Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What color is the sky in Redmond?

So, yes, I'm not entirely pleased with the new Xbox One, particularly in that they are locking all games to your ID and console, much like Xbox Live Arcade games today. One truly amazing thing, though, is how deluded they are in thinking there's absolutely nothing wrong with this.

Exhibit A: Xbox One pre-owned plans 'consistent with way the world works'

Let's analyze the words of Microsoft VP Phil Harrison and see just how life is different from Bizzaro Microsoft world compared to the one we all live in.

The exec said Microsoft "will always take a customer centric view" on the subject and pointed out that the planned measure will not prevent players from sharing retail games with their own household or when visiting friends.

Anything that limits the customer without giving something back is, by definition, not "customer centric". As for the sharing, we'll see how much more limited this is.

"Our plans are very consistent with the way the world works today, which is if I buy a disc I can install it on my machine, I can play it and anyone associated with my machine can play it as well," Harrison told CVG.

Mostly true (though, taking XBLA titles as an example, there are some complications if you have to replace your hardware).

"I can give that disc to somebody else - maybe my son who has his own Xbox One somewhere else in the house - and he can install and play it on his machine…"

Again, taking XBLA as an example, this did not seem exactly true. As was the case with my son and Minecraft, I could not let him play a game I bought on a console in the house besides the one I bought it on. We even share a Live Gold Family plan, but that's not good enough. Since Microsoft stopped selling the family plan, it seemed like it would never be good enough. However, new news breaking overnight (and pointed out to me today) suggests that it may actually become possible for family members to share a Gold account, and all content purchased by it, even while maintaining separate accounts. So there may be a "save" for them here. And, to be honest, this would be the majority of my personal use cases that would have been blocked by the possibility of blocking everything considered a "used game".

"I can come to your house with that disc, I can install it on your machine and we can play it and while I'm with you we can have all of the capabilities of that game. The moment I go home and notionally take that disc with me, you no longer have the ability to play that game. But the 'bits' are on your hard drive, so if you want to play that game you can buy it - you can go to the online store, buy it and it's instantly unlocked and playable on your machine. All of the privileges I just described in my house would now apply in yours as well."

Here's where he leaves the real world for a bit. Or, at least, part of it. The part where I go home, but leave my disc behind at my friend's house. What happens today, in the real world? He gets to play the game, without paying anyone any money! What happens in Microsoft fantasy world? They have to pay Microsoft full retail price to play the game I bought.

"Retail are very important partners to us and we've had a series of high level meetings with our retail partners around the world in the last few weeks, in advance of today," the exec added. "So our retail partners were disclosed of our plans and have been part of our process and planning for some time."

You know why retail partners are so excited about this? Well, first, my friend can't play the game I bought without buying his own. He does have the option of paying Microsoft for the privilege, but if he's smart, he'll prefer to go to some other retail store that actually competes on prices instead of using the retail price in their fantasy world. Retailers love this, because Microsoft is forcing people to buy more games, and their pricing history will drive people to other retailers.

He goes on to essentially confirm that the Xbox would "phone home" periodically, even if the "period" has not been defined yet, and then saying, basically, "deal with it", by asserting it's no big deal:

"I think it is pretty rare of an outage of local internet connectivity to be more than a few seconds or minutes, so I don't expect it will ever impact on somebody's ability to use the system."

The last time my internet was down was for four hours until my issues were resolved. And that doesn't even begin to address people who take their Xboxes on vacations, or the military having them on tour.

There are three fixes that, I think, could mitigate most of the used game issues:

