Is offline gaming going the way of the landline?

Rumours are flying about Microsoft’s next-generation gaming console (code-named Durango), sparked by tweets from Creative Director, Adam Orth. Although he didn’t say so explicitly, his comments, which dismissed “drama” about operating systems requiring a continuous Internet connection, have been taken to mean that the new system will not function offline. If true, users with spotty network service, including everyone from lower-income users to rural residents to even soldiers playing overseas, will be effectively unable to use the new system.

Microsoft has issued an apology for the rudeness of Orth’s tweets (discussed in Forbes), but otherwise refused to confirm or deny their content. So very likely the new system will be “always on”, and the company is hoping to keep that contentious feature under wraps until release, where it will be drowned out in all the fanfare of a major product launch. Rather less likely, maybe the PR disaster of the last week has them going back and considering whether it’s too late to make a change prior to launch, and they’re waiting to hear back from R&D before they say anything.

There’s a lesson here about good design, encapsulated in a conversation I’ve recently had with my father about cellular phones. Both of us know several individuals and couples who don’t bother with a landline these days. One couple with kids spends over $400 per month on their mobile plans while saving not even one-tenth of that by declining to install phone service in their home.

But old-fashioned home-based telephones have several advantages that mobile phones lack. You always know where they are, your service is rarely affected by the weather or even power outages, and you never have to worry about your battery dying. If you dial a person’s home number, it rings. If somebody is home, they will probably answer it. If you have kids at home and you need to reach them, you can.

Twenty years ago, if I wanted to call somebody, I called their house. Now I call their cell phone. That couple with kids? They put their oldest kid on their plan. When the adults aren’t at home, he’s supposed to function as the “house phone”. His younger siblings are at his mercy to contact the outside world. Three months into his contract he broke his phone.

The lesson, I think, is that while some technological advances are an inarguable step forward, others solve some problems and introduce new ones. Some technical innovations are not an improvement. I can appreciate the irony in arguing this point in the technology pages, of all places. But anyone who’s used Windows Vista knows what I’m talking about.

To bring it back to “always on”, the advantages of an automatic, continuous network connection might be many, including real-time updates to and from “the cloud”, the ability to perhaps stream certain videos or even game demos without a separate download and installation process, and account syncs allowing immediate updates from email and social networking services. From Microsoft’s perspective, the continuous monitoring implied by hardware enslaved to a network might make piracy more difficult, or even prevent renting, borrowing, or purchasing used games. It might actually be a DRMer’s wet dream.

Of course, even if a user has no intention of performing any of those dastardly deeds, they’ll still be at the mercy of their Internet Service Provider. When they take their next-gen Xbox to a rustic, offline cabin, or the service at home is down for the day (which does still happen, even in glorious 2013) and they want to watch a movie or do some offline gaming, they might wonder how their latest tech toy refusing to turn on is a design feature after all.


Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer. Links to his writing can be found at his homepage.