Critical Hit | The Perils and Potential of Always Online Consoles

By Jorge Ba-oh 12.04.2013 5

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With the world a far more connected place than it was just five years ago, is there room for video games consoles that would require an "always-on" internet connection in order to play what used to be a traditionally offline medium?

It's been rumour central with the upcoming Xbox 360 successor, codenamed Durango or "Xbox 720" as it's more commonly known. There are now, at time of writing, two distinct camps: one that suggests that the new console would have an always-on approach that would still allow offline content to be played and another that states otherwise.

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The first batch of rumors, which emerged last week, suggest that no games or apps could be run without a stable internet connection, even suspending currently running software after a period of downtime. Now today the focus has shifted slightly, suggesting instead that there would still be some functionality if an internet connection wasn't available - much like the way consoles run today.

It's a mess of pre-announcement speculation that can only be put to bed once Microsoft officially lifts the lid on its attempts to secure the living room for the next generation.

But why are gamers concerned about an always-online console?

Always-on could, depending on how it's implemented, prevent games from being played if:

  • There is no internet connection available or there's a disconnection.
  • There's too much demand and servers become unavailable.
  • The player's purchase credentials, i.e. ownership is unrecognised.
  •  It could end a game/running software if a connection isn't available for a certain amount of time.
What is fairly clear now is that Durango/Xbox 720 is very much likely to incorporate an always-online feature, but to what extent is still uncertain.

Nintendo are no strangers to always-online, with the Wii and Wii U able to keep a continous connection in "sleep" mode in order to receive messages and data. It's a feature that's completely option and wouldn't render the system useless if disabled or if an internet connection wasn't available. Players are still very much able to pop in a disc of New Super Mario Bros. U and play the game, albeit without Miiverse functionality but still very much playable.

One Microsoft employee Adam Orth, who has since left his position at the company, took the spotlight this week by suggesting - not confirming - that the console would take an always-connected approach:  "Sorry, I don't get the drama around having an 'always on' console. Every device now is always on. That's the world we live in," adding fuel to the already searing flames by telling fans to "#dealwithit".

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Xbox successor aside, all the talk about the need to maintain an online connection in order to play games sparks some concern about just where the industry is heading and can servers cope with the sheer demand? Do we really need to walk down this route?

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Jorge Ba-oh, Editor/Founder

It's hard to remember a time when there wasn't mass consumer internet, from the days of dial-up (which is still prominent in some regions, mind) to the bristling and permanently available fibre-optic speeds.  It's equally challenging to remember a time before widespread online gaming too, where players can simply login and battle, race, ally themselves against others from around the globe.

With online capability being standard for most entertainment devices these days - whether it be a smart TV, portable games console or even your toaster - can video game manufacturers take it one step further by demanding a connection to your console every time you play?

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Let's not leap into the negatives too quickly - there are some benefits to having an always connected hardware that could, if implemented on a console-wide scale and a required feature, help developers tap into what might be a limitless amount of processing power. Cloud gaming is an area of the industry that's coming into its own, but has remained a quiet topic in the grand scheme of things. By enforcing an always-connected rule, a console maker could offset a game's processing to servers, and return the results to the gamer, allowing portions or the entire game to be handled over the internet.

The always-on approach could also allow for social functionality to be expanded, offering more services to players during their solo efforts and make updates to software more  frequently and readily available - but should it be enforced?

With just a sliver of positives, the hope for always-on gaming goes rapidly downhill from there. The internet has already seen a massive backlash to the initial rumours and the general consensus is an overwhelming "no" to enforcing it.

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It would be a bad move, in my opinion. No amount of wireless and cloud functionality could act as persuaders to invest in hardware that demands an internet connection at all times. Locked out of a game completely when the local internet or the publisher's servers are down has already emerged in reality, most recently with the monumental backlash at EA's approach to the Sim City reboot.  Those who laid down some money for the game were unable to play for days due to an unprecedented amount of demand and a bizarre approach to having to be connected to play what used to be very much a solo/offline experience.

The failed attempts at enforcing internet connectivity as a precursor to playing has already been seen to have a wide number of problems - including the now defunct Ubisoft DRM and issues with trying to run Diablo III during launch due to server overload.

It's certainly reassuring though that the latest crop of rumours is stating that offline play and apps would still be available if there isn't any internet connectivity, but there are still concerns about how Microsoft and the industry as a whole aims to deal with connected devices and copy protection.

If Microsoft and other console manufacturers are considering enforcing an always connected approach, they really do need to take a step back and consider what benefits it could truly have to the gaming medium.

