An Always-Online Console? ‘Deal With It’ — Microsoft Studios Creative Director Kicks the Hornet’s Nest

Microsoft Studios' creative director Adam Orth sort of walked into it yesterday on Twitter.

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Microsoft Studios’ creative director Adam Orth sort of walked into it yesterday on Twitter.

“Sometimes the electricity goes out. I will not purchase a vacuum cleaner,” he tweeted (via NeoGAF). Then: “The mobile reception in the area I live in is spotty and unreliable. I will not buy a mobile phone.” And after the scream-o-sphere caught wind of his dispatches: “Sorry. I don’t get the drama around having an ‘always online’ console. Every device now is ‘always on’. That’s the world we live in. #dealwithit”

Orth might have been referring to Microsoft’s next Xbox, rumored to require an Internet connection at all times. Or maybe he wasn’t — sometimes an opinion’s just an opinion.

Regardless, at some point I suspect we’ll look back on this “always online” debate as shortsighted, because we’ll indeed be online all the time, anywhere and everywhere. Mark my words: That day is coming as surely as winter to Westeros. The Internet won’t be a capricious, easily roiled medium forever, and the benefits of being interconnected already often outweigh the upsides of being able to play a game on the Moon, at the South Pole or huddled in an underground bunker miles below the Earth‘s surface. In that sense, Orth is exactly right.

But today, with access to that backbone sporadic, as well as lifestyle- and location-dependent (it’s certainly not the case that everyone, anywhere has access to fast, reliable Internet) you’re seeing game companies jump the gun, creating “always online DRM” in the guise of “always online.” No one begrudges World of Warcraft its online strictures. It’s an MMO. MMOs require Internet connections. No one gripes about that.

Pull players outside the customary framework of an MMO, on the other hand, and expectation thresholds soar. No one actually likes DRM, especially when it’s there to bust up longstanding consumer behavior, say reselling and buying used games. You can see why publishers would want to: “Always online” games frustrate piracy and simultaneously give sales control to publishers, who can ensure every digital sale is a new one. That’s not an indefensible reason to add “always on” requirements to a game — piracy and secondhand market “lost” sales are problems we’d be foolish to deny. But it’s also a serious PR problem. People — even little kids — have a keen sense of fairness, and DRM for DRM’s sake doesn’t pass the smell test: We view having to pay for someone else’s moral turpitude as unfair, and there’s arguably good reason to.

And then you have games that fall into gray areas, whose creators describe them as MMO-like, but which emerge dysfunctional, unready to host hundreds of thousands or even millions of gamers clamoring to play. With something like SimCity, the game that shipped wasn’t the game EA Maxis promised. Whether it should or shouldn’t have required an Internet connection for most things is beside the point. It didn’t work, and continued not to for over a week post-launch. That’s reason enough to upbraid any game. Had SimCity worked at launch, I doubt we’d be talking about its “always online” requirements, instead focused on whether it’s a well-made game or not.

Design issues aside, the transition to mandatory Internet connections is as inexorable as the shift from gaslight to electric light bulbs. If Microsoft’s next Xbox launches with Internet as a requirement, well, you’ll have a choice. You might gripe on a message board thread somewhere, or spitefully pepper the console with one-star Amazon reviews. You might choose not to buy one (people seem to forget how much more effective this is than spewing vitriol in public). What you won’t be able to do, however, is prevent the industry from steering — really, being dragged — in this direction.

Instead of tilting at windmills, I’d argue our time’s better spent holding companies to account for poor design choices related to persistent Internet requirements, from botched launches and ongoing server stability issues, to ensuring companies provide full refunds when products fail to deliver, to answering questions like “How do you maximize player creativity and choice (think modding) in this shift from local to cloud-based content?”

Just bear that in mind before you pile onto the “Adam Orth is full of it” bandwagon.

11 comments
ladyevidence
ladyevidence

“The mobile reception in the area I live in is spotty and unreliable. I will not buy a mobile phone.”
That's exactly why I don't have one, actually. Reception for all companies is too spotty... so I have a landline.

You can bet that there is no way I will be buying this system if it is always online. My money WILL be where my mouth is. I waited eagerly for Diabo 3 to come out from the moment it was first announced as a possibility, and although I waited so long and the graphics look amazing, I will never buy that game so long as it continues it's online-only DRM.

