Why Always Online is a Huge Mistake for Microsoft

I wouldn’t normally comment on the media circus surrounding the next generation of consoles – because to be honest I don’t really care that much – but some news from the Microsoft camp late last week got me all hot under the collar. The all-but-confirmed news that the Xbox 720 (or ‘Durango’ or whatever they decide to call it) will be ‘always online’ had me staring at my web browser in dumbfounded amazement.

I love this artist's impression of the Xbox 720 controller. Sadly I couldn't find the source of the image, but whoever you are. WELL DONE.
I love this artist’s impression of the Xbox 720 controller. Sadly I couldn’t find the source of the image, but whoever you are. WELL DONE.

Although it hasn’t been officially confirmed, this ‘always online’ business means that it’s highly likely that if your next-gen Xbox isn’t connected to the internet, you simply won’t be able to play any games, as you’ll need to be connected so that the Microsoft servers can verify that the game you’re playing is genuine and not a pirate copy. It also seems to indicate that any games you buy might be tied to your Xbox Live account, which means that second-hand games won’t work.

This still hasn’t been officially confirmed by Microsoft of course: the ‘always online’ rumour seems now to be genuine, but we still don’t know whether Microsoft will go the whole hog and restrict the content you’re ‘allowed’ to use. However, it does seem like they’re heading down a dark alley of not-goodness.

The disastrous launches of Diablo III and SimCity have proven that forcing players to connect to a potentially creaky server just to play the game is a not good idea, so to base a whole console around this concept seems to be asking for trouble. What if the network goes down, as happened after the PlayStation Network was hacked? What if your internet connection goes down? What if you’re moving house and can’t get connected for a month? What if you live in a rural area with limited or no broadband? In any of these cases will your shiny new next-gen Xbox be reduced to the status of an expensive under-TV ornament?

Likewise, effectively ‘banning’ the sale of second-hand games by making them unplayable seems foolhardy in the extreme. The thinking seems to be that publishers and manufacturers are ‘losing’ sales every time someone buys a second-hand game, when this is clearly not the case. I buy second-hand games, but I also buy new ones when something particularly special catches my eye. If I couldn’t buy those second-hand games because they wouldn’t work, I wouldn’t just buy the new equivalent – I couldn’t afford it for a start. In the end, players just wouldn’t be able to play as wide a range of games as they do now, which is bad news for everyone.

Second-hand games are an easy way to get into a series: you might buy the first couple of Assassin’s Creed games, for example, which gets you into the series enough to buy the third game new when it comes out. Or you might borrow a game from a friend and like it enough to buy the sequel. If Microsoft decides that games have to be tied to a single Xbox account, both of those options disappear.

Then there’s the potential impact on games stores: in the UK, a huge chunk of GAME’s sales are derived from the second-hand market, so without that they’ll more than likely go under. Again.

It seems even more bizarre that Microsoft might go down this route when Sony have confirmed that the PlayStation 4 WON’T restrict secondhand content or require an internet connection. In light of this, it would be absolute madness if Microsoft decided to restrict what their users could play, and I for one would veer towards purchasing a PlayStation 4 for this very reason.

Although, to be honest, I’m pretty happy with my Wii U and my enormous backlog of games for now, thanks very much.

14 Comments

  1. My view is quite simple on this. If the new generation Xbox requires a constant connection to the internet to play games then I simply will not buy one.

  2. Sadly, that’s just Edge scraping the bottom of the barrel of their journalistic integrity. They can’t be as up to date as blogs so they’re just resorting to making stuff up.
    Not one of the sources that they have quoted has come close to showing what they claim without huge leaps of logic. Always on seems to be always powered on and ready to use. Always connected seems to be pretty much what they have now but with automatic updating. There is not one shred of evidence that they link to that supports their claims of the new xbox having to be always Internet connected or shows amy intent to kill off second hand sales.

