Thursday, July 11, 2013

If this is the future, I'll stay in the past

Microsoft's been doing a sort of "fire sale" lately by slashing prices on digital games and content. I can only speculate on the motivation, but I wouldn't doubt it's probably a combination of two, maybe three things: (1) getting people to use up their Microsoft Points before they convert everyone to cash; (2) encouraging people to buy stuff digitally, to get people more comfortable with the idea while they continue to figure out how to get rid of the physical media; and maybe (3) to make people believe the narrative that an all-digital, no-used future will result in lower prices.

In any case, I have taken advantage of some of these. I have a decent balance of Microsoft Points gathered through searching on Bing, so I don't mind using some of my "free money" on these throwaway games (and by "throwaway", I mean that once I'm done with them, I might as well virtually throw them away, because I can't do anything else with them).

But one purchase in particular only served to highlight why an all-digital world still has its problems.

I purchased the game Command & Conquer Red Alert 3, on sale for the bargain price of $5/400 MSP. But when I tried to download it, it would get to the 10% mark and then fail with the disappointingly-terse message, "Can't download C&C Red Alert 3". I tried several times, on both Xboxes in my house (the main one everyone plays on, and the one with the defective DVD drive that I keep in the office as a media streamer and XBLA console), with the same result every time. I had purchased two other full games, plus downloaded a beta and re-downloaded another XBLA game (Happy Wars had an update that required deleting and re-downloading), all without error, but yet this one game still refused to download.

I checked the Xbox Support forums and added my experience to a post I found from way back in December '12 with the same problem. Then I took to Twitter to chat with @XboxSupport. They took me down the standard script of checking everything on my side: unplug the hard drive and try downloading to a USB stick, deleting and re-downloading my profile, clearing the hard drive cache, rebooting my networking equipment, connecting my console directly to the cable modem to bypass the rest of my network, sacrificing small rodents, and sprinkling holy water on the network cable. Their final suggestion was to try a different network.

Now, I don't know about you, but an internet connection isn't something I can just swap out at-will. On a daily basis, I'm on two different broadband networks: my home ISP, and my work. I don't imagine many places of business would look too kindly at an employee bringing a game console to work with them, and I haven't been with my current employer long enough to want to risk finding out. I could conceivably ask neighbors to borrow their network, though with the virtual monopoly the big ISPs tend to have, it's a good bet even if I found someone willing, they'd probably have the same ISP anyway. Either way, the thought of having to pull my console out of the entertainment center and unthread all the cables just so I can download a single game wasn't very appealing.

One suggestion that came up in the forums from another user was to tether the Xbox to a smartphone and use that. I suppose it's fortunate that: (1) we joined the smartphone generation in recent years, (2) and that we pay for tethering (so that my wife can use her tablet without having to buy it a dedicated cellular connection), (3) and that my wireless provider doesn't implement ridiculous bandwidth caps and overage charges, (4) and that I can get a strong enough signal in my house to actually use cellular internet (many people in my neck of the woods have such issues, and I usually end up connecting my phone to my Wi-Fi because the cell signal is pretty poor), (5) and that I was unable to repair the Xbox now in the office and had to buy a newer "slim" model for the family room, with its built-in Wi-Fi adapter; because I was actually in a position to try that. If any one of these conditions weren't met, I'd be out of luck.

It does, in fact, work; and all one has to do is resume the download to get from 10% to 11% complete, then disconnect and reconnect to one's broadband connection to finish the remaining 89%.

But it does raise a few questions. Is it not enough that I'm expected to have an internet connection to use digital content, but I should have two, just in case one for some reason isn't compatible with some piece of content? Also, shouldn't Microsoft be invested in making sure I get my content, regardless of what ISP I'm on, if I'm trying to give them my money? (In other words, why am I and others being asked to jump through these hoops to get what we paid for?) And, how easy would it be to get a refund if I was completely unable to get the content (despite the fact that their purchase page says "there are no refunds"), or would I just be out that money?

If this had happened with a physical disc, where the disc was damaged and unable to "deliver" the game bits to the console, I would just have to go to the store and let them swap it with a working one. (It's happened to me before, when my mail-order copy of Halo 3 got scratched up in transit.) For troubleshooting, maybe they'd try playing it on a second console, which they'd have right there in the store. I wouldn't expect to have to go through as many hoops to try and get a working copy in my home.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What a difference a week makes

I've been meaning to write up a new blog post for a while now, once the news had settled down a bit. However, it seems that every week has brought something new, that "settling down" isn't going to happen just yet.

In our last episode, Microsoft's plan was to make your games tied to you and your console (much like Xbox Live Arcade games are today); require your Xbox One to check in via the internet once every 24 hours in order to play games; allow for the reselling of games through "participating retailers" (though publishers would have the option to enable or disable this feature from any game, or to insert their own fees); and allow you to give your game to anyone on your friends list, who has been on your friends list for at least 30 days, but that game could not then be re-given to anyone else. Loaning a game (i.e., the temporary transfer of ownership with the expectation of its return) would not be possible at launch (with a promise that they'd "look into it").

