On the X Box Backpedal and Digital Distribution
Note: On the second half of the post, I propose a mode for physical and digital distribution of games that, I think, is the most interesting part of the post. If you’re one of the three major hardware companies, feel free to use it. Also, if you’re Steam, feel free to take some ideas from it.
Turns out that Microsoft backpedaled on its decision to implement 24 hour DRM and region-locking the game. As a gamer, I’m fairly OK with this. As a technology enthusiast, I’m also pretty OK with this too. The thing is: I see a future where games are digital-only, but the way Microsoft envisioned it isn’t the optimal way of approaching this. I’m glad they went back on their policy. This still doesn’t make the X-1 a first day buy for me, as I’m really not a big fan of the forced Kinect, but if Microsoft decides to put out a Kinect-free version, THAT would persuade me to make a first day purchase. As it stands, I now see Microsoft as a contender. As it stands, if a few good exclusives come out after the first few years, I would buy the console. I think that a few Lost Odyssey sequels would do it for me. But anyway, that’s an irrelevant rant, really. What I want to write about today is what Microsoft tried and failed to do, and the reasons why it failed so horribly: pushing for an all-digital future.
Let’s start with the message that Microsoft put out versus what, in a best case scenario, Microsoft envisioned and should have said.
What Microsoft envisioned with the X-1 is complex to explain. This is probably because what they told the gaming media was nothing more than PR talk. They said that they wanted to create “persistent worlds” so that they could use “the power of the cloud” to let gamers access their libraries anywhere and at any time, and they wanted people to be able to share their libraries with up to 10 “members of their family”. What they emphasized on, however, was on how the 24-hour check-in and second-hand licensing models (more commonly referred to as anti-used game policies) would be great for gaming. This came shortly after a series of controversies including EA’s use of Online Passes, which they have since gone back on, Blizzard’s Always Online requirements for Diablo III – and all the server problems that came with it, EA’s and Capcom’s greedy use of On-Disc “Downloadable Content”, which has since spread to other companies’ repertoire of tactics, and which – not surprisingly – has prompted a few individuals to its defense, and a rather huge discussion about how used games are supposedly killing the video game industry. And so, it was not surprising for there to be a consumer backlash when Microsoft said that their X-1 console would require 24 hour authentication for games and prevent gamers from selling their used games wherever they wanted (perhaps at a garage sale in 7 years?) instead of through “participating retailers”, likely for X-1 credit.
What gamers heard was: “We don’t trust you gamers. You’re all trying to steal our profits from us, so we are forcing you to pay extra for your used games and making you check in with us every 24 hours. You need to ask us for permission to play games”. To most gamers, “Persistent Worlds” sounded like a synonym of “free to play MMO” and “cloud-based processing” was eerily similar to Sega’s early 1990s concept of “Blast Processing” – a fancy marketing term for Direct Memory Access, which improved processing speeds only minimally.
What Microsoft SHOULD have said, had they truly believed in their product, was be honest with consumers and dispense with all the PR jargon. Microsoft should have told the consumers that they would provide open worlds where users cooperating with each other would be able to run into other players from all over the world… oh, wait, that’s an MMO. So much for “persistent worlds”. What Microsoft COULD have used as a selling point, however, was the “cloud-based gaming” feature., except that instead of using PR jargon, they could have simply stated how it would work. They should have told gamers that they would be able to access their library of games from any X-1 console, theirs or not, as long as they had access to their account. They would be able to stream their games into their friends’ living rooms instead of having to bring discs over. THEN they could have said “but we need to authenticate that it’s you every 24 hours or every hour in a console that is not yours”, which to me still sounds like an uncomfortable proposal, but still sounds better than “authenticate or lose your games because we say so”.
Anyway, the gamers pushed back, and Microsoft took away their DRM requirements. That, I think, is a partial victory for consumers. Still, there are plenty of “innovation was lost, consoles should be like steam” comments around. I’d like to address those comments by saying that if a player loves Steam so much, they should just use their PC, get Steam, and be a PC gamer. They likely are, too. They’re just butting into matters that are of no concern to them. So to them, to those high and mighty PC Steam “Master Race”, I say: go scamper off, back to your caves, and take your accursed Steam with you.
Disclaimer: I also play on my PC – I buy games through GoG all the time. I’m just not a big fan of Steam or other similar distribution platforms. I love gaming in all its facets – whether it’s console gaming, portable gaming (and its odd cousin, mobile gaming) , or PC gaming. What I hate is “the PC Master Race”, those who think that Steam is the only worthwhile distribution platform, that the PC is the only gaming platform, and that someone can build a great gaming rig for 500$ (let the i3 / AMD with mediocre video cards offers from Newegg roll!).
Back to the topic at hand. Here’s what Microsoft, or any other gaming company trying to shift from physical media to digital media (or from “packaged goods models to service models”, as they often call them in PR speak and in closed-door meetings) need to understand: despite the broad assumption that has taken center stage in the past decade that people don’t buy games, they license them, the fact is when an individual pays money for something, they are buying that object. Whenever a consumer purchases something produced by the food industry, the automotive industry, the housing industry, or the print industry, they are purchasing an object. Yes, when a consumer buys a book, they are buying a book, not paying for the rights to read the book. The copy of the book is now theirs. The intellectual property and distribution rights still belong to the author, but that copy of the book belongs to the individual who purchased it, and they have the right to sell it, write on it, burn it, or do whatever they want with it. The game industry should not get any special treatment, and the recent X-1 debacle proves that consumers want to own their games, that consumers do, in fact, “buy” games, they don’t “license” them. Heck, even some of my most outspoken acquaintances who have recently been in favor of the licensing-not-owning argument and who have been on Microsoft’s camp since the original X-Box decided to switch over to the Playstation 4 because they wanted to own their games.
