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The Always On-line Debacle +

 

The month of Microsoft’s X-Box press-conference is finally upon us, one question in particular is still on the minds of many gamers: the prospect of the always on-line connection. The controversial and persistent topic has been debated across the Internet for weeks ever since its rumors circulated and has brought many gamers and critics alike to draw their lines in the sand. While many argue for it, just as many seem to rage against it. As developers at Microsoft and other companies dive into next-gen, possibly with always on-line in mind this fall, the issue is more relevant than ever. As the big day of Microsoft’s answers approaches us, I take on last opportunity to look an in-depth look at what’s been argued for and against always on-line and what it means to me. 

  Pros:

The most prominent argument that has been made for always on-line lies in its sheer amount of technological opportunities. For developers in particular, permanent Internet connections mean a permanent connection to their games. With the ability to instantaneously update, patch, or add DLC on a whim, titles can gain an unprecedented amount of flexibility. Problems can be fixed faster and games can be on the market sooner than ever. Even better, it’s an additional convenience to gamers as well. With your console always on-line, you’ll never have to worry about checking for downloading new patches or demos in your preferences, they’re already done for you.

Furthermore, the benefits of always on-line connections can be just as easily applied to advancing the social nature of gaming. From text messages to photo sharing to the Playstation 4‘s own sharing button, an always on-line system can connect more of your own life to your gaming lifestyle in a simpler package. Putting your Twitter or Facebook accounts on the same hotline as your X-Box or PS4 just makes things easier and it expands your game community beyond just the people playing it. Imagine the idea of providing live game walkthroughs or proudly displaying their greatest achievements as you get them, or even just snagging the best, split-second snapshot of a boss battle to post. It’s an idea that’s not so removed from what we already enjoy from social networking and tapping into that same technology for expanding the game community just shouldn’t feel any different. 

Most of all, people argue that always on-line isn’t just a far-off concept: it’s an inevitability. Like Gears of Wars’s designer Cliff Bleszinski, many figures in the industry have expressed that the future of gaming is always on-line. Whether they regard players’s opinions or not, gaming companies simply have the power and authority to enact it, and it’s only a matter of time until they have the capital to do so. In the words of Adam Orth’s notorious tweet, gamers will just have to “deal with it.”

    Cons:

The core of people’s counter-argument against always on-line is a simple one, but one that’s resonates with the main problems of any next-gen system: Will it work? Or, rather, how often will it work? Even in 2013, reliable Internet connections can be all too rare for many players and the fears of freezes and accidental lockouts are a very real concern. As someone who uses Comcast, glitches are a real pain to live with, and the thought of having a game cut out right at its climax in the midst of a server error is a nightmare many like myself detest to think about. Tragic titles like Sim City and the frequent problems of games like Diablo III testify to the worst consequences of the always on-line strategy and gamers can smugly emphasize this in the recently announced Sims 4 skipping always on-line as a result. At its core, the always on-line system seems like too much of a gamble to risk the quality of gaming experiences, or at least for the present.

Another factor to consider is money. As much as we’ve already seen of microtransactions and the constant streams of season passes and expensive DLC, we know that profit is the bottom line for the game industry and that’s not liable to change with always on-line. With consoles permanently plugged into the Internet, developers have live control over their games long after you’ve technically “bought” them. With that kind of power, they could face the ever-present temptation to charge money for games as you play them and players could see artificially generated costs soar. 

As a helpful soul in the comments as brought to my attention, another equally important technical aspect to always on-line is server reliability. Players wanting to play the next-gen X-Box or the PS4 years in the future will have to rely on the non-existent chances of the console's servers staying on-line. That's a near impossibility as long as new consoles are continually released and servers are changed. Next-gen game collections will only become obsolete and unplayable as back-compatibility disappears. Thus, another wrench is thrown in the workings of next-gen's allowances to preserving players' game time. Credit to Daniel Moran for his insightful points. 

More importantly, these problems can also be a matter of personal security as well. Considering Anonymous’s past cyber-attacks on the PSN’s accounts as well as the almost daily identity theft across the Internet, the on-line world has become a dangerous one for credit card numbers and addresses. Hacking digital money rather than swiping the physical disc in your hand at home is a tempting deal for cyber pirates and an increased presence of always on-line wallets and purchases could invite more exposure to on-line theft. Thus, paying for more of your games virtually rather than in cash or in person at your local Gamestop could see your money stolen that much more easily. 

Above all, many gamers complain that, aside from the mere technical problems presented by always on-line, the issue of choice is just as relevant. While plenty protest the move purely based upon its technical merits, many more would further protest it based upon freedom. Too many gamers simply do not trust or want always on-line just yet, and companies like Microsoft forcing a new system upon them by brute force would only encounter unwelcome resistance that would darken the whole experience.

My Verdict:

In the end, the technology behind the always on-line connection is a sound and welcome concept, but one that I feel that I cannot support its implementation anytime soon. While it offers great technological promise, it’s a technology that’s surely not ready for a universal field-test. Off-line works and has worked for generations and there’s no reason to rush always on-line before it’s ready. I still fully support what games do experiment with it, but for now consoles need to keep their options open. Gamers need to be given the choice to call the shots. Player deserve to play either modes and that’s the way I hope it will be until they’re guaranteed a true always on-line success.

Always Connected Forever?. . .

The emergence of an always on-line gaming world is yet to be seen, but whether the technology is dead on arrival this year or 2013‘s next step for the industry, we can be sure that its part in the next-gen discussion has been no less important in making so many healthy discussions. What has been said and felt on either side of the debate has shown that games don’t just involve developers, they involve players who care about their experiences and who are not afraid to express what they feel. If anything, the magnitude of the debate of always on-line has shown that fan response still matters to developers projects and as long as we have the power of our dollars at our disposal, our voices can still be heard. It’s passion like that that reminds me that the gaming industry still matters to many folks, and with that kind of power behind it, I’m certain that they’re are still many joyous days ahead of us. One way or the other, this May 21st, we’ll surely have a day to remember. 

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