OPINION: SimCity gifts Durango a potential PR nightmare

Whether you like the sound of it or not, at the very least you must understand the motivation behind Microsoft’s online vision for Durango.

A machine that is always connected to Microsoft’s servers, is always up to date, monitored, guarded. And it’s also important to admit that such a setup would certainly come with some advantages.

No waiting for updates, games likely installed and ready to go on midnight of their release and no sodding disc swapping. Think – you’ll never have to rise from the sofa again!

(If indeed any of it is true, although at this stage it feels, as one of my colleagues this morning put it, that an always-online pre-owned blocking new Xbox is all but confirmed”.)

But whatever the benefits are they will be lost amidst what will be the inevitable backlash against the limitations that a permanently online console will bring with it.

For starters, as much as it sounds a little antiquated to folk like me who are seemingly lucky enough to enjoy a rock-solid, 60MB fibre optic connection feedback from readers assures us that many of you do not enjoy such luxury. Indeed, slow speeds and constant drop-outs should not be the cause of gaming blackouts.

Then there’s the pre-owned issue, which in itself would be a deal-breaker for many. Yes, pre-owned sales rob developers and publishers of revenue. But they’re also vital to sales of new games as they significantly lower the cost.

But that’s another, huge debate. And we can certainly be sure that a block on pre-owned games would anger some consumers and certainly have a negative impact on the machine’s sales.

Potentially, however, there’s a far bigger issue that an always-online, pre-owned blocking new Xbox will face.

Anyone who follows the games press to any degree will be very aware of the noise that followed the release of SimCity earlier this month. Admittedly the coverage of the game’s early connection issues was entirely justified – for a 40 game not to work at launch is a disaster by any measure.

But what has followed is something different. And something that will likely have worried Microsoft a great deal.

EA certainly didn’t help itself by seemingly stretching the truth regarding SimCity’s need” for an online connection and its dependence on server calculations. With sites like Rock Paper Shotgun resolutely determined to get to the bottom of the game’s online code and test every single claim and assertion, a whole world of pain could have been avoided had Maxis simply been honest from the off.

We didn’t need to make the game online, but we chose to. It offered some interesting gameplay options and helped protect us from piracy.” There. Not that folk wouldn’t disagree, of course, but the truth would have robbed the press of its agenda and avoided a lot of PR pain. And, y’know, it would have been the right thing to do.

The one thing SimCity had going for it, from a marketing man’s perspective if not from a consumer’s, is that the furore didn’t kick off until after the game was available to buy. And 1.1m sales down the line, EA is probably fairly comfortable with the situation as it stands.

But Microsoft is going to announce Durango at an event on April 26th, potentially six, seven or even eight months before its launch. Can you imagine the field day certain quarters of the press will have in that time?

Every technical claim will be challenged, every marketing assertion countered, every disgruntled former exec and associated developer interviewed, every opinion piece endlessly debated and nearly every games journalist who dares mutter anything remotely positive abused on Twitter.

It will be a bloodbath.

And with the mainstream press noticing games more and more, this isn’t going to be limited to blogs and consumer sites either – The Guardian, the BBC, perhaps even The Daily Mail will be all too aware of this too. I mean, look how they latched on to the rather weak criticism of Sony’s decision not to show off the PS4 hardware last month.

What’s worse for Microsoft is that there will be nothing it can do, either. No platitudes, no PR spin – the press will see through it. We’re wiser than we used to be, and certainly a lot more cynical.

Of course, some of the criticism will be unjustified. Much of the forum reaction will be nonsense and at times genuine concerns will be lost behind a tasteless air of vindictiveness, fanboyism and hate that sadly seems to be inherent in the online gaming world at the moment. But some of it will be entirely right. Consumers will be angry, and for good reason. A mandatory always-on console is not in the interest of the consumer (at least, not without an element of choice) regardless of any potential benefits. And the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of the internet’s reaction is besides the point – the lasting effect will be the same either way.

By the time Durango arrives in Q4 it risks having months of months of internet hate behind it. The flashiest marketing campaign and celebrity awareness drive in the world can only mask so much. Does that sound like a foundation for success to you?

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