How Net Neutrality Affects Gamers


It’s official: The FCC ruled in a 3-2 vote to repeal net neutrality. Net Neutrality rules prevented U.S. internet service providers from discriminating against and segmenting certain kinds of data. In other words, internet users simply paid for access to internet bandwidth itself, and in exchange for payment, users could use the ‘net however they wanted to. Just like paying rent for an apartment, the bandwidth was yours to use.

With Net Neutrality repealed, however, ISPs become gatekeepers over internet connections. They control how users access the internet—and how data is transmitted. The ACLU warns this puts an enormous amount of control inside service providers’ hands, because major communication companies like Verizon and Comcast can force customers to pay to access certain kinds of data—or, even worse, encourage users to avoid some kinds of data over others.

“Such discrimination could take the form of slowing down disfavored data, or blocking it outright,” the ACLU says. “And there certainly are plenty of examples of telecoms throttling, blocking, or charging extra for the use of particular apps.”

Gaming could go pay-to-play

Imagine paying $10 a month for access to PlayStation Network, $15 for Twitch, and $25 for Steam. Horrendous, no? Because gaming’s history has always been tied to the internet, it’s obvious that the entire gaming industry will suffer greatly if the open internet dies under a Net Neutrality repeal. Service providers could bleed out gamers’ pockets, forcing them to pay extra money to access distribution services that were otherwise free.

And as the ACLU also warns, ISPs may end up using data caps in order to incentive some services over others.

Imagine if your home internet access operated a lot like a smartphone data plan with Verizon or Sprint. Once you hit your data cap for the month, you begin paying extra fees that accumulate over time. Or your internet begins slowing down.

Well, without Net Neutrality, Comcast, Verizon, and other internet providers may cap the amount of data that you can access. That means third-party distribution services built on digital downloads—like Steam—wouldn’t be able to compete if ISPs instituted data caps. Gamers would blow through their data in a matter of days after downloading major AAA titles like Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, The Witcher 3, and Grand Theft Auto V.

It’s easy to see how this would have long-term ramifications on the entire gaming industry. EA predicted 60 to 70 percent of all its games would be digitally downloaded in five years’ time, but that percentage could significantly drop if fans have to pay extra money just to download EA titles to their computers and consoles.

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Even worse, ISPs could show preferential treatment to “zero-rating” sources owned by the provider’s parent companies. For instance, If Comcast decides to open up a PC gaming distribution platform through Xfinity, they could unfairly compete against GOG, Steam, and Origin by exempting Xfinity from the data cap. Save 25 GBs by paying for Xfinity, or waste your gaming download cap by paying for a digital game through Steam? It’s pretty obvious what most consumers would do. In short, ISPs could artificially drive out the competition through a vertical monopoly.

Oh, and this same exact problem applies to livestreamers, too. Imagine paying a flat weekly, monthly, or yearly fee just to watch Vinesauce, Bro Team Pill, and Markiplier. Not to mention, ISPs like Verizon could create their own livestreaming and gaming video platforms to compete unfairly against Twitch, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and other sites.

It’s obvious that this problem could drastically damage esports as we know it, which has grown over the years thanks to the open internet’s global reach. Expect many potential commentators, players, and streamers to drop out from the industry if they have to pay even more money just to stream Overwatch or compete in Hearthstone.

Game development will struggle without Net Neutrality

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Most of all, though, the Net Neutrality repeal could very well destroy game development as we know it.

In today’s gaming world, hundreds of game developers telecommute to work every day, uploading, downloading, and editing game assets through cloud-based services. That’s exactly how Sunless Sea’s Alexis Kennedy is able to work on BioWare’s upcoming Dragon Age game.

As Kennedy told Eurogamer earlier this year, BioWare regularly communicates with employees overseas, with offices in both Austin and Edmonton (and formerly Montreal, which created Mass Effect: Andromeda). It’s easy to see how a data cap would affect freelancers who work in similar situations. Imagine freelance developers dropping out of a conference call because their Skype data cap maxed out for the month.

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Granted, Kennedy is a British game developer, but his story is not an outlier in the gaming industry. And small teams with limited finances, like Cuphead creators Studio MDHR, would suffer under further monetization of the internet. Keep in mind, founders Chad and Jared Moldenhauer both remortgaged their homes to make the game. It’s safe to say a closed internet would have added additional expenses onto the game’s creation and hampered its success.

Meanwhile, hundreds of indie teams rely on the internet to share assets with others and create their products. TobyFox’s hit RPG Undertale was created thanks in part to freelance artists living miles away from each other. And VA-11 Hall-A was ported to Vita by Wolfgame because the studio could use the open internet to connect with VA-11 Hall-A’s creators, Venezuelan studio Sukeban Games. It’s easy to imagine that an additional data cap could devastate an indie gaming studio’s wire-thin budget. Or at the very least, it would drive freelance developers away.

When we think about gaming’s legacy, remember that its biggest successes were thanks in part to the open internet. DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D spread from college student to college student because of the World Wide Web. Multiplayer games like Counter-Strike and Quake became early esports hits thanks to online gaming’s international accessibility. And modern indie developers rely on cloud-based services like Google Drive, Dropbox, and Slack just to create games.

If Net Neutrality officially goes away, the gaming industry as we know it will change. Everyone from Vinesauce to EA will be affected. And without the foundation for constant, unfiltered internet access, ISPs could prevent revolutionary games like Cuphead or Counter-Strike from ever coming out.

That’s bad news for gamers everywhere. Our entire industry is in trouble. And if a Net Neutrality repeal remains the law of the land, in five years’ time, the gaming world may change for the worse.