Don't like always-online consoles? #DealWithIt | 10 Years Ago This Month
Reports of Microsoft's next system requiring a constant internet connection got the industry talking, fretting, screaming, and harassing
The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.
Last month we revisited the always-offline launch debacle of Electronic Arts' always-online SimCity.
It went about as poorly as an always-online game launch could go, but EA refused to budge on it being a colossal mistake, publicly insisting it was not just a matter of a widely loathed company – EA was about to win Consumerist's Worst Company in America poll for the second year in a row – forcing unnecessary DRM into a traditionally single-player franchise.
As EA Labels president Frank Gibeau told us at the time, "At no point in time did anybody say 'you must make this online'. It was the creative people on the team that thought it was best to create a multiplayer collaborative experience and when you're building entertainment..."
Now that we're a decade down the line, people are more comfortable telling us that was a steaming pile of horse manure.
"SimCity was one of the most pirated [series] of all time and so there was a directive to find: 'How can we make this un-piratable'," SimCity lead designer Stone Librande told PC Gamer in a retrospective piece last month.
And while you might think the vociferous blowback against SimCity's wretched launch would have made other companies think twice about imposing online requirements that weren't strictly essential to the experience, you would be underestimating how other companies' bone-deep loathing for piracy can far outweigh their interest in serving actual customers.
So even as SimCity's implosion stretched into April of 2013, reports were circulating that Microsoft's soon-to-be-announced successor to the Xbox 360 would likewise require a constant online connection.
"Every device is now 'always on.' That's the world we live in. #dealwithit"Microsoft's Adam Orth
Predictably, there was pushback on social media about that. And then there was pushback to the pushback, and oh boy did that get pushback.
"Sorry, I don't get the drama around having an 'always on' console," Microsoft Studios creative director Adam Orth tweeted about the issue. "Every device is now 'always on.' That's the world we live in. #dealwithit"
Orth added in subsequent tweets: "The mobile reception in the area I live in is spotty and unreliable. I will not buy a mobile phone," and, "Sometimes the electricity goes out. I will not purchase a vacuum cleaner."
Orth was subjected to an immense internet dogpile along with the harassment and abuse that so often entails. And while we may be somewhat desensitized to this sort of horror show in the industry now, it was still a fledgling thing in those pre-Gamergate days.
We had seen ugliness and harassment in games before, like when BioWare's Jennifer Hepler floated the idea of allowing players to skip through combat sequences if they were just there for the story, or when Anita Sarkeesian suggested that the industry didn't always treat women very well. But this felt different, and not just because the complaints lacked the usual sexist overtones.
I'd actually just written about the increasing hostility in the industry around this time in an editorial putting the blame on basically everyone and weakly grasping for ways things could get better (just in case anyone was wondering if I'd only become a real downer in recent years).
A day after Orth's tweets, Microsoft distanced itself from them, saying: "This person is not a spokesperson for Microsoft, and his personal views do not reflect the customer centric approach we take to our products or how we would communicate directly with our loyal consumers."
A few days after that, Orth resigned.
Later that year, he would give a talk at GDC Next titled "Mob Rules: The Destructive Power of Opinion and Online Community." Orth reflected on the initial poor judgment of his original tweets but rightfully emphasized how much of the response was entirely out of line, an "unbearable" flood of racist, homophobic, and threatening messages delivered through any channel attached to him that people could find.
"As an industry, we've become desensitized to this insane behavior, because it is overwhelming, ubiquitous and unstoppable. It's an epidemic and it's getting worse," he said, providing a warning of the coming years that the industry would largely ignore.
(Orth is currently studio head at Digital Eclipse, and thankfully to hear him tell it on the 10th anniversary of his tweets, he's doing OK.)
Even in the midst of the outrage, there were people agreeing with Orth, at least when it came to the substance of his argument.
Ubisoft Montreal head Yannis Mallat told an interviewer that the future of gaming is about connected experiences, adding the audience was ready to accept always-online consoles.
