An Always Online Console Future Is A Very Bad Idea

I’m almost always online. I work in front of a laptop for most of my day and even when I’m away from it, my email comes through to my smartphone, which also enables my Twitter addiction, where I’m often following links to YouTube videos, funny gifs and interesting articles suggested by the people I follow. Being connected isn’t an issue for me.

I have a 100Mbps fibre optic broadband connection that often runs slightly faster than that and even at peak times doesn’t dip below around 85Mbps. I use the connection for work but I also use it for playing games and almost all of my television and movie viewing is now via streaming services. For better or worse, my internet connection is the most important single thing to the way I live my life.

But the idea that any of my devices will require a constant internet connection is a concern. Even with my super fast connection, and its perfectly reasonably uptime, the internet’s interference in my games does cause problems. Most recently, and probably most notably, this has been with SimCity.


What if the “on” button was only really half of actually being “on”?

SimCity requires a constant connection in order to be experienced in the way it was intended. It’s best to think of Maxis’ latest town-builder in similar terms to a multiplayer-only arena shooter. Everyone needs the resources on a map but certain players will develop their skills to make best use of certain ones and the most effective, successful way to play is as a team. You can play in that map on your own but you’ll be limited in what you can do and you’re likely to have much less fun as a result.

A permanent connection is important – but not integral – to the gameplay. And yet, you need to be online, even if you’re never going to interact with another person.

Despite the fact that my internet connection is better than most, and that SimCity’s developer and publisher knew that a stable internet connection was vital to my ability to play the game, it didn’t cope very well for a week after release. The US release, three days previously, had been a huge mess but even the UK’s release week saw lingering problems with server connections. That was frustrating.

My fantastic (expensive, by the way) internet connection didn’t matter because theirs wasn’t good enough and that prevented the product I’d paid £65 for (I was stupid enough to buy the Digital Deluxe edition) from working properly.

As frustrating as the situation with SimCity was, and given that my experience was not as bad as many I saw reported, I was able to put up with it with only minimal sarcastic venting. But that was one game. Imagine if every single game you bought, no matter the style or genre, had a week of not quite working properly after it launched. Imagine if every game you bought was dependant on a publicly traded company – responsible to its shareholders – keeping a roomful of expensive servers constantly running. Imagine the SimCity frustration and public outrage, amplified by every single game release.

Welcome to the world of constant, required internet connections for gaming.

Let’s, for a moment, make the incredibly generous assumption that publishers will never switch off their servers and they’ll always have enough to cope with peak demand. What happens when you move house and it takes your chosen broadband supplier three weeks to hook up your broadband? What about when you take your console with you to halls for the first year of university and WiFi blocks the ports your machine needs to play any games? What if you’re one of the thousands of console owners that works offshore or in the armed services?

Even discounting all of those cases, and that’s another incredibly generous leap to afford the notion that an always-online games console is okay, there are still too many users who just don’t have broadband access. It’s easy to assume that it’s ubiquitous because most of us move in the kind of social circles where a decent internet connection is normal but there are many households that aren’t connected – somewhere close to 25 per cent at the start of 2012 in the US.

In the UK, that figure is slightly lower but none of the traditional big console-buying regions managed anything above France’s 81% broadband connectivity.


Most of us would be fine, most of the time. Is “most of the time” enough, though?

I think a public company restricting its customer base like that is verging on irresponsible behaviour towards its shareholders, regardless of the distaste it shows for an existing customer base. Of course, you might argue that the 25 per cent who don’t have a good internet connection aren’t the kind of people who are very likely to buy a games console, and you’d probably be right.

But it’s restricting the possibility and in a world where Microsoft proudly declares its Xbox 360 as being more used for media streaming than for gaming, the market is undoubtedly shifting. Why exclude a quarter of it just because you weren’t able to attract them with your last device?

The only people who are likely to be in favour of a constant internet connection are the big publishers and that’s because of the opportunity to block or severely limit the second hand games market (and the spread of software piracy). It seems that games publishers still haven’t quite figured out that intrusive digital rights management (DRM) only really harm the publishing and distribution businesses in the long run.