  1. Allow sharing games within a household. If the report of the new family plan is true, this would be pretty much solved. I don't much care if it restricts you to playing one copy of the game at one time, because that's how the real world works today (if I want to play something on two boxes at the same time, I need two copies), just as long as I don't have to do anything intrusive or annoying to "get permission" to play that one copy on one Xbox vs. another, on a different account.
  2. Allow loaning or trading games. Loaning could actually be made very simple by allowing me to designate another user the rights to my disc key. Example: I take my disc to my friend's house. We install it on his Xbox (with my account, which identifies the installation as valid with my credentials). I leave, but he wants to keep playing. I log on to and say, "I am loaning my copy of this game to my friend." The Xbox servers then allow him (when signed in to his account) to play his copy of the game, and disallows me from playing mine. When I decide I want the game back, I just log in and say "take back", and his installation is automatically deactivated while mine is reactivated. Not only would this be very convenient, but it would protect against those scumbag friends you can never seem to get your stuff back from.
  3. Allow selling games. If I want to sell my game, I just need to make sure I sell the disc along with the unique authentication key I had to use to install it. (Third-party resellers like Play N Trade would just have to check to make sure they get the key with the disc.) As soon as the next person installs the game with that key, my copy is automatically invalidated. (While requiring me to log on to and relinquish my key sounds good, you know there would be scumbags that would install the game and return it to GameStop and never deactivate the key themselves.)

It would solve most of the use cases, I think, even if it did still leave the annoyance of having your rights tied up by Microsoft's authentication servers, with the threat of changing or taking those rights away from you at any time.

Of course, it also leaves open the question of what happens in the far future, if the authentication servers will always be required, and what happens when Microsoft discontinues support for the Xbox One after the Xbox Two has launched.

They need to do something, though, because as it stands now, they won't have me as a customer. Especially with statements like this:

"If you're backwards compatible, you're really backwards," [Don Mattrick] told the Wall Street Journal. (via Joystiq)

Tell that to my kids, who still play original Xbox games from time to time; or to those who spent hundreds of dollars on Rock Band content that is about to become unusable. Or just those of us who are playing libraries of dozens to hundreds of games today that don't want to limit themselves to 15 come this holiday season.

The Xbox One: Initial thoughts, not altogether positive

The new Xbox has been revealed at a big event on Microsoft's campus in Redmond. It will be called the "Xbox One", coming out later this year.

The reveal announcement demonstrated some of the new capabilities of the new system. It has the ability to watch live TV, respond to very natural voice commands, instantly switch between tasks (like flipping back and forth between a game, TV, and/or web browsing), and even "snap" two applications side-by-side (much like Windows 8 "metro" apps), with the demo of watching Star Trek on most of the screen with IE on the right quarter browsing for tickets for the next Star Trek movie. It also showed how you could view an on-screen guide, much like a modern digital cable or satellite box. Also included was watching a sporting event on ESPN, and having a notification come up when a player scored that added points to your fantasy sports league (although as a background app or simply as part of the new ESPN app, it wasn't clear).

They then made a brief run-down of the system specs on the console (nothing surprising), the controller ("40 design innovations", basically coming down to "pretty much the same, just some things a little better"), and the new Kinect (which appears to be very much improved over the original).

Then, there was an announcement about Microsoft's cash cow, Halo: Stephen Spielberg is directing a live-action TV series. Not quite the Halo movie we've been hoping for, but still a pretty good deal.

As expected and previously announced, there wasn't a huge focus on games at this event — that has been promised for E3 next month. They did announce that there were fifteen first-party games due in the first year, 8 of which from new IPs. The games they did show included a new one from Max Payne and Alan Wake developer Remedy Entertainment, a new Forza title, and the previously-announced Call of Duty: Ghosts, the last of which being a somewhat more detailed talk about all of the new tech that the Xbox One makes possible in making a much more visually-appealing game (including comparing screens and models from Modern Warfare 3 to Ghosts). Unfortunately, no real game play was shown — although they did claim we were watching videos rendered by the game engine, they were all cutscenes. While they could be real-time rendered cutscenes instead of in-game video, it would be hard to stand behind that claim.

Ultimately, it looked cool, but nothing groundbreaking. We cut the cable cord nearly five years ago, so the Xbox One's ability to watch and control live TV from your cable feed is completely useless to me. The upgraded controller could be nice (although not a reason to buy a new system). The upgraded Kinect is impressive, though again it's not something I currently use that often even when it's marginally convenient (it's still faster to shut down the 360 using the controller or the freaking power button on the box than it is to navigate the menus by voice, and much faster than trying to use gestures). And while snapping apps side-by-side is convenient, it's hardly necessary when I have a smartphone and laptop within relatively easy reach, and the SmartGlass apps that make those devices useful, even if they're not "integrated" in the same box.

