A couple of weeks ago, I got wind of the DayZ mod for ArmA II from some friends at Gamers With Jobs. This has been out for a little while now. A single guy from New Zealand decided to take this hyper-realistic military game and write a zombie apocalypse survival mod for it. Check his site if you want more details but basically, your goals are to stay alive as long as possible in a world where you have to scavenge for everything while surrounded by a ton of zombies and other human players, most of whom want to kill you on sight and steal your stuff. You can be ended very easily and if you are, you have to start all over again with nothing. The average person’s lifespan in the game is less than an hour. Did I mention the mod is also in very early alpha? It’s incredibly hardcore, brutally difficult, tense, buggy and frustrating as all Hell.
And it’s awesome!
Many prefer to play DayZ by themselves but that’s not really my thing. When I manage to meet up with a group of friends though (which is often hard as most people rarely have maps and have to navigate the massive island by landmarks), this is some of the best multiplayer fun I’ve had in years. Collaborating with a group of people over Ventrilo is incredible because though the challenges are many, the satisfaction of going on a successful raid or fighting off an attack by human bandits or a horde of zombies is unlike what you’ll experience in almost any other game. DayZ makes you work for every little thing but you feel on top of the world when you get it. Its popularity has taken off and in addition to having a growing and thriving community, it’s actually sold thousands of new copies of ArmA II as new players buy in to be able to try it out.
As I played the other day, a thought occurred to me. Lately, many in the games industry have been hyping up “cloud gaming” as the primary future for the medium. Basically, the idea is that most gaming will be done via streaming services, where you don’t actually run the game on a computer or console on your side but access it on someone’s server and have the video streamed to you as you play. Companies like OnLive and Gaikai have been experimenting with this and the tech is rocky but improving. Recently leaked internal documents from Microsoft show they are positioning the next Xbox to become a cloud system later in its life and Sony has openly said they believe cloud gaming is the future. There are definitely advantages to it, such as only needing a basic, low power computer or console to play on as all it’s really doing is decoding a video signal while the heavy lifting is done elsewhere. This means you could buy one box and theoretically play technologically evolving games on it indefinitely. That’s kind of where the benefits for the consumer end though.
Let’s leave aside for the moment that Internet service providers are already going out of their way to try and stop this kind of thing. If cloud gaming is indeed the future, there’s a lot of powerful lobbyists that will have to be silenced first, and that’s only in the relatively few parts of the world where fast, reliable broadband is commonplace. What concerns me more about this future is the lack of ownership, control and freedom consumers will have over the games they buy. Official mod support has become less and less common these days, with a few companies like Valve, Bethesda and Bohemia Interactive (makers of ArmA II) still embracing and encouraging it. In all cases though, modding a game involves well, modifying existing game assets and code in order to create something new. In the cloud future, where no one owns anything they purchase and the game you play lives entirely in an instance on a server, modding would be largely impossible. How would people like the makers of DayZ get access to the code, scripts, artwork and server infrastructure necessary to make their creations? How would they be able to test and quickly update it in a virtual environment that’s being tightly controlled by a large publisher, distribution service or platform holder? Indeed, how would amazing new experiences like DayZ ever get a chance exist in the cloud future?
Sure, there are ways that such things could be done in this environment but really, how likely are they? Mods generally enjoy only small user bases, not enough to even be a rounding error to a large publisher. In the cloud future being prophesied, small companies like Bohemia Interactive couldn’t afford to create their own mod-friendly cloud services from the ground up and the big boys who would be running them don’t care about mods as they see them as a threat to paid DLC. This future has the potential to stamp out one of the greatest independent creative outlets in gaming, possibly ruining the future for a great many innovative ideas before they even have a chance. Some of gaming’s greatest successes like Counter-Strike, Team Fortress and Day of Defeat began their lives as mods and new projects like DayZ are showing that when developers and publishers embrace modders, a single guy can take an existing game, turn it into something incredible and make a pile of extra money for the developer at the same time. It’s win-win for everyone but the cloud future that the big companies want would end that.
Maybe DayZ isn’t for you but if you’re a PC gamer at all, chances are you’ve played and enjoyed at least one mod in your time. When you’re next hearing about the cloud future and thinking about all the ways that’s going to make gaming easier and better, stop and think about what it could mean the end of. DayZ is a wonder and there are potentially many more like it to come, but only if we still get to control our purchases after making them. The cloud future isn’t for our benefit, it’s for the benefit of the big games industry and the big guys don’t want DayZ, they want more Call of Duty and overpriced map packs to go with it. That’s definitely not what I want.