Square Enix isn't usually a company lauded for their progressive thinking.
The venerable developer/publisher more often resembles a kind of software focused Nintendo — a cultural institution that is usually content with re-treading financial safe-bets — than an innovative company like, say, Valve. Just the same, in between taking the time to reiterate on a failed MMORPG, putting out overpriced iOS ports of its games and grinding out another Final Fantasy XIII sequel, Square Enix may have just hit on a really great way to make playing games more accessible.
Last week saw the company announcing a new initiative called Core Online, a streaming videogame service (not unlike the troubled OnLive) that allows users to play Square Enix titles through their Internet browsers without spending a dime. The catch? These users must bank gameplay minutes by watching commercials.
Core Online is bankrolled by advertising. For users, this takes the form of commercials that must be watched ( A Clockwork Orange-style riff causes the video to automatically pause if a different tab is clicked on while the ad is rolling) at various intervals. Play the game for 20 minutes then pick an advertisement to watch — queue up several in order to play with less frequent interruptions. It's a concept that holds a lot of promise.
I took Core Online for a spin myself, opting to test out Mini Ninjas (a game I'd never tried was more enticing than Hitman: Blood Money, which I already have installed, commercial free, on my computer). What I experienced was a properly functioning — and really interesting — service. The game loaded up quickly enough and dumped me right into the single-player campaign. I ran around, completed a tutorial and then watched a commercial for a Mini Ninjas spin-off before running through a bit more of the title and quitting out of the service. Core only required me to install a Square Enix plug-in before launching the game, automatically detected the Xbox 360 controller I had plugged into my computer and was, all in all, a pretty pleasant experience.
Despite the success of Core Online's early implementation, though, it left me with a vaguely unsettling impression that had little to do with Square Enix's service itself. This was the result of thinking on the logical progression of Core's business plan and the realization that the future of commercial-fed videogame playing could end up a bit frightening. Much like how most television programming is heavily influenced by the advertisers that keep the networks afloat, a videogame model based on TV could fall victim to similar issues. An industry that fully embraces Core Online's approach to gameplay (which is unlikely, but worth considering in light of the massive influence of free to play, digitally downloaded and "subscribe to own" PlayStation Plus titles) will definitely see publishers seeking to please third-party advertisers. As bad as the current state of fear-adverse publishing practices can be, developers working under companies who have to answer for major international brands would have an even harder time creating what they want to.
Scariness aside, though, we can't forget what TV does do well: provide an enormous number of people with the ability to enjoy a wide array of entertainment without having to pay through the nose for it. Sitting through advertisements in order to gain access to videogames provides an interesting alternative to paying an up-front $50 to $60 for a new release. Even TV viewers like myself, who stick to completely free, antenna-provided stations, are still able to keep up on news, watch cultural events like the recently finished Olympics and take in late-night movies. Videogame services that paralleled something like this (complete with cable/premium cable style subscription tiers) could allow games to be much more of a widespread form of entertainment than they currently are.
If a business model like Core Online manages to gain traction it could lead to new ways of thinking about how games are bought and sold. Whether this would lead to a vastly improved industry seems almost beside the point. The really compelling aspect of it all is the potential for a little bit of innovation working to make the medium more accessible to a greater number of players.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor who lives and works in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He founded, writes and edits the videogame blog digitallovechild.com and is Twitter-ready @reidmccarter.