The Internet is in danger, everyone. That sounds like kind of a silly thing to say, but it's true. While not yet set in stone, the FCC has made disconcerting plans to allow companies to divide this beautiful web of ours into potentially expensive tiers. Gaming stands to take a massive hit too. Here's why.
For those out of the loop or otherwise confused on the whole issue, here's what's going on: Since its inception, the Internet has been more or less equal for all, with no specific pages or services getting preferential treatment by Internet providers. The government's net neutrality rules were in part responsible for this, but they were unceremoniously stricken down at the start of the year.
Flash forward to now: the United States' Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed a plan that would allow broadband Internet providers to levy extra charges on various companies in exchange for faster delivery of content. So basically, it'd be akin to what Comcast is doing with Netflix, charging the streaming movie/TV service more money but giving it direct, unfettered access to its broadband network. The FCC swears up and down that it will only allow this sort of behavior if it's done in a "commercially reasonable" manner that doesn't needlessly tear money out of consumers' hands, but pundits point out that the FCC's stance is extremely vague, not to mention incredibly difficult to enforce given the number of Internet service providers out there and all the individual deals that stand to happen.
The nightmare scenario? We end up with a tiered Internet that benefits big, established companies while making it nearly impossible—or at least financially unfeasible—for smaller, scrappier, more innovative up-and-comers to rise to the top. Corporations win, everybody else loses.
But is it really that bad? And how does it stand to affect the gaming industry? Personally, I'm of the opinion that an open Internet is a better Internet, as that's why it's allowed so many cool, era-defining ideas to find an audience at all. Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, and any number of other established behemoths would not be where they are if another, bigger behemoth had the power to stomp them flat before they even got off the ground.
Same goes for games. We have an indie revolution on our hands, and it wouldn't have been possible without a level playing field for everybody—giant publisher or itsy bitsy one-person "studio" working from a garage that reeks of month-old Toaster Strudels. The Internet needs to remain open, united, and neutral. Even if the FCC is as careful with its new rules as it claims it will be, people will likely find ways to abuse them. To take advantage of the new system.
I'm not usually one to cling desperately to something because That's The Way It's Always Been, but even if the old rules do have some archaic edges, we need to replace them with something similar but updated instead of tossing out the baby with the bathwater. Personally, I think this could end up as bad or worse than SOPA. We're walking through a minefield right now, and we need to be extremely careful.
But that's just my take. For further perspective, I got in touch with a bunch of game developers, some of whom stand to be even more directly affected than you or me. Here's how they feel about net neutrality and the possibility that it might—for all intents and purposes—be coming to an end.
First up, here's Nuclear Throne, Luftrausers, and Ridiculous Fishing developer Vlambeer's Rami Ismail with a stirring defense of net neutrality whether it pertains to games or not.
"Separate from gaming itself, net neutrality should always be guaranteed. This is like paying for faster airport security—something that should be equally accessible to all, yet somehow has been commercialised. I might be too European, but the whole idea of allowing companies to pay for 'more internet' when it's 'commercially reasonable' sounds terrifying to me, especially with what can be considered 'commercially reasonable' under United States laws."
"Games are only a tiny part of that, because only a few games actually use the internet in such a way that we'd be impacted by something like this. Although we don't have full details on what the proposal is, the mere notion that access to internet distribution might vary in quality through payment beyond 'having to pay for internet access' is contrary to the idea of the internet to me. If anything, we should be moving towards an internet that's accessible to anybody as a basic right, not an internet that's even more governed by economics."
"If they want to ensure good connections for critical services, let them upgrade the infrastructure and simplify access to resources. Google can offer speeds far above most providers through Google Fiber. Karma can offer 4G with hotspot capabilities without collapsing on itself. I don't see why the major internet providers and the governing body of those providers shouldn't be held responsible for ensuring good and affordable connections without damaging the core values of the internet."
Far Cry 3 and Child of Light writer Jeffrey Yohalem, meanwhile, dug into the possible messy outcome of a tiered Internet with a damning comparison to the way phone companies are run. The big takeaway? Regulating this stuff gets awfully difficult when it's so varied and complicated.
"I can't claim to be any kind of expert on this issue, but through my research on the puzzles of Assassin's Creed II, I delved into phone company and service provider practices. Their billing structures are draconian to say the least. In fact, when asked by the government to explain their rates, they direct officials to rooms in several different states full of files and claim that it is generally too complicated to unravel."