DRM almost caused the total collapse of the music industry before they figured out a way to work in this newly connected world. The movie industry is still struggling with ways to handle the fact that their traditional distribution model is rapidly looking more and more dated and now the games industry seems intent on repeating similar mistakes. How bad will things have to get for them before they learn the lessons too?

Microsoft’s executives certainly aren’t doing anything to assuage the growing fears of the company’s consumers, either. Adam Orth is Microsoft Studios’ Creative Director and he recently posted the comment below via his (protected) twitter account. Apparently, he doesn’t “get the drama over having an ‘Always On’ console” but then, anyone in a leading position who thinks his customers should swallow whatever his company wants them to and just #DealWithIt obviously puts consumer welfare quite low down on his list of priorities.

It seems to me that the possibility of an always-online console is the possibility that a platform holder will choose to insult its customers and retail partners in order to placate the publishers’ unreasonable demands. A constantly connected device is most heavily rumoured around Microsoft’s next console but not completely discounted as a possibility for the PlayStation 4 either – in spite of hints made by Sony executives and assumptions made by Sony fans, there’s enough wiggle room in their statements that they could easily come down on the side of always-online.

And that would, I believe, be a big mistake.



  1. I am confident that Sony would not go with an always online console. Yoshida stated that it wouldn’t be always online. They wouldn’t want to wiggle their way out of saying that in order to implement it after seeing the shitstorm this has caused, and knowing that they could turn this to their advantage. Sure, the likes of EA, Activision etc will be throbbing at the zipper at the thought of an always online console, but even they have to pause for thought and think how wrong this would go.

    It would only end in disaster. Everything Sony have done since the PS4 reveal has been positive, they know that doing this would be a bad thing to do. They could side with the gamer and go against this, and publishers would obviously still release games on a Sony console even if it wasn’t always online (implying if the 720 ends up being always online) as if they didn’t they would lose out on huge amounts of extra dosh. Even the more ‘casual’ gamers would go against this practice when XBL goes down for maintenance or what not during their COD session.

    Microsoft are not a company that care about doing anti consumer practices. Those saying that ‘Microsoft would be unlikely to do this’ need to consider that, they might damn well do this. I personally think that Sony won’t though. Suppose the Xbox reveal (whenever it is) just got more interesting though….

    • Sony can do this, as far as I know. It’s up to the publisher, no?

      Unless I’m mistaken.

      • EA, Activision etc will want to grab Sony by the balls, sure, but they won’t want to have to resort to not releasing their games on half of a major platform. That would be bad for both sides. Even if Sony do not agree to this, they can compromise with the publishers. Yeah, publishers are the ones providing the games sure, but to lose half of a major platform, they wouldn’t want that. There will be a compromise.

        That is if Sony do not choose to worm out and stick with the PS4 being not always online, it depends how risky they want to be and if they think they are making the right choice really, as having to play hard ball with some of the publishers about this against thinking about the consumer will be something they’ll have to consider. Obviously Sony want to ensure as much money as possible, that’s what everybody in business wants, but pissing off consumers would not be the way to go about doing that, and I think that they know that.

      • Why Activision?

        They have done nothing that EA, Ubisoft & Sony, yes, Sony have done.

        None of their console games require an always on connection like Final Fight, none of their games were released half finished and required a day 1 patch with hundreds of megabytes textures like Battlefield 3, none of their games utilise an online pass like Sony, Ubisoft & EA.

        They release their games, patch their netcode after launch just like everyone along with balance tweaks and then rely on considerable DLC to slow down trade ins or make some revenue from preowned sales.

        In many ways they’re everything gamers claim they want from mainstream publishers.

        Outside of this console generation Destiny will obviously be an MMO & Diabolo III brought online trading to the dungeon genre, but even with D3’s launch problems they had 6 times the sales of Sim City… Which after all this time doesn’t allow cheetah mode which is bordering on a necessity.

        A console which requires always-on is abhorrent to me, but we’ll get one by default whichever console you buy because publishers will make persistent world games, or games with shared instances like Watch Dogs & Assassin’s Creed 4 (by the sounds of it) or games will have a trading platform attached etc & etc.

        So even if PS4 doesn’t require online you can be sure its AAA games bringing with it the always-on nature by the back door.

    • Not every rumour has been positive.

