PRETENTIOUS OPINIONIST: An “Always On” Console is a Bad Idea

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

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The Pretentious Opinionist is a column dedicated to my opinion and speculation. It does not represent oprainfall as a whole, nor the opinions of other staff members, nor does it necessarily have any basis in fact. It merely represents my possibly naive notion that people might be interested in what I have to say.

Always On is Bad

Over the course of the year, we have been seeing more and more rumors that Microsoft will require a constant internet connection with their next console — finally announced today. Sony has already announced a similar initiative, but at the same time, have said that there will be an offline mode. As for the rumors we heard, Microsoft would require an internet connection to start up any game or multimedia application. Now, it seems that the rumors were unfounded, at least at a system-wide level, as now it looks like “always-online” will only be necessary if a developer chooses to use Microsoft’s streaming service. While this is something, it is still a problem as far as I’m concerned. You see, I have a vested interest in seeing this NOT happen for one simple reason: I have dial-up internet. Yes, it’s true. Pick yourselves off the floor now, I’ve got more to say.

Always On is Bad

I’m sure there are some of you out in the audience that don’t really have an issue with “Always Online, Always Connected.” After all, you probably think that all of gaming’s addressable market has broadband internet. Well, that’s mostly true, I guess. I may not have broadband, but I could get it. I don’t live out in the sticks; I live in a small city in Idaho. But, you know, that broadband might not actually help for me.

To some of you, that won’t mean anything, so I’ll let you in on something: Idaho is dead last in nationwide internet connection speed, according to Akamai research. 39.1% of Idaho has a connection that is greater than 4 mb/s, with an average connection speed of about 4.7 kb/s. To compare, in Washington (where Microsoft is), 69.4% of the state has internet greater than 4 mb/s, with an average connection speed of about 8.5 kb/s. Can you see my problem? Even if I got broadband internet, there is no guarantee that I would even be able to maintain a consistent connection to Microsoft’s server (or whoever’s server) with my internet speed. All those problems with SimCity dropping player connections and losing game progress? Imagine that EA actually had all their servers running for SimCity on launch day (yes, quite near science-fiction, but this is just hypothetical). Would Idaho’s internet connection be stable enough to stay connected, regardless of how perfectly EA’s servers would run?

Always On is Bad

This is a chart detailing the average connection speeds for Idaho and Washington. While I can see a “Always On” solution working in Washington, that’s not their only addressable market.

And there, ladies and gentlemen, is the heart of my argument. Where you live, you may get a solid, steady internet connection, but don’t assume that’s the case everywhere, even in this country. 40% of the population who can get broadband actually use it, according to the FCC. Do those people who don’t just not deserve to play video games? In fact, let’s go down the list of the arguments that Microsoft’s (former) creative director Adam Orth said in favor of an always online console.

Sometimes electricity goes out, so I will not buy a vacuum cleaner.

The mobile reception where I live is spotty and unreliable. I will not buy a mobile phone.

All right, where to begin… I should first say that, for some of us at least, internet connection is far less reliable than electricity. I only see the power going out a few times a year, and often for less than a second. It messes with the digital clocks, but is otherwise not a problem.

From my experience with broadband here, internet can drop to a fraction of normal speed quite often. Does it ever go out completely? So far as I know, no. But then again, I don’t get broadband, so it’s hard to tell for certain. Here’s the thing: I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen the power go out for an hour or more. I often hear stories of internet going dead. And I would guess that Adam Orth has never lived long in a place with spotty mobile reception. It’s one thing for him to say that he won’t go without a mobile phone in a place like Seattle — where you are almost guaranteed to have service wherever you go — but what if that phone didn’t work 70% of the time (a very common occurrence in more rural areas of the country)? Would it be worth paying good money ($60 a month or more) for a phone if it doesn’t even work most of the time?

And that’s an excellent analogy for gamers. I want to be able to pick up and play my copy of the latest big JRPG at any and all hours. I don’t want to not be able to play because my ISP is down, or the console maker is doing a server update, or… you get the idea. We gamers should be legitimately concerned about an “always online” console because the console maker cannot, repeat, CANNOT guarantee service at all times.

Just look at Diablo III. That game was almost guaranteed from announcement to sell millions of copies worldwide. Yet, Blizzard completely dropped the ball on launch day by not having enough servers for all the people who wanted to play. That should have been the ultimate warning to anyone wanting to try always online DRM.

And yet, SimCity came along and managed to be an even worse fiasco.

While it is good the Microsoft hasn’t pulled the trigger to make online necessary for use, the fact that Mark Whitton, Xbox exec, has said, “I hope [developers] do [implement always-online in every game],” is a problem. It assumes that everyone in your target audience has a stable internet connection at all times.

Remember: Not everyone lives in Washington.

About Guy Rainey

I’m Guy Rainey. I’m a hardcore Nintendo fan, a PC enthusiast, and a Sony sympathizer. Also an amateur/aspiring game creator. I love any game that puts story as the main focus of the game, so that means JRPGs are my favorite genre almost by default.