Az Elias, Deputy Editor

Online gaming has evolved at a rapid pace during the last decade. It's been there in some shape or form for the majority of the previous two generations of consoles, and has certainly been there even longer for PC games, of which MMOGs have been huge money-makers for a lot of developers. With all the talk of the next Xbox being an always-online machine, it's somewhat fitting that creator Microsoft was the first company to really push online console gaming with its original Xbox system. It took a concept that was seeing huge success on PCs, and brought it to the console world, where it was a core selling feature of the Xbox. Naturally, its competitors Sony and Nintendo followed suit, with all three major console manufacturers now pushing the online aspects of not just games, but connected social experiences, too, on their respective systems.

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Microsoft is once again looking at being the first (and probably only) of the big three to attempt to capitalise on what it believes could be the future of gaming. The difference between online gaming and an always-online machine, however, is that gamers wanted and were ready for online multiplayer and it has been successfully and provably implemented. Almost everyone that has heard the current rumours flying around regarding the next Xbox does not want to be a part of an always-online console future if it means restricting the ability to actually play the games they buy. Yes, digital media has increased hugely over the last few years, but is the video game world ready for a possible digital-only and always-online future that relies so heavily on needing to have a stable Internet connection? I don't think it is.
 
I am absolutely all for games that require players to be online to play them, since I believe there are some truly unique experiences to be had in such a form. I definitely think it's an untapped section of the market that we will likely see a lot of fresh ideas coming from in the near future - ideas that simply would not have worked in an offline state. But to limit every single game from being played just because the user isn't online is bordering beyond madness. When issues like the SimCity case happen, they receive such a huge backlash, that it shows just how unready people are for always-online gaming. If consumers become furious (and rightly so) from being unable to play games when their connection goes down, what makes Microsoft think it is a good idea to put this sort of function at the forefront of its console? As long as connections stay good, then there is potential for incredible games that use always-online play, but it is not something that should be implemented as standard for every single game on a console. And whilst broadband Internet has become much more accessible to the majority of households these days, there are plenty of people that can't get online or have very unstable connections. To alienate these potential customers that may otherwise have invested in the next Xbox seems like very strange behaviour from Microsoft. There is absolutely no desire for the concept from consumers, so why is Microsoft forcing it?
 
There are many unanswered questions that we will just have to wait for Microsoft to address, but one thing that I also worry about is: what happens once the next generation ends? Even now, we are seeing servers being shut down for certain video games as people stop playing them and developers try to save money, so the multiplayer side of things immediately becomes disabled. But what about a console that requires an online connection to play merely single-player games? By the time we move to the next generation again and it comes to shutting down servers for the console, are owners simply left with a brick - an ineffective, useless box that can no longer play games? As someone that has kept every console he has owned since the 8-bit days, still regularly scours the Internet and second-hand shops to pick up cartridges and discs for classic consoles, and hooks them up every now and again to relive timeless memories, this is something that does not appeal to me in the slightest. Replaying old games goes out of the window with an always-online machine, and it makes so much more sense to stick to the competitor console that will deliver many of the same games that will still work ten years from now - in this case, the PlayStation 4.

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I can see what Microsoft is trying to do. It is an untried method, and perhaps a subscription-based console could work, provided consumers know exactly what they are letting themselves in for. But there are so many risks involved, and the negatives greatly outweigh the positives in this instance. This is not the future of video games and I hope Microsoft sees the light, else confine itself to an ugly fate - one that can be so easily avoided.

Joshua Jeffery

Gaming certainly has come a ways since the days of the Nintendo Gamecube, widely seen to be the generation where online features started to be pushed by more and more game developers. Microsoft has, unsurprisingly, been among the most keen to get gamers connected, advertising the Xbox 360 as something which could do much more than one would expect from a games console... at a price (subscription) of course. Now that competitors have caught up, even without subscription based online services, what's Microsoft's next plan? This "always-online" concept, true or not, could give developers a real control over their user-base.

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Sure, there are plus sides to such a feature. Quick glitch-fixing and game patching in real time, as well as the system updating itself while being off without the user needing to spend any time sat idle in front of the telly in order to try out the new features. However, it doesn't even take someone in a location with questionable internet coverage (like yours truly) to see that there are many more problems with this concept than meets the eye. Remember the issues with EA's new SimCity earlier this year? Not only would the user's location need strong internet coverage, but "server issues", as EA called it, would render many games, possibly the entire system, completely useless for extended amounts of time. Successful console hacks or attacks would also be far more devastating than the industry is already used to. And hey, call me a sci-fi nut, but how long until game developers use this technology in collaboration with a system's camera (i.e. Kinect) to spy on users remotely without consent? Big brother is watching you, gamers!

