Next Xbox mockup

Microsoft is scheduled to reveal the next Xbox console (codenamed Durango) in two weeks’ time on May 21st. The announcement of the reveal event marks the first time the console maker has publicly acknowledged the existence of the upcoming system. Still, the gaming industry has known about the next Xbox for quite some time now thanks to the usual steady trickle of leaks and rumors.

One of those rumors that we haven’t addressed here at Windows Phone Central is that the new console would require an internet connection in order to function. We’ll expand on that rumor in just a bit. The new rumor (which I take for truth) is that the next Xbox will not require an always-on internet connection after all. Thank goodness!

Always on what?

Penny Arcade next Xbox always on (censored)

Image courtesy of Penny Arcade

The original rumor about the new console requiring an internet connection in order to function stems from a report from Edge Magazine in February, though less credible whisperings existed even before that. Edge is a highly respected publication, so their sureness about the requirement basically swayed the gaming media at large into a similar sureness.

The core conceit behind the always-online requirement is that games would not be playable in the absence of an internet connection. The reason that would be desirable is obvious: it would likely shut out the used game market and make a significant dent in software piracy as well. Game makers make no profit from the sale of used games (unless the used software purchaser also buys DLC such as online passes or map packs), so there has long been interest in curbing or locking out used game sales entirely.

While we can understand why Microsoft and publishers would want next Xbox owners to have an internet connection and to hinder used game sales, that rumored requirement always seemed like a big mistake.

First off, used game retailer Game Stop would be very unlikely to support a console for which they couldn’t sell used software. Exclude a key retail partner like GameStop and your console’s chances of success drop exponentially – as SEGA once discovered when they alienated another retailer back in the Sega Saturn days.

Even more importantly, you can’t count on every console gamer actually having home internet access. Sure, most of us here in America and Europe do, but we can’t say the same for people living in rural areas or the inhabitants of many other nations. And even if gamers have access to the net, what happens if their internet connections or the Xbox Live servers drop? Online-only PC games like The Sims and World of Warcraft simply become unplayable during those downtimes.

Attitudes towards the potential requirement varied depending on one’s home internet situation and other factors – one of our own staff noted that he always has a connection when using his Xbox 360 anyway. But make no mistake, the requirement would lock out some potential customers and dissuade others. All of that would in turn give the Playstation 4 a significant advantage over Microsoft’s offering.

Disaster averted

Adam Orth always on tweets

Fears about the Durango’s always-on requirement culminated when Adam Orth, a Creative Director within Microsoft made some rather insensitive comments about the objections towards the “always-on” requirement. A public outcry followed, Microsoft quickly apologized, and the next week Orth (also an outspoken critic of the Halo franchise) left the company.

Jump ahead a month and the PR fiasco over those tweets now looks to have a massive silver lining. Today, Ars Technica published an internal email sent to full-time Microsoft employees working on the new Xbox. It states:

"Durango is designed to deliver the future of entertainment while engineered to be tolerant of today's Internet." It continues, "There are a number of scenarios that our users expect to work without an Internet connection, and those should 'just work' regardless of their current connection status. Those include, but are not limited to: playing a Blu-ray disc, watching live TV, and yes playing a single player game."

The email contradicts Edge’s initial report about the always-on requirement, but it doesn’t mean the previous report was in error. Rather, the PR fiasco following Orth’s Twitter comments seems to have inspired a change of policy within Microsoft. After all, you don’t send out an email to remind employees about a policy that has already been in place for months. This level-headed policy must be new.

In fact, Kotaku claims that internal factions within Microsoft have long been in contention over the Durango’s internet requirement. One side (the one that has at least a modicum of understanding of the console gaming industry) does not want the requirement, while another side wants it. Previously, the always on camp reigned supreme, but clearer heads eventually prevailed.

The warring factions explanation doesn’t surprise me a bit; I’ve long contended that “Internal politics and competing divisions are probably the single greatest obstacle Microsoft faces going forward.”

Up next: a rosy future?

Adam Orth memes
The new Xbox won't be always online, but these memes will always be fun.

If we take that internal email as gospel, the news that the next Xbox won’t require a persistent internet connection can only be good. Yes, some of the new system’s features will require access to the internet, just like the Xbox 360 and every other modern console. But the core gaming functionality, movie disc playback, and cable TV functions will work with or without the internet.

Speaking of gaming functionality, let’s look at that phrase “playing a single player game.” You could jump to conclusions and interpret that as meaning the Durango won’t support split-screen or offline multiplayer games. But that would be really silly.

Instead, let’s assume that the email writer thinks of games with that ‘single player = offline, multiplayer = online’ divide that non-gamers sometimes believe. There is literally no reason that local multiplayer will be eliminated or require an online connection given that single-player games won’t require such a connection.

That said, Ars Technica does raise the question of whether next Xbox games could require an internet connection during installation but not during gameplay. See, another one of those persistent rumors that everybody believes is that the system won’t play games directly from the disc. Instead, installation will be mandatory.

That could be a downer for people looking to jump straight into gameplay after unwrapping a shiny new game, assuming installation won’t end up as a background process like it will on Playstation 4. But either way, mandatory installation is a step forward compared to the Xbox 360. Because the 360 comes with or without a hard drive, developers could never count on users actually having a hard drive. That limited how much games could actually take advantage of the hard drive and sometimes caused incompatibility problems (as Halo Reach suffered when played without a hard drive at launch).

We’ll learn some of the details behind game installation and online features during the official next Xbox reveal on May 21st. You can bet that Microsoft will state whether games can be played offline either during the conference or a subsequent interview that week. Check back with us on the 21st for our coverage of the reveal!

Update: Sadly, the source proved incorrect. The Xbox One does require an internet connection.

Source: Ars Technica via Kotaku. Next Xbox Mockup image from Yanko Design.