Cliff Bleszinski on the next Xbox and our always-on future
10th May 2013 | 20:06
'Always on isn't even about the connection'
Last month, Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski made splashes with a post on his Clifford Unchained blog titled "Deal With It" in which he eviscerated the online community for its reaction to the departure of Adam Orth from Microsoft.
Orth, formerly Creative Director at Microsoft Studios, had tweeted a message regarding the new Xbox and "the drama around having an 'always on' console," hashtagged #dealwithit. The interwebs didn't take his comment too kindly.
Bleszinski opined on Orth's situation and criticized the lynch mob reaction to it in his blog, but he also made this claim: "My gut is telling me that an always online future is probably coming. It's coming fast, and possibly to the majority of the devices you enjoy."
Microsoft has unofficially shut down always-on Xbox 720 concerns thanks to a recently leaked internal email, though we won't really know what we're in for until a few weeks time. Even if Microsoft's eternally-connected Xbox doesn't come to life, as Bleszinski said, that future for many devices may be here sooner than we expect.
Cliff B is a hard man to track down, but we were able to connect for an extensive Q&A on all of this always-on Xbox business, if he'd want a game he developed to be played on such a console and what he plans to do next.
TechRadar: How do you define always on? Is it needing an internet connection at all times to play games and perform other functions like listen to music? Is it enabling background downloading when the console is off?
Cliff Bleszinski: Saying something is "always on" has become "take what you think this means and come up with your own answer and then decide how upset or offended you are by it."
Years ago my colleagues and I were discussing the idea of "open world" and what that means. It could mean so much depending on the game! Is it a GTA with a huge, sprawling city? Is it Skyrim with terrain and dungeons? Is it a hub-based world like Borderlands? Is it a contained city like Arkham?
So "always on" isn't even about the connection. It's about what the software requires of that connection. We have many devices that won't work without power. I have a white noise maker that I sleep with that plugs in. If the power goes, I can use standard batteries to make sure I sleep soundly. An "always online" system could require a fat pipe 24/7. Or it could require an occasional "check in" once in a while via a cell phone connection.
It's anyone's guess right now.
TR: You write in your April blog about how an always-on future is coming, but can you outline the signs you see that such a reality is almost upon us?
CB: My "always online" world that I'm hoping for for the majority of my devices is one that's closer to what Apple has, which is a secure system with reduced piracy that has a fabulous ecosystem that I'm happy to throw money at.
If it's online then I can play games with friends, download music and movies that I'm paying for, and send asynchronous moves along. If it's online, I can still sling a few birds at some pigs, just without the latest updates.
I currently suffer with Time Warner cable at my home and as a consumer I can assure you that it's inconsistent at best. If I'm mid-game and the connection drops and I can't resume where I was, it may very well be a shelf moment for me.
If there are systems being designed with this sort of functionality, I certainly hope that the people building them have the presence of mind to figure out workarounds for these problems. A random sample would be to allow for a grace period of N minutes if a connection dies to maintain status.
I'm not that hardcore of a power user. I'm very mid-range when it comes to my technology use. I let some other early adopter suffer through any first release of any new hot product and then come in once the issues are fixed with the second revision. However the only way I watch movies and say Game of Thrones now is to stream them on Xbox movies and HBO Go in HD. I've only had a handful of problems with streaming on these fantastic services, ever, even with my spotty Time Warner service. I'm used to it. And when it works no one really ever seems to mind it.
TR: What tech obstacles stand in the way of an always-on console being a success? Or is the groundwork there so that something like this may not necessarily be a success right off the bat, but will garner supporters as time goes on?
CB: Broadband penetration. I've casually Googled the numbers and it appears as if in the majority of developed nations (read: the ones that would be likely to enjoy video games) broadband penetration is at 60 percent of more of households that have a computer. That's good, but we can do better. I want full global Wi-Fi that is flawless and fast. Google fiber. All of it. Once it's there no one will really worry about it.
The reason Adam Orth used the infamous "vacuum" analogy is that it took people a while to part with their candles before they actually counted on reliable power for their light bulbs and fancy new devices. For the most part, we have power, and it's consistent and useful. Power going out is fairly rare in most areas. Broadband will eventually be like that. The fear comes from the fact that it's not quite there yet.
TR: Somewhat related, but perhaps the next Xbox won't have always on as a feature. However, if it's coming to another future Xbox or another console sooner rather than later, what does a successful always-on device look like in your mind?
CB: I want to see a system that lives and breathes into the community. We're at the point where the hardware isn't exactly the most exciting thing. It's nice, sure, but the online feature set, the ability for users to participate and contribute to the experience through videos of their sessions, crafted levels, hell, their own games – that's what needs to happen. Crowdsource the success of the console through the power of community. Oh and also build a nearly idiot-proof online gaming platform that encourages cooperation and votes the trolls and racist/sexist idiots into oblivion.
TR: You've seen the backlash surrounding the idea of an always-on console. What perceptions need to change? You write about the average consumer in your blog – are they going to need less convincing of the possibility this will work than hardcore, edge-case gamers?
