Xbox One: The DRM Delivery Service

After a week and a half of heavy online lambasting, following months of worried debate over the future of console DRM, Microsoft finally clarified their position today.  It’s ugly and consumer-hostile, not to mention arrogant beyond all reason, but at least their policies are clear at last.  The Xbox One is a DRM delivery service that happens to play games, and the rights to what you buy are whatever the publisher allows.  It’s hard to be too negative, though, because it’s not like we weren’t aware this was coming.  Rather than rage against the future, let’s have fun looking at all the weasel-words in today’s announcements.

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Part 1:  A Modern, Connected Device

A new generation of games with power from the cloud: Because every Xbox One owner has a broadband connection, developers can create massive, persistent worlds that evolve even when you’re not playing.

So it’s a system for MMORPGs?  I mean sure, they’re popular and all, but does their existence really justify the requirement for every console owner to have a broadband connection?  Is that why I can’t grab my system and head over to my Mom’s house for a few days?  Head out of town for a bit and disconnect from the world, entertaining ourselves after toasting marshmallows over the fire with a nice bout of Dead or a Street Fighter Tag Tournament 7?  I’m not really sure that counts as a fair trade.

The next two bullet points are pretty decent features, actually.  Run the system in low-power mode to keep games updated, and chat with Skype.  Hardly system sellers, but not bad to have.

Access your entire games library from any Xbox One—no discs required: 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.

Or I could bring the disc over, pop it in the console, and start playing.  It’s a system that’s worked great for years.  It also has the advantage of not requiring a publisher’s knowledge or permission.

After this the article goes on for a bit about mobile devices and how incredibly awesome the cloud will be at futureproofing the system.  It also mentions the minimum speed recommendation (not requirement) of 1.5 Mbps.  They couldn’t resist ending this section on a note explaining how wonderful consumer restrictions will make life for everyone, however.

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.

At Xbox, we’ve always believed in a connected world of games and entertainment.  With Xbox One, we are planning for a connected future.  We can’t wait to show you what’s to come.

The thing about a connected world of games and entertainment is that it should be a choice, not a requirement.  Sometimes you want to be part of the world, sometimes you want the world to go away and leave you alone.  It’s also worth noting that the first paragraph does an excellent job of explaining that the Xbox One is better at being a Blu-ray player than gaming console.  You can always play a movie, but games require permission.  As a point in MS’s favor, at least they don’t try to describe it as a customer-benefiting feature.  The bulk of the brain twisting corporate double-speak is saved for-

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Part 2:  How Games Licensing Works on Xbox One

The previous section had a few arrogant gems scattered throughout its info-dump, but this is the heart of Microsoft’s restrictive new world.  The fun part is watching how the digital straightjacket is presented as a great favor for the consumer.  For the sake of brevity, I’ll be skipping the repeat info from Part 1.

Access your entire games library from any Xbox One—no discs required: 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.

Up until this bullet point I never realized what a horrible restriction having to lug around those game discs was.  Freed from the illusion of actually owning a game due to having possession of the physical media containing a complete working copy of the game data, requiring a complicated insertion into a console to activate and get full usage from, I can now blissfully go about my unburdened life without that weight dragging me down.

Share access to your games with everyone inside your home: Your friends and family, your guests and acquaintances get unlimited access to all of your games.  Anyone can play your games on your console–regardless of whether you are logged in or their relationship to you.

Wait, what?  How is allowing someone who isn’t you to play games on your console a feature?  Did we expect the Xbox One to turn off if a person who wasn’t the one owning the profile picked up the controller?  Yes, sure, we’ve been expecting certain restrictions on game access, and today’s announcement has done a great job of confirming those expectations, but I’m pretty sure nobody outside of the Tinfoil Hat Brigade was worried about this.

Give your family access to your entire games library anytime, anywhere: Xbox One will enable new forms of access for families. Up to ten members of your family can log in and play from your shared games library on any Xbox One. Just like today, a family member can play your copy of Forza Motorsport at a friend’s house. Only now, they will see not just Forza, but all of your shared games.  You can always play your games, and any one of your family members can be playing from your shared library at a given time.

