Editorial: The new cost of playing games online
Digital Distribution of games has become something of a hot topic in the last few years. These overtures towards a future where disc-based media is treated as a thing of the past have come from people such as Sony CEO Phil Harrison in 2006
, who famously said "I'd be amazed if the PlayStation 4 has a physical disc drive," to this year's Game Developer's Conference, where two Internet-based game streaming services were announced.
All of those plans have just become the victim of a headshot thanks to Time Warner Cable's announcement (on April 1st no less) that they will be imposing bandwidth caps on customers of their Road Runner cable internet service. This cap was first tested last year in Beaumont, Texas and in September will roll out in Rochester (NY), Greensboro (NC), San Antonio and Austin (TX). While the purpose of the cap was no doubt to pad Time Warner's coffers, an unintended consequence of the new service will be a strain on the wallets and playtime of gamers.
Unlike Comcast's unofficial 250GB a month cap, Time Warner's cap will be available in five tiers:
5GB a month: $29.99
10GB a month: $39.99
20GB a month: $49.99
40GB a month: $54.99
100GB a month: Price TBA
Each additional GB of bandwidth used after exceeding the cap: $1
These new tiers are a far cry from Time Warner's previous price of $39.99 a month for unlimited bandwidth. And sadly, Verizon's popular FiOS service is not available in any of the cities.
Now look over at your Xbox 360, your PS3, your PC, maybe even your Wii. They will start feeling mighty lonely thanks to these new tiers. Downloading anything will never be the same again. And streaming game servics like OnLive have just been killed before they could even be introduced.
Currently, the most popular demo on the Xbox Live Marketplace is NCAA Basketball 09, which weighs in at 876MB or 17.5% of the 5GB plan. The most recent game demo added to the PlayStation Store is Commander & Conquer: Red Alert 3, which weighs in at 1.36GB, or 27% of the 5GB plan. Steam, the biggest digital distribution network for PC games, doesn't list file sizes. But a conservative estimate of 2GB for the average game probably wouldn't be out of line.
While Nintendo limits the file size of any WiiWare title to 40MB, the recent announcement of the SD Menu (which essentially adds a "hard drive" of up to 32GB to the Wii) was likely the first step to more robust offerings on the Wii Shop.
Of course, those file sizes are just to download the games or demos in question. What if you actually want to play them online. According to posts on the game's official forums, World of Warcraft players can expect to use between 10 and 30MB an hour when playing WoW. Other online games likely use similar amounts of bandwidth, some more, some less, but 10-30MB is a good base line. What this means is that truly dedicated players could use between 1 and 2GB of bandwidth a week, just from playing games online.
All of this is on top of an Internet already filled with high bandwidth sites such as iTunes, Hulu, YouTube and Skype.[*]
So what's a gamer to do? They should point out to Time Warner Cable (which is a completely separate company from Time Warner as of the end of March) that their wholly unreasonable tier system will make several other very large companies angry, including Time Warner, which has been making plenty of inroads into the video game industry in the last few years.
Microsoft wants to sell gamers subscriptions to Xbox Live Gold at $50 a year. With promises of unlimited demos several weeks before Silver subscribers and online play, it's a pretty good deal. It's not looking so good anymore. Sony has begun adding disc-sized games such as Warhawk and Burnout Paradise to the PlayStation Store. Downloading just one would eat up an entire month's worth of bandwidth for people on the 5GB plan. Both offer downloadable movie services, including a variety of selections from, you guessed it, Warner Bros.
So here's my appeal to the gamers of the world. Let Time Warner Cable know that this new tier pricing structure is unacceptable. And let companies like Blizzard and Valve and Sony and Microsoft know that you will no longer be able to purchase their games or services because Time Warner Cable has made it unaffordable. You should also let these companies know that the extra $15 a month Time Warner Cable has added onto your bill (for reduced services!) will come directly out of your game-buying budget.
Otherwise, the new cost of gaming will mean that a lot of us won't be able to pay the price.
* Research for this article required the use of nearly 40MB of bandwidth. We're doomed.
UPDATE: Time Warner Cable has announced that, in the face of "overwhelming opposition", they have canceled the expansion of their metered billing plan. Gamers everywhere can consider this a victory. For now.