  • Spookyryu

    and also not everybody lives in the US, only Japan has a great internet connection, but nintendo and sony rules that market, and the worst thing, Japanese doesn’t like to go online that often, lol

    • Yeah, Japan doesn’t trust the internet. And with stuff like the creepy EULA in Origin, who can blame them?

    • Brandt Mackay

      Japan has the fasted infrastructure for internet in the world, but they don’t like Microsoft anyway (can’t say as I blame the either) 😛 Sorry, but I’d rather get a PS4.

  • Aiddon

    game developers and publishers baffle me nowadays because it seems they’re developing consoles and games not for EVERYBODY, but for tech-savvy people with loads of disposable income. That is NOT good. Not everyone has a good net connection and game makers seem to be making stuff for a decade that we haven’t hit yet. I’m starting to wonder what they’re doing isn’t trying to EXPAND the market, but instead sell more games to fewer people. It’s not a good line of thinking. It seems the only company that remembers that remembers that they make GAMES is Nintendo.

    • And they’re missing out on the most important audience for games: kids! If we were building a pyramid out of the gaming audience, the bottom layer would be nerds, then kids. While nerds may be the biggest spender for games, kids have the most leisure time for stuff like video games. And most of us nerds will buy kid’s games, too. Why do they seem to think that dude-bros are the only audience worth giving games to?

    • Aiddon

      it’s like what happened with comics back in the 90s; they pandered solely to adult readers that bought LOTS of comics instead of going for kids. Sure, EXPANDING your audience is fine, but you can’t target ONE and not expect repercussions. Ever since that collapse in the 90s comics have never recovered. Like I said, the only company that seems to care about trying to make games that appeal to EVERYONE is Nintendo

    • I was saying the same thing about M$ in another thread. Teens seem to be a big target audience but they seem to be completely ignoring them with the whole focus on cable TV. It’s almost like M$ are trying too hard to appeal to families/everyone, and just failing at almost all angles.

  • Shulknameholderthing

    They said I could become anything. So I became completely against Microsoft.

  • smacd

    Is it really true that the rumors were “unfounded”? Because what I’m reading is that you MUST be online in order to install a game (which is required to play the game), and that you MUST be online to start a game (although one source I heard said that the requirement is just that you’ve been online in the previous 24 hours). But that losing/dropping your connection mid-game will no longer kill the game after 3 minutes.

    But I agree with the premise. Always-online requirements for a use that does not itself require it, is not only a poor idea, but inherently anti-consumer. I will not be getting an Xbone.

  • I have a pretty good internet connection but it does go down from time to time (more frequently than the power cuts but that kind of problem). Also connection is not all that stable, I do a fair bit of downloading so sometimes that’ll affect the speed etc. I for one would hate to have to connect to the internet just to verify a game and play it though. If M$ do go ahead with that then that’s just one more reason why I won’t be buying an Xbox One. I usually like the competition between the big three but in this instance I really hope the One fails big time so it warns Sony and Nintendo against going this kind of route in the near future.

  • dbclick

    Interesting article. I agree many won’t be able to utilize all the high-bandwidth services on the Xbox One. I think you’re missing a big reason they would want to include the always-online or periodic Internet check-in requirement: Stricter DRM to go with the no-disc-needed issue.

    Based on what has been said so far (granted, they could change this before launch if needed), it sounds like Microsoft will have you tie all games played on your Xbox One to your Live account (you can’t play them otherwise). They have also stated that with mandatory installs they will not require a disc in the drive for playing a game (a good thing for loading times, at least).

    This very likely means that they will have activation codes shipped in the game box that allow you to license the game for your account and Xbox because it isn’t cost effective to vary the disc image to include a custom code on each disc when printing the Blu-Ray discs (unless they’ve figured out some new manufacturing method there like printing it on the top of the disc). Included printed codes would likely be 2d bar codes optionally scannable by the included Kinect sensor. Don’t forget that the PS4 includes a camera as well, so they could take a similar approach (at least for activation).

    The supposed online once-a-day requirement could mean that the activation codes for the games are reusable. This means reusing the code would deactivate the license you have for the game and activate it for the new person (and make sure you never activate it again or that you have to manually deactivate it before selling – which could be verified by anyone with an Xbox One or by inputting the code online on a website). The online requirement would be to make sure you aren’t cheating the system with an offline mode or by disconnecting your Xbox. I’m still not sure what to make of the rumors about fees for a used game – waiting for more info on that one.

    One thing is for sure: the always or periodic online requirement isn’t there to benefit the consumer.

  • Josh S.

    Or some of us DO live in Washington, but STILL have freaking dial up… Regardless, I think always on is a HORRIBLE idea, and agree with all your speaking points, Guy! Well said, not pretentious at all 😀

  • Alexandre Bourque

    I think they’re putting an always online console because for some very dark reason, the biggest revenue probably comes from CoD’s multiplayer…