Loss of first always online console sucks

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.

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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”?

3 thoughts on “Loss of first always online console sucks”

  1. Thing is, all of the benefits of the pre-reversal policies could have been maintained by Microsoft if they wanted them – ie:

    – have an opt-in, regular online check-in tier of Xbox Live with family sharing for digital titles. They had the infrastructure set up for this, so it wouldn’t have been back-breaking to keep it going and just have two differentiated types of accounts.
    – Have another tier where there are no check-ins but no sharing.

    A simple, clear way of showing the benefits but _also_ giving customers choice.

    That MS went back on everything suggests that their very vaguely outlined sharing strategy was far less than everyone was expecting, and not something they were keen on in any event.

    As for the ‘benefits of the cloud’, any game now (and indeed, _last_ gen) could tap into them. Indeed, the MMO Final Fantasy XI used online servers for gameplay on the PS2 and Xbox. You can have the benefits of the cloud without needing the system to be arbitrarily online for games that don’t need it. It was Microsoft again restricting choice for no real reason. There have been online-required games using the equivalent of ‘the cloud’ for this and the last console generation, and they will continue into next-gen. And they’ll be about as hardware-specific in the future as they are now – ie, not at all, so why Microsoft keeps on talking up the future of the cloud when it’s a specifically client-agnostic technology, as a means to talk up their client machine, is confusing unless you assume they’re disingenuously trying to trick consumers. They’d never do that….

    In short – all the benefits the author is looking for are possible now (that’s right – now, on current consoles) across all three major consoles and PC. Why don’t we actually have them yet? My guess is that when push comes to shove, the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t justify it, and Microsoft’s ‘positives’ for their DRM-heavy approach were smoke and mirrors to pacify consumers, rather than some revolutionary step forward.

    1. I agree with you on most points, particularly that Microsoft’s actions indicate their vision for the online console was most likely waek to begin with.
      However you say online-only games have been tapping into the cloud for a while now, and that’s true. The thing is that if the console was always-online every game would be always-online. This means developers could incorporate those features into any game, singleplayer or multiplayer, full-price release or self-published title, racer or RPG.
      If the online connectivity is not guaranteed developers will not use it even if it could mean a better game. It’s exactly the same issue Sony had with the Move wand and MS had with the first Kinect: Why would you make a game that requires something if only a percentage of your audience can use it? Microsoft is requiring Kinect this time for that reason.

      1. Aye, but some games will never need the cloud. I just finished a run through FTL – an exceptionally enjoyable little indie game – and there’s no way that game would ever need the cloud. Why add a pointless restriction on how to play it? In theory, competition between the big studios should push cloud adoption (the same way that many games have online modes, despite it not being compulsory).

        This way, if people have a choice, if the cloud is useful it will clearly show up. If people don’t have a choice, gamers could end up paying (because someone has to support all those servers – cloud servers don’t grow on trees, and chew a reasonable amount of electricity, and Microsoft will be recouping that cost somewhere) for services that don’t make any practical difference.

        In many ways, Microsoft are taking the ‘communist’ approach to provision of services – it will be done their way or not at all – while Sony took a more free market path. Sure, sometimes it might mean things move more slowly (just like in a free market vs socialist example) but in the long run you tend to get more effective and efficient systems, that reflect what people actually want. I’ve always found it somewhat entertaining the one of the US’ corporate champions has such a communist approach to doing business ;).

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