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Why the next Xbox won't be always online or block used games

Don't believe everything you read

I don't like predicting the future. I particularly don't like predicting the future when it comes to games consoles, because the old rules no longer apply. When the Xbox 360 launched, games were (mostly) the preserve of young men, digital distribution was for tiny arcade titles, B-list titles made a profit and you could waste billions on hardware development secure in the knowledge you'd make it back on software sales. None of that's true any more, and lots of games publishers died finding that out.

All of that means I don't like making sweeping statements about anything. However, I am going to stick my neck out and say that today's rumour - that it will be always online, and not support pre-owned games of any kind - is inaccurate. There's a germ of truth in it, which I'll get to, but releasing a console with those two requirements would be totally counter to what Microsoft needs it to do.


I'm not saying this is something I've seen and can confirm - the details of the next console are still formally unannounced, protected by the sort of NDA that lists your child's school and blood type - but it's what makes sense, based on the state of the industry in 2013.

I'll start with the basics: Microsoft is, in all likelihood, going to be launching at the same time as PS4, a console that will apparently and unsurprisingly not be making the same technical or commercial mistakes that dogged its predecessor for so long. These consoles are going to be sat next to each other in stores, next to each other in extremely expensive TV spots, and jockeying for any possible advantage in a marketplace that will still be marked by austerity. The next Xbox needs to be amazing, and affordable, and something that you want to love and hold possibly forever - the ultimate living-room device from which all entertainment springs. To do that, it needs to appeal to absolutely everybody - gamers in the first instance, but kids and grandparents as well. And always-online and no second-hand would be poison to that.

Let's start with the "always online" bit. You don't have to imagine what this would be like, because we already know: Blizzard and Ubisoft have both introduced always-on DRM to their PC titles. In doing so they enraged their fanbase, caused no end of problems for legitimate buyers, and didn't actually stop piracy. Ubisoft eventually gave up on the whole thing.

That happened in the PC market - an audience that builds and debugs its own hardware, and treats the occasional total failure as par for the course. The next Xbox is going to be Microsoft's big push into the home: a connected entertainment device that needs to appeal to the broadest audience possible. Having something that works perfectly straight out of the box is crucial to that - I refuse to believe Microsoft is going to craft a shiny bit of hardware that'll simply lock up and not play anything because it's not online. Half of the UK's online infrastructure is still built out of twigs and string; relying on it utterly would mean that 40% of Xbox 720s would be returned the weekend after purchase because people just couldn't get them working.


This isn't a UK-specific problem. Last year at GDC, I sat in a fascinating presentation by EEDAR in which they stated, as a matter of statistical fact, that there just isn't sufficient broadband penetration in Microsoft's home territory of North America for it to be a requirement for any game or console. If you make your console online-only, you're going to lose a big chunk of the market. It's not as big a chunk as it used to be, sure, but it's a lot of people. And when you're launching your console head to head with your biggest rival, you don't want to gift them, oh, ten percent of the market straight out of the gate.

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