If you read Ars Technica (or simply play online games regularly), you're probably accustomed to game makers shutting down online gameplay servers at will, often with little-to-no notice. When it comes to the impending server shutdown for early PS3 release Warhawk, though, Sony seems to have actually broken its own long-standing promise regarding the timing of such a move.
Warhawk was one of Sony's first experiments in online console gaming, releasing in August of 2007, just months after the launch of the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Network. Over 11 years later, a handful of players still seem to be enjoying the online-only dogfight simulation, thanks in part to the game's inclusion in Sony's PlayStation Now streaming service. One player who talked to Ars described the active player base as running anywhere from several hundred to a couple thousand-strong, and nearly 400 people are still subscribed the Warhawk subreddit as of this writing.
On September 25, though, those remaining Warhawk players noticed a new message had appeared on the PlayStation Store page for the game. It warned:
Online servers for Warhawk (PS3) will be shut down on October 25, 2018 at 12:00am PT. As Warhawk was an online-only title, this shutdown means that the game will no longer be playable unless the PS3 system is set to LAN mode, as only local network play will function.
The one-month notice took some eagle-eyed players by surprise, though. That's because the original retail packaging for Warhawk included a pretty clear disclaimer:
SCEA reserves the right to retire the online portion of this game with 90 days notice [emphasis added].
This kind of wording appears to have been included as boilerplate on the packaging for all online PS3 games through mid-2010. In games released after that, it was replaced with language that gave Sony a lot more leeway:
SCEA reserves the right to retire the online portion of this game at any time.
That's the language that appeared on the packaging for the PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale and on the PS3's Twisted Metal revamp, both of which are also shutting down on October 25, with just one month's notice. Earlier this year, 2012 PS3 sequel Starhawk had its servers shut down without any warning whatsoever, as the box itself warned might happen.
The only other pre-2010 PS3 game that appears to still be online (and thus subject to the 90-day shutdown warning promise) is Fat Princess.
Whats the deal?
So why is Sony reneging on that 11-year-old packaging promise for Warhawk? A PlayStation spokesperson told Ars Technica that "the online functionality is going down as the result of an actual physical server location being decommissioned." As soon as it was clear those servers were being retired, the spokesperson said, the company gave warning that the game would be going offline.
The spokesperson added that the shutdown had nothing to do with Sony's recent PSN name-change rollout, which is apparently incompatible with some other older titles.
The spokesperson said he wasn't sure if the physical servers were under Sony's control or were being provided by a third party. He also didn't have any information on whether Warhawk's infrastructure could be transferred to other servers to comply with Sony's original 90-day warning.
Then there's the issue of what counts as "notice." Players could find out about the Warhawk server shutdown from the PlayStation Store page or Sony's list of decommissioned servers, as well as scattered online coverage of the decision. But Sony hasn't announced the server shutdown via an official press release or blog post.
Players also couldn't hear about the shutdown from the game's own internal Announcements message board, which appears every time the game starts up and has reportedly gone without an update for years. A Sony spokesperson told Ars that "there isn't a means within the game to provide that notification," but they couldn't explain why that in-game Announcement page has apparently remained unused.
Do as I say, not as I do
In the grand scheme of things, this might not seem like a huge scandal, even judged by the standards of the video game industry. As it stands, Sony is giving one month of notice for any remaining Warhawk players to say goodbye to the game after 11 long years keeping the online community going. Squeezing out two more months on a legal technicality might not seem worthwhile.
Indeed, the online version of Sony's license terms, which are referred to on the box, have been updated since the game was released to say that "Licensor makes no commitment to continue to make those servers available and may terminate online features at any time." Even if a court found that the retail packaging notice was binding or constituted false advertising, attorney and Law of the Game blogger Mark Methenitis told Ars that any damages would be relatively small.
"At most you'd be looking at a very small pool still even playing the game who would be suffering a harm," he said. "The biggest 'win' anyone could hope for would be an injunction forcing the servers to stay up for 90 days from September 25 (so an extra 60 days), and that seems extremely unlikely."
But none of that has stopped hundreds of players from signing a couple of online petitions essentially begging Sony to keep the servers up, if only for a little while longer. Lorenzo B. signed the petition and described himself as "a player of 10 years who has spent money on the game and spent money on all the added extra maps, too. It is important to me to get what I paid for, and what I paid for is the Warhawk game that is now offline on the PlayStation network."
"Why shut down the servers when this game still has plenty of people playing?" Gaius I. writes on one petition. "Warhawk can live on through PS Now."
Even if you've never played Warhawk, though, you could argue there's a greater principle involved here. Sony and other game publishers expect their players to stick to end-user license agreements that they are forced to agree to whenever they play an online game. These companies often go to great lengths to enforce those agreements in order to control what players can do with the games they purchase.
Now, faced with a situation in which it has to stick to its own shrink-wrapped promises from years ago, Sony apparently can't be bothered. That might not be the end of the world, but it's more than a little galling, too.