Friday, August 23, 2013

Another service bites the dust.

Over three years ago, Microsoft discontinued Xbox Live service support for the original Xbox. I hoped at the time that people would start to sit up and take notice about how tenuous digital content is, that whether you paid for it or not, it would take very little for a company to take it away, and you'd have no recourse. And people did, since Microsoft made the misstep of taking down some services a little early — although the matchmaking service was still operational, the content servers weren't, and people attempting to re-download some of their DLC for one last hurrah at playing them online, weren't able to.

Unfortunately, the notoriety didn't last, and people moved on, happy with their 360 service, and with the previous generation all but forgotten.

Now, it's time for another service to get shut down. Microsoft has announced that the Games for Windows Live service will be shut down in July of 2014.

The timing of this announcement was rather coincidental, as I had just decided to rebuild my laptop. I had not yet gotten around to installing all the games back on, but this notice was a good reminder.

Now, Games for Windows Live is not a terribly popular service, and there aren't a ton of games available for it, so I have to wonder if this will make too many people upset to begin with. But the thought of losing access to full, paid-for games really sours me on this idea of trusting some company to manage my game library.

It seems that the community in general has a pretty short memory as it is. If you read the comments on the announcement article I linked to above, there's one commenter that asks the same question I started asking as soon as the Xbox One was officially announced: "How long until the 360 XBox Live shuts down once the XBone is released?" The response from the site's "Community Manager" is just that it's "Different" and goes off on a tangent as to why shutting down Games for Windows Live is no big deal, like seeing the 360 get shut down is not an issue worth discussing. And yet, only three years ago, that issue very much came to life when the original Xbox service was shut down.

Indeed, I still hear arguments that the all-digital(-ish) Xbox One was a much better system when it was first announced. I just cannot understand that, how someone can actually be ok with letting a company decide when you're done playing and take away everything you've paid for. Anyone who argues that "they won't do that" are just putting their heads in the sand, because not only would they, they have and are doing that very thing. The best argument I've heard is that the promised "family sharing" feature, where you could share your library with up to 10 friends, was the best feature the Xbox One had, and everything else was worth it. I don't agree; I think the price they were asking for that feature was way too high, giving up way too many other things — let alone that I think the way they described that feature was way too good to be true.

As for me, I just have a few games that I now need to get moving on, if I ever want to play them again: Fallout 3 and all its expansions, Viva PiƱata, Batman Arkham Asylum, the Age of Empires III collection, Microsoft Flight, and Game Room.

Part of what's kept me away from playing these games a lot so far, though, is that my laptop is my most capable machine, and that's not saying much. The last time I played Batman, I had entered a point where there was so much activity on-screen that my poor laptop was pushing maybe 5 frames per second — not the kind of performance that lends well to playing an action game. I had hoped that I would be able, some day, to have a machine capable of playing these games better, but now there seems like there's no chance of that (unless someone wants to donate to me a gaming PC within the next 11 months).

Of these games that I do have, most of them are digital downloads that I bought when the price was more worth what I felt (and what is being proven) was a lesser value. The only game I have on disc is Fallout 3 (not including the expansions, which I purchased digitally). When I installed that, though, it included the Games for Windows Live client (which Windows intercepted and redirected me to an updated version online — no telling how long that will remain available), I had to enter the 25-character key printed on a sticker inside the box (and let it activate online) when I first launched it, and the update was delivered only when I signed in to Live. It makes me wonder how functional even the disc-based games will be once the service is shut down.

As for the digital downloads, the Games for Windows Live client manages those; and although you can specify the directory it uses for downloads, they are not in a format that makes it obvious for making backups (a lot of GUID-named CAB files and TMP files). It does not seem possible, at the moment, to download any of my purchased content in order to make a backup before the service goes away and takes all my content with it.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sorry kids, no Gold for you

There's a post on Major Nelson's blog that describes how Gold will work on the Xbox One. It's well worth a read, as there are some nice benefits, though it's not all sunshine and roses.

Some of it is not too surprising. If you buy a game on your home console, anyone can play that game on that console, regardless of whether or not you're signed in at the time, and regardless of that person's account status (Gold, Silver, local-only). Also, any game that you've purchased, you can go to any One console, download that game, and play it, and the full version will be available to you and anyone else on that console so long as you are signed in and connected to Live. This is exactly how things work on the 360 today.

What's new is, if you have Gold on your home console, all accounts on that console will have access to Gold features, a new feature they call "Home Gold". Also, if you sign in to Xbox Live on any One console with your Gold account, everyone on that console will have access to Gold features as well for as long as you are signed in. This is a nice new feature. Back when we had the 360 and I had the only Gold account, it meant features that are (inexplicably) locked to Gold members could only be accessed by me. My wife grew tired of having to sign in to my account just to use Netflix, and it was for that reason that we got a Netflix-capable Blu-ray player — she turns it on, presses the button for Netflix, and she's good to go, no ifs no buts no coconuts.

What's kind of disappointing is that the Gold Family plan is going away. That means I will not be able to pay a little extra and give three of my family members full access and privileges to Gold wherever they are.

For the One, this may not be that big of a deal in our house. We will only have a single One console in the house for a while, so everyone will have Gold access. However, if my son wanted to play at a friend's house who didn't have Gold, he would not be able to take his Gold privileges with him. Or, if we bought a second One for a playroom, he'd similarly be out of luck. (Major Nelson seemed to indicate on Reddit that the Home Gold feature would be available on all Ones in a house, but he quickly backtracked and said he would need to investigate to be sure.)

It is worth noting that my kids may not be all on the One right away. For one thing, $60 for a controller is a little tough to swallow. For another, we won't have a vast library of One games at launch, and there are still tons of games on the 360 that my kids love to play. (They even play original Xbox games still.) Since Home Gold is a feature exclusive to the Xbox One, Gold will not be available to my kids that will no longer have access to my Family plan. So for those who try to follow Mattrick's advice and stick to the 360, that's a feature that's going away.

I've seen comments further on this issue that I didn't even think of. Broken or separated families use the Gold Family plan to keep family members all on Gold when they are not in the same physical house and all on one console. There are other features that, as of yet, there has been no word on replacing — things like being able to transfer Points (soon to be real money) between accounts for content purchases, for example.

In any case, my kids are now being forced to decide whether they want to spend their own money to continue Gold for their own accounts on the 360, or to buy a controller for the One. Now, fortunately, they have some time to decide, as Microsoft just sent me an email saying when they convert everyone to individual accounts, everyone will have Gold until the original expiration of the Gold Family subscription, plus three months each. But still, it's sad to see them taking away features from the 360 in what seems like an effort to push people over to the One.