Monday, 20 May 2013

OPINION: Always-Online And You: Why it Isn't a Big Deal

I'm going to make a bold prediction ahead of Microsoft's next generation Xbox reveal this week. The always-online rumors, they will be true. And furthermore, it isn't such a big deal. Why? Because no-one cares about it. At least, not really.

Before you punch through your computer screen in a blind rage, let me explain myself. I want you to take a second and think, really think, about the last time you were without internet for an extended period of time. And by "extended period of time" I mean several days. Being out for a couple of hours doesn't really count because hey, even the power goes out every now and then. Now, exclude extra-ordinary circumstances such as natural disasters and moving house. For anyone tech-savy enough to be reading this blog, it seems completely unfathomable to simply be without the internet.
You know what I did when I didn't have the internet for a week after moving house? I tethered 3G from my smartphone. This, combined with steadily improving service records from most ISP's means that most people will always have some kind of internet connection. Anyone who is primarily a PC gamer doesn't even think twice about always-online gaming. Every game in our Steam library is played while we are online 99% of the time. All of Blizzard's new title's are always-online, and they work great. The only true example of always-online gone bad is SimCity, and that's more because the game was horribly broken at its core and the publisher and developer were terrible people who lied through their teeth.

So why has always-online become a dirty word? Colossal fuck-ups like Assasin's Creed for PC and SimCity are partly to blame, but there also seems to be this feverish minority of gamers that are so disgusted by the very idea of always-online, that the mere suggestion of it being any more than Satan incarnate is immediately bombarded with explosions of hate. This leads to the games industry being very, very careful to not actually talk about always-online in a positive light. Just look at what happened with Adam Orth.

I'm going to say something that is going to make some of you foam at the mouth. Orth was right. He may have been a dick about it, and probably should have kept his mouth shut considering his position at Microsoft, but his basic argument was spot-on. Always-online is not a big deal, and do you know why? Because as loud and angry as the vocal minority that opposes it is, they don't actually account for diddly squat. The percentage of players that have legitimate complaints about always-online (they live in an area with poor or no internet coverage) are so minuscule  that the publishers don't really care about them. And it turns out those people themselves don't really care either. Let's look at some examples.
Americans playing World of Warcraft are used to enjoying pings between 10 and 100ms, depending on how close they are to the server. On average, Australian gamers get anywhere from 180 to 300ms. It sucks, and it literally makes the game less enjoyable and more difficult for us. Aussies have been petitioning Blizzard for a proper Oceanic server (not just an American server with a different time-zone...) for the entirety of the game's 8 year lifespan. And guess what? We still don't have the server. To add insult to injury, World of Warcraft's server maintenance is at ~ 3 AM EST, which means it usually occurs at around 7 or 8 PM for those on the other side of the pacific.

So surely, with what you have been led to believe about the internet's intense hatred of always-online, this situation should lead to a complete boycott of the game in Australia. Right? Wrong. World of Warcraft sold quite well in Australia, and even managed to break the top ten in sales whenever an expansion was released. Furthermore, Australians make up for such a minuscule portion of Blizzard's overall profit margin, that they could probably ban all of us completely and it wouldn't make too big a dent. To put things into perspective, the total population of Australia is about the same as the population of Texas.

Another Blizzard example is Diablo III. 'Always-online? I will never buy this!' they said. 'No LAN play = no purchase' they threatened. "Starcraft II being always-online was the last straw, I will never buy a Blizzard game again," they swore. Diablo III was the fastest selling PC game of all time. Need I say more?

Even Steam, produced by Valve, who can "do no wrong" in the eyes of the internet, is actually already pretty-much "always-online", and most people don't even realize it. Have you tried Steam's offline mode recently? It's very iffy at best. Games won't run unless properly updated, the vast majority of features are disabled, save games won't sync properly, and it just makes for an overall inferior experience. Sometimes it will just refuse to work entirely. Yet, I never hear anyone every complain about Steam's offline mode, apart from the occasional "oh yeah, that sucks." Steam is designed to be always-online, with the offline mode simply being included as a "failsafe."
So, the next Xbox will probably be always-online, because, simply put, it can, and people will still buy it. Always-online is the future. Games with always-online are not selling any worse than games without it, despite how mad some people get. Internet and cellphone infrastructure gets better every single year. If the last console generation was anything to go by, the PS4 and next Xbox will be around for at least another 5 or 6 years. I imagine after half a decade, it will be unusual for a game to not be always-online.

Always-online should be a feature, not a deterrent. It enhances the gaming experience by ensuring that you are constantly up-to-date, can instantly join your friends games, can access your console from outside of your home, and can partake in many community features. It also allows developers to do cool shit like this "secret multiplayer" the WatchDogs devs recently revealed. This whole debacle reminds me of how people used to think gaming "achievements" were stupid, detracted from the game, and would never catch on. These days, it's almost impossible to find a game without them.

Lastly, Microsoft is not stupid, and that is why they have been incredibly tight-lipped (and why Orth was given the sack for running his mouth before their PR damage control could step in). We still don't know exactly what "always-online" even means, and are yet to hear Microsoft's explanation, which I'm sure will do its best to spin it in as much of a positive light as possible. They would not be doing this if they didn't think it would work. I would not be surprised if it had an offline "failsafe" like Steam does, or if it only has to "check in" every hour or so. It will probably require a very minimal amount of bandwidth  meaning even those with shitty connections will be completely unaffected. I would not be surprised if singleplayer games won't actually require you to be "always-on."
73 percent of Xbox 360 users have connected their consoles to the internet. This is a substantial majority,  and the remaining 27 percent are mostly likely people who wouldn't be buying the next generation Xbox too soon after launch anyway. Simply put, if you don't want always-online, Microsoft has gambled that it can prosper without your business. It doesn't care about you.

While the voices opposing always-online are still loud, with every iteration of the technology they get softer and softer. There are a lot misconceptions about what always-online actually means, which Microsoft should clear up at its event. People seem to think that it will require a constant 100mb/s upload that will check in every three seconds, and if it doesn't detect an internet connection, will shut your console down (and self-destruct). What you should know is that always-online is here to stay, and will become increasingly more common in the future, so you can either jump up and down in anger, or you can take steps to prepare for it.

And hey, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the next generation Xbox is when we all rise up and say "no" to our always-online overlords, causing the console to fail and forcing the technology back a few more years. This is all just one man's opinion on how, and why, events will unfold.

-Steven "The Taco Man" Bogos

Thoughts expressed in this article are entirely my own, and are in no way associated with or representative of any publications I work for.

Please direct comments/suggestions/hate mail/death threats to the comments section below, or personally to me at bogos.steven@gmail.com.

3 comments:

  1. I think you said it best when you said, "Always-online should be a feature, not a deterrent.".

    Most peoples fears are simcity V, always online crafted purely to stop piracy rather than to add wonderful features. Diablo III took away LAN gaming from Diablo but provided a quite reliable service in its place.

    I find some publishers efforts to try to stamp out piracy as laughable at best, look at the studies, piracy isn't the problem. Price point for content is. Once publishers start showing less of a concern about piracy and more of a concern about giving people really good solid experiences, I will have less of a concern with always online systems. Until then however I remain skeptical of each new title until they show that the always online is a feature and not a measure to prevent piracy which detracts from my experience.

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