Over the weekend the big news for most gamers was the PR fiasco of Adam Orth, a creative director at Microsoft, and his defense of the “Always/Only Online” concept that Microsoft is heavily rumored to be forcing into the next Xbox.
Gamers everywhere gathered to their forum or gaming website of choice to voice their displeasure and insist this was a rumored feature that—if true—they would not accept and that they were likely switching allegiances to the PS4, speculating that this en masse defection to a rival console would teach Microsoft a lesson.
The problem is this scenario is unlikely to play out as expected. At least in North America, which is the market Microsoft cares about the most.
If you’re reading this article right now, you’re a hardcore gamer. You keep yourself informed about events in the industry. You talk with others on forums or in your real life social circles about games and game development. You know the names of developers and have extensive knowledge and expertise about certain games and game genres. What you are not is the audience that drove the Wii and the Xbox 360/Kinect to the sales they enjoyed in the current generation. You’re not even the one responsible for the massive profits that Activision enjoys with each Call of Duty release, or Electronic Arts with every new Madden game. As a hardcore gamer, your contribution to the health of the industry is measured in the millions.
Meanwhile the casual gamer—who only buys what is being endorsed on talk shows—and the mainstream gamer—who only buys a new COD, Madden or GTA game—is what pushes the sales of specific consoles and specific franchises into the tens of millions. Casual and mainstream gamers are responsible for the megahit games. And they don’t know or care about whether a console is always online or not.
If you were a mainstream gamer, you’d only fire up your console to play multiplayer on Call of Duty or Madden, or one of the other three to four titles you buy in an entire year; “always online” is neither limiting nor draconian. You have to be online to play multiplayer anyway, so how does this matter at all? You don’t play Bioshock Infinite, because that’s not even a “real” FPS (it has no multiplayer and it’s not a contemporary, military setting) and you certainly don’t play games like The Witcher because it’s not even an FPS and has too much of that irritating plot and characterization that gets in the way of shooting. You, like your dozens of friends, are playing with each other online, in a sport or shooter title that requires an internet connection anyway, so how does “always online” have any kind of impact on your fun?
There are those who will argue that the Grand Theft Auto experience is primarily a single player one. This is a game that, if subjected to an “always online” requirement would suffer unnecessarily; pointlessly depriving a customer of a game they should be able to play even if a console is not connected to the internet. It’s also a game that is incredibly successful with mainstream gamers, one of the few titles besides Call of Duty that the general population is familiar with. Unfortunately, those who are saying such things are informed, hardcore gamers who look at things in the long term. Once again, the casual or mainstream gamer doesn’t care about this stuff and can’t be bothered to be take a long hard look at the ramifications of not being able to play a single player game if something should happen to their internet connection. This is the same general American population that thought it would be a good idea to take on highly questionable mortgages and brought the entire real estate sector to the brink of ruin. If they were that sloppy with something as important as their own property and financial well being, why would they expend even more effort on the amount of control they did or didn’t have over their own software and console purchases?
Microsoft understands this audience in America and knows that they doesn’t want to worry their “pretty little heads” over this small stuff like whether they can play the game they bought anytime they want. They know they have the Call of Duty crowd in all of its tens of millions of buyers, and if a few informed, hardcore gamers decide to opt out of the next Xbox out of principle, this will barely put a dent in their sales numbers. The truth is, there are far, FAR more people that don’t care about this than there are people who do.