Here's something else to think about: A huge chunk of the gamers who are old enough to buy their own games are in the military, and how well do you think a system that has to be online in order to play will sell to a bunch of men and women who have to deploy to God-knows-where constantly? When they get down-time while deployed, if there is a TV, they WILL play video games... but not yours.

Hollamann
Hollamann

It'll be interesting to see if the people who have issue with the 'always online' aspect are just whining for the sake of whining, or if they'll really keep their money in their pockets and their butts out of line when the console debuts.

cyber_nicco
cyber_nicco

I'm not into excessive regulation in general, but if internet access is going to become necessary to function in this society, access needs some regulation.

I'm tired of paying Comcast a king's ransom every month for something that should be priced reasonably - The way phone service used to be way back when...

JoeJones1
JoeJones1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

My biggest problem with "always-on" is that I want to own the game  and be able to play it at my convenience...  the same as being able to pull a favorite book off the shelf to read it for the 4th time...  I don't want to have to ask permission every time I want to play it.  

BJWyler
BJWyler like.author.displayName 1 Like

@JoeJones1 That is the key here isn't it? At what point do consumers get to take ownership of the products they buy? If we have nothing to be responsible for, then what is the point of being responsible in the first place?

sonyrootkit
sonyrootkit

Why does this article assume that the purpose of always online has anything to do with DRM? Microsoft recently demonstrated how much faster and better their voice recognition technology works when it is online and connected their servers. Voice recognition via the bundled Kinect system could be a major feature of the new system. Xbox SmartGlass may also be required of every single game -- requiring the user to have access to online data. Perhaps Microsoft wants to move games away entirely from the notion of single player and make every game for the platform feel like it is connected to an active community. We don't know the reasons for wanting the system online and it is wrong to make assumptions and second guesses until we at least have some information on what they expect to do. With over 25 million people subscribing to Netflix streaming service in the US alone we certainly have the infrastructure over the next decade to support an internet connected entertainment system.

ParasioDelsol
ParasioDelsol like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@sonyrootkit We wouldnt care about WHY, if it didnt impede functionality. If your router craps up, internet goes down, you have 3 minutes to fix your internet or it doesnt let you continue. Used games wont be playable either, because every game needs to be registered. Plus great games like assassins creed, bioshock, half life, red dead redemption... have great single player aspects that would be tragic to the gaming world if they were lost to some company trying to thicken their bottom line.

If this is true, I am going to buy my first sony gaming console in the coming months, and (sadly) never buy an xbox again...

sonyrootkit
sonyrootkit

@ParasioDelsol   I guess Netflix never should have started streaming movies because you could be watching a movie and then your router craps out. I guess we should all just live with discs by mail for the rest of our lives. 3 minutes might just be where the buffer is right now. This argument is ridiculous until we know what the system being online enables Microsoft to do at the system level. If it is an amazing jump forward in technology and quality then it is worth the minor inconvenience of being connected.


As far as used games that has nothing to do with always online. Both Sony and Microsoft are probably going to require paid activations of used games. Many games already do this this generation. Used games will work, but some or all features will be blocked unless you activate your copy. This system will be in place regardless of if always on internet is required or not. Sony has made it clear that they're leaving the policy up to publishers and MS will probably do the same, so if EA and Ubisoft decide they're going to require you to activate their games that's the way it's going to be. Not requiring online isn't going to change this reality.


My hypothesis about game design was not that they want the single player campaign from games to go away, but rather make it so that whatever you do in your single player game is represented in the community somehow. That your progress and experience is shared somehow with the rest of the community. Basically like the next evolution of achievements and gamerscore. My point is simply that we don't know all the reasons why they want the console to be online, so it is premature to decide whether you actually want that feature or not.

ParasioDelsol
ParasioDelsol

@sonyrootkit Yeah, well the great thing about movies is you can pop in a DVD or Blu-Ray disc when your internet doesn't work, and Netflix allows you to watch the discs they send you in the mail offline if I'm not mistaken. It's not, everyone's seen the kind of thing that comes with the always-on requirements, its more of a hassle than a benefit. How can you call anchoring the functionality of a system you have at home to something hundreds of miles away a benefit? Don't downplay it either. Its not a minor inconvenience for the 50% of xbox owners who don't have live.

As for your third paragraph  I dont see how thats a benefit of being always online, when your score and everything doesn't have to be shared in real time.

flynnz
flynnz like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

They lost my money. So sick of these companies trying to condition us away from ownership of what we buy.