      What seems to be happening right now is that we (myself to an extent) are getting very caught up in the PS4 and forgetting the reason that everything about the PS4 coming out just now is because it is an official reveal. Sony are telling us a) the good things and b) the things we want to hear.

      Bad things are getting said about Xbox, the next generation because nothing official has come out…yet. When they do release it, I bet they won’t discuss always online all too much. They will mention the games, the hardware, the nifty new features, just like Sony.

      So I do totally agree that always online is a feature I do not want to see, I think too many people are being far too hasty to say “damn the Xbox, I want PS4.” Let’s all play the waiting game and see what horrible (because I can garuantee there will be some) things the PS4 has in store for us.

      Yours faithfully,
      A straight thinking Sony Fanboy.

      • Rumours are rumours yes, but their is so much traction behind this particular one (with the Adam Orth situation obviously not helping) that it’s hard not to think it may very well be true.

        Sony have also said one negative thing that they could have been silent about, like you imply Microsoft will do when they unveil their new Xbox. They mentioned that the PS4 wouldn’t have BC but that Gaikai would later support it. They could have just ignored the whole BC issue and not mentioned it, no?

        When Yoshida (very, very high up the chain) says that the PS4 will not be always online, I’ll take that. Sure, Sony have said things before, but not things of that scale. Sony seem to have changed a bit recently in a few regards. It doesn’t help that after this Adam Orth situation, a confirmed game developer has said they won’t properly comment on the situation, but merely said ‘prepare your ISP bills’ isn’t adding hope to this situation.

        Still though, the only time all of this can finally be put to rest is when they finally show off the new Xbox.

      • I forgot about BC. Also, this reply wasn’t a dig at you, might have looked that way.

        And I believe that the always on is true. What I mean is that MS won’t talk about it when they reveal, these nasty details will come closer to release and I expect Sony to be in the same boat. The PS4 looks pretty fantastic, but I’m waiting for the nasty details.

      • What I wonder is if somebody high up from Microsoft will respond to this. This has caused a massive shitstorm on the interwebs. All you have to do is type in Xbox next/Xbox 720 into google to see. Someone on GAF posted all of the links of websites running this story so far, and it’s ridiculous. It’s spreading like wildfire.

        Makes you think whether they’ll hint at something without actually doing the job of announcing the console.

      • The power of the internet. There is no backsies!

      • I agree. Anyone who thinks that SCE has a clean slate and will wash away all PS3 mistakes with PS4 is being naive to put it mildly.
        If we’re very lucky, Sony will have the common sense to ensure that the PS4 won’t suffer from PS3-esque problems like mandatory installs, manual trophy-sync, awkward and inefficient UI, etc.
        But you can bet your bottom dollar that PS4 will introduce a whole lorry-load of new and unforeseen headaches that we’ll likely get to enjoy for the next generation’s life-cycle.
        Cynical? I like to think of it as realistic.

  2. If MS come out and say yep its always online deal with it , Sony have two options 1) side with ms so they get the same deals with publishers 2) Sony says fuck em ms can go fail and die in the corner while they give gamers the option for online rather than a requirement.

    I know it won’t be so cut and dry as that but being online as a options will be the decision maker especially for peoples with flaky connections or those in the armed forces.

    Ps4 for me unless it turns out to be fugly but then again I could build someform of tent for it .

    • The idea of a burgeoning market in specialist “console tents” is amazing.

  3. Thanks Peter. I shall use this article to show that taking my PS3 to university with me this year isn’t a totally absurd idea

    Great article by the way, but i just can’t see Microsoft being stupid enough to actually do this after the SimCity situation and now this backlash. However, perhaps they will just hope that people vent their frustrations in the first couple weeks after launch and then just deal with it.

    The same thing happened with online passes.

    • And Kinect, which sold gangbusters despite generally being a bit pish for consumers. Microsoft (or Sony for that matter) won’t care what people are saying, as long as the money still trundles in.

      • Exactly. Microsoft tend to be very good at marketing their stuff, so the next Xbox will still sell well even if this does happen because they will use clever wordplay and probably a bit of dubstep to lure people in.

        Speaking of marketing, someone just mentioned on Twitter that Sony should start a Deal With It campaign. I think that’s a great idea.

      • Can you imagine that. A PS4 advert saying ‘You can play the PS4, online or offline. Deal with it.’

