The Game Developers’ View on Net Neutrality

With the repeal of the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules in December, game developers of all types expressed concerns for the future viability of their craft. Given that both independent and AAA developers are relying more on digital distribution than retail, it’s not just development plans but also distribution and communications that might present bottlenecks. The development process alone hinges on having stable high-speed Internet but ensuring that players also have consistent access is integral for game developers’ long-term sustainability.

Will online gaming services like Steam be affected by the Net Neutrality repeal? Logo copyright Steam.

Here are some of the ways the Net Neutrality repeal could impact developers.

Throttling and Lockouts for Games Requiring a Constant Internet Connection

When architecting online games, different considerations need to be made compared to standalone games or those needing an Internet connection for updates, achievements, and leaderboards. Accounting for differences in Internet speeds is part of the process for online game development, but it could become more difficult if ISPs decide to throttle gaming content purposely.

Trouble Connecting with Development Team Members

For independent developers using mostly personal funds for development and basic operating expenses, potential increases in Internet costs and/or siloing of available services can result in games taking even longer to get released. Access to high-speed Internet may go undisrupted in large cities and metropolitan areas. However, with developers living in remote regions with limited Internet access and fewer ISP choices, communications among team members can become fractured particularly when it comes to large file exchanges.

Potential Collapse of Steam and Other Online Distribution Platforms

If platforms meant specifically for games get siloed (such as the ISP charging extra to access Steam, online gaming portals, and other gaming sites and services), developers are worried that the ecosystems surrounding these platforms could collapse if groups of players suddenly lose access to their games. This involves either being unable or unwilling to pay an ISP more per month for game services, or from being throttled or locked out.

Steam alone boasts 18.5 million users. For many game developers of all calibers, Steam isn’t just a place to sell games that players prefer. It’s a game library and way of connecting with other people socially. The forums, store page, and groups on Steam are how many communities form and expose the developer’s work to other people. If those discoverability aspects are significantly hampered, smaller developers can have an even harder time getting noticed when around 7,000 games are now being released every year on the service.

Concerns of Content Restrictions

Whether the game is made by a team of several hundred people in AAA studios or just two people on laptops, it’s not just passion that propels them: it’s fans.

In addition to the technical and financial limitations already discussed that could prevent fans from congregating on Steam and other distribution platforms, many fandoms also thrive on social media and sites intended to build communities. If ISPs don’t approve of the type of content that many fandom sites and accounts tend to host (including copyrighted images and footage as well as fan art and fiction that definitely treads some risqué turf), hosting can be compromised or even access altogether.

Subcultures and fandoms that form very tight-knit communities feel particularly at risk in the face of Net Neutrality repeal. Game developers are certainly affected by this, because if they don’t have fans fostering those communities, they have a much harder time staying sustainable compared to relying on advertising and traditional marketing alone.

At the time of this writing, Congress is challenging the Net Neutrality repeal vote; so keep an eye on Bandwidth Place for future updates.