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Microsoft: A Finger on the Pulse and a Knife in the Back

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By the time Yusuf Mehdi had concluded his rousing demonstration of the XBox One's featureset, I was prepared to drive--no, speed--to Gamestop and throw whatever money I had in my wallet at them, offering little else a girlish squee as explanation. So excited was I, that the virtually unanimous negative response to to Microsoft's press conference took me completely by surprise.

 How could this be? Here we have a system that essentially replaces your set-top box (while also completely eliminating the need to remember channel numbers, or even keep the remote control on-hand) while delivering instantaneous--and even overlapping--content. Stuck on a segment of Dark Souls II? Call out for the XBox to bring up the browser, and it will sidle in beside your game, allowing you to surf for hints or walkthroughs without having to look away from the screen. As a lazy tech geek myself, having easy, immediate access to so much entertainment is the dream. My current solution is using a home theater system, through which I run my consoles and satellite service. It's a painless solution to the problem of menu-crawling to change inputs, but it's not perfect; the XBox One's remedy actually is. 

It wasn't until I had caught up on all the news that hadn't made it to the stage that I realized not only why everyone was so upset, but why I would probably be skipping this otherwise-idyllic console. 

To begin, the X1's (I'm coining it here, deal with it) internet requirements are not quite so Draconian as we had been lead to believe prior to the Adam Orth debacle. Rather than twenty minutes of offline play, users will be given a 24-hour window to reconnect and retain functionality. However, if we take Microsoft corporate VP Phil Harrison's words to Wired magazine at face value, not only will failing to connect cost you the ability to play your games (including single-player, offline games), but your entire system will brick - that includes playing music and watching TV or movies. 

To call this practice "questionable" would be to shirk my responsibility as a free-thinking human being, so I'll just call it what it is: Reprehensible. Granted, not being able to play your video games without the internet is a first-world problem, but that doesn't mean we have to accept business policies that unreasonably restrict our entertainment. There is no necessity in Microsoft's requiring a once-daily internet connection; it's to serve the purpose of maximizing profits through direct-marketing and data-mining. Obviously, there's nothing inherently wrong with trying to profit from your endeavors - it's when those profits come at the expense of the consumer that it becomes an ethical issue. 

Many gamers don't see the big deal. "We're always on the internet anyway," is a common answer on the forums and in comment sections. While that is true, and certainly a once-daily "check-in" connection is preferable to the always-on variety, it still makes using an XBox difficult for a signficant segment of the population. My own previous internet connection (through Verizon) was terribly spotty; losing service for 12-48 hours wasn't all that uncommon, and long-distance truckers and military service personnel are left to find their gaming nirvana elsewhere.

There are no guarantees Sony won't announce a similar practice at E3, but their emphasis on accessability suggests otherwise. 

Yet, this wasn't even the worst bit of news to emerge in the hours following what I considered to be a hugely-successful and exciting reveal: The XBox One will require users to pay a fee to play used games.

One could opt to look on the bright side and say, "Well, at least they aren't blocked," but shelling out full MSRP for second-hand games - particularly older games, which tend to plummet in price on the secondary market, while remaining frustratingly expensive in digital form - certainly takes the shine off the silver lining. The details aren't official yet, but Harrison's comments to Wired seem pretty clear:

"The bits that are on that disc, you can give it to your friend and they can install it on an Xbox One," he said. "They would then have to purchase the right to play that game through Xbox Live."

"They would be paying the same price we paid, or less?" we asked.

"Lets assume its a new game, so the answer is yes, it will be the same price," Harrison said.Wired

As rage-inducing as this news is, it's somewhat less profane than the connection requirement. Here, rather than simple, naked greed, game publishers are simply asking for what they consider to be their rightful share. And, in some ways, it makes sense: Proceeds from secondary sales go entirely to the retailer, while developers and publshers are left to hope that used game sales don't dissaude too many people from buying a new copy. 

But in what other related medium does such a practice occur? You don't see movie distributors tethering their content to one player, and even music - which once required pirating to move songs from device to device - now has a hands-off approach to DRM. (Of course, digital content is a different story, at least when it comes to film, and even literature, but we'll cross that bridge in gaming when we come to it) So if MGM isn't crying over you handing off your movies to a buddy, why are game publishers whining about sharing games? 

I don't have the answer to that. I wish I did, because this would be a good place to make a suggestion, but I don't. All I can say is that these developments are dealbreakers for me. My internet connection is strong, and I have no immediate plans on living net free anytime soon, but stuff happens and it's entirely possible that I will have to spend an indefinite period of time without access. I'm not forking over hundreds of dollars for a box that does not work without an internet connection when there's absolutely no necessity in having that connection in the first place. A cellphone obviously requires some form of connection to perform its main task, but I shouldn't need to check in every day to play an offline game. And even then, should my phone lose service, it remains functional - I can use the camera, watch donwloaded videos, and use apps. The X1 will just be a fat black brick sitting beneath my television. 

And while it may sound selfish (I'd call it prudence, but that's just me) most of my collection consists of used games. I'm unwilling to pay full retail price for a game that might suck when my only recourse is getting half my money back, and that's provided I go to Gamestop and return it within a short amount of time. The secondary market allows me to stay current, and gets me excited for games that I will gladly buy new. Without that incentive, I can't imagine I'll be gaming much longer. 

Maybe it doesn't matter to you. Maybe it does. One thing that we can all take heart in is that this next console generation is providing us with something the last one sorely lacked: Choices. 

Whereas the 360 and PS3 are similar in too many ways for the decision between them to be of much consequence, it looks as if the PS4 and X1 are truly unique machines. Microsoft has chosen to focus on turning your living room into the XBox Room, while Sony gets back to its roots by advocating for the gaming purist. Either console has its benefits and its inconveniences, and the jury is still out on just how Sony will handle the used game "problem," but the idea that we can actually get two different experiences from these consoles is a breath of fresh air. 

It's just too bad that Microsoft made my choice for me already. 

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