‘Always On’ Could Change Your Gaming Habits Forever
But before you start saving your pennies, it’s important to address a very buzzy rumor surrounding the device: The next Xbox could be “Always On.”
It sounds innocuous enough, but the Always On trend is very polarizing for game developers and fans alike. Some view it as the best way to rid piracy once and for all, while others are concerned its massive drain on resources could affect how everyone plays his or her games.
Mashable spoke with game developers and media distributors across the spectrum, from big companies to tiny studios, to get a handle on what Always On means and how it can affect you. Even if the next Xbox doesn’t come out with Always On capabilities, you will see a lot more of it on your computer, and maybe even in consoles to come.
What It Means
Before we delve into any of the implications of Always On, it’s important to understand just what it means. Simply put, Always On indicates a longstanding and constant connection to the Internet, even when a user isn’t engaging with the console. This consistent link to online does have some benefits — most prominently, updates and game downloads while users are away.
“Certainly, you look at this concept, and an Always On device doesn’t mean it’s always active or always used to do something, but now you have a resource that’s plugged in and on and could be active, or could be in use to do things when you’re not using it,” says Kris Alexander, chief strategist for gaming and connected devices at Akamai. “You may have movies or games you might like, and Microsoft can push some of them down to you overnight for you to try during the day.”
Logistically, transactions of that size require tons of throughput and a steady Internet speed. According to a 2012 Pew Research study, 35% of American households still lack a high-speed connection. While it could be a challenge for some to have an Always On console, it seems as though we’re entering an age in overall connectivity that would make the concept more feasible in the long run.
“Connectivity is good enough in many cases that people will be online all the time and it won’t be that big of a deal,” says Tadhg Kelly, creative director at Jawfish Games and the author of What Games Are. “It’s a concern with many of these online gaming systems — whether it’s Steam or Xbox Live — that you would have millions of users on it with dial-up modems. But it seems that over time, those concerns are slowly alleviating themselves.”
Simply, Always On is always connected to the Internet, and is in constant talks with servers to continually pump information into the console. So why are people so upset about it?
How It Affects DRM
Above all, the biggest pain point with Always On is its ability to expand digital rights management, or DRM. Gaming companies implement DRM techniques, such as inputting a serial code, to ensure their products do not lose severe profit from online piracy. Some independent developers, however, think it is opening a dangerous can of worms.
“Like many independent developers, I advocate very strongly against any kind of DRM,” says Kyle Sloka-Frey, developer for EvolvingPoet Media and independent gaming consultant. “I understand that piracy can be a problem in some games, but punishing other users to find that percentage isn’t right.”
Always On, by nature, can bring stricter DRM measures to the console platform. Utilizing an Internet connection as a validation system, users may have to log in using specialized screen names specifically tied to certain copies of games. What happens when you don’t have an Internet connection to validate? You cannot play. The same could be said if the online service itself experiences hiccups.
“This sounds like an apocalypse scenario, but the current generation of consoles have all had outages of their online service, even ones that measured more than a few days,” says Guillaume Rambourg, managing director for gaming website GOG.com. “Imagine not being able to play any game on your console for days. That doesn’t sound very fun, does it?”
It sounds like a garish nightmare, but a harsh example of Always On DRM strategies occurred just a few months ago, when EA released its newest Sim City. Although the game was praised for its tight gameplay and fun features, the sheer volume of users attempting to activate their copies led the validation servers to crash. Users had trouble with the game for weeks, and many felt discouraged that the game couldn’t be played offline.
“The recent Sim City was a bad example of DRM,” Sloka-Frey says. “Companies should be looking for ways to validate copies of games without interfering with every single person who has purchased the game.”
Sim City is an extreme case, but it’s not far from what we could experience if Always On comes to a console. It’s the crux of what makes the concept so polarizing to those in the tech community. People worry they’ll be locked out of games they’ve purchased for hours, days or even weeks.
“But imagine an outage like Sony experienced with PSN — that lasted 24 days,” Rambourg says. “What happens when each and every console owner is not able to play their new $60 game he or she bought to play on a $600 console?”
Will It Change Privacy?
Always On faces another potential pitfall: privacy. How do you keep users’ information safe and secure?
“Certainly, anything that’s Always On will become a target for attackers,” says Alexander. “If something is Always On and potentially carrying personal information about people, hackers will want to extract that or gain access to information … We need to think of the best scheme to protect the identity of consumers.”
Alexander says Akamai’s experience with TV Everywhere and Ultraviolet suggests that Always On could benefit from security within the cloud, an approach that protects users by keeping vital information off devices and locked in every single transaction. It’s a feasible option for maintaining high levels of security, but there’s no telling what the impact would be. And a company like Microsoft would need to achieve monumental scale in order to ensure millions avoid constant hacking attempts.
In addition to privacy, there’s a potential hurdle when it comes to recognizing property. Kelly points to online social games, such as the suite of games run by Zynga, as a potential pitfall. When users become invested in a game and begin spending real money to invest in power-ups and special edition collectibles, there’s a feeling of ownership. But if the game requires a consistent Internet connection to run, there’s a chance the development company can simply shut the game down and no longer support it.
“What if a company decides the game they released is not profitable and decide to pull it?” Kelly asks. “How do you ever get to play your game ever again, if that’s the case? Those kinds of medium to long-term questions are talked about all the time, but when you pour money, time and personal feelings into a game that simply stops existing?”
Always On redefines how users interact with and maintain possession of games. It’s clear that in some cases, it could be very difficult to adjust. Privacy and ownership are two important issues console companies will need to fix if they expect Always On to become the new norm.
So, How Do We Live With Always On?
Always On isn’t some terrible menace, nor does it automatically guarantee users will get shut out of their own games. In fact, Always On can offer a lot of positive features: convenience, more integrated media and better multiplayer interactions, for example. But there are still plenty of questions to answer about its execution, and some of them may arise at Tuesday’s Microsoft event.
But even if they don’t, Always On isn’t going anywhere. So we should start thinking about it now, lest it surprise us later.
Image via Mashable composite.