Slight jokes aside (but seriously watch your backs), the question has to be asked, who is this idea of "always-online" really benefiting? The gamers? It doesn't seem like it at all to me, a consumer gets no groundbreaking experience from mandatory-online that they couldn't get from optional-online. When even Nintendo's new Wii U is almost featureless without an internet connection, one can't help but wonder if things will ever go back to the way they were, without this feeling of a system being useless without an internet connection. Will Nintendo give us an offline Miiverse for console owners to use with their other family members? Or let us record audio or video for our own offline amusement like the Nintendo 3DS can? Only time will tell, but I for one hope so.

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From all the recent controversy, it's easy to see that the grand majority of gamers would most likely be adverse to such features and protest their implementation, that feeling of being controlled is a "treat" to no one. If the latest rumours about Durango not needing to be online to be used at all are true, games developers are probably more aware of the risks of total control than we give them credit for. Learn from EA's humiliating blunders, games industry!

What do you think about always-online gaming? Is this a move too far for the industry? Have your say in our poll and comments section below.

User Poll: Would you buy a console that forces an always-online connection?

Yes, doesn't bother me
Yes, depending on the games/features
Unsure, would need to know more
Unlikely, would take a lot to persuade me
No

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Comments

Always online hardware is a disaster in the making. All you have to do is look at something like Sim City to see how well that goes over.

Can you imagine server side downtime at Microsoft, every week and 6 in the morning on Monday? Sorry, early birds. You can't play your games for 2 hours.

What about server crashes? What about hackings? How about in 10 years when Microsoft doesn't feel like keeping their servers up anymore?

Any and every gamer should be concerned about an online only console.

( Edited 12.04.2013 04:25 by jres80 )

I'm already unhappy with my Xbox 360 experience (which is a whole rant) and there have been several great releases PS3 releases lately that makes me wish I owned one, so it was already unlikely that I would not be buying the next Xbox. Requiring an always-online connection is an absolute deal breaker for me

I'm interested in the PS4, but if it were to require a constant internet connection, I'll pass. I refuse to buy games with a constant internet connection, too. I hate it.

The only game system that should require a constant internet connection is some like OnLive or Gaikai -- services where you can stream games. A constant internet connection is just how those things work.

TAG: That American Guy

"If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Romans 12:18

The problem is that no one is really differentiating between "always online" (which pretty much every system is - Wii, Wii U, 360, PS3, 3DS) and "required to be always online".

I don't believe Adam Orth ever mentioned that the next Xbox would require a constant internet connection, just that it would be always online. He did say "Every device now is always on." That is basically true, but nearly all of them operate offline. Applied to the next Xbox and you have a system that gets most of its functionality from being online, but can still be used to play (most) games offline.

( Edited 12.04.2013 14:40 by Sonic_13 )

Sonic_13 said:
The problem is that no one is really differentiating between "always online" (which pretty much every system is - Wii, Wii U, 360, PS3, 3DS) and "required to be always online".

I don't believe Adam Orth ever mentioned that the next Xbox would require a constant internet connection, just that it would be always online. He did say "Every device now is always on." That is basically true, but nearly all of them operate offline. Applied to the next Xbox and you have a system that gets most of its functionality from being online, but can still be used to play (most) games offline.


Yeah, it's all these mixed messages and unconfirmed speculation that's leading people to believe the worst, i.e. you need a connection to play your games. That is what we are all dead against. I really would be surprised if MS does make you require a connection just to play games, since I just think they're really alienating a huge portion of consumers and turning so many people away. Why would you even do that? Surely after this feedback they may even have gone back on it all and ease people's fears, if that was their original idea with the next Xbox. I have no problem with consoles having a huge online focus as long as it means you can still play your games offline, and I really favour always-online games, too. But not for games that could be played offline on another console.

Korgoth (guest) 12.04.2013#5

Sonic_13 said:
The problem is that no one is really differentiating between "always online" (which pretty much every system is - Wii, Wii U, 360, PS3, 3DS) and "required to be always online".

I don't believe Adam Orth ever mentioned that the next Xbox would require a constant internet connection, just that it would be always online. He did say "Every device now is always on." That is basically true, but nearly all of them operate offline. Applied to the next Xbox and you have a system that gets most of its functionality from being online, but can still be used to play (most) games offline.

While you bring up a valid point, this rumor of a required always on console didn't start appearing until recently.  By the line of logic you are using to explain away this potential blunder, they could have just as easily been making the same rumors about the Wii, Wii U, PS3, X-box 360, and original X-box.

Those rumors didn't exist, which leads me to think that there may be some serious discussion down at Microsoft HQ about the feasibility of requiring the console to be always on.  These may well just be rumors, and could even be Microsoft's way of testing the waters by gauging gamer reaction.

You do know that some bean counter is down at Microsoft right now crunching the numbers of potential consumers minus backlash as equal to or greater than pirated and used games as a means of justifying this shift.

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