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Would we be ready for an always-on Xbox?

The Xbox Infinity will require a constant internet connection to function. Actually, it won't. No, wait, it will sometimes. Alright, so we can't say exactly how Microsoft's new machine will interact with the internet, but we can say that the mere prospect of an "always-on" console, one where even single-player games would have to stay connected, has been met with serious contention.

This makes sense. The outright disaster that was SimCity's launch is still fresh in many players' minds, and otherwise great games like Diablo III have been explicitly held back by their always-on requirements before that. Slapping down $60 for a game only to have busy or broken servers render it unplayable is a nightmare for any consumer, while charging players $60 to buy a busted game is just bad business. Everybody suffers when an always-online game goes bad, so the thought of giving every game the same inherent risks as Diablo III or SimCity just seems, well, stupid.

Microsoft will give official word on its next Xbox in just a few days, so it's important not to jump to conclusions just yet. But let's say Microsoft were to introduce an always-on console at this point in time. Could we handle it? Is the state of the internet strong enough to sustain such a machine? What kind of connection do you need to make online gaming work? And why would Microsoft risk angering or alienating a portion of its consumers by making their Xboxes go from often-on to always-on?

We've scoured through FCC documents, white papers, earnings reports, internet service plans, and much more to get to the bottom of things, and it turns out that the technology behind online gaming isn't always straightforward. Let’s take a look at how an always-on Xbox would stack up today.

So, what kind of internet might an always-on console need?

The internet isn't a one-way street, and there really aren't any definite guidelines to follow when it comes to getting the "right" internet for gaming. Faster speeds, lower latency, and greater bandwidth are always preferred, but a great deal of this revolves around how many people and how many devices are trying to access a given network, and what tasks they're trying to complete.

If you're gaming while your spouse is streaming an HD video and your kid is perusing Twitter, in the same house all at the same time, that's going to require a meatier, more spacious network to handle each task adequately. With a regular console, that potential network stress wouldn't be a big deal if you just wanted to pop in a single-player game. But with an always-on machine, these added details would always have to be taken into account.

Watching an HD video on Netflix will take a 5 Megabit per second (Mbps) connection and use up 2.8 GB of bandwidth per hour on its own, for instance, and all of that is speed and space that would be detracted from someone who is trying to play a game, download content, or use an app on an always-on console at the same time.

The inverse goes for people living on their own--since they get their connection to themselves, they could feasibly game just fine with lesser internet. And even if a normally offline gamer were to make the switch to an always-on machine, it's possible that they wouldn't need more than minimal speed, latency, and bandwidth if they planned on just playing single-player online games. It's all relative, to some extent.

With that being said, Microsoft has a short broadband speed guide over on its Xbox website, which recommends that users have at least download speeds of 3 Mbps, upload speeds of 5 Mbps, and a ping time--which is essentially a measurement of latency--of 150 milliseconds. For HD video streaming, it bumps the download speed recommendation up to 3.5 Mbps.

The FCC's household broadband guide goes a little more in-depth and provides various recommendations based on how many users or devices connect to the internet in a given household.

Essentially, it says that anyone who wants to use their broadband connection to perform basic web functions plus at least two "high-demand applications," like gaming or streaming HD video, would need to have somewhere between a 6 to 15 Mbps connection to handle everything. This is generally the basic range to shoot for if you're looking to play games online, and would likely be the preferred range for an average household with an always-on console.

If a household has two or more users or devices trying to complete those high-demand tasks, the FCC recommends buying an "advanced" internet service package that allows for speeds in excess of 15 Mbps. The minimum speed it can recommend for gaming is between 1 to 2 Mbps, but that should be bought only if there's just one user or device connecting to the internet at a time in a particular household.

Either way, some factors like latency (or, the time delay in processing data over a network) depend on things that are mostly out of your control. As Kris Alexander, chief strategist of connected devices and gaming for cloud computing firm Akamai, tells us: "[Latency] is something that the operator can’t really make any better. It’s a function of where Microsoft put their servers, or where Netflix put their servers. And ISPs like Comcast or Verizon can’t really change the location of Microsoft’s servers or Netflix’s servers. Latency is going to be determined by the number of hops and how far [the connection is from the server], and the farther you are the more likely you are to lose packets of data."

Losing packets of data is going to lead to weakened performance, throttled connection speeds, and other not-so-good things for your online gaming session--all because you may be living far enough away from wherever Microsoft or other game companies put their servers. That means lag, which isn’t fun.

Still, most of these variables aren’t incredibly taxing. That's good. Lots of people already meet these recommendations. But not nearly all people. And in the larger framework of a household broadband connection and all the things it usually needs to handle, switching a console from often-on to always-on would give more work to your internet, even if it's just a little bit at a time.

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28 comments

  • StrayGator - May 20, 2013 1:31 p.m.

    Why is this article featured on Penny Arcade Report and not, say, Top 7 worst jobs for NPCs?
  • Hanover - May 19, 2013 4:48 p.m.

    MS already stated that always on would be at the discretion of the game publishers. Obviously the professional game journalists at Games Radar haven't been doing their homework.
  • Rowdie - May 19, 2013 4:11 p.m.

