No, Xbox One’s DRM Reversal Didn’t Doom the Industry

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Posted on June 25, 2013, Ross Lincoln No, Xbox One’s DRM Reversal Didn’t Doom the Industry

So you’ve just heard that after an absolutely hilarious, and often painfully tone-deaf three months, Microsoft has finally accepted reality and removed the obnoxious DRM and always-online requirements from Xbox One. Congratulations, you lucky bastards. We’ll never know what it was that pushed Microsoft over the edge – I have some theories – but in an interesting twist, Microsoft is framing the whole about-face as a response to feedback from consumers. Said consumers have generally grown accustomed to seeing complaints to their societal betters fall on deaf ears, so for once to have actually eked out a victory of a sort feels pretty good.

But according to some industry figures and a surprising number of game journalists, far from a victory for consumer rights (not to mention for the fun parts of playing video games), this reversal is nothing short of disaster. There are two basic arguments to this: 1) With the deactivation of two key features along with the DRM and always-on requirement, everything that makes Xbox One innovative has been excised, ruining the console; and 2) Those unpopular features were, apparently, the only thing standing between the video gaming industry and certain doom.

Gosh, all of these straw men pose a serious fire hazard. To keep from setting the Internet aflame, let’s pick them apart one at a time.

Xbox One Has Been Ruined, Except It Really Hasn’t

With the removal of Xbox One’s least popular aspects, the console will ship with slightly fewer features, and slightly more inconveniences, at least at first.

In the statement released Wednesday, Microsoft said of their about-face that “these changes will impact some of the scenarios we previously announced for Xbox One. The sharing of games will work as it does today, you will simply share the disc.” What the impact would be was left unsaid, but speaking to Kotaku, Microsoft’s Marc Whitten elaborated on how the “scenarios we previously announced” will change.

“One of the things we were very exicted about was ‘wherever we go my games are always with me.’ Now, of course,” Whitten said, “your physical games won’t show up that way. The content you bought digitally will. But you’ll have to bring your discs with you to have your games with you. Similarly, the sharing library [is something] we won’t be able to deliver at launch.” He’s referring here to two of the features revealed on June 6 during Microsoft’s initial ‘clarification’ of Xbox One three days before E3.

The first is the ability to access your stored games from the cloud no matter where you are, either by bringing your console with you or logging into your profile from a friend’s console. Convenient to be sure, but as it costs exactly nothing to slip the games you want to play into an overnight bag, the only thing lost here is the time it would take to sync with the Xbox One cloud and access the games (and note that it was never confirmed precisely how the games would be accessed, whether streaming, or downloading to someone else’s console; either option presents challenges). And we probably shouldn’t forget the fact that until Microsoft’s about-face, Xbox One wouldn’t work in over half the world.

(Image via eGamer.)

The second feature is the ability to share, digitally, your installed games with up to 10 “family members”. Though this feature was poorly explained even after the clarification, the gist is that you and these 10 people would play your copy of a game at the same time. That is, admittedly, an exceptionally cool idea.

For reasons that escape me, several journalists and industry members have reacted to the removal of these features with… peculiarly intense unhappiness. This Gizmodo article is a typical example, the argument being that these features would have been a fair trade off for the loss of consumer rights, and without them, Xbox One has somehow been ruined. I don’t doubt the view is sincerely held. I will however, politely, point out that it is nonsense.

First, none of us actually have any idea how these features were going to work. None. This is important to remember when we’re gnashing our collective teeth. As I noted above, Microsoft never actually clarified how cloud gaming would work – if it required full downloads, that’s an incredible inconvenience. Think about how long it takes to download your average DLC pack and extrapolate that to the size of a full-length game and you have an idea of the potential time commitment required to take advantage of the feature. Not exactly an improvement over simply bringing the physical disc with you wherever you go. As for streaming, that’s going to depend on the quality of the Internet connection you’re trying to use, something as rife with potential inconveniences as a full download would be.

Similarly, Microsoft has only stated the family sharing feature would be included, but never how family sharing would actually function. Even prior to the reversal, the most benign assumption was that the feature would only allow the owner of the license and one other person at a time to play a given game simultaneously. And information that has emerged since Microsoft’s reversal on Xbox One DRM suggests the possibility that family sharing would have been a highly restrictive mess on par with everything else consumers hated about it.

In a much-discussed Pastebin post of an email purporting to be from a Microsoft employee which was published on Thursday, family sharing was described like this: “When your family member accesses any of your games, they’re placed into a special demo mode. This demo mode in most cases would be the full game with a 15-45 minute timer and in some cases an hour. This allowed the person to play the game, get familiar with it then make a purchase if they wanted to.”

The Verge claimed to have spoken to “sources familiar with Microsoft’s Xbox plans,” who confirmed that the company was indeed considering such time limits. If that’s the case, then family sharing would have been a poor substitute for the way console games have traditionally been shared. That said, though it’s tempting to assume the validity of the Pastebin post given everything else we’ve known about how Xbox One works, it should be noted that Microsoft has officially denied at least part of the claims made in it. Aaron Greenberg has said on Twitter, that “[t]here was no time limit, it was as we described. Team still investing in more digital features over time.” Marc Whitten has also denied the time limit.

Notably, neither denial addresses the claim that family sharing would have been a demo-only experience. Game Front has reached out to Microsoft for clarification, and we’ll update with any response we receive.

There’s also a problem with the silly notion that Microsoft has somehow been forced to deal specific functional damage to the console via this deactivation. If that were true, it would be far more difficult than simply adding the deactivation to the launch day patch Microsoft insists it was already planning for the console. While I’m sure Major Nelson would agree that I’m not on the development team, I’d bet there’s a strong likelihood that the software and hardware related to these two features is intrinsically linked to the same technology as the inability to share, loan or trade games. At minimum, all of these features needed to keep track of who the “licenses” were registered to in order to work, so deactivating one remotely means deactivating all of them. This is hardly the ruination of the device. No doubt future models will see them restored at the point of manufacture, though I wouldn’t also rule out another patch down the line.

Xbox One has not gotten “way worse,” unless your concept of worse involves greater freedom and the continued enjoyment of rights supported by more than a century of constitutional law. All that has happened is that two features – features which could best be compared to sweet potato fries along with your kobe hamburger – have been deactivated. And probably temporarily – Microsoft’s own statement describes the features as something “we won’t be able to deliver at launch,” the important words being “at launch.”

So relax guys, you’ll probably get to go through the convoluted process of picking 10 people and getting Microsoft to approve them, or getting a little Steam-style cloud gaming out of Xbox One yet. Yes, I know you’ll have to wait a bit longer to do it. Just deal with it.

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