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.