Monday, February 8, 2010

You don't buy DLC, you rent it

It doesn't seem like it was that long ago when I wrote about games disappearing off the Live service. It seemed not to make much of a ripple on the internet, as they were "just" a handful of arcade games that no one seemed to care about. I wondered then what it would take to stir up enough anger that people might actually start to care about digital distribution, how it takes away their rights and privileges, turning "buying" into "leasing" under terms that only the network owner controls and can change at any time "for the good of the service".

On Friday, Xbox Live's Major Nelson dropped a bombshell, announcing on his blog that Microsoft was discontinuing Xbox Live support for all Xbox 1 consoles and games. Officially, it's so they can evolve the Live service without being restricted by features the original games couldn't support. It still seems to me they should've been able to work around this, by versioning the service and system calls. Windows has been doing this for decades, after all, where the same API behaves differently depending on how it's being called. But then, it's been theorized that Windows's instability is partially a result of its attempt to support old software as well as new, so I don't fault them for wanting to shrug off the old to move forward. I still question whether it's entirely necessary. Necessary or not, though, it's the move they're making.

Last month, I wrote about the problem with dedicated servers, and how games that rely on those servers become useless online when (not if) the companies that run them give up support. I mentioned that games that don't do that benefit from the fact that Xbox Live uses peer-to-peer and can continue to be played online indefinitely. Unfortunately, Microsoft just negated that argument. The Xbox Live service was responsible for matching those peers, and now, even without a dedicated server reliance, all games are going to be useless online. Sure, LAN will still work (which means certain LAN-tunneling programs like Xlink Kai or XBConnect can be used to emulate the service), but it's not quite the same.

But wait, there's more — or rather, less! Microsoft, being the forward-thinking company they are, decided to get a head start on the end-of-life process and pulled all the Xbox 1 content from their servers immediately. That means any downloadable content, such as the maps for Halo 2, was no longer available. As you can imagine, this greatly interfered with Bungie's suggestion to play a few rounds of Halo 2 for "old time's sake" before support goes away, as all the matchmaking playlists require all the maps (they're all free at this point, after all). See, users who don't have them available, because they've either deleted them to make room on their hard drives for "current" content, or they've replaced their consoles sometime (the maps are bound to the console when installed and won't play on another console without re-downloading/reinstalling), can't get them. Now, Bungie happens to have enough "pull" with Microsoft that they've talked Microsoft into granting an "exception" and putting Halo 2 maps back online, which is great for them, but not so much for people who might want one last crack at an online romp through, say, Crimson Skies.

Where I hope this makes people very angry, is that the Halo 2 maps were not always free. When they were first released, they were at a price; which means people paid real money for this content. In a couple months, it will no longer be available. (Other games had for-pay content as well, but Halo 2 is the best-known and still the most-played original Xbox game, and the one most likely to stir up a fuss.) So, content that people have paid for, on a game that people still play (either because they haven't upgraded to a 360 — and I do know someone who hasn't — or because they happen to think Halo 2 is a good game, and it happens to be playable on the 360), a game whose name has been practically synonymous with the word "Xbox" since its launch, is going to be taken away.

Is it enough for people to get mad about yet? Will we stop hearing the chant, "The disc is dead! Long live DLC!" Or is it "ok" because Halo 2 is such an old game; that people have "played enough" that they don't "need" that content anymore; that sure, it was a rental, but it was for a "long enough" term that it doesn't matter; and there "aren't enough" people affected to "worry about"? (And did I use enough "scare quotes" to accurately convey my "opinion" on "that"?)

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