It’s an early morning in November. Thousands of eager gamers from all over the United States and many other countries have just returned home from overnight campouts at local electronics and big-box stores and tens of thousands more are unboxing a recently-delivered package. The cause of this commotion? Microsoft’s Xbox One gaming and entertainment console.
All of these gamers quickly connect the Xbox One to their televisions and press the power button with excitement. The familiar Xbox logo spins on the screen, accompanied by the equally-familiar startup sound. Gamers grip the controller a little tighter and breathe a little heavier as they imagine all they years of multiplayer gaming, amazing graphics, new capabilities yet to come. This is it.
“Error –3041. Activation could not be completed. Please try again later.”
The message, now prominently displayed against a red dialog box, shatters the gamers’ fantasy, drawing them back to a stark reality. It’s launch day for the Xbox One, and Microsoft’s servers are down.
Back to Reality
Most companies haven’t taken the time to adequately prepare for the demand and launch day outages are now a common occurrence.
Since Microsoft’s unveiling of the Xbox One in May, the gaming world has been up in arms over the company’s approach to online connectivity and DRM. What first started out as rumors that the Xbox One would require an “always on” Internet connection in order to function has been mitigated partly by Microsoft’s assurances that many features, such as single player games and local movie playback, will work without an active Internet connection. However, even in the case of single player games, Microsoft has clarified that the Xbox One must “check in” or “authenticate” once every 24 hours. Without this check-in, all gaming, multiplayer or not, will cease to function on the device until an Internet connection is reestablished.
The gaming community’s response to this policy has been overwhelmingly negative, and was made worse when Sony revealed that the PS4 has no such restrictions. But thus far the bulk of the discussion has revolved around the consumer’s side of the equation: What if I don’t have reliable Internet at my house?, What if I want to take my Xbox on vacation to a remote cabin? What if I’m stationed on a nuclear submarine?
These are all valid concerns but, in light of recent experiences, they’re the wrong questions. Let’s face it, the majority of people who will use an Xbox One will have a relatively reliable Internet connection and will likely be affected by a check-in requirement only once or twice during their multi-year ownership of the console. You can argue that any disruption in gameplay, even just once, is unacceptable, but most people won’t be impacted, all things being equal.
Unable to Connect
The real concern, however, is that not all things are equal. What about Microsoft’s end of the equation? The company bragged during the console’s unveiling that it was adding 300,000 Xbox servers to accommodate not only authentication check-ins, but also remote game processing and cloud storage features. Is Microsoft prepared for a flood of daily Xbox One check-ins, however small they are? After all, a Microsoft server outage or overload affects everybody, not just individual users who can’t get an Internet connection for one reason or another.
While we hope that Microsoft is aware of these concerns and is taking every step to ensure that their servers are ready for the load, recent precedent from other major technology firms does not paint a reassuring picture. [Note: Ironically, our Internet went down at this point while writing this article. The neighborhood around the TekRevue office is having a public sewer installed and the crews accidentally cut the cable line. We’re lucky we we didn’t need to authenticate during this multiple-hour outage…]
A recent and notable example was the disastrous launch of the 2013 reboot of the SimCity franchise. For weeks following the launch of the game earlier this year, tens of thousands of gamers, who paid full price for the game, could not play it because EA’s servers were unable to accommodate the load. Even months after the release, server outages for maintenance or updates continue to occasionally leave gamers with nothing to do but stare at the game’s main menu.
Other recent examples of similar situations include Diablo III server problems and activation issues with Ubisoft’s Far Cry franchise. Still further examples exist outside of the gaming world, such as the numerous times that Apple’s activation servers for iOS devices have gone down, leaving customers with new or recently-restored phones with a completely unusable device.
The companies behind all of these examples eventually responded and corrected the problems, but it took days, weeks, or even months for the situation to normalize. Is Microsoft truly prepared for an onslaught of connected Xbox Ones? More importantly, could a launch day snafu like the one described at the beginning of this article create an insurmountable public backlash that would doom the console? Even beyond the console’s launch day, it’s easy to imagine a major outage occurring on any day with heavy use, such as Christmas morning or the day of a major game launch.
Focusing on the Most Important Concern
A server outage or overload would not be entirely Microsoft’s fault, of course. Outages and mistakes happen in every organization, and virtually no service can guarantee 100 percent uptime. But when a company creates a product that requires an Internet check-in in order to utilize core functionality, as Microsoft has done with the Xbox One, the company has to stand behind the availability of that service, or accept the consequences of its failure to do so. Most companies in similar situations haven’t done that; they haven’t taken the time to adequately prepare for the demand and launch day outages are now a common occurrence.
Microsoft’s insistence (driven primarily by publisher pressure) on a 24-hour Internet check-in on the Xbox One may be the only way to gain the benefit of installable games that don’t require the use of a disc, or the ability to access your account’s game library from a friend’s console, but it’s bound to cause issues. Individual Internet outages on the consumer side, such as the one we experienced while writing this article, are certainly one such example of the impact that Microsoft’s policies will have on consumers. But a broader outage caused by the company’s potential inability to prepare for the demand of millions of check-ins each day could destroy consumer confidence in the company and doom the platform’s future. That’s why Microsoft servers are far more important in this debate than whether or not a sailor on a submarine has to stick with the Xbox 360.