My Thoughts on the Xbox One DRM Switcheroo

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When Xbox One was first announced the whole game licensing thing, admittedly, had me a little worried.

I don’t buy stuff from iTunes because the DRM has always been a pain in the ass. I have an iPod, my wife has an iPod, we each have our own separate user accounts, and making sure that music or videos that I buy are playable on her device is just a huge pain.

I have a few Kindle books, but I find that Kindle DRM is also a pain in the ass. I buy a book, my wife wants to read it… and it’s (of course) not one of the books that’s “eligible” to be loaned to someone. The publisher or whomever has locked it down. My wife has to physically borrow my Kindle to read it, which means I can’t read any of my other books. That’s crap.

We have two Xbox 360s at my house - one upstairs, one downstairs. My wife and I each have an Xbox Live account. Sometimes I want to play a game upstairs while she plays a different game downstairs (or vice versa). Sometimes we buy two copies of a game so we can play each other - we’ve had some great times in Burnout Paradise and Left 4 Dead.

So when I saw that there was this whole licensing discussion going on, I have to say, I headed for anti-DRM territory and got sort of scared.

However, it was pretty early and the details were sketchy. Some of the stuff sounded like the same crap - “Anyone can play your games on your console - regardless of whether you are logged in or their relationship to you.” That’s how the Xbox Live Arcade works now, where it gets licensed both to your user account and to a particular console. That doesn’t account for the multi-console household like we have, which makes some things really hard. If I buy some Rock Band tracks on one console, but we want to play on the other console… I have to be logged in. Having had the red ring of death three times, I’m no stranger tothe stupid “license transfer” process to move from one console to another. Seeing this come back with “even more move toward digital-only content” had me scared.

I also got scared by the notes about trading in disc-based games. “…Publishers can enable you to trade in your games at participating retailers.” That sounds like Kindle to me. Book publishers can allow me to loan people my Kindle books but almost none do. Why would I believe game publishers would be any different?

Some of the stuff did sound pretty cool - the “ten-person family sharing” thing was actually pretty great. I could buy a game, play it, and loan it to my uncle in the next state without having to mail him a disc. They had also figured out how to give your games to other people when you’re done with them, which is also pretty slick.

The once-every-24-hours-phone-home thing didn’t bother me a bit. I don’t play many online/multiplayer games, but I’m always connected to the network and I’m always signed in with my profile. It doesn’t bug me if they want to run a ping once a day. I’m sure it’d be connected to other services more often than that for other things anyway. I know a lot of folks were worked up about that one. I think that’s a mountains-out-of-mole-hills thing, but that’s just me.

But I guess that’s all kind of moot now, since they’ve changed their tune. We’re basically going back to the original model, which doesn’t hurt my feelings but does make me wonder what could have been. It sounds like there are some folks who are pretty disappointed that we’re going back to same-old-same-old and I’m a little disappointed, too, but probably not as much as this guy on Gizmodo.

I think the problem with the Gizmodo point of view is that there were a lot of hopes listed about things that could have been with the new licensing model but no actual concrete facts. Let’s address each of the points in that article:

  • Each game you buy would be tied to your account: That’s not necessarily a good thing. I mentioned the trouble I’ve had in the past in properly being able to loan Kindle books and in the XBLA content I’ve purchased. I think this is a fixable problem, but it wasn’t addressed in the original communication.
  • Publishers could create hubs to resell games: “Could” is a key word there. We’ve heard no intention from anyone that it would happen. And I’m not super interested in going to each individual publisher’s hub to resell stuff. What happened to the free market?
  • Publishers could make money on resold games: That is true. I’m not convinced that’s a benefit to me.
  • New games could be cheaper because publishers will make that money on resold games: Again, “could” is a key word. I’ve yet to see a console release where games for the new console were cheaper than the previous generation. What’s the impetus to lower the price?
  • You’d get a better return on your used games: That sounds like it’d be up to these hypothetical markets we have no information on. It’d be possible, but no guarantees.
  • We know this is possible because of Steam: I think there are a lot of factors that went into making Steam what it is today. FWIW, I’m not a Steam user or a PC gamer. It’d be nice to see other examples of similar marketplaces working - one example is not sufficient evidence beyond proving something is technically possible. Michael Jordan has a 48” vertical leap. I don’t see a ton of other folks pulling that one off.
  • Sharing games would have been cooler: I’ll give them this one. That 10-person family sharing thing sounded neat.

I’m not sure going back to the “old way” was the right choice, but maybe pulling a few things back? What if you had the 10-person-sharing-plan AND a “five-console-ownership” plan? I register the two consoles I own, my wife registers those same consoles, and now the games will work on those consoles OR with the people on my plan? Honestly, that’d be perfect. You might get people abusing it, registering consoles they don’t own, but they’ll do that with the family plan anyway.

Or a guarantee that I can trade in disc-based games rather than “publishers can allow me to?” I want full control over the content I purchased. It’s mine. Once you throw “publishers can allow this or that” into the mix, all bets are off. I’ve stopped listening because you just rented me content instead of selling me content.

I think the real failure here was in the communication about the licensing model. We got a couple of press releases with some bullet points but no real detailed information. Particularly around the resale hubs and so on - all that was talking-head-level-stuff, no real concrete… anything. I think a lot of fears could have been assuaged by just having those details ready up front. Can you show me one of these resale hubs? Can you give me any idea about where prices might start in there? What have publishers actually said about this stuff? There’s a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt there, and I think it fueled the masses. They should have been ready with a ton of details, but they weren’t, and now we are where we are.

What I’m curious about is if they’ll “phase in” the new model. Start off with the old, but then add components in one at a time. You can buy a disc-based game, but if you buy a digital game… now you have that 10-person-sharing-plan - a benefit of going digital instead of disc. Get people used to some of the cool parts without doing the “rip-off-the-bandage” approach to changing it up. I don’t see why they couldn’t.

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