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.


Chris said...

While I generally agree with your comments about their ridiculous, new licensing scheme, that last paragraph is pretty hyperbolic. It's not like your 360 is suddenly going to stop working. Backwards compatibility is something few consoles have done through the years (and other than Nintendo with the Gameboy/DS and the Wii, haven't done very well). It's the exception, not the rule, and I really don't get the fervor over this one. I just couldn't care less. I still have my 360 to play 360 games.

Also, as an aside, Microsoft is outright lying about retailers being on board with the "purchase a key to unlock the game" crap. First, retailers make a tiny little percentage on new games, so they're not going to get a very big cut of these key sales. Second, the thought that someone is going to get a message saying, "spend XX dollars to unlock this content," shut off their console, and leave the house to find a retail store that might have it a few dollars cheaper is laughable. People are more than happy to pay for convenience and since I'm sure the prices won't be that far different (see my first point), most users will just click the button to purchase through their console. Retailers get screwed and MS gets all the monies.

You're right about one thing, though. Microsoft is living in a fantasy world of their own creation.

Yakko Warner said...

More or less hyperbolic than the statement I was replying to? Although it was more listed as an example of the "deal with it" attitude Microsoft seems to be taking, I don't think it's an invalid point.

The problem with the lack of backwards compatibility is, there are a number of people who trade in their old systems to help finance their new ones. One of the reasons I waited on the Xbox 360 was because I simply didn't have room in the shelving for another console next to the original Xbox. These are real scenarios. Maybe they don't make up a majority or even a statistically significant portion of potential customers, but that doesn't make them less true. And I mention them because I am personally familiar with them, which makes this issue significant for me.

I don't think it's out of the realm of reality to think a user will prefer going out to a store, or ordering from Amazon, over buying a license immediately. Sure, they'll probably get some impulse buyers who have to have it right then and there and are willing to pay for the convenience. But I imagine there will be people who will see, "Buy now for $59.99!" and wonder, "I bet I can get that cheaper from Amazon." Especially if the person who loaned them the disc happened to mention, "Hey, I just got this on sale from *local retailer*." No, they might not go the extreme you presented of turning off their console right then and there to jump in the car and go get it, but nor do I think every customer is going to just hit the "buy it now" button like a rat hitting a bar for a food pellet. I even expect that number may decrease over time a bit from the people who do impulse-buy, after they buy a game only to see it online or in a store the next day for five bucks cheaper and realize they got burned by the higher-than-true-retail-price.