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.

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.