  3. I totally agree, always-online poses some major problems. I DO understand that always-online is probably the future of gaming, but we need to make sure our consoles don’t get ahead of our internet connections. Once internet is some sort of universal, absolutely reliable thing (rather like our electricity is reliable, as long as there’s no storm outage and we pay our bills… oops), then we need offline mode available.

    The no secondhand games thing definitely bothers me too. Like you said, sharing games is a great way to make people want to buy the rest of the series! I do like the PS4 idea of being able to play the beginnings of games like we play demos, for free, then just continue downloading the game as we play if we like it. It would be cool if the Xbox 720 implemented something like that. (But then, I hope we can play a fair amount of the game — like 25 or 30% — and not just the tutorial or something!)

    Frankly, Microsoft HAS to be smart enough to know that they need to allow secondhand gaming if they’re going to compete with the PS4, at this point. As a long-time Xbox fan, I’m hopeful!

    1. They’d be fools to push through with it, fools I tell you!

      I think the ability to play the first bit of a game for free is a brilliant idea – that’s the kind of innovation we need, not restrictive ‘always online’ nonsense.

  4. I don’t see a problem with it. It’s a free market, it can be a differentiating aspect of the Microsoft console and thats its perogative. Whether consumers choose to support it is entirely, again, their perogative.

    I see this as no different (in theory, not necessary as an analogy!) from a business protecting their intellectual property. At the end of the day the games industry exists to the same end as every other one – to make money. It’s all too easy to lose sight of that fact sometimes.

    Besides I’m not totally convinced it will go ahead. I remember in the dark days leading up to the release of the PS3 Sony were investigating similar technology.

    Still – good article!

    1. Plus we’ve got to remember the inherent characteristics of software purchases in that we are purchasing a licence to play, nothing more.

    2. I absolutely agree that it’s a free market, and if Microsoft wants to irreparably damage themselves, they should be allowed to do so.

      What I don’t understand is how anyone can think it’s a feasible idea. Especially here in America, where our Internets are slow and fragile (“The slowest and fragilest!” as we like to brag). Perhaps the executives behind it live where broadband is fast and reliable, but the rest of the country is in a technological backwater.

      On the other hand, Steam has pseudo-Always-On (or actually, _sometimes_ on) DRM, and people not only tolerate it but eat it up. Then again, Steam’s DRM seems =designed= for slow and fragile Internet. It uses very little data, and only infrequently (it spends more bandwidth on keeping you up to date on what your friends are playing *right now*, if that tells you anything), and you can go offline for a month and still play all your games.

      Steam ALSO doesn’t allow reselling games, because they are tied directly to your account. BUT, in return for this, they allow you to redownload your purchases at any time from any computer. They have drastically INCREASED the player’s convenience, rather than reducing it. It’s not hard to see why people who fight DRM elsewhere are (often) OK with with Steam’s methods. Steam offers more convenience than the pirates do, rather than the other way around.

      1. there is no reason though that Microsoft couldn’t tie the game to your console and allow a subsequent digital download based on that licence. If I were microsoft that is most certainly what I would do.

        I take your point on the internet though, that that’s something it will have to grapple with at that time.

      2. If Microsoft could make the always online a positive thing, in a similar way to Steam’s flexibility with downloads, then it might just fly with the public, but then again PC gaming and console gaming are quite different. Not being able to play secondhand games will more than likely put most consumers off buying.

        Let’s face it, there’s very little to choose between the new PS4 and Xbox in terms of specs, and there are very few console-exclusive games these days, so the buyer’s choice comes down to the service and interface that the console provides. If that service restricts you, why buy into it?

        Then again, Microsoft have been getting away with charging for Xbox Live for years and people put up with it, so maybe they’ll put up with always online too?

  5. I suspect all this is reflective of (a) a general trend by all developers towards socialising the gaming experience and (b) digital rights management. We’ll see where it goes but I suspect the recent Sim City debacle is pretty much indicative of consumer mood when confronted with this sort of thing.

    1. It’ll be interesting to see whether people will stand for DRM on the Xbox if it happens. They’ve put up with it on the PC for a while now, but consoles could be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

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