Always-Online Xbox Console: An Insane Idea
2) It Ignores The Technological Realities
Quite frankly, the video gaming industry has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted to provide the constant support needed to ensure the smooth operation of its products whenever constant Internet access is a requirement. The SimCity launch fiasco, and the Diablo III launch fiasco which preceded, it are more than proof enough of that. But if these debacles are unconvincing, then look at Sony’s experience in 2011.
You’ll all recall how in the spring of 2011, hackers identified the Playstation 3 root key. This not only made it almost impossible for Sony to prevent pirated or unauthorized games from being used on the system, it also put the identifying information of millions of Playstation Network members at risk of compromise and exploitation. We’ll set aside Sony’s bone-headed response to the attack, and note instead that Sony was forced to take Playstation Network offline for several weeks in order to deal with the problem and devise a solution. That was infuriating for people who wanted to use the online capabilities of their PS3, but at least it didn’t prevent users from employing the device to play single-player games and watch Blu-Rays.
Imagine what would have happened had Playstation 3 required a persistent Internet connection in order to work. It’s unlikely that Sony could have taken any action to deal with the root key hack without first depriving its customers of using the device at all. Make no mistake: an Xbox 720 (or Durango, or whatever) with an online requirement comes ready-made with that risk.
Whether the problem is a lack of internal support, or the creation of an unnecessary achilles heel, it’s clear that an always-on Xbox console is a poorly conceived idea. But it isn’t just internally that Microsoft should worry. It must also contend with the technological world inhabited by its customers.
America’s broadband infrastructure is sorely incomplete. We remain a very unconnected country in many regions, and there is no one standard for how access to the internet is meted out, much less how reliable it will be. Some service providers offer generous packages, others come with strict data limits that cause internet slowing or hefty punitive charges for exceeding the cap. Many users even live in regions where broadband isn’t available. In short, the US doesn’t have the technological infrastructure to support the kind of online commitment always-on schemes require.
Forcing players to access the Internet consistently just to play single player games robs them of the ability to choose when and how they access the Internet. It also forces them to play at the mercy of uncertain external factors when there is no reason or demand for it.
There’s another problem of course: releasing an Xbox console that requires the internet in the current market is also a very stupid business move.
3) It’s Bad Business
Finally, an Xbox console which requires an Internet connection to work is terrible a terrible business strategy.
It’s fair to say that going into the 7th generation, Sony made a tremendous error in judgement. The Playstation 2 was by that point the best-selling home console in gaming history, and Sony clearly assumed it had locked up customer loyalty for the forseeable future. Or at least, we assume that’s why Playstation 3 was a prohibitively expensive investment that competed poorly compared to Nintendo’s Wii and, eventually, the Xbox 360, at least until cheaper models were finally made available. That, combined with a smaller slate of top shelf and a lack of features compared to Xbox 360 fully eroded the punishing market dominance Sony achieved with PS2.
Based on what we know so far about Playstation 4, it appears Sony won’t be repeating that mistake. However, if the news of a always-connected Xbox console turns out to be true, Microsoft seems determined to pick up where Sony left off. We’ll spell it out for them: Xbox 360 customers are not guaranteed Xbox 720/Durango customers. A console is an expensive investment, and consumers will make all sorts of calculations when deciding which one to purchase first. That means of course whether or not there are any good games – something Nintendo has now failed to grasp for three successive generations – and what sorts of features the box comes loaded with. But it will also come down to price, and what the consumer thinks they’ll get for that price.
Sony has already ruled out the possibility of an always-online requirement for Playstation 4. Playstation 4 is also likely to arrive in stores before Xbox 720/Durango. This means Microsoft would be dropping its new box into a market already trailblazed by two consoles that don’t arbitrarily limit consumer behavior as a consequence of ownership.
When we first saw Adam Orth’s Twitter outburst, we had to ask ourselves if it was a clumsy attempt by Microsoft to find out how much the public likes the idea of an always-on requirement for the next Xbox console. If that’s the case, then mission accomplished: consumers hate it. Hopefully, Microsoft is paying attention. That they might not be is a mind-boggling idea.
In fact, it’s insane.