One of gaming's more recent gee-whiz-it's-probably-magic trends comes with a pretty thick string attached: your saves, your character, your mountain of collectable doodads for that precious achievement – all of them are imprisoned inside a server on a desert island or in space or something. You're playing a high-stakes game of rental roulette, and everything you've worked so hard to build could go poof in the blink of an eye. What trend am I referring to? Did you say, “cloud gaming”? Private Obvious, I'm sure your Captain is beaming with pride right now. However, while your answer's technically correct, I'm talking about MMOs.
It's interesting, too, because gamers have been largely a-okay with this aspect of MMOs for years – at least, so long as their game of choice hasn't met an untimely end. But should we be? After all, cloud gaming's certainly risky in that we don't physically own our games, but in MMOs,we don't own the experience.
Timely evidence light-speed-jumped its way into the public eye with recent alterations to both Eve Online and Star Wars Galaxies. In a nutshell, Eve's bucking its trend of bucking trends and embracing one in particular: microtransactions. Meanwhile, Galaxies is, er, dying horribly. In both cases, irate players have protested with everything from canceled subscriptions to class-action lawsuits.
Eve's trials and tribulations, especially, have escalated as of late, with the game's very own developer-comissioned, player-elected Council of Stellar Management putting its foot down and stomping all over CCP's well-laid plans. “We will not stand idly by as an alliance while our subscription money goes to waste, watching the game we pay to play spiraling into entropy due to the folly and neglect of CCP’s management. It is not yet time to start a fire, but get your gasoline ready,” said CSM head and GoonSwarm boss “The Mittani” of CCP's plans to expand Eve's universe into other, less-focused games like Dust 514 and World of Darkness.
These types of feelings, of course, are completely understandable. Many players practically live in these worlds. They're homes far, far away from home, and that creates certain expectations. Just as you don't suddenly replace the family cat with its weight in scorpions, tinkering with the core of an MMO is an unspoken no-no. And – paradoxically, given the Eve playerbase's shifting, Marauder's Map-like list of priorities – failing to do so can be just as bad. Point is, this isn't just “some game” to its devotees. It's a collection of places, people, and experiences that players – at least, in their minds – own. In that sense, these games move beyond the “mere” whims of their creators.
In reality, however, developers are well within their rights to turn game worlds on their heads, and you're probably not going to like it. But it's also what you signed up for, so don't be surprised when developers tell you to shut up and enjoy your scorpion army. Is the situation optimal? Certainly not. But as MMO-like “games as a service” movements (Call of Duty Elite, etc) catch on, it's going to become all the more common.
Change is frightening, but tread water long enough and you'll eventually drown. Thus, in order to survive long-term, a game simply must evolve -- lest it slink right out of the public eye wrapped tightly in a cloak of its own irrelevance.
And let's not forget the “always online” future envisioned by the likes of Blizzard and Ubisoft. Sure, id Software's Tim Willits may speak of automatic updates in tones typically reserved for baby bunnies and birthday parties with bounce houses, but there's a dark side here too. Slowly but surely, your game of choice might morph into some strange, one-million-eyed new beast, and you may not even notice it happening.
So yes, you sacrificed your piggybank to the Gods of Commerce fair-and-square, but ownership ain't what it used to be. For better or worse, your favorite games are going to grow, change, and even end. You don't have to like it, but if you expect anything else, you're only setting yourself up for disappointment. Perhaps, then, it's time to embrace change and just go with the flo-- wait, they did WHAT to the original Star Wars Trilogy?