Yesterday afternoon, Microsoft released a document on its Xbox Wire blog detailing "connectivity, licensing and privacy features" relating to the company's upcoming Xbox One console. The post was intended to clarify a number of issues that Microsoft has been remaining somewhat evasive about ever since the console was officially unveiled on May 21 to a somewhat mixed reception.
What it actually did was kick a hornets' nest. I've never seen the Internet so close to unanimous agreement on anything relating to video games; the vast majority of reactions to the post were negative, with popular gamer forum NeoGAF even going so far as to lay the foundations for a campaign to educate people outside the "core" community on exactly what Xbox One restricts you from doing. Since the time of writing, this has escalated to a planned full-on protest at Xbox One launch events.
Are people right to be concerned, though? Or is this classic Internet overreaction? Well, to be frank, Microsoft's clarifications still leave a few unanswered questions and vague details, but there's enough there to make an informed analysis of the situation and come to some sort of initial conclusion. So let's do just that.
Xbox One is a "Modern, Connected Device"
The first page of details Microsoft provides explains a little about the One's online infrastructure.
"Because every Xbox One owner has a broadband connection," runs the blurb, "developers can create massive, persistent worlds that evolve even when you're not playing.
Immediately we run into an issue: this assumption that "every Xbox One owner has a broadband connection." While many users around the world do now have reliable high-speed Internet connections at home, there's a significant number who don't, if (year-old) research from Internet World Stats is to be believed. What this also doesn't take into account is people in situations where broadband Internet connections simply aren't a possibility. Take members of the military, for example, or those moving house - I was without Internet access for over two months the last time I moved due to a combination of the time of year and bad weather conditions making it impossible for an engineer to come and activate my connection.
Why is this a problem? Read on:
"With Xbox One you can game offline for up to 24 hours on your primary console, or one hour if you are logged on to a separate console accessing your library. Offline gaming is not possible after these prescribed times until you re-establish a connection, but you can still watch live TV and enjoy Blu-ray and DVD movies."
What Microsoft is doing here is making you jump through significantly more hoops to play a game - let's not forget this is supposed to be a games console - than to indulge in more passive forms of entertainment such as watching movies or TV. Not only that, but Microsoft is imposing this restriction on all games, including single player titles. And why, exactly, do games need a once-per-day connection while video content doesn't?
"With Xbox One you can game offline for up to 24 hours on your primary console, or one hour if you are logged on to a separate console accessing your library."
There's another issue, too: although Microsoft claims to have large numbers of servers at its disposal for the Xbox One, if the service ever goes down for more than 24 hours for whatever reason, you simply won't be able to play anything on the console. Equally, if you're caught in the wake of a natural disaster such as a hurricane that knocks out communications infrastructure, you similarly won't be able to play anything. Granted, if you're in the direct path of a hurricane you probably have bigger worries than whether or not you can get a quick game of Call of Duty: Ghosts in, but with several recent hurricanes in North America, even regions that weren't in the direct path of the storm found themselves with crippled communications infrastructure for days or even weeks afterward.
What's the justification for this not-quite-but-almost-always-online connectivity requirement, then?
"While a persistent connection is not required," the site explains, "Xbox One is designed to verify if system, application or game updates are needed and to see if you have acquired new games, or resold, traded in, or given your game to a friend. Games that are designed to take advantage of the cloud may require a connection."
Essentially, from a gamer's perspective, the system is making sure that it knows exactly what games you have on your account - I hesitate to say "own" for reasons that will become clear shortly - and that there doesn't end up being multiple copies of a game out in the wild from a single disc's source. For example, if you installed a game on your console and then gave it to a friend, and they also installed it, that one disc would effectively have created two copies of the game, since Xbox One does not require the disc to be present to play an installed game. With the requirement to connect to the Internet and verify ownership of installed games, Microsoft's servers will know that you've given, sold or traded the game away.
Microsoft is trying to put a positive spin on this heavy online focus, though:
"After signing in and installing, you can play any of your games from any Xbox One because a digital copy of your game is stored on your console and in the cloud. So, for example, while you are logged in at your friend's house, you can play your games."
The part that this statement conveniently omits is that most games these days are several gigabytes in size and thus will require a significant amount of time (not to mention bandwidth) to download before you can play them on another console. Unless, of course, there's some sort of clever streaming system at work, but you'd think Microsoft would have mentioned that by now if it was present.
The way games are licensed on Xbox One is significantly different from the way we do things even on current-gen consoles, and this part is what has naysayers most upset. The second page of details provided by Microsoft attempts to clarify some points on this subject.
