More than a week after the close of E3 the ripples of its events still reverberate through most of the games media and its output. As a frequent lurker of games article comments sections I’ve extracted some talking points for each platform holder that web denizens still all seem to have an opinion on. Be sure to also check out what Sony didn’t say at their conference and why Retro Studios’ Metroid and other expected Wii U games are missing for a reason.
First things first: Microsoft’s messaging leading up to E3 regarding its plan for Xbox One, digital rights management and used games was extremely poor. Whether stemming from an internal confusion over how these systems would work or from sheer arrogance in thinking gamers would be blind to potential issues in the face of a shiny new Xbox, the company’s baffling talk about always-online consoles, always-connected cameras and game licences shared between family but not new friends got potential customers offside for good reason.
Yet there were intriguing, game-changing ideas hinted at for Xbox One as well. For the first time in a long time it looked like the three big console makers were heading in different directions, with Sony likely to build on what they have with games consoles and Microsoft taking a left turn to make an always online, cloud-assisted entertainment stream-box.
Following an E3 beating from gamers’ new-best-friend Jack Tretton, CEO of Sony America, and the resultant negative light Microsoft’s policy on used games and DRM was viewed in, the company decided to not only correct their views on that but fold on the idea of mandatory internet connection entirely.
While a block on used games and an online-connected camera that can’t be turned off don’t bother me personally I think Microsoft reversing them in the interest of good faith would be smart. But the decision to remove the guarantee that every Xbox One will be online is extremely unwise, very weak and clearly reactionary. It robs the new machine of its most interesting point of difference. What they have now is a box that costs $100 more with barely anything to differentiate, and that isn’t guaranteed to grow in capability in the future.
When I look back on the few points of the last month or two that really grabbed me and made me look at Xbox One as a progressive platform, they were all made possible by constant, mandatory internet connectivity.
I know many people have labelled the promise of offloading physics engines or AI to off-site computers as fantasy, and compared Xbox One’s cloud functionality to the ludicrous and cynical EA Sim City ruse, but the fact is if a developer wanted to take advantage of the technology in the future they could have done so. Microsoft has said the next Halo is being built with cloud artificial intelligence in mind. The E3 demo for the new Forza made a big deal of the fact that all the rival racer’s styles and techniques are derived from real players across the globe, marking the end of predictable “racing against the computer” scenarios. Microsoft recently bought up a farm of over 300,000 servers just for this purpose. Have they had to now tell those developers that they can make use of the cloud if they want but they need to make sure their game works on offline machines too? Because if so no developer in their right minds will bother with the extra cost and effort.
And what about the increased functionality of digitally acquired games on an always-online system? The squeaky wheels that caused Microsoft’s reactionary backflip were after blood because the Xbox One wouldn’t allow disc-based games to be resold or gifted without jumping through certain licencing hoops. Yet what the online model permitted was the freedom to download a copy of a game and have it playable by everybody in my family on any Xbox One, or an any Xbox One I happen to sign in to. The potential was there for plenty of new streaming and sharing options as internet speeds increase in the coming years too.
I’m not attempting here to manufacture a binary between ‘people who want retail freedom’ and ‘people who want always-connected flexibility’, but the fact is I think mandating a console be able to access the internet at all times would bring experiences and options that PlayStation 4 and Xbox 360 will not be able to do, and I don’t think it has to come with all the DRM and retail obliteration Microsoft originally set out. Why couldn’t an always online console play used games discs? Why is Microsoft all of a sudden willing to submit the the cries of the few when their regular MO is dragging the many kicking and screaming into the future? Remember when Xbox Live launched and it was broadband only? Where would online console multiplayer be today if Microsoft had given in back then and said “We were wrong, you’re right. We’ll make sure all the games work over dial-up”?