Microsoft's Xbox One announcement focused on hardware, entertainment, and gaming, but a controversial aspect of the new console — a rumored always-online requirement — has been left floating amid a sea of confusion. Microsoft sparked the hubbub with a vague answer on its Q&A section for the Xbox One. "No, it does not have to be always connected, but Xbox One does require a connection to the internet," reads a statement related to "always-on" internet connection requirements. Microsoft had a chance to explain this fully to avoid further confusion, but it blew it.
Backtracking over always-online time period requirement
The statement, while accurate, isn't forthcoming with the information that gamers want to know. How long can I play offline, and is the connection required for single-player games? Kotaku attempted to clarify in a question to Microsoft's Phil Harrison, asking if you'd need to connect as regularly as once per hour or over a period of weeks. "I believe it’s 24 hours," said Harrison, before confirming you'd have to connect online once every day. However, Microsoft spokespeople later dismissed the exact timing. "There have been reports of a specific time period — those were discussions of potential scenarios, but we have not confirmed any details today, nor will we be," Microsoft said in a statement to Polygon.
The confusion doesn't end there. A Wired report on the controversial online requirement introduced the notion of a fee for second-hand games, noting that a disc could be used with a second account, but that the owner of the new account would need to pay a fee and install the game from the disc. The result would mean the new account then owns the game, after the fee is paid, and can play without the disc. Microsoft was quick to note, once again, that this is a "potential scenario." In a blog post from Larry Hryb, Xbox Live's Major Nelson, the company attempts to clarify the confusion. "We have only confirmed that we designed Xbox One to enable our customers to trade in and resell games at retail," says Hryb.
Is this an EA-style Online Pass?
However, in a second interview with Eurogamer to clarify earlier statements, Phil Harrison detailed how the system will work. Gamers will be able to take a title to a friend's house and sign into the console to play. The game is installed to the HDD and if the friend wants to continue to play that game on their profile they'll "have to pay for it," according to Harrison, regardless of whether they have the disc or not. "The bits are already on your hard drive, so it's just a question of going to our [online] store and buying the game, and then it's instantly available to play." Harrison argues this system is "no different to how discs operate today," but a key issue is trading a game or selling it to a friend. "We will have a system where you can take that digital content and trade a previously played game at a retail store," says Harrison, while refusing to provide any additional details.
The lack of concrete details adds to the uncertainty about Microsoft's plans. EA discontinued its controversial Online Pass just days before its significant role in the Xbox One announcement. The system allowed EA to profit from second-hand game sales using a form of DRM restricting multiplayer and online functionality without a specific EA code. If that code had already been used, another one would need to be purchased for around $10. Harrison's mention of retail stores suggests Microsoft is considering different options, but until it's willing to detail it fully, we're left guessing.
Instead of clarity, Microsoft gave us confusion
Put simply, Microsoft's new Xbox One console needs an internet connection, but it doesn't need to be connected all of the time to allow for internet interruptions. You'll need to connect it regularly, potentially at least once a day, and game discs will be limited to your Xbox profile if you use them on a second console. A used games system will include some type of fee, but Microsoft is clearly still working on the specifics.
Questions over always-online and digital content will likely be irrelevant in the latter years of the Xbox One's lifecycle, but they're applicable right now. While Sony was criticized for its lack of PS4 hardware and details, Microsoft's vagueness has sparked confusion among the core gamers who are passionate about the future of console gaming. Valve's Steam has conditioned gamers to purchase licenses for content, but recent issues with EA's SimCity always-online requirement have left them wary. Microsoft has just over two weeks to prevent further confusion at E3 and prove this is still a gaming console worth having to early adopters and its core audience.