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How Net Neutrality Affects MMOs and MMO players

First, go listen to the best summary on Net Neutrality ever, which was presented on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. It is amazingly accurate and informative for a comedy bit.

Under the proposed new rules it would be illegal for Internet providers to slow down an existing network – but they can speed up companies who pay for faster service. Over time, this means that simply not upgrading their existing speeds would result in the same bottlenecks as slowing things down – bandwidth use increases occur over time, and if bandwidth itself does not increase unless a company pays for it they will experience the equivalent of a slowdown. What does that mean to gaming and gamers? Cable companies exist in most markets as an established and legal form of monopoly known as “natural monopoly” on the grounds that they built the infrastructure and so own it, therefore do not need to allow other competing companies to use that infrastructure. They are now going to be allowed, if the rule passes, to use their monopoly to stifle the competition in OTHER industries – namely competition that can’t afford to buy higher bandwidth. Gamers and game developers will directly suffer.

From the side of developer houses, it means that indie studios can forget about providing fast and reliable service – if they can’t pay the rates, they can’t get the extra bandwidth. This means that client and server communications will suffer, games will be laggy and therefore less responsive, and in general it will become harder and harder to provide a quality service experience, regardless of the quality of the game. Unless the higher bandwidth prices are low and therefore affordable (unlikely due to the nature of any premium service), only established, well-heeled game studios will be able to easily afford all of the bandwidth they need for the launch, scale back when they don’t need it, scale up again when a major expansion comes out, etc. Indie studios move the industry forward, delivering fresh ideas and new paradigms in gaming. Large studios deliver incredible content and amazing polish, often leapfrogging their products ahead by making use of indie studios’ creativity and new concepts. The changes to Net Neutrality could disrupt that balance, and will be bad for both large and indie developers.

From the side of the gamer, if an MMO isn’t a huge success, or is entering it’s later years when it’s own sequels are out or its subscriber base is lower, it is often moved to the free-to-play model and not actively developed, while the studio ekes out profit from nostalgia and players with community connections to the game. Nostalgia is a powerful reason to play. Community is an even more powerful reason – they are why Everquest still has subscribers more than a decade later, why Conan is still even open, and why Warhammer: Age of Reckoning only recently shut down, despite being considered an industry failure. The Secret World may never have had the chance to become successful as a buy-to-play MMO if it hadn’t been for the community it had built. The studios behind those games all had layoffs and implemented drastic cost reductions. Wouldn’t paying for premium bandwdith also be part of a cost reduction? That could lead to lag and lack of response time in “tier two” games just as with indie games.

Lag and lack of response time in an MMO is a game-killer, especially as games use more and more action-combat systems. Titles like WildStar, Defiance, and the Secret World have fast “don’t stand in bad things” ground-indicators (aka telegraphs) that appear on the virtual landscape to warn you when to move your character out of where that indicator is located, lest something bad happen. This is all fine and well, except that part of MMO mechanics is that the server needs to know where a character is in the game world in order to apply or not apply the affects of “standing in bad things”. If there is a lot of latency (lag) between the gamer’s computer or console and the server, it may look to the player like they have moved out of the way of the telegraph, while the server thinks otherwise. This is because one side didn’t communicate with the other side in time to “sync” the character positions. This will make game quality appear poor, and could hurt sales unless a firm can buy up more bandwidth for their game – which of course increases production costs. Don’t think for a minute that increases to production costs will be invisible – they will almost certainly get passed down to the consumer. Higher costs to maintain games will affect the price of the games – box titles will continue to go up, subscription prices may even rise, and cash-shop items will almost certainly need to go up, especially for indie studios.

The impact of Net Neutrality changes will hit streaming hard. Streamers will have a harder time keeping viewers interested if there’s a lot of lag in their stream – their play will suffer and their audio/video quality will drop. Streaming eats a lot of bandwidth in itself – with MMO streaming you are essentially playing a game the relies on bandwidth and then adding streaming video bandwidth consumption on top of that. Because most cable provider services limit the outbound bandwidth from the streamer’s computer to the streaming service (aka Twitch and the like) to slower speeds than are provided on the inbound (downloading) side, there is already a discrepancy. Add in streaming services needing to buy premium bandwidth and it only gets worse for the streamer – services will need to find a way to absorb the higher bandwidth costs... and that will mean either more advertising or more premium subscription requirements.

TLDR? The changes to Net Neutrality may hurt indie studios and make your game laggy, cost more, have fewer, worse streamers, and die off sooner.

What can you do? US Citizens should first, contact congress – there’s an easy, pre-filled form here. Also, there is the FCC’s comments section – where they are legally required to take and respond to citizen comments. International citizens should contact their local government to express their desire that it reach outto the United States and oppose this measure.