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Always online… not always thinking of the consumer?

19 April on Blogs, Editorial  

Chances are you saw Adam Orth's Twitter escapades (I mean, the guy got his own meme). I know I am late to the party, but I thought I had something that not many people seem to have mentioned. So far I mostly saw people do subdued defenses, passionate defenses or outright attacking the concept (even if jokingly)... but has anyone tried to just plain think about the pros and cons of such a strategy?

In my humble opinion, the biggest potential misstep may be the very same one Blizzard and Maxis did with Diablo 3 and SimCity respectively: they were not in the interest of the consumer. What did each of them truly add to the titles that could not be pulled off with a intermittent connection? Mostly avoid cheats and serve as added DRM to avoid piracy. The actual features for players could be added without the magic "always online" requirement - Auction House in Diablo, Neighborhoods in SimCity. So ultimately these were for the benefit of the developer/publisher... while the consumer has to bite the bullet and deal with the fact that he can't play during a plane trip or in case of an Internet hiccup - and that's not even taking into consideration the server-side problems: just the other day I was playing Tomb Raider on my Xbox 360 with a Cloud Save and the game froze at a checkpoint because Xbox Live was offline for a couple of hours - Diablo and SimCity both had serious launch problems because of that.

Now, given Microsoft's past and current strategies, it's not hard to imagine that an always-online requirement for their New Xbox could be due to a couple of things: their constant concern with piracy and DRM (which could include the whole used games debacle), but I think there is something even more important for them. I am talking about their services platform. Look at how much of the current Xbox dashboard is advertising. The whole main chunk of the starting screen has its biggest tile dedicated to it... and more than half of the entire interface is dedicated to non-system functions. Ads for new releases, ads that are not even videogame related, highlights for new Apps - which, by the way, are probably a major revenue source for Microsoft, seeing as a lot are Xbox Live Gold exclusives and they probably get a kickback from the parties involved like Hulu and IGN. Look at Windows 8 new Start Screen with its Live Tiles and the new versions of Minesweeper and Solitaire with built-in advertising. If Microsoft is really going to require an Internet connection, chances are it is so they can leverage this very clear revenue stream.

Should this be the case, then yeah, you can count on me boycotting the next Xbox. The online requirement is basically to ensure that Microsoft can maximize their capitalization of the platform - and that I can't accept. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe they actually have added features thinking of the consumer experience. Maybe there will be native APIs on games that allow for dynamic content (that is not advertising). Imagine if even single-player games could be affected by what other players are doing: economies that are subject to the connected market; unlockables that are dictated by the global killcount; interactive stories that reflect on decisions of every single player in real-time. Or maybe even more, the sky is the limit for imagination, and guaranteeing the developers that their games will always be online allows them to truly maximize this, instead of having to anticipate both scenarios of online and offline play - which will certainly make them prioritize offline play. Journey, the smash indie PSN title, showed how a transparently online scenario can truly blow away the player. Imagine taking that to the next level.

Hopefully, we won't have to wait long. It seems like Microsoft will be unveiling their strategy as soon as May, and there are even rumors that the always-on requirement won't even be there. But my point remains: demanding a constant connection is not inherently right or wrong - what makes it so is if it's done for the interests of Microsoft and publishers, or the user experience.

Esta postagem também está disponível em: Portuguese (Brazil)

Author, freelance videogame journalist, cinematography major and a little insane.