Microsoft's (Xbox) One Problem

I've played video games all my life, but as I get older, it gets tougher to stomach the gaming industry. My first experiences with gaming were escapist breaks from reality that taught me to appreciate how graphics and game play can stoke the imagination. Games also helped me through anxiety attacks and, in moments when the very last thing I wanted to do was engage the world, allowed me an outlet through which to funnel my feelings.

However, up through the decades since the birth of the first ever home video game console, consoles have been increasingly managed and marketed with an emphasis on everything except games. Gaming is, in a word: mainstream. It's been properly socialized. In the West, gaming's flag bearer was once a bleary eyed otaku. Now it's a grizzled, white male action hero; a burly space commando, or an entire room full of button-eyed, plastic mannequins waving control sticks around. It's more social than ever, and the gaming industry is constantly finding new ways to place us in rooms with people we don't know in order to 'enhance' the experience.

Just a generation ago, this mainstreaming of console gaming found root as Sony and Microsoft began marketing their gaming consoles as 'all-in-one' entertainment devices. Nintendo's Wii had no such aspirations, but it caught the zeitgeist, catching fire as an affordable novelty - something you could show your grandparents. My PS3 has been moderately successful at playing the role of that 'device that does more than just games,' since it doubles as a Netflix and Hulu hub, and a place where I access smaller budget titles and the occasional AAA flagship game like BioShock or The Last of Us. But make no mistake: if I wasn't a gamer, I'd have no reason to get a big gaming rig. I would instead simply invest in a Roku box, or even Apple TV. That I am a gamer that happens to enjoy media is what puts me front and center as the quintessential game console customer... not the other way around.

Microsoft, however, seems to think that it's this customer - the person who wants a media hub and happens to like some games - that will make its new console a wild success. Though gaming has earned its mainstream appeal, it's with great confusion that I assess Microsoft's strategy in marketing a $500-$600 gaming rig to people who have no underlying, core interest in games. With the announcement of the Xbox One, they've revealed a media rich motion sensing device that looks like a very large early 1980s VCR. Their hope is to be all things to all people - gamers, non gamers, sports fans, media hungry consumers, kinect tech enthusiasts. It's initial reveal a few weeks ago failed to even mention games.

The Xbox presentation at E3 this week, by focusing only on the games, seemed a self conscious reaction to  reverse the initial negative buzz about its decreased focus on gaming, but as one astute game journalist points out, even the games seem shoehorned into a larger media scheme. Microsoft is convinced it can sell us something that better, cheaper devices already do, and if their new Xbox is, in fact, a revelation, especially at that price, they have done a piss poor job at explaining why or how.

It's also hard to shake the feeling, after hearing Microsoft's E3 presentation, that the Xbox's Executive Management grew so enamored with the scope of their brilliant idea that they didn't anticipate the way customer tastes have circumvented the behemoth items and gone toward the smaller, more casual portable items. Xbox executives seem blind to the possibility that there are a myriad of better, cheaper options already available for casual and hardcore gamers alike. Tablets, 'phablets,' phones, e-readers and PCs are all vying for the casual market, and are all enmeshed in one form of media consumption or another.

Ever since the Xbox One reveal just a few weeks ago, the Redmond giant has also failed to clearly address persistent rumors about its plan for eviscerating piracy, breaking the used game market, and shoring up user accounts. For instance, rumors that the One must connect to the internet every 24 hours to authenticate game libraries - thus rendering the One useless in the event it goes offline for a long period - are true.

Recent news about the new Xbox has vindicated some of my earlier predictions about embedded digital rights management (DRM) in the new console hardware . The physical ownership model long associated with console gaming is becoming extinct. The ubiquity of online/social gaming, a need for big publishers to track our purchases and spending habits, and the rise in popularity of gaming tablets and relatively cheap casual games is causing Microsoft to dramatically redefine game 'ownership.' Gaming provocateur Jim Sterling proclaimed it "the death of ownership," and I can't disagree with him there.