CB: If you're the average gamer, say, the person who buys GTA, CoD and Madden throughout the year and calls it a day and you have a steady broadband and a console comes out that requires an always-online connection, you're not going to care or bat an eyelash. The more hardcore, edge case gamer is harder. They're the ones who are constantly accused of being thieves. (Shout out to those who actually are and make everyone else suffer because of it.) If you're a gamer who earns his or her money who buys games on Steam and is constantly told you have to have all of these restrictions because, hey, you're a criminal you'd probably take to a message board and write some nasty things as well.
If the connection is consistent, the ecosystem is one to encourage community, if the system is marketed well and there are backup scenarios for when the connection fails, we very well may see systems like this doing fairly well in the marketplace.
TR: There have been some well-documented outages [SimCity, Diablo 3] that make gamers uncomfortable about always-on-ness. Should people realize this is a new age, and presumably Microsoft would put as many stop gaps in place to keep damage minimal during an outage, or is it a valid concern and one that should make Microsoft think twice?
CB: Funny, I basically spoke of these stop gaps in a prior answer. I'll go back to the electricity metaphor. My wife and I bought a house last year and we're really excited about it. However, living in North Carolina and moving to the suburbs a bit outside of town I trust the power…only to a point. We get plenty of storms here, hurricanes go through, and once in a blue moon we'll get snow or an ice storm. The power can go out. And when that power goes out for a few days in the winter it goes from being a minor inconvenience to a giant pain. So I'm going to buy a backup generator. Heck, we had the UPS batteries at Epic for years before we got our new building and purchased a generator the size of a school bus. Basically, if there's an online system, they'll need whatever their stop gap version is to make it as painless as possible.
TR: What about people who don't have a reliable internet connection – how will they fare in an always-on future?
CB: At some point the march of technology has to go on. Eighty-five percent of the people I know do not have a land line. Sooner or later, it'll be a similar thing. Short term there may be some pain and outrage, unfortunately.
TR: Is our always-on future going to start with games or is it going to start with other home entertainment services, like TV?
CB: It started with Redtube.
TR: A big concern among gamers is DRM. Is it a valid issue from your perspective or is it an obsolete/irrelevant issue for the average user?
CB: That's a big hot button topic. The first thing to consider is that average gamer, the one I mentioned earlier. That person has no idea what DRM is and doesn't care. If it works, it works. The catch with this whole scenario is that the hardcore do need to be catered to in many ways because if you don't win them over first, you can't often go wider.
There's a saying we used to use -"leverage the core to ignite the masses" - when discussing Gears marketing, and it worked. In spite of the DRM issues with Diablo 3 it still went on to sell, what, 12 million units? If I could borrow Elizabeth and create a tear where Blizzard didn't have that DRM, and then create another where the DRM was working flawlessly, my gut tells me that in the case with no DRM they would have sold 3 million - 4 million. If the DRM was working flawlessly? 15-plus million.
People do torrent, and torrent often. I have friends that know I've worked in software for many years and admit to doing it. It's gotten easier than ever to do it. I still think the best way is to make your DRM as flawless as possible, as seamless, and to make a great experience that people want to say "shut up and take my money." Make one that's so fantastic that even if there's a cracked version the draw of the "legit" one is so strong and you want to vote with your dollars that you can't help but actually buy the damned thing.
TR: There's the concern that when Microsoft is ready to release the Xbox 1080 (or whatever the next, next Xbox will be called) it will unplug the next Xbox's servers to make room, thus forcing consumers to upgrade if they want the newest device. How do you see this issue?
CB: There's a lot of fear mongering online these days. There's also a lot of "I'm bored, so I need to look for something to get super angry about." (When you combine a slow news day and a sensationalist blog, watch out!) Any provider of any service owes it to their customers to, for a reasonable time, keep their current services on and reliable until the inevitable transition occurs. I wouldn't be surprised to see legislation at some point in the future appearing in order to keep service providers honest in this area.
Microsoft isn't as "stupid or evil" as people sometimes think. They're really turning around perception of the company in recent years and I doubt they'd be so silly as to immediately unplug the previous device once a new one comes along simply because the old one is probably still making money.
TR: Would you want a game you've developed or are developing need an internet connection to be played?
CB: I love multi-player games and whatever I do next will most likely have a multi-player component so it's safe to say it'll probably need an internet connection.
TB: You were upset over the public reaction to the Michael Orth situation. What about it bothered you so much?
CB: The bullied are now the bullies. That's what bothers me. It's just like that South Park in which they combat bullying by simply [being] bullies themselves. The most vocal people online are the ones that often weren't the most social and have the time to sit in Photoshop and contribute to a GAF thread in which they systematically make fun of a guy and damage his career after he was having a lively chat with a friend over Twitter. (And I love GAF.)
TR: Do you see the world moving into this at-arms-length observer position where people are free to comment on anything and everything without recourse? Or are we all equal online so we all can say what we really feel?
CB: I fantasize about two online experiences. In many ways, I have this. My Facebook is largely personal. Nearly everyone I have on my account is someone I've had a personal interaction with and would remember if I saw in public. Twitter, on the other hand, is "anything goes" and private and public.
I sometimes wish the rest of the online experience was that clean and consistent. If you want accountability, you go into the space where you think twice about what you say. If you want to go talk shit with the Savages, have at it, there's your play space.