The Xbox One: A Levelheaded Look at Always-Online DRM and the Next Generation of Console Gaming
As President John Henry Eden once famously said, we stand now at a precipice. He may have been talking about the destruction of all mankind to radioactive nuclear fallout and anarchy, but a new generation of gaming consoles is kind of the same thing right? As the Xbox 360 and PS3 suffer through their final death rattles, their fresh faced progeny are hitting the big stage at this week’s upcoming Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3 as it’s widely known (Electronic Gaming Expo might be more accurate, though it does lose a bit of the alliterative flair).
While you’d think the fanboys and gaming loyalists would be out in droves in anticipation of this great moment in history, think again. Controversy has engulfed these burgeoning consoles before they’ve even had a chance to bask in the warm glow of adulation that almost always accompanies the announcement of new and exciting technology.
So what’s this great controversy you ask? Well, what else? Digital Rights Management of course, or just “DRM” if you’re in the know, the buzzword of the age.
Sony has (wisely it seems) kept their mouth’s relatively shut on the issue (though rumors persist that the PS4 may include some form of DRM, and Sony has subsequently stated that publishers will have the option to use it), instead, they’ve sat back and allowed Microsoft to blunder their way through a series of PR disasters and in the process bring down upon themselves the wrath of angry consumers the world over. We now know, in what appears to be the makings of a strict DRM policy, that the Xbox One console will require its users to be connected to the internet at least once every 24-hours in order to “authenticate” their game library.
As you can imagine, this did not go over well. The DRM hounds smelled the scent and began to bark, vociferously.
On Thursday, Microsoft released some more information about their new console and the gaming community has lost their collective minds.
What is DRM and why does it matter?
DRM is a blanket term that refers to the forever evolving measures that game developers (and other digital media creators) use to try and prevent the illegal distribution (or piracy) of their intellectual properties. Things like online registration of cd-keys have been used for decades, to rather laughable effect.
With the increasing availability and speed of the internet, pirating video games has become an ever expanding problem for game publishers who see billions of dollars lost every year to unlawful downloads.
A 2010 CESA study concluded that $41 billion was lost between 2004 and 2009 on just DS and PSP sales alone, and, according to torrentfreak.com, the popular FPS franchise, Call of Duty, saw just one iteration of their series pirated over 5 million times in little more than a month, or the equivalent of about $300 million in retail sales. Other popular franchises see similar numbers every year. Certainly not every illegal download represents a potential sale, but even a very conservative rate of 10% is still billions of dollars not in the hands of developers each year.
As a result, companies like EA have responded by implementing more intrusive DRM measures, which consumers have come to consider unfairly restrictive. Among these new measures has come the concept of “always-online DRM”, by which a game’s user is required to login, and remain logged in, to a company’s servers in order to play their game. If you don’t have access to the internet? Sorry, you’re SOL.
DRM debates recently came to a head when the long awaited and much anticipated sequel to 2003’s SimCity 4, SimCity (weird I know), an ostensibly single player game, was revealed to require an always-online connection. SimCity publisher, Electronic Arts, took major grief when their servers proved to be less than equal to the task (similar issues plagued the launch of Blizzard’s mega-hit, and always-online single player game, Diablo III) and gamers were left unable to play the game several days after it had launched (yours truly among them).
Opponents of always-online DRM point to incidents like the aforementioned Diablo III and SimCity launches as evidence that DRM’s punitive repercussions for consumers far outweigh their potential benefits for publishers (one petition on change.org following the launch of SimCity garnered nearly 80,000 signatures).
Furthermore, they argue, DRM does not stop piracy, in fact in some cases it even encourages it as angry consumers, who would otherwise buy the game legally, turn to piracy as a means of “sticking it to” the publishers.
And then of course you have the tricky issue of private property ownership and claims that always-online DRM is more akin to borrowing than buying, since the game will become inoperable once the publisher takes down the servers. Instead of buying ownership of digital media you are simply purchasing the rights to use digital media temporarily, the true ownership of which remains in the hands of the publishers, or so the argument goes.