As previously noted, once you've installed a game and registered it to your account, you can access it from any other Xbox One console by signing in. Alongside this, anyone can play games you've licensed on your own console, regardless of whether or not you, the license holder, is logged in. You will also be able to designate up to ten people as members of your "family," who will be able to access your shared games library on any Xbox One. There's a restriction in this latter case, though: "You can always play your games, and any one [emphasis mine] of your family members can be playing from your shared library at a given time."
This is potentially a reasonably good idea, though it depends on implementation and whether the wording means what it appears to mean. Will both you and that "one" family member be able to play the same game at the same time, allowing for, say, cooperative multiplayer in a game that supports it using a single copy? Or will both parties have to be playing different games? That's one detail that Microsoft hasn't clarified yet, and all attempts to seek further explanation have been met with a resounding "this is all we're willing to share right now."
The next part's the kicker, though:
"Today, some gamers choose to sell their old disc-based games back for cash and credit," runs the blurb. "We designed Xbox One so game publishers can enable you to trade in your games at participating retailers. Microsoft does not charge a platform fee to retailers, publishers, or consumers for enabling transfer of these games." Emphasis, once again, mine.
So while the Xbox One doesn't outright block used games altogether, it is up to the publishers whether or not they allow their games to be traded in or resold. Another concern is the statement "third party publishers may opt in or out of supporting game resale and may set up business terms or transfer fees with retailers. Microsoft does not receive any compensation as part of this." Microsoft, here, is effectively absolving itself of all responsibility if, say, EA (because let's face it, it probably will be EA, going on past behavior) decides to slap those playing second-hand copies of its titles with an additional fee. Just when we thought Online Pass had died a much-deserved death.
Again, though, this is one of those aspects on which we really need further information before pronouncing a definitive judgement. The fact that it's up to publishers whether or not their games can be traded in makes me deeply uncomfortable, however, as does the "participating retailers" caveat. Where does this leave small, independent game stores, many of whom make their living from selling second-hand titles? How difficult and/or expensive will it be for a retailer to become "participating?" Unfortunately, we don't know just yet.
"Third party publishers may opt in or out of supporting game resale and may set up business terms or transfer fees with retailers."
Used games is a thorny issue within certain parts of the industry due to the fact that when a game is resold in this manner, no money gets back to the publisher, which means the small fraction of the game's retail price that actually goes to the people who really matter - the developers - is also completely absent. If you like a particular developer's work, then you should try to support them by buying new where possible.
However, this isn't always possible. Speaking from my own personal perspective, I have a strong preference for more obscure, niche games - usually of Japanese origin - that often have a limited print run and frequently release with little to no fanfare. If I miss that short window when they're readily available, I'm forced to either play the second-hand market or pay well over the odds to someone who has been hoarding a copy and pushing the price up. In other words, in some cases, as much as I would like to support publishers and developers I like, it sometimes simply isn't possible.
It is also perhaps worth noting that the used games sector has been around since the earliest days of gaming, and the industry as a whole has continued to grow and thrive despite it. It's only now, as triple-A budgets spiral out of control and games that sell five million copies are considered "failures," that there's potentially some cause for concern over used games. That said, the onus is surely on producers and publishers to ensure budgets don't get out of hand and sales expectations are kept in check rather than punishing consumers by removing their right to choose how to buy and sell their entertainment products. A new digital game trading law in Europe that effectively declared the second-hand sale of both physical and digital software legal may also have a significant impact on this matter - though a year on, the true implications of said law are still yet to be seen.
The used games issue is somewhat mitigated by digital distribution, of course, which is similarly subject to restrictions on resale and trading in - even more so than Microsoft is proposing here. But, frankly, I don't trust Microsoft's digital store to always give me access to my games; what happens when their servers shut down in the future and you can no longer download your digital-only titles - or access the licenses for your disc-based games? At least PC-based services like Steam and GOG, both of which have built up considerable goodwill and trust with the community over the years, allow you to back up your purchases to external media, and Valve has stated on several occasions that "measures are in place to ensure that all users will continue to have access to their Steam games" should the service ever shut down for any reason. It's also worth noting that services like Steam are not the only place from which you can get PC games - they're closed systems within an overall open ecosystem - whereas the Xbox One will be a completely closed ecosystem, period.
While we're on a roll with this, it's probably a good time to bring up this: "Xbox One is designed so game publishers can enable you [emphasis mine] to give your disc-based games to your friends. There are no fees charged as part of these transfers. There are two requirements: you can only give them to people who have been on your friends list for at least 30 days, and each game can only be given once."
