Two Kotaku sources have added more credence to the rumor that the next Xbox, expected to battle the PlayStation 4 in late 2013 or early 2014, will be an always-online system, though it will be able to tolerate dropped connections.
"Unless something has changed recently," one of the sources told us over email, "Durango consumer units must have an active internet connection to be used."
Durango is the codename for the next-gen Xbox.
"If there isn't a connection, no games or apps can be started," the source continued. "If the connection is interrupted then after a period of time—currently three minutes, if I remember correctly—the game/app is suspended and the network troubleshooter started."
The PS4 will not require an online connection to start or run games, Sony has confirmed. No gaming console ever has.
Reporting about the next-gen Xbox is still mostly a matter of checking rumors and leaks. No one in or out of Microsoft is authorized to discuss the console publicly. But there are a growing number of people tied to the gaming industry, including our sources for this story, who have had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with Microsoft's plans for the machine. Development of games for the console is intensifying. Microsoft has sent beta development kits, sporting a new controller and Kinect motion/voice sensor array to game creators. Our main sources for this story have a perfect track record in getting these kinds of things right.
That said, a caution and a caveat: other sources familiar with the codenamed Durango console have told us that they are still unaware of any Microsoft plans regarding an online requirement. No one has been able to say it's not true and some have speculated that this is required at the operating system level and therefore isn't something Microsoft has to tell all developers or retail partners. Microsoft also has the ability to change this type of requirement seemingly at a moment's notice through changes in firmware or networking infrastructure.
Microsoft doesn't comment at all about its next-gen system, so the best we have from them on the matter is as follows: "We do not comment on rumors or speculation. We are always thinking about what is next for our platform, but we don't have anything further to share at this time." That's from a Microsoft spokesperson after we asked, today, about this always-online rumor and told them this story was planned.
But if Microsoft is about to walk this back, they probably haven't done so yet. One of our sources says that the always-online plan was in effect as recently as two weeks ago.
The always-online rumor has been swirling for about a year. We'd been hearing it but couldn't nail it down with the specificity we have today. We raised it as a possibility, tied to a good source, but were unclear how dropped connections would be handled. We also weren't clear if this was something like Microsoft's anti-used-game system, a plan the company briefed partners on in 2012 but that we had heard so little of since that it may well have gone away—or if this was like the plans for the new Kinect, which, it has become increasingly clear, is an essential element of the Durango.
An always-online requirement would obviously be a big deal. It raises many questions about how the system would perform in places that don't have reliable Internet and about the extent that the connection would be used to authenticate ownership of games. This is something every gamer would want to know about. So, since we first heard about it, we have tried to confirm whether the requirement was real and in the cards. Sources in development, publishing and retail mostly responded with shrugs.
In January, the hacker SuperDaE began sharing with me official development documents for the next-gen PlayStation and Xbox. Many of the dozens of pages of the Xbox/Durango documentation were full of programming code but the parts in plain English—the parts that, honestly, we could understand—said nothing about an online requirement. They were, however, crystal clear about the new system needing the new Kinect to operate: "Every Durango console ships with a Kinect sensor. A Kinect sensor must be attached and configured for the console to function."
Some sources told us that they believed that the Durango development kit required an online connection so that Microsoft could keep tabs on them and update them with new, ever-evolving firmware. Others weren't sure.
A few weeks ago, we heard from one reliable industry source who told us about a Durango developer making a game that would use an always-online connection for gameplay purposes, to constantly be able to share game data back and forth. It wasn't clear, though, if this indicated the Durango's capacity to be always online—Nintendo's Wii had its own optional 24/7 always-online mode—or if the online connection was a must.
Meanwhile, the site VGLeaks, which appeared to have access to many of the same Durango documents shared with Kotaku by SuperDaE posted a new document that appeared to indicate an online connection was required for the console. It referred to an "Always Online, Always Connected" console, the better to give users current content and quick access to their entertainment, without waiting for updates or for the machine to boot up. We were unable to confirm this document's authenticity, but the major gaming website IGN reported that they confirmed that it is real. The gaming magazine Edge has also reported that their sources say the next Xbox will require an online connection.
The new confirmation we've heard from sources, including the specifics about how the Durango would handle a dropped connection, bolsters our confidence that all this smoke is a sign of some fiery facts.
But why would they do this?
Every person we've talked to about the always-online connection, internally and externally, has been incredulous. They predict a fiasco. They detect hubris in a Microsoft riding high off of the Xbox 360's incredible post-Kinect sales performance. But they also detect, as I have, an intensified interest in Microsoft's part to position the next Xbox as an entertainment device, to not emphasize games as significantly as they had with past Microsoft consoles. Add that to far shakier rumors of the next Xbox working as a cable box or DVR or some other TV-viewing enabler—something not a single source of mine could confirm—and you might wonder: if my cable box always has to be connected, why not my next Xbox?
There are reasons for Microsoft to not do this, of course. They merely need to see the disastrous launch of EA's always-online SimCity and decide whether the negative backlash of selling people a product that can't work when the servers go down is worth it—especially if the earlier version of that product didn't require that kind of Internet connection.
They could also look at the competition and imagine a consumer standing at a store, deciding whether to buy a PS4 or the next Xbox. One wouldn't require online; the other, if our best sources are right, would. Surely, some would prefer the system without the online requirement.
As mentioned above, things can change. Microsoft may reveal its next Xbox this month, in May or, at the latest, at E3 in June. We'll know more then. We'll hopefully know what they've decided.