EA games. Play Battlefield, for example, on a console in the evening, a PC in the midnight hours, a smartphone on the commute and a tablet while at the office. All the data, all the progress and achievements, will carry from one device to the other, allowing the player to play “how he wants, when he wants and on the device he wants”. Let’s have a think about that.

First of all, this isn’t something entirely new. Eurogamer point out the transference of Galactic Readiness between app and game in Mass Effect 3, and the use of a persistent profile, perhaps living on a cloud somewhere, will allow for more and more crossover between devices. However, just because it’s allowed doesn’t mean it’s necessarily beneficial. Freedom of choice is good, so “how he wants, when he wants and on the device he wants” is an admirable goal, but what if I’m only interested in playing on my PC, enjoying a standalone piece of work with no incentive to look outside that work for extraneous information or stat boosts?

I’m reminded of Ubisoft’s recent announcement of the relationship between the new Ghost Recon titles and the Facebook iteration, Commander. Playing the Facebook game can lead to benefits in the console and PC games. I performed a big ol’ verbal shake of the head when I heard about that.

Casting my mind back all the way to 2011, I recall earlier talk of persistent profiles creating an RPG-like experience in EA Sports games. The magic of the internet shows that my memory was correct, however I was quite startled to find I’d actually written about it back then but have no recollection of that whatsoever.

To me, it all seems part of the same business process. Create games with a competitive edge, even adding a certain level of point-scoring to the narrative of Mass Effect, and hope that people will invest their time to improve their profile, hope that they’ll want to better themselves. The example given is this:

“Imagine a player gets up in the morning, plays an online match on his 360 before going to work…On the bus, on his way to work, he practices his free kicks on his tablet. At lunch he looks at the transfer window on his PC. On the way home he chooses his kit on his smartphone. Here’s the thing: when he gets home to play again on his 360 that evening, all those achievements and upgrades will be alive in his game.”

The transfer window idea works for me but the idea of practicing free kicks on a tablet bothers me somewhat. Not because I object to the cross-device functionality but because I don’t see how it’s possible to practice a skill when using a completely different input method, and therefore I assume that “practices his free kicks” means “invests time to boost his free kick stat”. There’s a huge difference between those two suggestions and it brings me back to the problem I have with the idea of persistent profiles in general: they too often become grindstones against which to plant our noses.

Perhaps I’m being a Luddite. I do enjoy connectivity and gadgets, honest I do, and I’d be delighted if I could boot up a tablet while on a trip and have access to my latest Football Manager saved game or something of the sort. But sometimes all those connections don’t make for a larger world, they end up feeding back on themselves and diluting that thing at the centre; the game itself. There’s been an increasing fragmentation of games since the days when everything was in a big box, stored on physical media. As long as the game remains the most important part of any ‘online universe’, rather than becoming subservient to the profile or the pursuit of perfection, then let the good times roll.

I’m avoiding issues of ‘always online’ and the possibility of subscription-based networks because, right now, I’m more interested in how this could affect development rather than what happens post-purchase. My feeling is that the experience of play, whatever the brand, shouldn’t be assumed to fit a model of this sort. If there’s a match between the desire for online persistence and a game, great, but as a necessary feature of every brand, it could interfere with aspects of design that should be left well alone.

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