Let's talk about "always online"
Oooof! Microsoft sure has a whirlwind on their hands, don't they? A lot of misinformation has been flying around over the past couple of days surrounding NextBox, "always online", and stuff like that. And even though it hasn't gained as much attention, it appears that some 3rd party developers may choose to use an always-online feature for their games, not just on NextBox but across all versions.
Of primary importance is dispelling myths and cutting through the fanboy bullcrap. What exactly does "always online" mean, and why are people angry at the idea? "Always online" can mean a number of things, but we've slapped the wrong name on the thing we're afraid of. Our current consoles are "always online", in a sense. My PS3 automatically downloads updates and syncs with the server when I'm away. My Wii pulses that little blue light when I get a message (even though that never happens). What a lot of gamers are worked up about is always online REQUIRED. The "required" is the part that causes concern. "Always online required" would be something like Diablo III, or SimCity, or the host of Ubisoft and EA (via Origin) and Rockstar games that force you to link up with the company's servers to verify (again and again) that you own a legit copy of the game. One of the most frustrating things in gaming (for me, at least) is going to the store, buying a copy of a game, and then coming home and having to verify it or type in some code. It's insulting. Some games (like Rockstar games on PC) are horrible because you have to sign up for some stupid account just to start the dang game. I buy consoles because they are pick-up-and-play. The more we move away from that pick-up-and-play mentality, the less money I'm going to spend on console games.
That is the sort of thing people want to avoid. I'm sure a few people are upset at Microsoft's rumor just because they like to hate Microsoft, but a great deal of people are legitimately concerned about Microsoft (and other game companies) going down this road, not because they don't have internet, not because they don't already play games online, but because the "required" part seems like an anti-consumer practice. People don't want to HAVE to be always online in order to play the games they've already purchased.
As for me? I've been against the idea from the start. I've already seen this stuff before on PC, and I've never liked it. There was a 1-month period where I didn't have internet and couldn't access my Steam account because it kept insisting that I go online and check for updates for the Steam client. I had 150 gigs of useless data on my drive, games that I had legally bought from Steam, and I couldn't use them because Steam said "no". Ubisoft and EA have tried their hands at all sorts of bizarre DRM practices, but the internet-based ones have always been the worst. There's always a server problem, or there's always some internet error at the worst time, kicking you out of the game.
I've seen a lot of people make the comment that "always online" doesn't have any benefits. Well, let's not be naive here, folks. It certainly COULD have benefits, some of which we can already see on current-gen consoles, like the auto-update of PS+. As videogames continue to integrate with social media and as online multiplayer continues to skyrocket in popularity, it is reasonable to assume that an always online console is going to thrive when it comes to those sorts of games. And who has thrived most in the online gaming market? Microsoft. They built an entire fanbase on the bread and butter of online multiplayer. Since they will likely try to capitalize on that in the future, it is not all that odd to see them moving in this direction. And it may not be all that bad for those of us who play a lot online. Consider Microsoft's push for connectivity between Xbox Live and smartphones. Imagine being at work, accessing your XBL account on your phone or computer, buying a new game, and then by the time you get home, the game is already downloaded, installed, patched, and ready to go. Or, imagine Microsoft uses Kinect's facial recognition and when you sit on the couch it silently scans your face, turns on the system, and logs you into Live before you even have a chance to grab the TV remote and turn on the screen. Or, imagine your Xbox announcing "you have one new message" or "one friend would like to video chat" when you're away from the TV, allowing you to not only use your NextBox for gaming, but to use it as a communication center. I'm just spitballing ideas here, but "always online" has its upsides to a certain segment of gamers.
Now, here's the reality: if Microsoft wants to go "always online", they're going to do it, and you're going to buy it. I'm sorry, but it's true. If Red Ring of Death, XBL price hikes (or the fact that they charge for Gold in the first place), E74 errors, and their complete shift in focus to the Kinect crowd haven't caused you to "jump out" of the Xbox brand, then "always online" isn't going to do it either. As gamers, it is painful to watch anti-consumer practices slowly take over the game industry, but most people aren't going to care. They'll buy the NextBox, or Assassin's Creed 4, or Watch Dogs, or whatever else is rumored to be "always online" next gen, and they won't care. Those that do care will be in the minority. DLC hasn't once stopped a popular game from selling well. SimCity sold over a million copies within the first two weeks, and likely more since then, despite all of the launch issues, despite the fact that we KNEW the game was going to be always-online. You think that's bad? Diablo III sold 12 million copies last year! 12 MILLION! To publishers, that doesn't say "gamers hate always online". It says "gamers are willing to put up with it". The same thing has happened with paid DLC and on-disc DLC. Us internet-dwellers get up in arms and rally against DLC, but then the company looks and says "huh. They all bought it anyway. I guess they want DLC, don't they?"
Ultimately, it's your own choice how you want to approach this always online thing. I've seen it on PC for years, so even though it pains me, I'm not surprised that it is starting to migrate to consoles, too. The silver lining is that always online will most certainly have a benefit. Believe me. They HAVE to pretty this up one way or another. Earlier, I gave some examples of ways that an always online console could be cool. That's exactly how it will be: there will be some awesome features that pull you in, and then you really will just "Deal with it" when your internet goes down because you're so accustomed to benefiting from the features. How else do you think Microsoft managed to keep 10s of millions of people paying for Xbox Live? They kept giving them the services they wanted, that's how.
The thing that really does concern me is individual "always online" titles, especially games that require you to be online (or to verify your online connection) just to play the single-player portion. To me, that takes it too far. Look, I'm not the biggest fan of Microsoft. I have my own reasons to dislike them, BUT even I am willing to admit that Microsoft is excellent at providing a service for people. Obviously. Tens of millions pay for a service that is more or less free on other platforms. Microsoft must be doing SOMETHING right. And so I have to admit that Microsoft will likely do a very good job with making "always online" a great service, even if it isn't something that I, personally, would want to participate in. But anyway, back to the games. Even a series like Demon's/Dark Souls gave you the option to play online or offline. There were some really cool benefits to playing online, but you didn't HAVE to play online. I'm sure a lot of these 3rd-party developers are going to play it up the same way and explain how always online in their game will be such a remarkable thing, but the moment that these games start booting me out of (or preventing me from starting) single-player campaigns just because my internet has a flutter, I'm done. I've already dealt with that crap on PC and I've already chosen to NOT play a lot of games on PC for that very reason. My loss, right? Well, these are videogames, not oxygen. If I'm treated like a peasant when I want to use the game I bought with my money, then I just won't play that game. I hate Origin, and since I don't HAVE to play Mass Effect 3 on PC, I don't. My loss, I suppose.
As we continue with "next gen", we're going to see more focus on social integration and online functionality, including "always online required" games and features. I'm not in favor of it, but I'm also not going to pretend like it isn't going to happen or that other people won't like it.
What do you folks think? Are you worried about "always online required", or are you eager to see how it might benefit gaming? One way or another, it's coming anyway.