Why always-online consoles are actually good for gamers
LOS ANGELES—Internet access is always a hot topic at E3—Wi-Fi access is notoriously scanty—but this may be the first year that attendees are more concerned about the health of their home networks. Microsoft and Sony built their next generation of gaming consoles expecting that they'll be jacked into a broadband connection most of the time; Microsoft took it a step further, advising players with poor Internet access to skip the Xbox One entirely and content themselves with current-generation hardware.
Bold words. Bold enough to be borderline rude, as Microsoft is effectively placing its latest product beyond the reach of people who can't afford to keep it hooked up to a reliable Internet connection.
But don't forsake the message in your haste to shoot the messenger. Microsoft is doing a piss-poor job of showcasing the positive side of an always-online game console—namely, that developers can make games with the expectation that most players will be connected to the Internet most of the time. That simple premise unlocks a new frontier of multiplayer development, allowing game designers to create crazy single-player/multiplayer hybrids that simply aren't possible on unconnected hardware.
The next-gen game that defines this trend is Destiny, Bungie's hotly anticipated first-person shooter that's coming to Microsoft and Sony consoles next year. The developers behind Destiny love to hype it up as a persistent living universe, a "shared-world shooter" that lets players seamlessly jump into each other's games to compete or cooperate at a moment's notice.
In practice, the Destiny demo we saw at E3 looks like a next-gen Borderlands 2—players can team up with friends or rely on the game's automated matchmaking algorithms to pair them up with suitable playmates who are exploring the same areas at the same time. There are also dedicated hubs of social activity, allowing you to come back from completing a solo mission to trade, gamble, or just goof off with other players.
If that sounds a little familiar, it is. It's the same sort of casual multiplayer interaction that makes massively multiplayer online games so appealing. And it's only possible because the game is designed with the expectation that you will spend a significant amount of time connected to the Internet.
Bungie isn't the only developer taking advantage of game consoles designed to be online most of the time. Ubisoft claims its next-gen racing game The Crew takes place in a virtual facsimile of the United States that's persistently online, meaning other players can drop in or out of the game at will.
All the accoutrements of a traditional single-player mode are still present—Ubisoft promises players 20 hours' worth of competitive missions that can be completed alone or with friends—but multiplayer isn't relegated to a separate mode. Instead, any car you meet on the road could be another player tearing up turf in your world—presumably with your permission.
Even character-driven games are evolving to permit mildly multiplayer gameplay, though they have to do a little sleight of hand to pull it off. Consider Watch_Dogs, Ubisoft's open-world game starring vigilante hacker Aiden Pearce. While Watch_Dogs probably offers discrete competitive multiplayer modes, even your single-player campaign can also be invaded by other players—again, only with your permission and only when you aren't in the middle of a mission.
If you allow it, other players—also playing as Aiden—can enter your game and install viruses on your in-game equipment, spy on you through hacked security cameras, and generally cause all sorts of trouble. Every player sees themselves as Aiden Pearce and other players as generic enemy hackers, allowing you to seamlessly interact with other people playing through Watch_Dogs without breaking the illusion that you are living the life of Aiden Pearce.
It's a great way to spice up single-player games with human intelligence, and it's only possible because Watch_Dogs was developed with always-online consoles in mind. But Watch_Dogs is also coming to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, consoles that benefit from being connected to the Internet without requiring it.
And that's key to making this trend palatable—game developers must create games that reward players for hooking their consoles up to the Internet, without punishing them for going offline.