Cliff Bleszinski wrote an entire blog post backing up Orth, saying, "My gut is telling me that an always online future is probably coming. It's coming fast, and possibly to the majority of the devices you enjoy."
He then noted that SimCity seemed to be selling well and Diablo 3 (the previous year's always-online launch disaster) was estimated to have sold 12 million to that point. As much as the complaints were dominating discourse and the gaming news cycle, Bleszinski suggested they didn't seem to actually hurt sales in any tangible manner.
Veteran journalist Chris Morris also picked up on that line of argument in an editorial on this site.
"Even with all the outrage that accompanied both of those games, they were massive successes," he noted. "And any potential cries of forum dwellers are unlikely to match the level of volume Microsoft's marketing machine will make during the ramp up to the new system."
"Any potential cries of forum dwellers are unlikely to match the level of volume Microsoft's marketing machine will make..."Chris Morris
Our own Rob Fahey was more skeptical, first as to whether or not Microsoft would dare announce an always-online console and secondly as to whether it could impose the decision on the market. Publishers probably loved the idea, he conceded, but they aren't the ones who actually buy the consoles when push comes to shove.
"This may be the wave of the future, but it's not a wave any consumer wants to surf, no matter how often we're told by publishers and platform holders that the water is lovely," Fahey said.
Microsoft would eventually announce the Xbox One in May of 2013, and while it wasn't quite "always-online," mandatory connectivity and daily check-ins with Microsoft were part of the plan.
And even with months of build-up and public hand-wringing over the issue, the company still botched the messaging around it, leaving the subject unbroached in the system's original unveiling while executives denied the wording of the reports while implicitly confirming their substance, saying Xbox One "will support the trading and re-selling of used games," but adding they were still devising "policies as to how that will work."
Microsoft waited two weeks after the initial Xbox One announcement to finally give people a straight answer on Xbox One's online restrictions. And when they were confirmed, those restrictions (as detailed on Xbox.com) seemed to ensure maximum confusion as to whether or not anyone would actually be able to play games that were legitimately paid for at any given time.
● "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."
● "Today, some gamers choose to sell their old disc-based games back for cash and credit. We designed Xbox One so game publishers can enable you to trade in your games at participating retailers. Microsoft does not charge a platform fee to retailers, publishers, or consumers for enabling transfer of these games."
● "Xbox One is designed so game publishers can enable you to give your disc-based games to your friends. There are no fees charged as part of these transfers. There are two requirements: you can only give them to people who have been on your friends list for at least 30 days and each game can only be given once."
Microsoft even sought to answer the question of what's in it for consumers with this awesome bonus:
● "Share access to your games with everyone inside your home: Your friends and family, your guests and acquaintances get unlimited access to all of your games. Anyone can play your games on your console – regardless of whether you are logged in or their relationship to you."
That's right, you can physically hand the controller over to anyone you want and that person will be able to keep playing! They don't need to log in, or even share a minimum number of chromosomes! Truly, Microsoft is merciful and benevolent. Xbox does what PlayStaydoesn't. Long may it reign. Now let us all Jump In.
The Xbox One restrictions were panned so universally and so loudly that Microsoft dropped them less than two weeks after detailing them. Two weeks after that, Microsoft's Xbox chief Don Mattrick jumped ship to become CEO of Zynga.
This marketing and PR misfire dominated the buzz around the Xbox One even after Microsoft reversed course, and hampered early momentum during a time when it arguably had a stronger lineup of exclusive titles than Sony, especially given both systems' lack of backward compatibility. (I would take a launch lineup led by Dead Rising 3, Ryse: Son of Rome, Killer Instinct, and Forza 5 over Killzone: Shadowfall, Knack, and Resogun any day of the week, and I suspect I have plenty of company on that front.)
Sony had already signaled to the world in February that it wouldn't be the one repeatedly shooting itself in the foot this console generation. That torch was seemingly going to be carried forward by the Wii U, but Microsoft's online restrictions were a declaration that it was ready to fight Nintendo for that distinction, just as the two fought to be the rightful successor to Sony's PS2 in the last generation. (Nintendo would win both fights.)
