This, ladies and gentlemen, is a long stretch of waiting. Quarters two and three of this year, barring any unexpected and brilliant games blindsiding us out of left field, will most likely be spent waiting for video games, rather than playing them. Bioshock Infinite and Crysis 3 are out, the next CoDs and Battlefields aren’t much more than a glimmer in the eye at this point, the PS4 has been announced, and the WiiU launched (and crashed). Practically the only thing we have to keep us excited about until the next holiday rush is the promise of an announcement of an Xbox 360 successor, which I’ll just come right out and call the Xbox 720, even though that may not be its final name. Sounds better than the Xbox 4pi, at any rate.
Anyway, with its two major competitors either already producing generation-eight consoles or very close therein, Microsoft is in a uniquely powerful position. With nearly perfect disclosure as to the feature sets of their competitors’ machines in their hands, the big MS has an opportunity to fine-tune their press releases and their hardware and to create a console that walks and talks circles right around their opponents. So how do they take advantage of their power in the marketplace? Well, Microsoft Creative Director Adam Orth started the ball rolling by seriously implying that the Xbox 720 will require always-online connectivity to play any and all games.
Did I really hear that right? My God … a perfect marketing position—a PR department’s wet dream—and this is how they handle it? Microsoft Corporate, of course, redacted the whole thing, but if it were to come to pass … this is one of those decisions that is so patently stupid that I feel the need to slow down and make bullet points explaining exactly why this is just a stupid, stupid thing to do.
First, and most importantly, this decision ignores a little concept that I like to call “the fallacy of the cloud.” This particular slippery slope goes something like this: “Since everyone is already online 24/7, the user shouldn’t even notice if we require Internet connectivity.” See the fallacy yet? How many of us have daily trouble connecting to Claremont-WPA? How many of us have complained about our rooms having poor signal receptions no matter how close to the routers we are? By logical extension, how many Americans suffer similar problems in their homes, where tech support isn’t just a free phone call away? How many Americans still use dial-up, or HughesNet, or any other metered, restrictive data service? I don’t mean to sound like a five year old by saying this, but it’s just not fair to assume that every consumer who can afford an Xbox 720 also has rock-solid, consistent access to an Internet connection on a daily basis.
Much as Microsoft would like to believe that Internet connectivity is as robust as water, power, and light, it just isn’t, and Microsoft loses every customer that this fallacy applies to. The entire strategy smells unpleasantly like a manipulative marketing strategy. Microsoft, as a content distribution and advertising company, has a vested interest in getting as many people online as possible to increase their potential market. Thus, it directly benefits Microsoft to leverage the indisputable popularity of the Xbox platform to force more users online. Tie this to the fallacy of the cloud, however, and you get a conflict of interests. Sure, it’s in Microsoft’s ideological self-interest to force more users online, but it’s in their practical interest to capitalize on the largest market possible, including those who don’t have consistent access to the Internet. I’m no analyst, but I’ll bet the market share they’ll lose by forcing Internet access is greater than the market share they’ll gain from the added exposure. The strategy is beneficial only to the publisher, not to the consumer.
The legally impeccable excuse for forcing an always-online regime is to counteract piracy. Whenever a user launches a game, the game phones home to make sure it’s legitimate—the theory being that it’s much harder to fake a game if it’s verified against an external server. This, however, has two unintended side effects. First, it destroys the used game market by only allowing a user to own a license, rather than a physical game. I wrote an entire article a few months back about why that is a bad idea. Second, it just begs to be hacked. The console-hacking community is rather like the classic thought experiment of infinite monkeys and infinite typewriters—one of them will write Hamlet, or in this case, someone will always have more resources to invest in breaking the console’s protections than the parent company will have to invest in repairing them. The resulting game of cat-and-mouse does nothing more than annoy the standard consumer, who just wants to play games without a whole garbage bag of drama attached.
So … there you have it. A stupid decision, through and through. You know what else, though? We’d all end up supporting it anyway. Because Halo. And CoD. And just because Xbox.