What Would The Absence Of Net Neutrality Look Like For The Games Industry?

by Elise Favis on Dec 26, 2017 at 04:00 PM

Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted in favor of repealing net neutrality regulations that were put in place during the Obama era. This left many concerned that we would no longer have a free and open internet in the near future – and it could have serious ramifications for games.

Net neutrality keeps the internet on an equal footing, prohibiting internet service providers (ISPs) from manipulating or discriminating content on the web. This means no preferential treatment is given to certain websites over others. Without net neutrality, secondary fees could come into play, particularly for online corporations like Netflix, and these fees could then trickle down to consumers. For example, ISPs could create a premium “fast lane” connection for specific sites and services, which could throttle traffic for those that don’t subscribe to it.

Net neutrality is a complex but important issue, and this repeal is one that can undeniably affect the gaming population. For an industry that has become heavily reliant on the internet, it's probable that the gaming landscape could change for the worse. While this repeal isn't in effect yet and will be challenged in courts, learning about why it's important is vital to continue fighting against it. Exactly what the consequences would be of a net neutrality-free internet is a question that remains unanswered, but there are several likely scenarios. These video game-specific “what if?” situations could happen if net neutrality is gone for good.

Service Price Hikes

If net neutrality is scrapped, the biggest concern for consumers is increased prices. This might not just mean a higher internet bill, but could also issue a change in how you access information or games. For example, if bandwidth providers start charging Sony because the PlayStation Store takes up so much traffic, those prices could then trickle down to the consumer level. It could mean bundling services into paid packages or giving special treatment to one online service over another. If AT&T or Comcast struck a deal with Sony, a rival like the Microsoft could comparatively be at a disadvantage or have throttled speeds on its storefront. 

Premium Packages

Premium packages to reduce game lag already exist, and these services, or at least business models, would likely flourish with the death of net neutrality. For example, programs like Haste and Outfox promise lower latency for online gaming and reduce lag spikes. They achieve this by manipulating how your traffic is routed and optimizing it for better speed. To use either program, you have to pay for it. Outfox requires $10/month, whereas Haste asks for a whopping $50/month. This is a great solution for having games run smoother and quicker, but it speaks to a larger issue of how we access a net neutrality-free internet, which may discriminate between those who pay more and those who don't. 

It’s entirely possible that ISPs like Comcast or Verizon start charging users for “gamer packages,” which give you higher speed access to storefronts like Steam, PSN, and more. Without shelling out more cash, you could be left with throttled download speeds.

Stricter Data Caps And Hidden Fees

Net neutrality requires ISPs to be transparent with consumers about pricing, reducing the chance of hidden fees. The FCC is planning to make these disclosures more difficult for consumers to find, which means most users won't know exactly what they're paying for when they sign up for service, or they may not be aware of exact consequences for going over data cap limits. The results of changes like these are particularly bad for online gamers and streamers alike. 

According to Electronic Arts, it believes that five years from now, 60 to 70 percent of gamers will be downloading games rather than buying physical copies. It’s not uncommon to see game downloads averaging 50-60GB nowadays, and as games become more technologically advanced, that number is bound to grow. With bigger files to download, and as we move toward a 4K future, gamers will want access to quicker download speeds. With the possibility of more hidden fees, these downloads could jump into more expensive tiers without the consumer being aware of how much it costs. 

Both data caps and hidden prices could undeniably affect game development too, especially for smaller studios.

Indie Developers Could Suffer

Large corporations like Netflix and influential political voices like Bernie Sanders, took to Twitter to take a stand against the net neutrality repeal. But we're also hearing from independent artists and developers, who face even bigger threats should this repeal prevail. Developers like Scott Benson (Night in the Woods) and Teddy Dief (Hyper Light Drifter) expressed concern over potential changes to social media, and how that platform has been essential toward them finding success. For Benson, he worries that if an ISP deems it profitable to throttle social media websites, then they will. That could mean additional charges, making make it more difficult for indie developers to create and uphold an online audience.

As for Dief, he discussed the notion that indie developers are thriving without the need of a publisher thanks to self-publishing services. Without publishers, indie creators have more control over their product, from creative direction to marketing. Digital storefronts like Steam allows these creators to distribute their games online without the additional costs that come with putting out physical releases. Net neutrality disappearing poses the threat that these services could require secondary fees for independent developers looking to distribute. 

Issues could also appear with telecommuting, since many game developers work remotely. Sharing large files with one another multiple times a day when collaborating might no longer be a possibility with the introduction of expensive cap thresholds. Since most indie studios have restrictive and small budgets, purchasing fast lanes to bypass these problems may also be impossible.

Small startups like Discord, a video-conferencing app for video game players, are also showing concern. CEO and co-founder Jason Citron told Wired that, “Net neutrality is incredibly important for small startups like Discord because all internet traffic needs to be treated as equal for us all to have access to the same resources as the big companies.” 

The Fight Isn't Over

Although the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality regulations, the fight is far from over. Attorney Generals from across several states are planning to sue the FCC, and the ACLU is stressing that congress must step in to reverse it. The Washington Post claims that, according to analysts, a legal battle over net neutrality could take months, if not years. You can call your senator, and urge them to join the growing list of elected officials that are already planning to fight for net neutrality.

Advocacy groups and others will be challenging this repeal in courts, but it could still be overturned by the House, Senate, and the president. Unfortunately, with all three controlled by Republicans, their skepticism about net neutrality could make overturning this repeal difficult. Hopefully, as we continue to voice opposition, the above scenarios won't become realities, so that we can continue to see the internet thrive as a creative and unrestrictive space for ideas and innovation.