Fast forward to today and Microsoft's vision for the future of games wasn't terribly far off.
We are clearly living in a more connected world. The rapid shift from physical media to downloadable games has made the second-hand sales publishers tried to thwart less of an issue. Free-to-play schemes have had a similar impact on piracy. More top games than ever are always-online, but they're usually the sort of multiplayer-first games that require it more out of necessity than out of spite for the concept of player ownership.
That said, we're still not quite at the point where publishers can assume players have a solid connection or where players can assume publishers' servers won't instantly collapse upon launch, and the closures of the 3DS and Wii U stores (and Sony's attempted shutdown of PS3 and Vita stores) serve as reminders that always-online consoles are a dead man's switch that will brick entire generations of hardware once a company either isn't in a financial position to keep the old servers up any longer, or would simply prefer people spend money on its new stuff instead.
Regardless, the whole saga is a good reminder that for all the industry-savvy fatalism that assumes companies with enough money can will their preferred reality into existence, they still ultimately need to convince consumers to go along with it.
The outraged "cries of forum-dwellers" often don't amount to much and are by no means inherently justified – this industry has a lengthy and storied history of fans overreacting to trivial nonsense – but when they accurately reflect attitudes across the industry, they can move mountains. (Even the ones they've just made out of molehills.)
What else happened in April of 2013
● Nintendo provided another reminder of why people might not want consoles reliant on servers beyond their control, as the company announced that it would be killing a host of Wii Channel services it was no longer interested in supporting.
● SpryFox chief creative officer Dan Cook wrote an excellent Google+ blog (saved from the memory hole thanks to being republished on Kotaku) about his experiences working at Microsoft during the Xbox 360 era and its half-hearted efforts to grow the brand beyond the hardcore-games-for-boys niche.
"You worked there because you were a gamer," Cook said. "People boasted about epic Gamer Scores and joked about staying up multiple days straight in order to beat the latest release. The men were hardcore. The management was hardcore. The women were doubly hardcore. To succeed politically in a viciously political organization, you lived the brand."
● Microsoft wasn't alone in its laser focus on dudes back then. Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann revealed that when the studio focus tested its then-upcoming game The Last of Us, it had to specifically tell the research company it wanted women included in the testers because the company had assumed the studio would only want to hear from men.
● EA All Play senior vice president and general manager Nick Earl defended the free-to-play business model, saying "The market has spoken very loudly that that's the model they like. Even though there's some vocal minority that don't like it, ultimately the numbers would show that they and others all support the freemium model better."
Pointing at the scoreboard is a favorite argument for people in the free-to-play market, sometimes rightly so. But you can use the exact same argument to say that the market has spoken and determined that gambling, dark patterns, and violating minors' privacy are all good because they make a lot of money, even if some "vocal minority" thinks these things are a problem.
● Game Developer magazine announced it would shut down its print operations, with the June/July 2013 edition being the magazine's last.
● The first Ouya backers started to receive their systems. And while we were promised a freight train that would forever change the console games landscape, the first reviews described something "a million miles away from something worth spending your money on."
"Ouya isn't a viable gaming platform, or a good console, or even a nice TV interface," The Verge determined in its review. "I don't know what it is, but until Ouya figures it out, it's not worth $99."
● When I saw this story about Nintendo announcing it wouldn't be having an E3 conference, I got nostalgic for a time when that was a bad sign for Nintendo instead of a bad sign for E3.
Then I read our staff roundtable on the news and realized that nostalgia had once again tricked me into believing in a time that never existed.
"Nintendo has realized that its fans want big, eventful news, but they don't actually need a big event to deliver it," I said at the time. "All they need is a pre-recorded streaming video of announcements and a countdown clock. If Nintendo can provide that, gamers will show up in droves, because it delivers on the things they value (excitement, immediacy, and actual news, in that order) while eliminating things they don't value (an expensive venue, the uncertainty of a live event, and the media's function as a filter of information)…
"It's an approach you can expect plenty of other companies to follow, which should be more concerning for the gaming media and E3 as a whole than it is for Nintendo."
