The “Always Online” Debacle

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If you’re a dedicated gamer and you have a Twitter account, chances are you’ve heard about the Adam Orth controversy. For those of you just joining us now, Kotaku posted an inflammatory article about Microsoft’s plans to have their next Xbox require a constant Internet connection in order to play games (yes, even single-player ones). Given the article’s total lack of credible (or even named) sources, it seemed like the usual Gawker clickbait, but then Orth, a creative director at Microsoft, weighed in on the controversy with some inflammatory commentary of his own. He claimed he wished every device was “always on,” then told people complaining of unreliable Internet connections to “deal with it” while offering two of the most puzzling analogies I’ve ever heard. If my cell phone has a spotty connection, I don’t not buy a cell phone; I switch providers so I get the service I want. Are you picking up on that analogy, Orth?

I was actually browsing Orth’s tweets the minute his account was locked; one minute, I’m seeing misguided aggression toward a consumer base, and the next, a corporate muzzling. Sure, you’ve got guys like Cliff Bleszinski (who has a natural talent for missing the point of every major video game controversy) suggesting that Orth was a pussy for protecting his profile, but I think there’s very little doubt that one of Orth’s bosses at Microsoft told Orth, in no uncertain terms, to shut the hell up. Bleszinski has also been defending Orth by asking detractors, “Have you never said anything stupid on Twitter?” Well, sure I have, but I’m not a creative director at Microsoft spewing aggressive rhetoric regarding potential company secrets in a highly public forum. Context is everything, Cliffy B.

The last two blow-ups over always-online DRM were the Diablo III and SimCity incidents. I have to admit that at the time, I found the public outcry more amusing than anything else; neither game was really on my radar at launch, and to this day, I still don’t own either of them. I felt kind of bad for the fans who had bought these games out of loyalty or interest and were punished at launch because of an uncompromising authentication requirement and a melted server, but the sheer ridiculousness of the situation still tickled me. But even as I thought that the lengths to which a company would go to protect their sales were kind of hilarious, I could still recognize that, some day, this kind of draconian DRM could infect a game I’m actually interested in, especially given that all that hate over the DRM did little to slow sales. Imagine my surprise when it was suggested that Microsoft was planning to do this to an entire console that I was interested in.

Like pretty much everyone on the planet, I am vigorously opposed to an always-online console. I live in Canada, where our Internet is apparently both expensive and slow compared to the rest of the world. The way my living arrangements are set up, my bedroom (where my 360 is currently located) does not get Wi-Fi, and there is no ethernet port within range of the Xbox. Because of this, I’m pretty much forced to stay offline (no great sacrifice, since I don’t have Live Gold and I’m not a big fan of online multiplayer games). However, if I want to download some DLC, I have to physically move my Xbox and my bulky TV (always a two-person operation) into the basement so I can get a wireless connection. Keeping my setup in the basement for extended periods of time is not an option, so I have to move everything back upstairs if I actually want to play said DLC.

Before you ask, yes, my computer is continuously connected. But it’s in my den, where there is still no Wi-Fi, and my only Internet option is a single ethernet port. So the “you’re always online with your computer, so you can be always online with your console” argument is neither applicable nor feasible. And even though I’m supposed to have a “constant” Internet connection, it drops out periodically, even via ethernet. Have you ever seen me sign in and out on Steam a bunch of times in a row? Really annoying, right? That’s my Internet cutting out. And if you want a really good picture of how terrible Canadian Internet is, I’ve been getting 70 kbps download speeds lately via ethernet on the fastest available network. We’ve had countless service technicians come and go, all of them puzzled at how none of their quick fixes ever seem to patch our Internet. So I’ve done my part to fix my terrible Internet, but ultimately, I’m at the mercy of the service providers. An environment like this is not conducive to having an always-online console. Adam Orth’s suggestion of “move to the city” doesn’t fly, since I live in the damn city.

If my Internet cuts out (which it surely will from time to time), I’m suddenly unable to play my Durango games, even the single-player ones. If I lose the Internet and want to play a single-player game on Steam, I simply start it in offline mode and it works like a charm (those who put forth the incorrect notion that even Steam has always-on DRM seem to conveniently forget this little fact). But what happens when my Internet is fine and dandy, and it’s the Xbox Live servers that go down? Come on, it’s not like this has never happened before. If the authentication servers crash, no one will be able to play any of their Durango games. That would be a public relations disaster of the highest caliber. And the best Internet connection in the world couldn’t save you from this travesty, since the issue is on Microsoft’s end.

