Always On DRM?

We all know that Microsoft is getting ready to unveil some more information about their next entry into the world of gaming very soon. The next Xbox, which carries the codename “Durango” is going to be coming down the pipes within the next few months, so naturally the press conferences will be popping up shortly. There has been a lot of drama lately about the potential that the next console would require an “always-on” internet connection in order to play games, and what the consequences might be for Microsoft for launching such a console – personally I’ve got my own opinions on the matter, here’s what I think.
The biggest issue here, isn’t the concept of some sort of “always-on” DRM itself – that sort of thing is becoming the norm in the world of PC gaming already, and as long as piracy continues to grow we’re going to begin seeing more and more techniques not unlike this one designed to prevent pirates from gaining illicit access to games. The biggest problem here is the simple fact that an Xbox is not a computer in the traditional sense. On a PC it’s a little bit safer to assume that the user is going to have access to the internet available – and the ones that don’t simply won’t buy the game – those people have a computer for other reasons as it is, whether that’s work or school, or whatever. When we’re talking about a new video game console the situation becomes a little different. We can’t make the assumption that just because somebody is interested in a video game console, that they have an internet connection at home – and if they’re not gaming on their console, it’s probably not doing much else.
The biggest issue here might not even be the concept of Microsoft requiring an internet connection in order to use the console – it might be Sony NOT requiring an internet connection to use the console. We all know the Wii U from Nintendo doesn’t have this requirement, and we have heard rumblings from the Sony camp that suggest they have been swayed from the concept of using some sort of technologically prohibitive DRM in their next console, the PlayStation 4. If Microsoft does decide to make the jump into this world of always-on connectivity they’re going to be giving Sony and Nintendo a HUGE edge in the market over the next few years. If companies want to force major changes on the market they really need to commit to the changes, and in an oligarchical market like that of home video game consoles the major players need to be in on the idea together. Without being forced to make a change most consumers won’t do it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, people hate change.

My final concern about some sort of always on functionality is consumer awareness. How exactly do you demonstrate to a consumer before purchasing your hardware that they are going to need an internet connection in order to make use of the device? Personally, I couldn’t count how many USB A to B cables (printer cables) I sell at work to people who didn’t read the fine print on the box “USB cable sold separately” – and something like an always-on internet connection is certainly not an item someone can walk to the corner store to pick up for a few bucks. It’s something that’s going to force somebody to return the console to the store for a refund forcing a lost sale on Microsoft.
If you want my opinion, I don’t think we’re going to see this kind of requirement in the next Xbox. Not unless Microsoft can convince Sony to sign on with them anyway – it would simply bar too many potential consumers from the market. Maybe in the next console generation, whatever it may bring, we will have a large enough portion of our population online that this kind of DRM will make a little more sense, but right now you would be shrinking your consumer base, which is something most people would consider bad for business. Do you agree with me? Disagree? Let me know in the comments, connect with me on Twitter at @CallChrisNow, or send me an e-mail at chris@chriscall.me – I’d love to have a discussion about the topic!

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