Microsoft’s new gaming console, code-named “Durango,” is expected to be revealed in the next few months ahead of an anticipated debut near the end of the year. Controversially, rumors claim that it’s been designed to eliminate the ability to share or resell games. These reports follow a similar set of concerns over Sony’s next console. In both cases, Gamestop, an outlet that profits heavily from the used game business, suffered in public trading as a result of the unconfirmed reports. Furthermore, internet reception has been highly negative. Let us now examine the rumored system and try to get an idea of where Microsoft is heading.
First off, let’s examine the rumors. The next Xbox will allegedly require an always-on internet connection. Considering how much of a money-maker Xbox Live has been for the company, forcing the new system to always reflect an online state makes sense. The current 360 already prompts users to connect online whenever the console is turned on. The Nintendo Wii from 2006 has a default standby mode in place that’s entirely dependent on the internet in order to function (that is, to illuminate the message light). Smartphones and tablets (and for many users, PCs) have long been geared towards always-on, always connected status. What this rumor insists, however, is that the new Xbox won’t be able to play games at all without the internet connection.
The current user experience with always-on DRM is overwhelmingly negative, in part due to common instabilities with internet connections. Given that, this seems like an unreasonable leap. Sony’s experiment with the PSP GO, a device that entirely lacked either any physical media or a serious sales presence, seems to have put Sony off trying something like this with its next PlayStation console.
The second part of Microsoft rumor has gotten a little more traction. The new Xbox will supposedly use dual-layered Blu-rays that are sold with one-time use codes. If true, each physical game will be tied to one system through the code (though it seems more likely that is would be tied to a specific Gamertag/Microsoft account).
This model follows Electronic Arts’ Project $10, which ties some content per title (such as the online mode, or extra single-player content) to a one time code, without which that content must be repurchased digitally. Likewise, Valve titles, starting with ‘Half-Life 2’, have used one-time Steam codes in their physical copies, which essentially renders the physical copies disposable after the first use, much like movie Digital Copies but without irritating expiration dates.
What’s important to remember in Sony’s case is that, for the PS3, games have had a region-locking system that was left up to the publishers to utilize, but has seldom actually been used. (I can only think of one example of it ever being implemented.) Likewise, Sony patented a one-time use code system for the PS3 that was quickly forgotten.
Microsoft’s motivations for eliminating the used market are not clear to me. The rumor suggests that big-time publishers are pressuring Microsoft to implement such as system for their benefit, which is an inverse of the current relationship. The platform holder sets the rules, and Microsoft is hardly lax in this respect. Even if the goal is to eliminate game piracy, a bootleg copy of ‘Modern Warfare’ still needs an Xbox Live membership to play online, at least on the 360.
I’ve seen used games compared to used books, where resale and sharing are considered a fundamental part of ownership. This line of reasoning ignores the corollary dynamic that exists between the shuttering of bookstores and the rise of the Kindle as an ownership platform.
Personally, I’ve transitioned most of my game purchases to digital already. (Nintendo and its lack of a modern account equivalent is the lone holdout.) However, I love my Blu-rays. I just can’t stand the evident macroblocking that accompanies competitors like iTunes. In comparison, modern games from the iPhone to the 3DS to the 360 frequently need patching (day-one patches are here to stay), as well as other associated kinds of connectivity that Blu-ray has failed to successfully implement – mainly because such things are unnecessary for the experience of watching a two-hour film.
Digital game prices are steadily improving, as it seems that consumers will buy more games if they’re cheaper and don’t have to be physically stored. (Crazy, right?) In my estimation, if initiatives like the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library evolve to the point where we can resell digitally owned items (something that the government could force, I’m sure), remaining objections, such as a sense of ownership and concerns about price hikes, would melt away.
I have to doubt that Microsoft would really be willing to force a combination of always-on DRM and one-time use codes in 2013. Something like that would seem to benefit companies like EA or Activison rather than Microsoft. Still, the concept of forced digital ownership and limited use (already in place at Amazon, Apple and Valve) may be an eventuality. How many consumers will walk away when that happens?