Gran Turismo 5 and the impermanence of modern games

Feature Ryan Lambie 8 Jan 2014 - 06:33

As it's announced that GT5 and other PS3 titles will have their servers shut down soon, Ryan looks at the impermanence of modern games...

Videogames are an artform, but they’re also inextricably tied to technology. Look at the front page of any gaming news website, and you’ll see a medium constantly evolving and rushing headlong towards the next big development.

The best-selling games are frequently subject to annual instalments which aim to provide new features and experiences. Patch updates and downloadable content mean games are rarely set in stone once they’re in the hands of players - they’re constantly being improved or appended.

Yet while the games industry is constantly moving and changing, the games themselves provide a kind of fixed point for their fans. Just as settlers built villages and towns on the banks of rivers in times past, players often become attached to their favourite games, and form communities around them. Part of what makes a game like World Of Warcraft so special to its fans is its sense of kinship - there’s competition, certainly, but also a shared interest in a virtual realm with its own characters and rich history.

Every so often, however, we’re reminded that we can’t necessarily take these games and the communities built around them for granted - or at the very least, we should be mindful of their impermanence. 

On the 6th January, Sony confirmed in a service update that, as of the 28th March, all online support for Gran Turismo 5, Resistance: Fall Of Man, Resistance 2 and Resistance 3 would be terminated.

Announcements such as these are nothing new; videogame companies can’t afford to keep supporting their games forever, and if one title’s growing old or finds its online community dwindling, those resources are perhaps best diverted elsewhere. Later this month (28th January, to be precise), the servers for SOCOM 4 and MAG will be shut down for that very reason - a move Sony originally announced in the summer of 2013.

The decision to cease support for Gran Turismo 5, however, is slightly bewildering. This is, after all, a game that is only just over three years old - not exactly new, but hardly obsolete, either. What’s more, it’s sold 10m copies, which means that even now there’s surely a fair percentage of players still avidly competing in online races.

While it seems logical that Sony (and developer Polyphony Digital) would want to focus more of its energies on the recently-released GT6, it seems somewhat disingenuous to essentially abandon a game with an active and vibrant fan community. 

Fans of Resistance 3‘s multiplayer component have an equal right to feel aggrieved. Given that it launched almost simultaneously worldwide in September 2011, it won’t even have reached its third birthday when Sony shuts off its servers this March. These are, we hardly need point out, games that players have already spent good money to purchase, and those players have perhaps even stumped up a bit of extra cash for add-on packs, such as Survival and Brutality in the case of Resistance 3.

The owners of GT5 and the Resistance series can at least take solace in the fact that, although one section of their games will shortly be history, the offline components will still be playable.

Players of MAG and Socom: US Navy SEALs Confrontation have no such luxury. They’re online-only games, so those discs purchased a few years ago, along with all the other content that players may have acquired since, will be rendered useless.

It’s a frustrating state of affairs, particularly since console users have no say over the fate of their chosen game. On PC, it’s not unusual for players to host games on their own servers, so if a developer decides to end support for a particular title, it can still live on thanks to the affection of its fans. Theoretically, Sony could allow players to use their consoles as servers, too, but this doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon.

It’s not just the communities built around these games that suffer, either. Spare a thought for the dozens of programmers and artists who spent the best part of five years making Gran Turismo 5, only for it to be placed on the backburner in favour of a newer model in a little over half the time they spent creating it. Or the creators of MAG, who focused their energies on a game that, barring a last-minute stay of execution or a revival on an emulator years hence, may never be played again. 

The shutdown of these games’ servers brings up some fairly pertinent questions as we delve into the new generation of consoles. In the brave new world of PS4 and Xbox One, where systems pretty much assume that customers are connected to the web all the time, the lines between online and offline gaming are becoming increasingly blurred.

Let’s focus on just one example: Turn 10’s racing sequel, Forza 5. Aside from the usual multiplayer races and online leaderboards, it also introduces something called Drivatar - a rather ungainly word for a clever system which culls the unique driving styles of real players from the web and applies the data to its non-player cars.

The aim is to create AI drivers that behave as a real player would, rather than coldly following a pre-defined racing line- and the system works admirably well. Last year, the developer proudly announced that, "Single player as we know it is dead" - and while there may be a hint of hyperbole in that statement, it's quite likely that other developers will explore similar ideas to Drivatar in their own games.

Admittedly, Forza 5 doesn’t require a constant web connection to play, even though you do need to log in to download a fairly heft day-one update to get you started. But being connected to the net has a sizeable impact on the game’s features, even when you aren’t playing directly against other players. 

So what would happen in, say, three years, should Forza 5’s creators decide to stop supporting it? Presumably, a lack of server support for Forza 5 would mean that its Drivatar feature would cease to work, as well as several other in-game elements. In this hypothetical version of the future, anyone attempting to install and play the game for the first time (having purchased it from a second-hand shop, say) wouldn’t be able to get the thing running, since it wouldn’t be able to download that vital day-one patch update.

Again, Forza 5 is but one example of a modern game that relies heavily on the web to run, and it’s by no means the only title to do so. But the shut-down of GT5’s multiplayer servers is a timely reminder of how reliant we’ve become on the creators and publishers of the games we purchase. Where buying a game once meant that it was ours to keep and play whenever we wanted, we’ve now arrived at a point where games increasingly have a shelf-life. 

I could fire up my Nintendo 64 and play a game of the 16-year-plus GoldenEye if I felt like it, but after the 28th January, I’ll no longer be able to play a round of MAG on my PS3 - a game which, perversely, celebrates its fourth birthday this very month.

Some might accept this notion with a shrug. Games are, after all, inextricably tied to technology. They’re constantly evolving, always rushing on to the next big thing. We won’t be able to play MAG in a month’s time, and that probably isn’t much of a tragedy for most.

But games also generate communities. They form part of our collective memories (an entire generation of gamers can no doubt remember the first time they played GoldenEye) and can, potentially, become cherished possessions.

By switching off servers and blithely ushering us on to the next high-profile release, game companies are not only breaking up devoted yet fragile fan communities, but also - in the most extreme instances - risk consigning painstakingly-crafted pieces of entertainment history to the scrap heap.

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