The mantra "It's all about the games" always rings true. Consoles live and die by their exclusives, by the killer apps that encourage you to buy one over the other, and by the ease with which you can access these formidable selling points.
Microsoft know that. It's why they've funnelled $1 billion into the acquisition of exclusive properties for the Xbox One and the expansion of Microsoft Studios. It's why Don Mattrick took the time in a press conference that had nothing to do with games to emphatically tease no fewer than 15 unique games on Microsoft's next-gen system. It's why Microsoft are confident enough to stick an enormous middle digit up to the consumer audience and dare us not to buy the Xbox One.
The "clarification", if you can call it that, of Microsoft's policies (which are, of course, subject to change at any given point) regarding the Xbox One and game ownership made for some dark reading. We had hoped against hope that Microsoft would strive to make their systems more open, more friendly, and more transparent. We were foolish and suffering from a severe case of denial. The signs have been there all along.
- Discs are now MacGuffins. They in no way imply ownership and are just catalysts for installations.
- You licence games, you don't own them. Ownership... what a silly notion.
- Games are tethered to both the primary console on which they are installed and also your user account.
- Anyone can play your games on the primary console, whether you're logged in or not.
- If you're logged in at your friend's house, you can play your games on their console.
- Publishers will decide whether or not you can trade their games, and whether or not to charge a fee for this.
- You can't lend games to people unless they've been on your friends list for at least 30 days.
- You can only lend games once.
- Of course, loaning and renting won't be available at launch.
- The Xbox One must feed on internet once every 24 hours.
- Or every one hour if you're signed in to a different console with your account.
Of course, the idea that we "own" a piece of copyrighted art, whatever the form of replication, is a vague one at best, but retail law has traditionally protected the rights of the consumer when it comes to open markets. Digital Rights Management has always been an insidious feature that punishes consumers pre-emptively: a quick fix for companies too bloated to respond to rapidly-changing commercial environments and a consumer base that's outgrown their dated models.
And least, that's what held true for music and television and film.
But games are different. The expense of console titles, something that will only increase with the release of these next-gen machines, means that the pre-owned market has always been something of a boon for those on-the-fence games. The digitalisation of music allowed us to pick apart albums and get to the tracks we wanted with great ease, and at fair individual prices. To be fair, we've started to see that happen with games in a meaningful fashion with F2P efforts and episodic titles that strive to be good rather than just mine people wallets.
There's an argument to be made that this is just Microsoft falling in line with their greatest competitors -- Apple and Steam -- creating a closed network under a singular brand that allows them to dictate whatever they want to, whilst offering ultimate convenience to consumers who buy into their little ecosystem. Of course, Apple have been doing this for years and are much better at it and have a massive headstart, and Steam will let me play offline for weeks at a time.
Pricing is key, of course, and Apple and Steam have both shown an affinity for appealing to consumers who buy into their platform. Avalanche's CFO made the comparison the other day that no-one complains about not being able to trade in iOS games, and he was right. No-one complains about not being to trade in XBLA games, nor Steam games. But that's because those games, by and large, don't cost £40. A glance at Xbox 360's digital marketplace for on demand games at the moment does not make for happy reading, either.
But Microsoft don't give a sh*t about you or I, in case the Xbone reveal didn't quite hammer that home. This sinister, manipulative bit of anti-consumer licensing garbage is aimed squarely at similar entities known for being sinister and manipulative and, at times, anti-consumer: those pesky publishers. Set against the backdrop of Microsoft's policies, EA's move to drop the Online Pass suddenly appears far less like a company admitting its mistake, and far more like a company abandoning one money-leeching concept in advance of the Next Big Thing, which will allow them to operate in much the same way under a glorious umbrella held up by the platform holder. And then there's this "participating retailer" phrase. Look how innocuous that is, sitting there like that. Indie outfits should be worried by that, because "participating retailers" basically means GameStop. As if they didn't have enough influence already.
Still, at least Microsoft have kindly given us the option to keep all of our business private if we want. Thanks so much for conceding to a basic human right!
Yet we'll suck this all down because of the games. I wondered if Microsoft had done this the wrong way round: revealing their dastardly policies before we had a glimpse of what they'd be offering us in return. But actually this is the way good news, bad news works. You start by lowering expectations, hinting towards a sh*t sandwich; but then you counter-act that with magnificent spectacles, grand theatrics, massive reveals, and must-have exclusives. It's a huge gamble, but Microsoft are clearly confident that they have the firepower at this year's E3 to turn some heads.
The sad fact is that Microsoft will be perfectly happy for the Xbox One to be the Call of Duty, FIFA, and Halo console. Most of the people who buy it won't care about the connectivity features, and the metrics will probably suggest that the largest proportion of Microsoft audience are those who play the same three games online with their mates, on the same console, year in and year out, and watch ESPN religiously. The Xbone Reveal was targeted at the same demographic as Smart TVs might have: affluent, engaged, and connected.
The vocal minority across the internet shouts, "If they do this, everyone will just buy a PS4!" But who is this "everyone"? Cliff Bleszinski was actually kind of on the money when he called out us internet preachers:
If you’re currently raging about this on GAF, or on the IGN forums, or on Gamespot, guess what? You’re the vocal minority. Your average guy that buys just Madden and GTA every year doesn’t know, nor does he care. He has no problem throwing a few bucks more at a game because, hey, why not?"
Bleszinski was talking about microtransactions at the time, but the point extends to this. The average guy uses iTunes, streams Netflix, and won't give a damn about any of this. Microsoft have an audience that has told them that it wants this. We, and here I am taling about the vocal minority, just might not be a part of it any more. And that will hurt only as much as Microsoft's exclusives dictate that it will. As to that point, we'll just have to wait and see what the damage is.
One final note... Microsoft have at least unveiled most of their heinous desires to scupper game ownership and trade away consumer power. Sony, hiding behind Yoshida's smiling face and seemingly straightforward comments, haven't actually outlined their plans either, only that things would be left up to the publishers. And that sounds awfully familiar. There's a strong possibility that the most consumer-friendly console post-E3 might just be the Wii U, and with Mario and Link and others waiting in the wings, a fortnight's time could see Nintendo as some rather unlikely champions.
Wouldn't that be interesting?