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Data shock for next-gen gamers

Sunday 9 Mar 2014 7:21 a.m.

Gamers across the country celebrated when Microsoft and Sony launched their new consoles late last year, but the gloss has begun to wear off as excessively large updates chew through data caps at a previously unseen rate.

Much-anticipated titles such as Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 have received extensive updates since their release, with both pushing 50 gigabytes in downloads - a huge hidden cost in a country where capped internet plans are still the norm.

"I don't know if there's much excuse for these huge downloads," says NZGamer chief editor Alan Bell, talking about Call of Duty: Ghosts.

"There's nothing about that game at all that suggests it's worth 45gb of downloads – I would have thought five or six tops. The textures aren't very interesting, it's not packed full of cinematics or anything, so it's almost like they've bloated it out to make it seem like it must be good."

Unless consumers opt out, these games update automatically regardless of how long ago they were last played. If gamers do not update them, they are usually unable to play online until they do.

NZGamer specifies the size of digital games and content on its website, aiming to provide gamers with as much information as possible before they update their game.

"Most of the people who provide that information don't care, the whole idea that people might give a s**t about how big it is just doesn't enter their consideration," says Bell.

"[But] it is a really big deal for our readers, because most of them are in a position where they have to care – they've got a limited cap that they're sharing with flatmates or family."

It is a problem that will undoubtedly grow. Sony is set to launch PlayStation Now later this year, a service which will stream games to consoles as you play – similar to on-demand video streaming – and Microsoft is about to allow Xbox One users to show off their play in real-time over the internet via Twitch. Both moves could see console internet usage, which can already peak at 400mb per hour, skyrocket to over 1gb per hour.

ISPs cater to larger appetites

In an effort to keep the increasingly data-hungry gaming market happy, Telecom has launched a new service called Bigpipe.

Headed by avid gamer Oliver Smith, it offers uncapped internet at a cheaper rate than most of its parent company's limited plans.

"One of the things that's driving it more now is the fact that games and therefore patches are so much bigger than they used to be," Smith says.

Rival Orcon has long offered uncapped plans and is making the most of the increased data usage of the next-gen consoles, using them as a marketing tool.

"We have noticed our customers talking about it," says CEO Greg McAlister.

"Our customers were saying 'oh that's big' – but that doesn't matter when you're on an unlimited plan."

Telecom says the average usage per account almost doubled in the last year, going from 19gb to 35gb per month.

In the US, where uncapped plans are popular and even plans with caps dwarf New Zealand's offerings, the average is around 50gb per month – but American gamers could be in for a sharp shock too.

"The big ISPs and stuff over there are starting to talk about caps…ISPs are saying 'these gamer guys are going to have to start paying their way because they're using way more traffic than they're paying for', so the whole concept of caps might actually be on the way," says Bell.

Know your rights

Some companies, like EB Games, offer a 'no questions asked' return policy – meaning people who buy a game like Dead Rising 3 and find they can't afford or don't want the 13gb worth of updates can get their money back.

However, some retailers say they do not accept returns due to privacy concerns.

Consumer NZ's Hadyn Green says gamers have a right to to return games to any store, including those with a large initial download.

"You probably should be able to get your money back but you're in for a lot of arguments," he says.

For those whose caps have been eaten up by unexpected downloads, he says to keep in contact with your ISP.

"If you did legitimately suddenly discover your Xbox or Playstation has been downloading overnight you can contact [your ISP] when you realise," Green says.

"[ISPs] have every right to say 'tough' and that's fair enough, but most of the time they will help you out."

McAlister says Orcon will switch any user who goes over their cap to an unlimited plan and write off overage charges so long as they are notified.

Microsoft does not shift the blame from their console and its games, saying: "If you choose to turn off automatic downloads, Xbox One will not impact broadband usage when not in use. Otherwise, usage will depend on how often you use your console, what games or apps you’re using and which downloads or game updates your device takes. As is the case today with Xbox 360, we recommend customers check with their internet provider to monitor usage to help prevent overages."

Consumer NZ agrees.

"Don't just be a passive user, don't just click yes to everything, seriously read it because it's going to affect you and it's going to affect you in your wallet."

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