Microsoft is planning to release their highly anticipated new Xbox console this fall, but they’re already facing an increasingly hostile crowd of gamers who are unhappy with the rumors that the console will be “always on,” meaning it will require a constant Internet connection in order to play any games (regardless of whether you’re playing online co-op or are playing by yourself). They’ve already had to put out one fire caused by their Creative Director, who made some unprofessional “deal with it”-type remarks on Twitter when people tweeted at him to complain about the feature:
Adam Orth’s remarks were criticized for being unprofessional and sounding elitist. The user who tweeted at him, however, shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly — should some gamers be punished for living in more rural areas with unreliable Internet access? Or what about people who don’t want to live in an “always on” world, folks who want to play Bioshock in peace without having ads or notifications or upgrade incentives shoved in their faces every five minutes?
Making the console “always on” is a logical moneymaking move for Microsoft. They can rake in even more dollars from the end user by serving advertisements or encouraging them to purchase downloadable upgrades. But this model is problematic for a couple of reasons. Number one, if rumors are to be believed, the new Xbox reportedly stops working if an Internet connection drops for three minutes. This downtime could be through no fault of the gamer whatsoever — what if his or her ISP is experiencing unexpected downtime (an unfortunate reality I’ve often experienced with my Comcast Business account), or the router suddenly dies? Now you’re faced with a shut-down console right before you’ve finished an important boss battle and haven’t had the chance to save yet.
Secondly, the “always online” model has been freshly tested with Electronic Arts’ recent release of SimCity. The game manufacturers made the newest version of the engrossing city builder “online only,” which has resulted in countless server problems as too many users try to access the server simultaneously. Most gamers have complained of being able to play for only a few minutes before getting booted. This negative experience has many gamers hating the “always online” requirement — frustrations have been voiced in numerous gaming forums and review sites (the Amazon.com review for SimCity is sitting an an abysmal 1 1/2 stars out of 2,460 reviews).
This dilemma has brought up an interesting quandary for Microsoft that I’m sure many other businesses have struggled with at some point. A company’s goal is to increase profits, but does the model make sense if it alienates or angers a large percentage of your users? Or even a small but vocal percentage? Many people are resistant to change, sure (just check out the angry weeklong Facebook backlash every time the social media giant changes its layout), but there’s a difference between adding drop shadows to your website’s buttons and implementing a radical new feature that many users hate.
Microsoft has enjoyed its seat at the top of the gaming console hill, but this alienating “always online” requirement, should it hold true, and its difficulty working with independent game producers has many believing it could soon be staring at its competitor Sony taking its place. We’ll have to wait and see. For now, as a business, it’s your duty to listen to your customers’ comments. There may be moments where you have a great idea that will bring in lots of money, but it just might not make sense from a user standpoint for whatever reason. Maybe it’s distasteful, or maybe it inadvertently alienates a certain demographic, but there’s not always a clear-cut path to profit. Sometimes your users stand in the way, and sometimes instead of going around them or plowing right through them, you have to turn around and figure something else out that will better satisfy your customers.