So, how do we reach an all digital gaming future, when gamers want to own their games? Not by doing 24 hour DRM checks. Steam has SOME merit, but it’s not the end-all-be-all. It’s nothing more than an adequate first step.
The first thing that developers / publishers / console manufacturers have to do is realize that the focus isn’t on the platform or the way of distribution, it’s on the games themselves. Some games, like DC Online, require an always-online connection. Other games, like Remember Me, don’t require an online connection at all. Some games, like Modern Warfare 3, require online connectivity for the online parts of the game. This is a concept that is simple to understand. A gamer should not be forced to be online to play on their own.
The second, and final, thing that they need to realize is that physical media is its own authentication method. When a player puts a disc into their console, they are proving that they do, in fact, have that copy of the game.
With those two things in perspective, let’s go ahead and set up how a shift to all-digital would work:
*** A MODEST PROPOSAL FOR THE SALE AND DISTRIBUTION OF DIGITAL GAMES ***
The console will play physical copies of games as well as digitally distributed copies of games.
For physical copies (full retail price):
Offline (Single Player) Play: The user will have to insert the disc into the console. No online authentication will be required.
Online (Multiplayer) Play: The user will have to insert the disc into the console. Third party user accounts may be required in addition to the console’s network account.
Online (Multiplayer) Play where Offline (Single Player) Accomplishments are Transferred: Follow the PSO (Dreamcast) model – No authentication required for offline (Single Player) play, but when online the user and their accomplishments (gear, achievements, etc) are authenticated and uploaded to the service. The service deletes any “hacked” items (remember those Lavis Cannons + 50?) and the offline equipment is synched.
For Digital Copies (30% discount from retail price):
Offline (Single Player) Play: Once players purchase and download a title from the store, no further authentication is needed to play the game. Players will be able to play their single player games without going online indefinitely. However, going online will cause the provider store to read through the system and will delete any titles gamers have not purchased.
Online (Multiplayer) Play: Whenever a player logs on to online play, the system will check with the Network Store to check the validity of the title. Upon verification, players will be able to access as many consecutive sessions of online matches as desired during that one play session. Future online play sessions will require similar “entry” verifications.
Online (Multiplayer) Play where Offline (Single Player) Accomplishments are Transferred: Whenever a player logs on to online play, the system will check with the Network Store to check the validity of the title. Upon verification, players will be able to access as many consecutive sessions of online matches as desired during that one play session. Future online play sessions will require similar “entry” verifications. Users’ accomplishments (gear, achievements, etc) are then authenticated and uploaded to the service. The service deletes any “hacked” items and the offline equipment is synched.
Disclaimers for use of Digital Copies:
* By tagging a console as a “guest” console, users will be able to stream their digital games on other consoles, given that they have access to their account. Users will be able to stream any number of games from their library for an indefinite amount of time during one play session. Once the play session is over, the console will revert to the original owner’s account and library.
*Users will be able to “tag” any console as their “home” console and download their games into said console for offline play. This may be done with up to X consoles. Once a console past X has been tagged as a “home” console, the user will have to disable the “home” option on another console. (Simplified: You can use your account in up to X consoles simultaneously).
*Users will be able to share their library with up to X friends and family in their list. These friends and family members will be able to stream the selected titles from another player’s library. Only one person will be allowed to “borrow” a title from any given player’s library at the same time. If the owner of the game is using an online function of a given title, that title will not be able to be lent to another player until the original owner stops using the online component of the game.
*Users will be able to “sell” their digital copies through the marketplace at 75% of the game’s current cost. Of this amount, 35% will go to the gamer in the form of store credit, 20% will go to the game’s developers, and 20% will go to the upkeep of the digital marketplace.
* Although players are not required to constantly check their digital copies and will be able to play offline indefinitely once they have downloaded titles from the store, whenever the user goes online with the console, the system will run an authentication protocol and synchronize your offline game list with the store.
Notice how the above model (courtesy of Johansen Quijano, feel free to use if you are Microsoft, Nintendo, or Sony) doesn’t punish or restrict gamers who want to purchase physical media, but encourage the consumption of digital formats. Lower prices will lure players in. The ability to play their games indefinitely even after the servers are taken offline (indefinite offline play) assures them that their investment will not be lost. They have the ability to sell their titles, which gives them a sense of ownership, and some of the earnings go back to the developers. In a way it is “like Steam” in that it is a platform to sell games, but it’s not just Steam, as it actually gives gamers choice of what to do with their purchases. It mixes the best of Steam with the best of what was the X-1 family sharing, adds new features, takes away restrictions, and gives users the best possible experience when dealing in transactions on digital games.
So yeah, there it is. Want to transition to an all-digital future? Do this for the 8th generation, then for the 9th generation just don’t do physical media.
And I know what some of you will say: “That’s just like what Microsoft had planned”, no it’s not. “That’s just like Steam”, no it’s not. Both of you, go back to your fanboy cave. Shoo.