In the weeks prior to the Xbox One announcement, rumours swirled that the new platform might require a constant, uninterrupted connection to the Internet in order to play any and all games. Fortunately the reality is not quite as extreme, but it’s still a step further than any mass market consumer entertainment device has gone before.
The Xbox One will require Internet connectivity to install games customers purchase on Blu-ray disc; a newly installed game will be linked to a customer's Xbox LIVE account, allowing them to redownload it later with or without the disc, as if it had been bought online to begin with. This means no more simply just handing a game disc to a friend when you’re done with it: using your disc to install a game will only save them the download time, as they’ll still have to complete an online purchase at full price in order to play with their own Xbox LIVE account.
Some single-player (or local multiplayer) games will still be playable if an Internet connection is temporarily unavailable, but an authorisation check by the system reportedly restricts this grace period to a maximum of 24 hours.
It would also thwart the secondhand games market as we know it. A workaround that “they’re not ready to talk about yet” is being promised, but they’ve also said that they're “working with our partners to support the secondhand market”, and given that games retail giant GameStop (owner of EB Games in Australia) -- for whom a huge amount of revenue depends on the used disc market -- didn’t flinch in their latest earnings call, suggests that they’ll be involved in the process, with both the store, and Microsoft, likely taking their cut out of the transaction. To be clear, this particular point is conjecture and speculation at present, but if true, would mean no more throwing your games up on eBay, or getting cash-in hand from a friend without the platform overlord and shopfront getting a taste.
Of course none of this was mentioned in the press conference event, or even in the fine print of the official press release, but has only been extracted from Microsoft representatives by the press in the hours following, suggesting that they’re well aware that it’s going to be a hard sell.
We’ve seen most of these concepts individually implemented in other devices, but bringing them all together like this is new territory for a games console. That Microsoft has been barely able to explain how it works, let alone present any coherent arguments for why it’s necessary, has fueled suspicions that it’s about profits at the expense of consumer rights.
Obviously there are several big advantages to the platform holder in locking down a system in this manner: piracy becomes an order of magnitude more difficult, you can prevent or control early access, you remove a barrier to future purchases when every single customer has to create an account on your digital storefront and see your latest ads each time they use the device, you can ensure customers games are patched to the latest version before they first play, you get accurate and instant sales data from every game purchased, you can log and track behavioural data from every game played, and as a customer’s purchase library grows, so does their commitment to your marketplace over competitors.
The decision makers appear to be viewing it as a natural progression of the concept of software as a service, rather than a product -- the inevitable Internet of things -- but what perceivable benefits, that weren’t possible under the previous model, does this new arrangement present consumers?
The ability to redownload any purchased game without needing the disc, the convenience of being able to store all of your games on the system and play them all without disc-swapping, and being able to sign into your Xbox LIVE account on another Xbox One and access your complete games library there, are really the only direct positives for consumers. That’s seriously it.
To really play devil’s advocate, we could entertain the notion that all of the information gathered from the console’s ability to log everything you do (and watch you while you sleep on the HD Kinect camera), will enable Microsoft to finely tune a superior experience for all users. We could argue that stamping out piracy will result in enough additional games purchases to justify bigger development budgets for higher quality titles, and we could humour the suggestion that the threat of a banned Xbox LIVE account revoking access to all of a user’s purchased games might improve the sportsmanship in the average Call of Duty match. Perhaps in a perfect world.
Microsoft spokespeople have been trumpeting the possibilities that always-connectedness presents for online social integration -- being able to experience some form of togetherness in every game, whether it has direct multiplayer or not -- and the concept of cloud processing, whereby your Xbox One could outsource some complex computing tasks to Microsoft’s powerful Azure Internet servers, which would theoretically boost the raw performance capabilities of the local device.
The thing is, those last examples would all still be possible on a per-game basis, they don’t necessitate the entire system being shackled to the Internet, and implying that they do is misleading at best. Ultimately, it’s merely the elimination of a choice for consumers, and an escalation of control for the platform holder, which is the very definition of DRM.
Some have likened the Xbox One DRM strategy to Steam on the PC -- you have to activate your disc-bought games to your online account -- and posited that plenty of people are perfectly happy with the process there, but the key difference is that the Steam ecosystem resides, and was built from scratch, on an open platform where its customers were only an alt-tab away to other alternatives if they sour on the experience.
Valve’s enduring benevolence has driven Steam’s success, and is almost certainly why indie developers can self-publish their games there, single-player games can be played offline, users can still modify and tinker with games to their heart’s content (with multiplayer games still protected by file integrity checks), and a viable marketplace for user-generated content is thriving.
The Xbox One will launch into a competitive market too, obviously -- and in contrast, Sony maintains that PlayStation 4 discs will still be tradeable -- but is the average consumer likely to notice the Internet connectivity requirement as a point of difference, or evaluate it as a negative when making their purchase choice? The sad truth is that most people are blissfully ignorant of DRM implementations, until either the protection method falters and hampers normal operation (hello SimCity and Diablo 3), or they discover during a play attempt that perfectly reasonable fringe use cases like loaning a game to a friend, or playing when your broadband is severed are no longer possible.
For many customers, the experience may well be fine, with the loss of consumer rights never impeding their entertainment experience, but for others the Xbox One will undoubtedly be the Trojan horse, and the first glimpse they get of the invaders inside might not be until an account ban from a heated Xbox forum post locks out hundreds of dollars of games, or a denial-of-service attack on Microsoft servers leaves them unable to install that new game they just brought home.
By committing to this DRM scheme, the decision makers behind Xbox One have made a wager that the console’s platform-exclusive offerings and core user experience will be enticing enough for shoppers to disregard the erosion of consumer rights. With a reported 15 exclusive games scheduled for its first year, a $400 million NFL deal, and presumably much more palm-greasing to get timed-exclusives on downloadable content and other entertainment deals, Microsoft is taking a serious punt on either consumer ignorance, apathy, or acceptance of tighter DRM controls.
The #dealwithit controversy -- when amidst pre-announcement rumours that the device would require an uninterrupted broadband connection to function, careless Twitter comments by a Microsoft Games Studios Creative Director suggested customers should just stop worrying and learn to love the always Internet connected console -- may have come from someone that was “not a spokesperson for Microsoft” (and is now no longer with the company, presumably as a result), but with the unveiling now behind us, it seems to have been a rather accurate take on the Xbox One software strategy. If the next Forzas, Halos, Gears of Wars, and whatever else Microsoft can produce or procure for exclusivity, are compelling enough, then deal with it we begrudgingly shall.