Moving with the times: A harsh reality

June 16, 2013

Last month I wrote a piece on Microsoft’s upcoming press conference and the DRM rumours that had been circling amongst games publications in the lead up. In particular, I noted that should such rumours come to fruition, Microsoft would be faced with the lofty goal of convincing the public that an always-on implementation would be in the interests of its consumers. As it turns out, we didn’t quite get the answers we expected or particularly hoped for.

After the confusing reveal which failed to answer many key questions directly, Microsoft has since explained that the Xbox One will require an online connection check once every 24 hours, and will also allow used games and sharing, albeit with some notable limitations.

“With Xbox One you can game offline for up to 24 hours on your primary console, or one hour if you are logged on to a separate console accessing your library,” Microsoft wrote on its official site. “Offline gaming is not possible after these prescribed times until you re-establish a connection, but you can still watch live TV and enjoy Blu-ray and DVD movies.”

In terms of sharing, Xbox One owners won’t be charged a fee to lend games to friends, although a game can be given to a friend one time only, and only if that friend has been on the user’s friend list for at least 30 days. The post also states that a user’s gaming library can be shared by up to ten family members on any Xbox One, but doesn’t state what constitutes a “family member,” versus a friend you’re lending a game to.

Lastly, used games are permitted without charge, but Microsoft has given third party publishes the option of imposing fees should they wish. While Microsoft won’t take a percentage of used game fees, we can expect that if a publisher like EA or Activision wanted a cut, it could easily be achieved. In addition, renting and loaning games will not be available at launch, but Microsoft’s post reads that the company is “exploring the possibilities.”

Barring the option of switching off Kinect if you don’t want it watching, I found I was hard pressed to spin any positives out of Microsoft’s press release, which you can read in full here.

Indeed from a core gamer perspective, Microsoft’s stance on sharing seems unnecessarily complicated given that playing and lending games among friends has been intrinsic to the console experience since its inception. Similarly, gamers can rejoice that a permanent connection to Xbox One won’t be enforced, but a required daily check won’t be as welcome for those with a poor or unreliable internet connection, or no connection at all.

The used games issue is a little trickier to dissect since it affects multiple parties, but given the unreasonable pressures which come with development, the introduction of such policies are perhaps understandable.

Studio closures and job losses aside, it ridiculous to think that a publisher like Square Enix, for example, can sell 3.4 million copies of Tomb Raider (2013) in its opening month and still report a loss. Or what about Obsidian, who missed out on royalties with Fallout: New Vegas because of a single mark on Metacritic, as opposed to sales numbers? Perhaps certain models have reached their used-by date, but the fact is, the nature of the games industry is a harsh one and begrudging developers for seeking out additional means of revenue is difficult to justify.

Instead, my issue with the likely restrictions on future used games is that such implementations shouldn’t disadvantage the consumer who (if my years working in retail hold any weight), should always be the number one priority. In other words: the customer is always right.

Conversely, Youtube user TotalBiscuit makes a sound argument in favour of used games, suggesting that game sales shouldn’t be equated to car sales, book sales, movies or music, and his video has received plenty of attention. However, TotalBiscuit’s otherwise solid argument fails to acknowledge what is blatant anti-consumer behaviour by Microsoft in their restriction of a basic freedom console gamers have always enjoyed and, yes, have perhaps taken for granted. That is: having complete ownership over a product you’ve paid for.

There is of course the other argument that PC gamers are subject to these restrictions already, but for someone like myself who games almost exclusively on consoles for a want of simplicity (and that word is key), it’s an argument that feels somewhat redundant.

Gamers have accepted that buying digital games or a physical PC game disc today means that you’re purchasing a license rather than the actual game itself, but it’s not a reality console gamers will willingly accept if we don’t witness a change in pricing structures relative to those on PC and Steam. It’s not unusual to see triple-A games release at $100.00 on PS3 and Xbox 360 here in Australia, so Microsoft should expect to have a difficult time persuading console owners to purchase game licenses (as opposed to actual games) if recommended retail prices aren’t reduced comparatively to PC.

However, what’s perhaps most frustrating is determining whether any of Microsoft’s future implementations will benefit the consumer at all, which has been my chief concern from the outset. The way we consume games is changing, but the changes currently in motion don’t seem to advantage gamers at all, and that’s where the main issue lies.

Why, for example, should gamers serving overseas be granted an exception to the Xbox One daily connection check, as some critics have speculated? And that’s not having a go at our soldiers, but instead highlights the fact that if you have to make exceptions to a rule, perhaps the rule wasn’t practical to begin with. Indeed, why establish unnecessary control when such implementations don’t appear to offer any valuable incentives?

The impact of Microsoft’s policies on the industry of course remains to be seen, but a common concern among gamers is the question of what will happen once the Xbox reaches the end of its cycle? It’s strange to think that whereas Microsoft could move on from the Xbox One and render it’s games unplayable at a later date, I could still realistically play my Nintendo 64 or SNES to my heart’s content, ten years from now and free of limitations.

Indeed, If you told my younger self that our older consoles would one day outlive our newer ones, I daresay I’d have scarcely believed it. And yet, that possibility is upon us right now, even as I sit here writing. If that’s the future of gaming, I’m not even sure I want a part in it.

What are your thoughts on Microsoft’s next-gen policies? Sign off in comments below.