        Would be hilarious.

      • It’s simple. Microsoft know they don’t have to invest in Engineering, they can put that money in Marketing instead.

        They can sell any old crap to any old idiot given enough marketing budget to invest in viral activities and buying gaming websites to cover them up.

        Pretty much every anti-PS3 story (otherOS etc) and every PS3 myth (blu-ray is slow, RSX is slow, unified memory is better BS etc tc etc) originates from Microsoft’s army of viral marketeers.

  4. It’s not just the “25 per cent who don’t have a good internet connection aren’t the kind of people who are very likely to buy a games console” it people like me who live out in the countryside who can have problems with their connection in bad weather.

    • yep, hopefully that kind of case was illustrated through the many examples in the text that preceded the bit you quoted. The point is simple – for most people, most of the time, it won’t be more than a minor inconvenience. But is that really enough? I don’t think so.

      • It more than likely will be a minor inconvenience or it may never happen but imagine if you’ve been waiting years for the next instalment of GTA or Halo, you put the disc in the console and all you see is a message saying you cannot play as there’s no internet connection. You’ll be well p**d off.

  5. Love internet rumours

    • Agreed. What would people get upset about instead, facts?…as if.

  6. I do hope MS is always on with DRM and PS4 isn’t. This generation has them both pretty much even suggesting a good base for a realistic comparison as to which is the better choice. Then whoever ‘wins’ the next console race we will know what the future will be. If this happens I really hope the DRM free console wins. I do worry that if the DRM free console is extremely successful it’ll be the future for everything going forward.

    • hmm contradiction – I worry the DRM console (Next box in this example) fails as if it is successful then it shows that the majority here are in the minority across the board and are not the main target for Sony, MS, Nintendo

  7. The idea of an always on device frightens me… very anti consumer I’d believe. To go either online or offline should be choice but it looks as if Microsoft is willing to shove that shit down our throats. “Oh, what sad times are these when passing ruffians can say Always Online at will to ol gamers. There is a pestilence upon this land, nothing is sacred. Even those who arrange, play and design consoles are under considerable economic stress in this period in history. ” sorry.. <.< lol

  8. I expect if big publishers like EA demand always online for their games I’m sure other publishers will follow much like online passes. I don’t think it’ll be sonys choice (beside their own games)

    • Sony have the last decision on it. If they say no, publishers will have to follow suit, otherwise they can’t sell/profit from the PS4.

      • If Sony say no EA will likely say “ok we’ll prioritise development resources to Xbox versions”. If Fifa released a month earlier on Xbox and was a superior version it would harm the PS4’s growth.

      • Absolutely. If EA/Acti want always online, the PS4 will offer it.

      • While EA loose returns from not selling as many on the PS4? Won’t happen. Especially how they are as a company these days. They are obviously in bed with Microsoft next gen anyway, so it wouldn’t hurt Sony in the long run. Competition and all that.

      • EA have done it in the past. Pulled support from the Dreamcast (may have only been the sports title), hastening the console’s downfall. The situation was different, the Saturn wasn’t nearly as popular as other Sega machines or the PS3 (not by a long shot), but I still wouldn’t put it past EA.

      • I’d agree on the lost sales if PS4 & Xbox720 were well into their lifecycles, however presuming the releases are around Xmas then they’d have a FIFA title due around release. If that wasn’t coming out on PS4 until later it would sway buyers to Xbox. EA can be stubborn when they want to. Remember the first few 360 EA titles didn’t have online because they wanted a cut of live subs.

      • dark times whenever a single mainstream game could damage a consoles chances in numbers.

  9. It’s very clear that if Microsoft do implement this, they will lose ALOT of customers. Sony already said they wont, so they will gain from that too.

  10. I’m almost certain all these rumours are a deliberate ruse so that MS can come out and say “Hey, look, it doesn’t require constant online connection” to rapturous applause in the venue.

    I like to think that if either Sony or MS decide to go down this route they’re committing suicide. That being said, throw enough cash at EA or Activision and get FIFA or CoD exclusively and they’ll successfully be able to lock millions of people in who would otherwise have abstained from the purchase.

    Fingers crossed neither MS nor Sony will try to arrogantly ram this down our throats.

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