Proponents of always-online anti-piracy measures point to the fact that, while piracy is still possible, games with these features make it much more difficult (no game requiring always-online DRM has appeared on a torrentfreak.com most pirated list). In addition (and despite all the bluster and bloviating by anti-DRM lobbyists) including always-online DRM in a game has not been shown to adversely impact sales.
With nearly daily reports of game developers going belly-up and the increasing discontent with games that “play it safe”, publishers choosing to make an umpteenth sequel to an established franchise rather than taking a risk on a new IP, defenders of DRM argue that without drastic steps to combat piracy, the quality of our games and the innovative potential of the industry are seriously at risk.
Yes, law abiding supporters of gaming will be unfairly punished for the sins of our scurvy-infested brethren, but that’s the price we must pay to ensure the long-term health of the hobby we love.
Which brings us, finally (God, I know right?), to the matter at hand.
While piracy has not impacted the console gaming market quite as much as it has PC (as you’d probably imagine, pirating a PC game is a much simpler process), the numbers have been steadily rising into the 7 figures (Super Mario Galaxy 2 was the most pirated console game of 2011 – the most recent data available – with nearly 1.3 million downloads).
With the announcement that the new Xbox One console will require an always (or nearly always) online connection, many have assumed it represents nothing more than an always-online DRM console wrapped up with pretty paper to convince you that the features are for your benefit (the power of the cloud!).
Let’s put that assumption to the test.
Why it looks like DRM
Obviously the concept of the console requiring an internet connection sounds very similar to the aforementioned always-online DRM which requires a user to remain logged in at all times. While Microsoft has said that you will only need to log in once every 24-hours, skeptics dismiss this point as largely irrelevant since this “check-up” has the same general effect of forcing you to prove your ownership of a game at least once a day.
According to Microsoft’s own licensing information a game can only be “gifted” to one person, meaning you can give your game to a friend but that’s it, he now owns it and cannot gift it a second time. Obviously this would require that your console track the ownership of the disc via online registration, an invasion of privacy that many find hard to swallow. “Why should we acquiesce to Microsoft’s draconian concepts of ‘ownership’?” They might say. “Did I not purchase this physical disc? How can they tell me who I can and cannot lend it to?”
The used games market is a touchy subject in some gaming circles, but it’s undeniable that many people take advantage of it and it looks like the new Xbox One may put the kybosh on selling used games:
“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.”
DRM cynics point out the ambiguity inherent in the language “publishers can enable you”, and argue (perhaps rightfully so) that by putting the decision in the hands of the publishers (a demographic that, for obvious reasons, have been largely anti-used games), MS is essentially eliminating the used games market and in the process further blurring the line between game ownership and game use. If I cannot resell my game, do I really own it to begin with?
Why it might be more than just DRM
While it’s hard to argue that DRM won’t at least be a component of the new always-online console, there are several reasons to believe it might not be the only reason for the requirement.
Microsoft has revealed that now up to 10 members of a family can share their gaming library and play any shared games from any Xbox One console, whether it is in their home or not. Furthermore, this shared library can be accessed from any console at any time by logging in using your Xbox Live credentials.
People who have lamented the fact that they cannot bring their games to play at a friend’s house need not worry. Your game library goes with you everywhere, and you don’t even need a disc (though you may have to wait a few hours while the game downloads… you should probably just bring the disc). This library sharing could potentially lighten the load for families who have gamers living in several different states and can’t share physical media with one another (my cousin Ronny will be getting a call).
The online capabilities of the console also means that you will be able to purchase games digitally (granted, a feature that PC gamers have enjoyed for years). If a game has a midnight launch you should theoretically be able to purchase it in advance and your console will download the game in the background, allowing you to hit the start button right as the clock strikes 12 without fighting through the unwashed masses at a GameStop Midnight Madness event (those crowds can be pretty gnarly, or bro-tastic if it’s a Madden launch, which is probably worse).
Since I mentioned used games as a casualty of the new console, it should be noted that Microsoft has stated that they will allow their first party games to be resold with no fee, what third party publishers choose to do is up to them.
By being always-online, updates and downloads can take place at set times when you aren’t playing, or go on in the background while you are (another feature common to PC gamers but denied the console crowd). No more waiting for an update to finish or a game to download and install, just tell your console when you want to play and it will all be ready for you when you arrive.
