We all knew it was coming.
Microsoft’s revelations about their Xbox One console earlier this week seemed to piss a lot of people off. In fine Internet fashion, the news itself was aggregated into a single image with an Xbox-green background (you can probably find it if you look) detailing the differences between the relatively less-restrictive Xbox 360 and the upcoming Xbox One (I still hate that name). Usually, when I see crap like that image on the Internet, I figure there’s a good amount of exaggeration involved. Turns out, this time, the Internet was right. It really looks like Microsoft wants to make big changes in the way we play our console games.
To me, none of it would be particularly bad…if this were, say, 2018 or so.
The lack of backwards compatibility in the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 is a letdown, but it’s not surprising, given the difference in architectures between the new systems and their predecessors. And so far, it doesn’t look like Microsoft’s going to show the indie development world much love. It’s still too early to consider adopting either system, as even confirmed details are subject to change. I’m not yet ready to earmark my cash for either console. We’ll know more later this month, and maybe we’ll even see Microsoft backpedal on some of this stuff in the wake of all the Internet anger (although I doubt it). In any case, I only really care about the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 as gaming machines.
The Xbox One’s biggest problem, to me, is the requirement to connect every twenty-four hours just to play games on it, and Microsoft’s assumption (or requirement) that every Xbox One owner will have an always-on broadband connection. They recommend a connection of 1.5 Mbps, saying “For reference, the average global internet connection speed as measured recently by Akamai was 2.9 Mbps.” I’ve heard that many users in Japan routinely enjoy speeds of 100 Mbps, which may have skewed the average a bit, giving them that 2.9 Mbps “global” number they cited. Here in the US, things aren’t so uniformly rosy.
According to a report filed by the FCC in August of 2012, nearly 19 million US citizens had no access to fixed broadband (‘broadband,’ in the scope of this report, is defined as “Internet access services faster than dial-up”). Of those with access, around 64% subscribed to speeds lower than 3 Mbps. Microsoft suggests connecting via mobile broadband in areas without fixed access, but I’ll bet that ain’t cheap (imagine the charge for downloading a 25GB game). The same FCC report indicates that around 3% of Americans still connect with a modem and phone line, and I guess if all you need to do is connect to Microsoft’s servers to validate your game-session, dial-up may work just fine, at least until it’s time to update your games or system software.
This whole connectivity thing is likely a bridge to our digitally-distributed future. As things stand now, though, the thought of downloading a BluRay-based game over my DSL Internet connection is frightening. And faster speeds are not available to me in my area (unless I go with Comcast, which would net me only a marginal increase in speed, to say nothing of the headaches). We’re just not at the stage of the game yet, infrastructure-wise. Someday we will be, but not now. It’s sort of like trying to sell a sports car in a country with only a few hundred feet of paved roads.
The restrictions they are imposing on the re-selling and lending of games is a whole other matter, but again, it’s where the industry is heading. Much like Steam and other PC games platforms, consoles will more than likely shift to an entirely digitally-distributed content model. If there’s no discs, there’s no used games, at least as we know them. Microsoft is providing a choice with the Xbox One: disc or digital, take your pick, because both will available on day one. And both come with the same rights management. You could own the Xbox One for a decade without ever putting a disc in the tray. That’s the future.
Speaking of used games, according to Microsoft, the re-selling of games is possible, but whether or not a given Xbox One game can be re-sold at all is entirely up to the publishers. To many gamers, this spells the end of used games, because they don’t think publishers would be willing to keep the used games business going. I personally don’t see it that way, and I don’t think we’ll see used games go away entirely. Remember this article from former THQ executive Richard Browne? He talks about retailers like GameStop, who will buy a new-ish game from a customer for less than half of retail, re-sell it for $5 cheaper than new, then pressure customers into buying the used copy when they ask for new, as the article points out. This has happened to me. Publishers receive no revenues from these re-sales. This is largely how you end up with, say, a million unique Xbox IDs that have played a particular game, but only 600,000 recorded sales. That’s 400,000 players that have given their money to GameStop instead of the publishers, who in turn can’t pay the developers. Who, in the worst cases, end up shut down. It’s no wonder the publishers would like to see this particular practice come to an end. If their solution means taking a cut from the re-sale and kicking it back to the publisher, that’s not so bad. It’s not the same as what we’re used to, but it’s better than nothing. I predict many publishers would be open to this sort of transaction.
It’s the “participating retailer” thing that bothers me. I’m guessing “participating” really means “dues-paying.” I see the potential for some shady shit going down, but that’s probably just my distrustful nature. In the future, the marketplace could allow for direct transactions between players, eliminating the middleman. Sure, the whole digital distribution frontier could mean the end of the brick-and-mortar games store (same for music and movies), but there’s no sense in pretending such a thing won’t happen eventually. Discs are going away. Someday.
Just not yet.
In the future, when everyone in the world has a super-fast Internet connection, a disc-free console wouldn’t be an issue. You could visit a friend, log into your own account on their console, and whatever game you wanted to play from your library could be downloaded in the time it takes you to gather your Fritos and Kool-Aid. They could even cook up methods for renting and digitally lending games to friends, things Microsoft promises they are “exploring” for the future (that’s right – you won’t see any Xbox One games in your local RedBox at launch). Maybe the change will happen within the Xbox One’s life cycle. Maybe the next console, ten or twelve or twenty years from now, won’t even have a disc drive. I just hope they don’t call it the Xbox Two.
So it’ll be interesting to see what shakes out from all this. Will Microsoft relax some of those restrictions? Will Sony follow suit and introduce some of their own anger-inducing rights management schemes? Will either system get any cool exclusives at launch that I absolutely must play? Or will my cash instead go towards a graphics card upgrade in my gaming PC?
I know you can’t wait to find out. Stay tuned!
(Image credit: Microsoft)