Not only were they layering restriction upon restriction on the console, their arrogance about the whole deal was inexcusable. When asked about the connectivity requirements and how it would affect people without internet, specifically military personnel, Xbox chief Don Mattrick responded by telling people to just get a 360. Not long after Adam Orth was unceremoniously dumped from Microsoft for telling a friend on Twitter to just "deal with it", out came the official statements saying pretty much the same thing.

Major Nelson, what many consider to be (or who should be) the PR voice of Xbox, was either in denial about the whole thing, confused, or just plain lying himself. When interviewed about questions found on Reddit, he was first asked about what would happen when the service went dark for the Xbox One. He said that it was too early to talk about the end of the generation when it hasn't even started yet, and that we should let the system get out there first. (Pass it so we can see what's in it?) Although the interviewer said that was a fair point, I must disagree; I'd rather know up front what's going to happen with something before I buy it, rather than commit my hard-earned dollars only to find it taken away from me with no recourse. He also said that it's not how the system was designed, which is a blatant falsehood — the system was very much designed so that it could not play any games if it could not communicate with Microsoft's servers; and if those services are shut down, it will not be able to communicate, therefore it will not be able to play games. Could they update the system when the time comes so that it would no longer need to check in with services that won't be there? Sure. But there's no reason to believe that they would, and prior history (when the Xbox Live service was shut down for the original Xbox, taking with it all access to all DLC, paid or not) suggests that they would not.

However, the one silver lining to all of this was the promise of an all new "family plan", where you could designate 10 individual accounts as a family (whether they're related to you or not), and those people could access your game library at any time — you'd always have full access, and one of your "family" at a time could play games from your library. Many people were very excited about this feature, talking about how they would be able to share games with friends all over the country, and how they could ultimately save money on games by buying one copy to share.

It's that last bit that had me really uncertain about this feature and how well it would work in real life. Everything Microsoft had revealed so far had been geared to the exact opposite of this promise, forcing people to buy more games rather than less, and keeping people from sharing games around. It didn't pass the "too good to be true" test. Maybe it's just me being bitter and jaded, but something about telling Bethesda that they'd only be selling a tenth of their copies of the next Elder Scrolls game (since each person would be able to share it with up to 10 of their friends, and the lack of multiplayer would fail to encourage the need to purchase multiple copies for multiple simultaneous play) didn't seem like something that would be implemented without publishers screaming "foul". A completely unsubstantiated rumor suggested the hidden "gotcha" would be that the "sharing" would only limit your friends to a time-limited demo of the game. This seems completely unnecessary (there are already demos of many games available without having to go through this "sharing" hoop), but my gut instinct tells me this may be closer to the actual reality.

But then, that all changed.

After another week went by and continued gamer rage led to lackluster preorder sales of the One, Microsoft issued a new press release to say that they were rolling back restrictions and policies to mirror what they are on the 360 today. Disc-based games could be played, shared, traded, loaned, resold, and everything else, just like they can today. And, just like today, even though they are installed to the hard drive, they will require the disc to be in the tray. Digital versions will still be available day one, with all the pros and cons that come with them.

And that day, I placed my pre-order for the console.

The one advantage that people were actually excited about, however, is also gone. The new family plan (which was not going to be available at launch anyway) is no longer considered a part of the plan. This has made a lot of people quite upset (especially those who claimed the DRM policies were acceptable to them). Honestly, I can't say I blame them. If you believe that it was going to be as good as they claimed, then that's a huge benefit thrown out with the rest of the bath water. Personally, I suspect they got rid of it just to make people upset enough to want everything back (though it could be something much more mundane as not being able to separate the functions out of the code doing everything else).

What's truly frustrating is the people arguing for the DRM to block used games, using the same old tired arguments about "used games killing the industry". It's at least a little comforting, though, to see articles like these from Destructoid and Wired explaining why those arguments aren't just wrong, but reveal other problems in the industry. Not to mention comments like this, posted by Solstice01 on my Facebook page:

I borrowed a game I had vaguely heard of from a friend that was getting pretty good reviews from people I knew. I played it over the weekend and ended up buying it used from Game Stop. This was years ago. The game was a obscure title called "Halo: Combat Evolved." Since buying that used game (that the developer didn't make a dime of mine on), I bought Halo 2 brand new, Halo 3 brand new, Halo Reach brand new, all the DLC for Halo 3 and Halo Reach, as well as key chains, megablock sets (because why would I ever NOT buy Lego?) Long story short, renting/borrowing/used games do not kill the market, they enhance it and give players exposure to many titles they would never normally play. It's the BEST advertising.

And now, it's been revealed that Xbox head Don Mattrick is leaving Microsoft to become the new CEO at Zynga. Is this a result of the backlash around the Xbox One? Is his departure something long-planned, and his flippant attitude during the launch a result of "short-timer syndrome"? (A little confusion around who would lead Xbox next, makes me question just how well-known and pre-planned this was.) We can only guess. My hope is that someone more gamer-friendly will take the helm. Or perhaps there will be more cross-platform possibilities by bringing Xbox and Windows under one roof.

Maybe we'll find out in another week.