What worries — and even angers — me, is the information that's coming from off-stage. This is what we've found out from the press interviewing Microsoft executives and representatives:

  • The Xbox One may require an internet connection at least as often as once every 24 hours
  • The console will support larger friends lists (up to 1,000) and external storage
  • The hard drive is built-in to the console and cannot be removed or upgraded by the user
  • Game discs transferred to another user will require some kind of transaction with Microsoft before the content is playable
Keep in mind this is now Microsoft officials responding to questions, not rumors from "unnamed" or "inside" sources.

The internet connection requirement (if true; the person making the statement didn't sound entirely sure, though it does give the impression some requirement exists) is annoying and disappointing. The last time we had a sustained internet outage, one of my kids was annoyed that he couldn't play his browser-based game on his laptop, but my younger kids were happily playing on the 360. This seems to question whether that scenario will be possible with the Xbox One.

The larger friends list is long overdue, though I do hope it comes with some management features — I want more friends, but I want to be able to categorize them somehow. External storage is pretty standard, though there hasn't been any clarification whether it is limited like it is on the 360 (you can only have 32GB of any device usable at a time). This only slightly mitigates the next point, that the internal 500GB hard drive cannot be replaced. Either they have high confidence in their hard drive's failure rate, or they just don't care. I would have liked to see the PlayStation 3 option finally implemented (put in any hard drive you want) rather than a repeat of the 360 option (buy only these limited-sized, "official" hard drives at over-inflated prices), but this just seems like a giant step backwards (the original Xbox — which I can now no longer refer to as the Xbox 1, so thanks for that — had the same fixed hard drive feature).

The game disc transference makes me the most angry. What they have said so far, is this: when you buy a game, you must install the contents to the hard drive (once games start using all 50GB of a Blu-ray disc, that 500GB storage space is going to disappear quickly), and that disc becomes locked to your ID. If you take the disc to a friend's house, you can use that disc and install the game on their hard drive and play it with your ID for free. But, they cannot play it on their ID unless they pay a "fee" (which has been explained as the retail cost of the game) to "unlock" it.

Essentially, this makes all games subject to the same restrictions as Xbox Live Arcade games and DLC — the original purchaser can play it anywhere, but they cannot share, trade, or sell it to anyone else (except anyone on the purchaser's original console, at least in the case of the 360). And we already know how I feel about that. It places unnecessary restrictions on the content that can even prevent family members in the same house from using content. And now they want to do that for all games, including the ones on disc. Essentially, the "install from disc" step becomes identical to the "download from Microsoft's servers" step.

Even if you accept that and consider letting multiple people install from one disc instead of the internet, where each additional person just pays Microsoft to unlock it, consider Microsoft's idea of "retail price" does not actually mean "what you pay in a retail store" (unless you include Microsoft's own physical stores, where game prices seem to follow the same resistance to change as they do in their Arcade).

Oh, Microsoft is promising that they have designed some way to actually trade games. If you believe this, then at best it will be a simple license transfer tool that lets you move the license with the physical disc you intend to sell/give/trade/etc. Or maybe it will be as simple as letting them have your original registration key, which, once they use, will inactivate your copy on your Xbox One. (Could be most friendly to third-party resellers like Play N Trade, who could just insist games you bring in for trade include the registration code.) Worse, they will require some payment for the privilege. At worst, their "more details to share later" will be as meaningful as "we're working on making the 360 backwards-compatible with all original Xbox games".

Funny, the 360 was "designed" to be able to play traded and resold games, too. I like how that works better.

This week, my son decided he wanted to find a copy of Star Wars: Battlefront II for the original Xbox. See, his cousin had loaned him his copy while he was staying here, and he played it and loved it. But you can't buy the game new anymore, so he's searching for a used copy. It's not easy, considering the game is long out of date, and major resellers aren't carrying games for that system anymore. But once he does find a copy, he is all but guaranteed that he'll be able to play it on our original Xbox (and the 360, where it happens to be compatible). Now I have serious questions as to whether that will still be the case for the Xbox One, either when it is the "current generation" or when it has been long past its "end of support" life.