"From what I gather, most of our phone services should be close to free at this point. I already know from direct experience that cell phone services in Canada cost $59 a month, while the same plan in the US costs $120. How does that make any sense, especially given that the US has a substantially larger pool of customers? Cars and other goods in Canada are more expensive due to the smaller market."
"All of this is to say that any plan by service providers to charge for priority bandwidth is probably meant to increase already high profit margins. If service providers do not need the extra money to provide services, then why limit the wonderful freedom of the internet?"
"For most of my life the internet has been a place of free expression by all, a global public forum closer to the spirit of the ancient Roman forums —where anyone and everyone could speak their mind openly—than anything else in centuries. Especially when it comes to games, which take bandwidth to download rapidly and bandwidth to play online, any kind of extra charges could negatively impact the indie auteur scene. Basically, I am for both freedom of expression on behalf of creators and the consumer's right to decide his/her own priorities. Right now we are flooded with information, we don't need the prioritization of that information to be driven by money."
Brian Fargo, CEO of Wasteland 2 and Torment developer inXile, echoed those concerns, further noting that cloud gaming is becoming more important by the day, and a tiered Internet could easily force us to pay a lot more for it.
"These net neutrality discussions are a stark reminder that our distribution fates still lie in the control of others. I expect our industry’s bandwidth demands to increase as cloud based gaming becomes more mainstream, and at this point it’s only a matter of time before these distribution forces start to focus on our needs and ways to monetize us better. Then it becomes a discussion of who is going to pass down these fees and who is going to absorb them."
And of course, there's the issue of basic, non-cloud-based multiplayer, which is still sometimes a struggle for bigger developers and a total nightmare for indies. If net neutrality goes up in smoke, that trouble may well become double, triple, or quadruple for smaller developers. Teddy Diefenbach of Hyper Light Drifter developer Heart Machine explained:
"I'm afraid tiered internet would handicap indie online multiplayer. Game-making tools have made it easier for us to more easily try out crazy new indie game ideas, but anyone will tell you that online functionality is still a terrifying feature to implement."
"That's changing fast though. It's getting easier, and opportunities for us to do crazy new experiments with online play are growing fast. If suddenly internet speed is auctioned and server costs go up, that will dampen a lot of that creativity. Without equal access to bandwidth for our players, we're sunk right as we're getting started. I don't care how cool an online game is. No human can suffer through horrible lag and still enjoy themselves."
Alex Preston, also of Hyper Light Drifter developer Heart Machine, drove the point home, noting that game download/play services—whether big like Xbox Live, PSN, or Steam, or smaller like GOG—stand to suffer quite a lot. Digital distribution of games—on console especially, but also on PC—is already tough. This could end up being the straw that breaks the camel's back. Preston explained:
"Paid prioritization for the internet indicates that the landscape of it will shift immensely, if the rules are instated. The internet could end up resembling fractured real-estate markets, or even cable television services (disgusting) where users pay a higher fee for premium content (streaming video, large market places), more than the level and relatively open repository of content and data it is now."
"You may see smaller services like GOG struggle to compete, as they'll need to pay for a fast enough lane to sate and retain its user base; games are only getting larger, and internet speeds, caps and costs in the US are already laughably bad."
"An even larger implication: the somewhat anemic (though changing) digital distribution model on consoles as a viable future would suffer as well. Costs go up to provide fast enough access (where Sony or Microsoft pay for the quicker lanes) to the gigs of data required for a modern game, and those costs get passed on to consumers and possibly publishers; one more knock against a model that platform holders are already somewhat trepidatious about."
There are, then, countless potential pitfalls along this path, whether the FCC puts its full weight behind regulation or not. That said, are you worried? Are you concerned about the effect new net neutrality rules might have on games or your life in general? Have you personally done anything about it, like signing any number of big petitions going around or speaking out on social media? Or do you think this is all being blown out of proportion?
Tough Questions is a recurring feature in which we ask both game creators and game players a big question about a seismic topic in the world of gaming. So chat away, discuss, share perspectives, etc. Developer, gamer, or something else entirely, you're an important part of the discussion, so don't be afraid to speak up.