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Xbox One won't require always-online connection — but it'll be online a lot

Xbox Always-Online
Xbox One will not require an always-online Internet connection, at least for single player gamesTodd Kenreck / NBC News

If you were eagerly monitoring Microsoft's Xbox One announcement Tuesday, you probably heard the word "connected" a lot. To paraphrase almost all of the talking heads that took the stage during Microsoft's unveiling, the company's next-generation video game console was basically promised to be more connected to everything than ever before.

Another key phrase that industry watchers and fans alike have been on the lookout for was notably absent, however. Would the new Xbox have some sort of "always online" requirement — a "feature" so feared by gamers it consumed the Internet with rumors and lead to a high-level Microsoft employee's departure?

Tuesday, Microsoft brought the controversy to a close not with a bang, but with a whimper. The company answered the question head-on in its FAQ page.

"No, it does not have to be always connected, but Xbox One does require a connection to the Internet," the statement read. "We’re designing Xbox One to be your all-in-one entertainment system that is connected to the cloud and always ready. We are also designing it so you can play games and watch Blu-ray movies and live TV if you lose your connection."

"Gamers can calm down," Don Mattrick, president of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business, said during today's event. "We got you covered."

But just because you can access some content offline doesn't mean that the system is designed with an always-available Internet connection in mind. And even when the system is sleeping, it might connect now and again.

"How do we define 'always online'?" asks Paul Erickson, an analyst at IHS Global Insight.

"From my perspective, I think it is technically online all the time," Erickson told NBC News. "Maybe not in the Internet-connected context. However, it has to be powered on full-time — albeit just in a low-power state when in 'off' mode to be able to recognize the voice command or radio signal from the game controller to turn it on."

"Whether it maintains the Internet connection while 'off' to do background downloads or to update the TV program guide and other features on an unattended basis" remains to be seen, Erickson added.

While gamers and critics wait to get their hands on the Xbox One, the other question worth asking is, what about the actual games for the console? Will they all come with the baggage of an always-online requirement?

According to Wired Magazine, the answer is ... kind of.

In Wired's exclusive first look at the new console, the Xbox One is giving game developers the option to integrate their work within Microsoft's cloud computing service Azure, "which means that they might be able to offload certain computing tasks to the cloud rather than process them on the Xbox One hardware itself." While game developers aren't being forced to make always-online games, Microsoft will encourage it. "I hope they do," Marc Whitten, corporate vice president of Xbox Live, told Wired.

Piers Harding-Rolls, another analyst at IHS, told NBC News that this a soft push towards going always online. Forced connectivity is seen as a form of digital rights management (DRM) — by tying a game to a unique identity or account verifiable online, pirates will find themselves out of luck. But gamers and critics tend to be skittish about such forced behavior, so Harding-Rolls thinks this quiet approach helps appease them.

And having a trap door — a way to play when the Internet is down — remains crucial.

"Gamers know that broadband services can be flaky and the concept of having to be always connected due to DRM requirements was playing into Sony's hands," Harding-Rolls said. "However, the fact is that eventually most games services and content will have an online or connected dynamic either because of networked gameplay or due to cloud-based content delivery. A vast majority of users of Xbox One will be connected and online, so while it is right to offer flexibility now, in time this issue will have minimal impact."

In other words, Microsoft can dodge the "always online" question for now, but odds are, in the future, few gamers will ever find themselves offline.

Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email