Good Call, Bad Call
GOOD CALL: Anyone who was part of a $100 million funding round Supercell put together in April of 2013. That fundraising valued the company at $800 million. Three years later when Tencent acquired Supercell, Supercell's valuation had jumped to $10.2 billion.
BAD CALL: Epic CEO Tim Sweeney predicted a bright future for HTML5, saying, "It marks the end of drivers, installation, all the other weird quirks of legacy game development." Epic VP and co-founder Mark Rein takes it a step further, adding "operating systems" to that list. HTML5 didn't disrupt gaming the way many of its backers predicted, and we still have to deal with drivers, installation, and operating systems.
GOOD CALL: In a wide-ranging interview, former Playdom VP and BioWare Austin VP Gordon Walton properly identified recent anxiety around the AAA market and explained why it was overblown, saying, "This giant ecosystem of diversity is in my mind fabulous. But if you were the major leagues, which is kind of the way the AAA guys think of themselves, all of a sudden the little leagues and the home teams and the company teams were all more important than the AAA teams, you would probably feel disenfranchised. It's very threatening; any time you get to the top of a plateau you want to rest, you don't want to say there's a whole 'nother mountain to climb."
BAD CALL: In that same interview, Walton also predicted an inglorious demise for Activision, saying the Call of Duty publisher had not made the necessary pivots to a digital-first world that Electronic Arts had made through a difficult couple few years that had just cost EA CEO John Riccitiello his job. There's even a dash of the ever-popular "consoles are doomed" sentiment in his prediction.
"They've haven't said we're going to fundamentally change our company, so they're going to be that last guy standing in the console world," Walton said. "One day they'll be the big fish at the bottom of the pond, and there'll be almost no food left and no water, and it's going to be hard to breathe. That's how that ends; it ends in catastrophe."
For all its failings, Activision Blizzard has pulled off the impressive trick of adapting the company to remain relevant amidst a fundamental industry shift, not only avoiding the difficult transition period that EA endured, but putting up record results and successfully buying its way into mobile with the King acquisition along the way. That said, I'm not in any position to throw shade at Walton for taking an erroneously dim view of Activision's business.
BAD CALL: Sony Computer Entertainment's president and chief executive Andrew House said the company wants to attract more women and casual audiences for its console business, but reassured insecure gamers that buying a PlayStation will not disrupt the fragile house of cards that is their masculinity, saying, "We are not going down the route of making the console pink of course."
House left Sony in 2017. The company made a PS4 Rose Gold Dual Shock controller in 2019, and Sony rolled out Nova Pink PS5 console covers in 2021. At this rate, we can expect Sony to be at the heart of an infuriatingly vapid right-wing culture war grievance by the end of 2026. Mark your calendars.
BAD CALL: BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins downplayed the long-term relevance of the tablet, saying, "In five years I don't think there'll be a reason to have a tablet anymore. Maybe a big screen in your workspace, but not a tablet as such. Tablets themselves are not a good business model."
Ten years later, tablets are a lot more common than BlackBerrys. Earlier this year, IDC reported that manufacturers shipped almost 163 million tablets to stores worldwide in 2022, which is pretty impressive for a product that people have no reason to buy.
BAD CALL: Riot Games reps told us all about their efforts to combat toxic behavior in League of Legends not by banning players, but by reforming them, which sounds a lot like the approach they take with problematic executives accused of farting on employees, dry-humping them, and/or slapping their testicles.
So did Riot's reform-focused strategy work? Well, the ADL's latest Hate and Harassment in Online Gaming Report found that 81% of surveyed League of Legends players reported experiencing harassment in the game. Riot's moderation practices also led to 84% of Valorant players reporting harassment, a mark only bested (worsted?) by Counter-Strike, one of many venues in which Valve has washed its hands of any responsibility to maintain standards of behavior.