Always online? Deal with it

By David Wilkins.

In the last decade since publishers began combating illegal file-sharing, the allocation of ownership rights has become a defining source of contention between companies and consumers, particularly for digital industries such as music and software.

The announcement of Microsoft’s Xbox One has brought this issue back to the forefront, with a surprisingly chaotic set of answers regarding the extent of the console’s ‘Always-On’ functionality. This refers to the system’s reliance on a constant internet connection in order to function, with any interruption to this connection halting progress on whatever was taking place at the time.

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Will Microsoft force an ‘Always-On’ connection with the Xbox One?

Back when the new console was still referred to by its codename ‘Durango’, reports were revealed highlighting the necessity for a constant connection. This was later countered by Microsoft head of Interactive Entertainment Don Mattrick when giving an interview to Spike TV, stating “No, you don’t always have to be connected…Gamers can calm down; we’ve got you covered.”

This sort of statement would normally reassure the audience, however yet another contradiction came from Microsoft executive Phil Harrison, who when questioned by Kotaku claimed to believe that console owners would need to ‘check-in’ every 24 hours. Microsoft have since confirmed this rumour, stating:

“With Xbox One you can game offline for up to 24 hours on your primary console, or one hour if you are logged on to a separate console accessing your library. Offline gaming is not possible after these prescribed times until you re-establish a connection, but you can still watch live TV and enjoy Blu-ray and DVD movies.”

The controversy comes down to an argument of rights for consumers. Many are questioning at what point will the stage be reached where consumers no longer own the products they are purchasing and more importantly, has this point already been passed?

In essence there is a fear that the software and videogames industry is shifting towards becoming a market supplying products more akin to rented services than fully owned and paid-for products.

For those worried by this, the concern is not unjustified. Subscription fees for software is not a new concept, anti-virus products have been utilising this model for years. However, we are now seeing an increasing number of videogame titles with a similar pricing model, as well as other programs that traditionally hold only limited online value such as Photoshop. If the Xbox One was to use this function, it would signal a significant shift in the delineation of rights in the industry, enforcing the millions of users to submit to online checks. At the same time, errors on the part of Microsoft’s servers could also result in consumers unable to use their products. Making the argument that these paying consumers will be utilising the product’s they now own only at Microsoft’s convenience.

An example of this arrived in March 2013 with EA-published SimCity. While it was insisted that the always online prerequisite was included entirely for game-play purposes, day-one server crashes lasting much of the release’s first week quickly drew the anger of consumers who, due to these issues, were unable to access the product they now owned. This was further highlighted on review websites such as Metacritic, where despite receiving a mediocre average review score of 64%, the user-reviews suffered considerably more. Here the title received an appalling final rating of only 20% from nearly 4000 reviews, with the vast majority citing Always-On as the primary cause of dissatisfaction.

Electronic Art's game SimCity suffered
Electronic Art’s game SimCity required an ‘always online’ connection, resulting in massive playability issues and causing widespread customer dissatisfaction.

So why would any other firm even consider using an internet requirement with their product and risk such a backlash? The answer – at least in SimCity’s case – can be found somewhere amongst the 1.6 million copies sold in its first month alone. So whilst always-on certainly did not help sell copies, these strong sales indicate that despite vocal opposition, wider audiences are generally unconcerned by the issue.

There are benefits cited for using this function. When considering the nature of a traditionally tech-savvy target audience, this concern could potentially be waved away as simply outdated. Internet speeds and broadband connectivity rates have increased dramatically over the last five years, allowing for a more comprehensive and seamless ability for firms to not just monitor their products, but also update and provide additional content for them as well.

Infamously when talking about a potentially Always-On console, Microsoft Studios creative director Adam Orth told consumers who did not like the idea of always-on to “deal with it”. This statement unsurprisingly led to considerable backlash and his departure from the company soon after. However, as disrespectful as this statement may be, it is also entirely accurate. 2013 marks the beginning of a new technological generation and the first in a more fully realised digitised age with capabilities for a huge variety of possibilities. This is not the last time developers in digital markets will attempt to push boundaries and see what they can get away with. It is simply up to the consumers to decide what they are willing to accept in terms of rights of ownership and whether this is something still worth being concerned over.

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