    It just really feels irresponsible to be feeding craziness. "Always on, Always Connected" is not in anyway if you don't have great internet connection the system won't work. It doesn't mean draconian DRM. Always on, is simply that, it doesn't go into a full powered down state. This is good because that means it'll boot faster. That's always talked about as a great thing for other devices. We rarely shut out phones off. We don't shut down our cable boxes. I can't remember the last time I turned my computer off. Probably some vacation that took over a week. When you combine always on with always connected you get updates of all sorts pushed down. First they can do this when the internet isn't a busy a bonus for the whole world, and you no longer have to wait for these things when you want to play. That's brilliant. Poor PS3 owners cringed at every update. While it wasn't nearly as bad on the 360 getting rid of that wait all together would be really welcome. Again, now where does this indicate you can't play a local game if you don't have a connection. Honestly, journalist should be calling BS on this hysteria not feeding it. The article contending that because the box would always be on and connected means you need to consider it as if you had another high use app running constantly is irresponsible at best. It's not busy sucking up bandwidth just sitting there, in a sleep state. All that bandwidth research would have been a lot better off discussion a rumors that aren't full of FUD. Like the miniXbox. Now you can start talking about playing a multiplayer game on your console, streaming some netflix to your old 360 and reading the lates Gamesradar article on your minixbox and what kind of bandwidth that would take. IDK maybe talk to your IT guy and give folks some pointers on how to set up their router for optimal performance. Maybe warn them about that old laptop with the wifi b adapter crushing their N network, Pull the wire people.
  • Rowdie - May 20, 2013 4:19 p.m.

    Yeah, to get people to riot and or slaughter their fellow man is a good reason to feed hysteria. The system is going to want to connect. It's going be be connected if it can. You mean letting the publishers have some kind of DRM like they do on open platforms? No one minds that on PC. In fact most voices have been in favor of consoles being more open and letting publishers have more freedom to do what they want. They aren't down that road at all. There is no, it won't work if it's not connected. That's all FUD.
  • ParagonT - May 20, 2013 7:42 p.m.

    Agreed. Its just opening the doors to things that I believe will be problems in the future. Just because people are content with it for other systems (...) doesn't mean that its perfectly fine with me.
  • assedo1 - May 19, 2013 11:49 a.m.

    providers often deceiving promises 100MB, and give 50-60
  • sandplasma - May 19, 2013 8:22 a.m.

    Stop feeding these stupid rumors, Sony confirmed that they arent going this route and you can be 100% sure that the competition isnt either.
  • FireIceEarth - May 19, 2013 6:35 a.m.

    My main concern with all these figures for internet speeds is (in the UK at least) there is *always* a *massive* discrepancy between what you pay for and what you get; I've had to move home for a post-grad MSc, my parents live on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and are forced (as it's the lowest available) to pay for 8 Mbps broadband. Is this the figure I'd be quoted for? If I run a speed-test then it comes out at 1.1 Mbps, but if I actually download something from Steam then it comes in at a staggering average download speed of 100 Kbps! 100 KILOBYTES PER SECOND! What you pay for vs what you get could mean that the numbers are even worse than you think.
  • ParagonT - May 20, 2013 1:06 p.m.

    I think the maximum Mbps in my area used to be a whopping 3 Mbps. It just recently bumped up to 6 Mbps a couple of years ago. So if you were getting what you payed for hypothetically, I would be totally jelly of you. But I feel for ya, my friends parents had been screwed for over 10 years by the only available broadband service in our area, Windstream, because they were getting a lower tier of bandwidth than they were paying for. Bless her heart, but in her lapse of judgement she took the 100 dollars worth of credit (bribe) instead of pressing charges. My college only offers a whopping 10 Mbps. Here in the great state of Kentucky, we take pride in our technological advancements and services. /sarcasm
  • ShadowOps117 - May 19, 2013 6:01 a.m.

    I do not even have Xbox Live. Much less a wireless network. No Xbox for me then.
  • MightyWumbo - May 18, 2013 9:38 p.m.

    so it looks like ill be getting a ps4 and maybe a wii u if they make a super smash bros console edition!
  • codystovall - May 18, 2013 8:46 p.m.

    I dont have online sooooo.......
  • StrayGator - May 18, 2013 2:42 a.m.

    and suddenly I think: you know how a seemingly single product have few variants? Samsung galaxy Sx phones are notorious for featuring different hardware / connectivity options for different parts of the world. It's also common in guitars (i.e. strats/teles made with ash/alder bodies, whatever's cheaper at the time). if MS will go a similar route, we might see great demand for import consoles from outh america / east eu.
  • Shinn - May 18, 2013 1:40 a.m.

    I live in New Zealand, so no.
  • imagremlin - May 17, 2013 11:41 p.m.

    Can anyone describe a scenario where an constant connection is required for an offline game? I can't see any, and that's the kind of game I primarily play. If the console insists on using my connection, I need to know what for, and at the end of the day, I can never be sure of what the heck its doing. Is it checking that I'm not stealing the software? Is it reporting on what I play, when and how? Whatever it is, it's not doing anything for me, it's doing something for the publishers or for Microsoft. I'm not comfortable with that, I cannot be. I'm a console player, I own every single console since the PS1. If the NextBox is always online, it will be the first console I'm not buying.
  • einhazard - May 17, 2013 11:01 p.m.

    I grew up in the country in western MN, and up until just a couple years ago, people were still left to one internet choice: Dial-Up. The idea of a always-on (or sometimes-on) console just doesn't appeal to me. Granted, I live somewhere with good internet now, but America has a lot of open space between the coasts, and I feel like a lot of gamers would get screwed out of playing new stuff due to the fact that companies just flat-out will not run cable to where they live. I want to be able to take a console home and show my parents (you may laugh, but my dad loves seeing the new games), and if I can't do that, it's a personal disappointment. I may be among the minority that doesn't care about uploading stuff to YouTube and Facebook or making customer playlists for soundtracks on the fly, but that's because I want to game for the sake of gaming, not for the bells and whistles. I dunno. Maybe I'm just getting old.

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