As Microsoft rattled off game after game at its E3 press conference, there was a brief moment where the company’s vision of an Internet-based game console made perfect sense.
Dan Greenawalt of developer Turn10 was on stage, talking about Forza Motorsport 5. He explained how the game would learn players’ racing styles, and create virtual drivers based on their behavior. These “Drivatars” (you must forgive the cheesy name) would then race against the world in players’ absences, earning in-game credits while giving other players a more human-like opponent. Greenawalt celebrated this feature as the end of artificial intelligence.
Forza Motorsport 5 will be the rare game where the Xbox One’s routine connections to the Internet aren’t a crude anti-piracy measure, but a vital part of making games better. And it wasn’t the only example. In Project Spark, a game that focuses on creating content in the style of Sony’s LittleBig Planet, the whole point is to stay connected and play the world’s creations. In the stylized shooter Sunset Overdrive, developer Insomniac has promised in-game events that change every day based on the community. In all these cases, you’ll want your console to be connected because of the benefits it provides.
But as the press conference ambled on, Microsoft’s dream began to clash with reality. While Microsoft’s own in-house studios and exclusive partners pursue the dream of always-online gaming, other publishers are sticking with a more familiar formula: the same kinds of games we’ve been playing for years, but bigger and prettier.
We saw plenty of that at Microsoft’s press conference, starting with the opening trailer for Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain. Along the way, we saw trailers for Dark Souls II, Ryse: Son of Rome, Dead Rising 3 and The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. All of these games are primarily single-player experiences, entirely unreliant on an Internet connection to enjoy.
Here, the Xbox One’s need to be connected — at least once every 24 hours — seems purely anti-consumer. And these kinds of games aren’t going away.
This is the conflict at the core of the Xbox One’s existence — and for that matter, at the core of modern gaming. Publishers are pushing toward games-as-services, where the game is always changing thanks to a pipeline of fresh content from the Internet. Players get new experiences for months, or years, and publishers get inherent anti-piracy measures and a bigger opportunity to sell more content. Everyone wins.
Except, not everyone wants that kind of game all the time. We still need single-player, standalone games like Metal Gear Solid and The Witcher — games that aren’t just enjoyable in the moment, but that aspire to the status of art, and can stand the test of time. We want these games to be playable 20 years from now, long after the authentication servers go offline. Electronic Arts’ SimCity fiasco proved that players don’t always want to be connected. They just want to be able to play SimCity.
Microsoft’s problem — one of them, at least — is that Xbox One is built for games-as-services, even though single-player, offline games are very much alive and well.