Video game consoles have long avoided these complex DRM schemes, simply because it's never been necessary until now. Owning a console, at one time, didn't require DRM. Owning a NES, for instance, was a simple idea. Physical games - their carts and roms made-to-order for a specific piece of hardware - could not easily be replicated. Back then, technologies that might effectively emulate those roms were scarcer. Owning a game meant a strong sense of both physical ownership and of freedom. Any NES cart would work on any NES console. It was yours to carry around; you could use it anywhere. You could hold onto it for the life span of the hardware, or sell it off, or bring it over to a friend's house, or do a trade.

For a long time, owning a game console didn't require gamers to create user accounts tying them to those consoles. Technology at the time made it unnecessary and impossible. First off, we weren't online. In those wild west days, pieces of hardware truly existed outside of any network other than networks of wires and surge protectors. Our systems were ours, but they were ours solely by the virtue of our having chosen to buy them. Our game libraries didn't have to remain associated with us forever. Publishers like Nintendo didn't have easy ways to track sales data like they do now.

Also, the proprietary exclusivity of console gaming has simply made stringent copy protection unnecessary. Now that the line between console gaming and PC gaming has blurred, and now that console manufacturers are more desperate than ever to track and contain their user base, such DRM restriction is perhaps inevitable.

The idea that your system must be online at least once in order to authenticate a game library and user credentials is not new, but it's new for consoles, and that explains a lot of the controversy. Additionally, Microsoft's move is a steroidal take on the DRM methods long familiar to PC users. Steam, for instance, is constantly going back and forth between Steam servers and users' libraries, downloading updates, re-configuring data, auditing files. However, if a user gets knocked offline for more than a few days, they still have continued access to their games. Microsoft, on the other hand, simply bricks the device unless that authentication has taken place once in the last 24 hour period. That seems excessive to a lot of people, including seasoned gamers and journalists, yet Microsoft has done nothing but double down on the idea, promising us all that customers will lap it up willingly..

I don't think gamers object to being online as part of the core experience of having a modern console - they object more to the concept of online access needing to be constant and regular in order for software they've already purchased to even function in the system.

The Xbox One does allow gamers to share their games over multiple platforms, but the cost of this 'freedom' is that user accounts are tied solely to that user's library of games. Therefore, to be played at another house, you must 'log in' as 'yourself' on your neighbor's console to play the physical game you've brought alone, or, you must log in as yourself then download your game on your friend's console - a game that is only playable on your account. Your game library must must be 'validated' (and thereby 'activated') by the console at least once each day for use with that specific user account. What this means, in effect, is that Microsoft wants you to be online as often as possible so they can monitor and audit - and verify - ownership of your games. Console manufacturers, arguably, are fighting a losing battle in a rapidly shifting marketplace, but they see this as the only way to discourage diminishing console software sales.

Microsoft is also taking aim at what it sees as threats to its bottom line from the used game market. Though modern consoles have come to be defined by this thriving marketplace, Xbox One will discourage used sales by invoking penalties for the re-authentication of game titles that were previously authenticated by the game's former owner. What is does, in effect, is tie gamers to user accounts instead of game libraries, user accounts that must be continually verified in order to work properly.

Gone are the days when owning a game meant purchasing a box, and a disc (or multiple discs). Today, publishers want us to download our games, so that our ownership of those games can be tied solely to a single console we own, associated with our account. That way, it becomes virtually impossible for a thriving used game market. Microsoft is turning this concept up to 11, which has opened the door for its competitor, Sony, to make a smart and bold move.

Sony's PS4 has no interest in DRM restriction. Their E3 presentation this week made a point to tell gamers that their games belong to them. Used games? Yes. Allowed without penalty? Yep. DRM? Nope. Region coding? No (PS4 is region free). Want to trade disc based games with your friends? You won't be charged a fee for that.

I don't mean to say that I'm pro-PS4 and anti-Xbox. What I mean to say is that when it comes to game software, Sony believes in unconditional ownership and in the continued viability of the used game market. Microsoft may yet pull a rabbit out of a hat, but it does not believe in any of these things, and it's response to gamer confusion has been to simply say "oh shush. You know you love us."

I can't imagine how that's going to go over well this Holiday season, when the most expensive, ugliest and most restrictive console finds itself flailing against two leaner, cheaper alternatives.


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