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There’s actually some neat stuff in here, assuming your friends and family list is ten or under.  Of particular interest is the multiple usage of “shared”, implying that you’ll be able to tag games as share-able or not.  This would be useful for parents who’ve got M games they don’t want the kids to play, but would want the new all-ages stuff available to everyone.  Credit where credit is due, this is a very family-friendly setup.  It’s also worth noting that “any one of your family members” means only one person at a time can play the game, but that’s not even close to unfair.

Trade-in and resell your disc-based games: Today, some gamers choose to sell their old disc-based games back for cash and credit. 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.

“publishers can enable” is a painful phrase.  Any time you want it made perfectly clear that you don’t own what you buy when it comes to gaming, as opposed to music, movies, books, or any other media, you can pull out that phrase and be reminded of the rights you don’t have any more.  It’s 2030 and I’ve tracked down the Xbox One copy of Cave’s final masterpiece “Cute Underage Girls in Skimpy Clothing Dodge Ten Billion Slow Bullets” and what value does it have?  It’s little more than a trinket, unable to run on original (uncracked/modded) hardware, DRM-restricted to utter uselessness.

Also, of course, “can enable” means “don’t have to enable”.  It’s a simple way to shift the No Used Games policy blame from the console manufacturer to the publisher.

Another ugly phrase is “participating retailers”.  Gamestop, probably Best Buy, and…?  Is this a feature your local gaming store can take part in?  That’s a question we’re hoping to have more on as details emerge.

Give your games to friends: Xbox One is designed so game publishers can enable you 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.

No Ebay sales, no pawn shops, and highly restricted game trading among any forum friends.  Assuming, of course, that the publisher has enabled digital permissions for the game to be anything other than yours, forever and ever, or for as long as they allow it to be played.

In our role as a game publisher, Microsoft Studios will enable you to give your games to friends or trade in your Xbox One games at participating retailers. 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. In addition, third party publishers can enable you to give games to friends. Loaning or renting games won’t be available at launch, but we are exploring the possibilities with our partners.

We’re almost at the end of this, but Microsoft has saved the weaseliest bits for last.  MS are lovely people who fully support the used games industry, or at least those who participate in their program.  Third party publishers, though, those guys have full permission to be jerks about it.  Maybe they’ll disallow used games entirely, or set up transfer fees, or require blood sacrifice.  The Xbox One casts no judgement and Microsoft makes no profit on any of what those other companies may do.  Also, screw your friends, they can buy their own damn games at launch.

This section ends with a paragraph saying nothing’s written in stone, but that’s standard for this kind of thing and to be expected.

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Part 3: Privacy by Design: How Xbox One and the New Kinect Sensor Put You in Control

Does anyone actually care about Kinect…?  No?  Ok, short version then-  We swear we’re not using the Kinect to spy on you.  Honest!

Conclusion

The Xbox One holds the consumer’s desires in contempt.  It’s a console designed to make rights holders happy, and everyone else gets to jump through hoops in service to that goal.  There are a couple of bright sides to this, however.  The first one is that there’s no law saying owning one is required.  If it’s got games that make you happier than the restrictions make you sad, then by all means, have fun with it.  If it seems like too much trouble (which, obviously, it does to me) then sitting it out means the new console budget can be shifted to something that’s honestly exciting, like the Oculus Rift.

The other bright spot is more of a prediction for the future.  The average consumer makes assumptions, such as when buying a new gaming console the box won’t also contain a rabid flesh-hungry weasel inside.  Or, more realistically, that it will work just as the consoles being sold for the last 30+ years have.  The Xbox One is going to sell very well over Christmas, with the backlash starting around December 26th when people start realizing the things they can’t do that they’ve always been able to before.  Then it will be time to pop the popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the show.

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Addendum

While this may seem fairly harsh and one-sided, Sony has yet to announce their DRM, and if they’re following the same path then they’ll get the same treatment.  Part of me is hoping that, if Sony were planning on the same level of DRM, they’re ripping it out of the console now to leave MS standing there looking like Wile E. Coyote suddenly realizing he’s holding a lit stick of dynamite with 1/8″ of fuse left before it goes BOOM!  It’s a lovely dream, but until we know Sony’s plans it’s too early for either praise or criticism.

Final note- header image from Rob Fearon‘s Death Ray Manta.  He does fantastic little arcade games that are both cheap and DRM-free, and tossing him a few buck for his bright and shiny shooters makes the world a happier place.