Will Microsoft's plans ultimately enrage?
So, with Microsoft having given their response to Sony’s “future of PlayStation” event and revealed the Xbox One, it seems the only area of the well stage managed slick presentation that wasn’t addressed fully was how this new supposed epicentre of living room entertainment would handle the sticky issue of digital rights management (DRM) for games.It’ll be interesting to see how Sony deals with it. We have scant few details on their plans, and the line spouted that they won’t block second hand games - though initially calming - doesn’t tie up the rather large loophole of potentially charging successive owners of the disc to get the same features. However, for now, the Japanese giant is keeping its head down, perhaps, and the inquisition is aimed at Mr Gates’ boys.
Like an innocent man declining to deny an accusation of guilt, Microsoft’s refusal to enter into a protracted discussion on the matter of DRM has led to message boards blazing with pre-emptive outrage at the thought of draconian measures being enforced, most likely centring around the kneecapping of the lucrative second hand games market. An economy seen by countless in the industry as a pariah leaching money away from new purchases, but viewed by many gamers as a mere recycling of funds.
There were always likely to be aspects of Microsoft’s blueprint that were kept under wraps, but by leaving such a significant gap between the reveal and the likely full disclosure of their strategy at E3, the company have effectively lost control of the story. Rumours start, memes get made and perhaps a few more PlayStation 4 pre-orders are placed. The gaming equivalent of Freddie Starr eating a hamster, in the long run the truth may not entirely reach those who don’t read the gaming press; by the time the situation becomes clear, they’ll already have associated the myth with the brand and their wallets will follow. Witnessing the repeated updates to an initial piece on the subject over at Eurogamer smacked of a company valiantly trying several times to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Knee-jerk reaction number one, coming at the mere mention of an “always on” hardware status - whereby a connection is necessary for basic functionality - was painfully predictable, having been the storyline of numerous news articles over the past few months. These weren’t solely the mad ravings of internet conspiracy theorists digging up old patents; despite evidence that such companies keep numerous hardware options open to themselves and explore every avenue, if some of the big guns of PC gaming, such as EA and Blizzard can despoil their own products with excessive measures - as seen most recently with SimCity - the hope that Microsoft were above such a misstep might be unfounded good faith.
Some clarity has been rendered upon the situation, but it’s taken a hasty Official Q&A and titbits uttered through gritted teeth to gain any enlightenment. So, what do we know? Well, some fears will be allayed at the news that “always on” is not necessary for the console (I’m assuming it still counts as a console first and foremost?) to play games. It’s being touted as more of an integral part of the multitasking functions of the machine, namely if you want to stream movies, check your e-mails and open a Skype window, being connected to the internet is a prerequisite, obviously.The devil, however, is in the details, and Microsoft’s wording in all areas has been placatory up to a point.The Q&A states the console can play games if you go offline, but that the console does “require a connection”. This points pretty heavily towards the registration of products, so if your broadband is down and you’ve got the latest game in your hand, you may have to play dominoes instead.
The fact that the machine is so multifunctional makes many decisions regarding how you enable users to play games seem entirely logical. The news that all games need a mandatory install isn’t restrictive once you realise that the installation can occur whilst playing, akin to staggered playback on a PVR. News that the disc doesn’t have to be in the slot for the game to run is also understandable, as this is a multifunctional device; why tout the ability to watch a Blu-ray and instantly switch to gaming if to do so requires disc swapping?
The problem is, this new all-in-one approach has repercussions, namely if a disc isn’t required to be in the machine, the data must therefore be registered and somewhat tied, either to the machine or the gamer themselves. The hasty sounding interviews spreading around the net like wildfire shine some light on this, and given the importance gamers would inevitably put on this issue, it’s a wonder Microsoft didn’t pre-empt the fury better.
According to Microsoft’s Phil Harrison, signing in as yourself on another machine will give you access to the game, but though the data may be downloaded onto the second machine, if that user wishes to continue playing, they’ll have to pay. Perfectly reasonable, and a legitimate way to stave off rampant piracy. Nobody wants the games industry dwindling due to excessive lending and installing of material with no DRM.
It’s seems perfectly reasonable to say, as Harrison does, “it's just a question of going to our store and buying the game”, however the worry for many is in just how fairly levied this payment scheme will be and how this will affect the value of a disc you may have previously considered to be worth trading in. His comments to Kotaku regarding the scenario of a second user playing the game on their own console, under their own profile, brought with it the quote many didn’t wish to hear, namely that the price to get to the content would be the same as originally paid. So the second hand nature of the disc itself would be irrelevant, you're paying for the right to play the game, the medium itself is next to worthless.
We currently have the Online Pass feature for numerous online-oriented titles, and where servers have to be kept running - although it could be argued no two owners of that material are using up data at the same time - it’s a cost many are happy to factor in when purchasing second hand. You buy the game, then pay a further add-on to get all the features.
But the price is generally set by one company, and when that one company is Microsoft, it raises the suspicion in cynical types that they’ve been playing the long game, suppressing a corporate image and pretending to be gamers in order to get to where the real money is, and at the potential expense of the existing gaming economy. In the same Kotaku article Harrison mentions the ability to trade unwanted titles online, note "trade", not sell, a point that'll no doubt be seized upon in the coming days unless more hurried interviews are given and lips loosen.
Demonisation before the fact is arguably unfair to a company that have helped push social gaming into a new stratosphere, but when no further information is forthcoming it’s either a brilliant strategy - waiting for everyone to wail and cry foul only to reveal a cheap, egalitarian way for gamers to enjoy the products they love - or a stumble on the way to rescinding the good name the 360 has built the corporation in these circles. Those sure it’s the latter will point to the revelation that existing Arcade games, downloaded onto their Xbox 360's, won’t be carried over. However, changing architecture plays a huge part in such a step, and as a sign of good faith Microsoft have already confirmed non content related purchases, such as your Live subscription will migrate to the new console.
If the plan in place is to forge an alliance with retail partners for a specialised bricks-and-mortar fronted trade-in scheme, then the potential is there to limit options in a nation such as the UK, where the universality of malldom and a homogenous shopping experience is not yet entirely the norm.
The great hope is that notes have been taken from the burgeoning (it’s not dead, it never was) PC scene, both in terms of negative use of DRM and its lower pricing structure. A one purchase, one user strategy, combined with frequent Steam sales has seen many a catalogue of titles accrue on machines up and down the land. If Microsoft can weather the storm between now and E3, and prove their motivations weren’t to cripple the second hand market - perhaps with a plan to incorporate rental periods for a nominal fee - the current furore will soon be a distant memory. Until then, it’s perhaps best they batten down the hatches and prepare for the inevitable Downfall parody gifs aimed their way.
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