Three issues here: firstly, this means no private sales of games unless those people have been Xbox Live friends for at least a month; secondly, once that game has been passed on to someone else, it can't be passed on again; thirdly, you can only do this at all at the behest of a publisher. And if you were considering loaning a game rather than giving it away or selling it, you're out of luck, at least initially: "loaning or renting games won't be available at launch, but we are exploring the possibilities with our partners," says Microsoft.
There's a mild glimmer of hope in the last few paragraphs, though:
"As we move into this new generation of games and entertainment," runs the post, "from time to time, Microsoft may change its policies, terms, products and services to reflect modifications and improvements to our services, feedback from customers and our business partners or changes in our business priorities and business models or for other reasons."
So this situation, while unpleasant and distinctly anti-consumer in its current form, may not be like this forever. Speaking as a consumer, I sincerely hope it doesn't.
Privacy and Kinect
Significant concerns have been raised over Xbox One's reliance on Kinect, particularly given recent news regarding the NSA's PRISM program, of which Microsoft was reportedly one of the first participants.
"At Microsoft, we prioritize your privacy," the third page of information explains. "We understand that your personal data and privacy are important. Xbox One and Kinect will provide tools to put you in control of your data."
One of the first things Microsoft is keen to stress on this page is that "when Xbox One is on and you're simply having a conversation in your living room, your conversation is not being recorded or uploaded." It would perhaps be cynical to trot out a certain Shakespeare quote regarding protesting too much here, so let's give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt for the moment.
Apparently the Kinect device will be in one of three states: On, Off or Paused. There's no mention of being able to disconnect Kinect altogether, and it's only possible to "pause" Kinect while the system is on, not switch it off altogether. Microsoft does, however, note that "while it's faster to find what you're looking for using your voice and gesture commands with Kinect, you can use a controller, your remote controls or your smart devices instead. And you can use all of these devices when Kinect is paused."
Microsoft also notes that "you can play games or enjoy applications that use data, such as videos, photos, facial expressions, heart rate and more, but this data will not leave your Xbox One without your explicit permission," then goes on to give two rather uninteresting examples of how this technology might be used.
This side of things is probably the least clear at the moment. It's not obvious what "pausing" Kinect means, for example, nor is it clear how you will know if and when the device is making use of personal data. Hopefully Microsoft will offer some additional clarifications in this regard soon.
Time to Preorder a PS4?
Hold on there, soldier. While none of this news about Xbox One is particularly welcome to the vast majority of gamers, there is, unfortunately, no guarantee that Sony won't do something very similar when it reveals further details about the PlayStation 4.
However, at the same time, Microsoft has provided Sony with a very simple way to effectively win over a significant proportion of the game-playing population before the next generation of consoles has even truly begun. All a Sony rep needs to do is walk out on stage at E3, point to all the things Xbox One is doing, say "we're not doing any of those things," drop the mic and walk away. It almost definitely won't happen, but it's certainly going to be an interesting time as the launch of the two new consoles gets closer and closer and details become clearer.
This news regarding Xbox One is just the latest example of a growing, insidious trend for anti-consumer business practices in the console sector of the games industry. A generation ago, you bought a game, you put it in, you played it. No patches, no DLC, no retailer-exclusive preorder bonuses, no entering handy 37-digit numbers to gain access to the full content of the game you paid for - and if you wanted to loan, give or sell your game to someone else, you were free to do so without being penalized. Similarly, if you weren't particularly attached to a game and wanted to trade it in to take a bit of the sting out of buying a new title, you were free to do so. Those days are long gone, and a lot of people haven't noticed this gradual erosion process over the years - for that matter, a lot of people still refuse to acknowledge it even now.
The trouble, you see, is that because we all love games so much, we're willing to put up with these small inconveniences to play the latest and greatest games. But each time we do so, we're sending a signal to the business types that This Is Okay, Carry On. The only kind of protest these people listen to is one involving money. You can petition and complain in comment sections all you like, but the only way you're going to get the people in charge to really pay attention is if you hit them where it hurts - in the wallet.
If you don't like the way Microsoft is handling the Xbox One, don't buy it - and here's the important bit: regardless of the games on offer. If you don't like whatever Sony ends up doing, don't buy it. You get the picture. It's hard to do, but it'll ultimately be worth it. It's not just about the games any more; it hasn't been just about the games for a very long time.
I'm not going to use this platform to tell you what you should or shouldn't spend your money on, because as a consumer it's entirely your right to make that decision. Just be very sure that you have all the facts before you jump into the new generation of consoles - and think very, very carefully about the implicit signals you're sending to the people you're giving your money to.
In the meantime, it might be a good time to build that PC you've been thinking about for the last couple of years.