A further benefit of always-online gaming, according to Microsoft, is the ability for game developers to create persistent worlds. Because all Xbox One owners will have a broadband connection, developers need not fear alienating their fanbase by including features that can only be used online. Persistent worlds could mean anything from an MMO style universe (which have until now been largely unplayable on consoles) to constantly updating real-time dynamics (weather in Tiger Woods 2015 changing instantly to reflect real-life conditions, for example).
And finally, and perhaps most importantly (depending who you ask), always-online will allow game developers to utilize cloud computations to effectively increase the power of the console itself. Don’t take my word for it, General Manager of Redmond Game Studios and Platforms, Matt Booty, claims the following:
“There are some things in a video game world that don’t necessarily need to be updated every frame or don’t change that much in reaction to what’s going on… One example of that might be lighting. Let’s say you’re looking at a forest scene and you need to calculate the light coming through the trees, or you’re going through a battlefield and have very dense volumetric fog that’s hugging the terrain. Those things often involve some complicated up-front calculations when you enter that world, but they don’t necessarily have to be updated every frame. Those are perfect candidates for the console to offload that to the cloud—the cloud can do the heavy lifting, because you’ve got the ability to throw multiple devices at the problem in the cloud.”
Sounds intriguing right? Well, to back up their claim, Microsoft has revealed that they have upped their server infrastructure from roughly 15,000 at the end of the Xbox 360 life-cycle, to more than 300,000 for the launch of the Xbox One. Do we honestly want to argue that 300,000 servers are necessary for DRM?
Microsoft isn’t stupid, they didn’t become the monolith that they are without taking some risks and suffering through some backlash, hell I can remember the outcry when it was announced that Xbox Live would be broadband only (those damn 56k gamers were seriously up in arms about it) or, worse yet, that it would cost $50 a year to use (“Why would I pay for something PlayStation gives me for free?!”). 30 million Xbox Live subscribers later and it looks like a pretty smart idea, Sony still hasn’t managed to catch up.
Innovation often requires doing things that the majority of people will not like initially (I spent many days in high school trying to convince customers at RadioShack that DVR was going to be the next big thing, they just couldn’t see the point), but ultimately the goal of every corporation is to make money, and in that single driving impetus they will not implement and support policies that the majority of their customers do not want.
Microsoft broke into the console market when Nintendo and Sony seemed to have it pretty well cornered, now they’re the guys everybody else is trying to beat. You don’t go from worst to first without learning a thing or two about your customer along the way.
Maybe the always-online console will be relegated to the dustbin of history like so many of its brethren (the monumental failure that was Sega Dreamcast is still one of my all-time favorite consoles), but it also wouldn’t shock me in the least to be writing an article a year from now reflecting on just how funny it was that so many people thought the Xbox One would destroy gaming as we know it.
American consumers can be a remarkably intransigent lot at times, fighting tooth and nail to keep things the way they are, yet force them to the watering hole and they do prove surprisingly adaptable, innovation catches on very quickly once America embraces it.
Microsoft concluded their licensing news release with the following statement:
“In the months ahead, we will continue to listen to your feedback as we meet with our partners in the ecosystem to bring additional detail about our policies.”
MS seems married to their always-online model (300,000 servers can’t be taken back to the store), but changes to their position on DRM and your ability to lend and borrow games may still be up for discussion. If you don’t like their policies or the direction of their console, by all means, continue to speak out, this is a free market after all and the customer is always right (unless of course we’re not).
So what do you think? Is an always-online console (DRM or not) something that you find intriguing or simply intrusive? Do you plan to buy an Xbox One or are you withholding judgment until you know more about it?
I for one anticipate that I will buy one, I love games too much not to have access to them all, and the sports and TV features actually appeal to me (though I may be in the minority of gamers on that point). In the end it will likely come down to what you value most and whether or not DRM and always-online represent untenable restrictions for the way you play games. Personally, I have no issues with either and the prospect of being able to have a shared game library is a major selling point for me.
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Posted on June 9, 2013, in Entertainment, News, Opinions and tagged 219, always-online, console gaming, drm, e3, electronic entertainment expo, entertainment, gaming, microsoft, pc gaming, ps4, reveal, sony, xbox 360, xbox one. Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.