As someone rightly pointed out on Twitter, we should be asking why Microsoft wants us to be continuously connected to the Internet. They can hide behind fluffy smoke and mirrors like cloud computing (???), helpful push notifications, and silent, automatic updates, but I don’t think there’s a person alive that doesn’t believe this is really about DRM and putting the kibosh on the hordes of modded, pirate-commandeered consoles out there. If your console is not online and connected to Microsoft’s official servers, your game will not be authenticated, and you will be unable to play it. Gamers were already vehemently opposed to DRM even before 2012, but Diablo III and SimCity have whipped them into a frenzy. I’m not at all shocked that Twitter blew up the way it did in the wake of the Kotaku article; a decision like this, if it turns out to be true, could easily be a console-killer. I think it’s even worse than the Diablo and SimCity situations because it affects every single game released on the console, not just a select few titles (read: Ubisoft games in previous years) that can be safely ignored if you don’t want to deal with the DRM. If you want to buy any game for Durango, you will have to deal with its always-online DRM every single time. Historically, many games released on Microsoft’s consoles have also been ported to Sony’s; I can imagine tons of people picking up the PS4 version instead of the Durango version simply because it means no wacky DRM.

I’m not a boycott kind of guy, mainly because I know that I’ll eventually cave and buy something if I want it enough, despite the fact that some things about it might piss me off. However, if Microsoft goes through with this always-online plan for Durango, I will not buy it. I can’t! With my Internet environment, it would be like buying a $400 brick that sits on my bedroom counter, taunting me with error codes about not being able to find a Wi-Fi signal. I was already thinking about the PS4 after the fantastic specs dropped, but now I’m strongly considering making the switch next generation.

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9 thoughts on “The “Always Online” Debacle

  1. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a wonder they can’t seem to figure out that DRM punishes those of us who try to do the right thing. And the bad guys find patches to work around it.

    • Yep. In the end, the pirates will homebrew it to work offline. And they’ll still mod it to play stolen games too, just like they have for, oh, just about every console in history, y’know?

  2. Great article. I think we’re headed towards an always online gaming industry, eventually. It’s only a matter of time.

    They’ll (those involved in the game industry) keep taking and taking away as much as we’re willing to let them, throwing out these stories now and again as scare tactics to remind us how bad they could make it for us.

    But it’s not time yet for always-online yet. There are still way too many pockets of poor connections, dl speeds, and bandwidth caps from service providers across the First World for it not to negatively impact console sales.

    • I agree: one day we will have always-online consoles, and they will be perfectly reasonable because of our improved Internet infrastructure. They’ll probably even have plenty of features that vastly improve the way we consume content. But sadly, that time is not now. Not while my connection speed and stability are as wonky as they currently are.

  3. It’s would be a shameb because I’ve been an Xbox fan for quite a while, but if this news is true, then I really don’t see any choice other than to make the switch, as you said. It’s not just about preference anymore, it’s a completely practical issue. There’s just no way I would buy a console that I wouldn’t be able to use some of the time. I have a decent internet connection, but like everyone else, it isn’t perfect and it does cut out sometime. To me, it’s a ridiculous idea to require an internet connection to play even singleplayer games. That’s one of the reasons I love playing singleplayer games in the first place – that I can play them by myself whenever I want, with or without internet!

  4. Another excellent piece :) It worries me when companies make such blatant moves to inhibit the gamer in order to make a fast buck. It’s been suggested second-hand sales might also be blocked, which is bizarre if it’s true. Durango’s visibility/presence would be reduced to zero in game shops and sites like amazon and play.com wouldn’t be at pains to push the format either as they make a good business of resales.

    Felt the same with the PSPGo – a nice piece of kit in isolation, but by preventing the player from the playing physical games and charging considerably more than for the standard model, it was in essence a “pay more get less” deal.

    • Your praise is much appreciated! Yeah, I’m holding my breath for the reveal event this month. If it’s always-online and blocks used games, it’ll be dead on arrival for sure. Two heavy-handed DRM styles that taste awful together.

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