I’ve decided not to abandon all hope for the Xbox One just yet.
As the dust from E3 settles, it’s quite apparent that the new Xbox has taken quite a beating. The revelation that the console would feature a strict, one-copy-per-person game policy hasn’t been very good for its public reception, particularly considering DRM has never been a popular method of license-enforcement. DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is a blanket term for technology used to control the access to content after it has been sold, primarily for copyright reasons. The Xbox One, in particulary, needs to check-in with Xbox authentication servers once a day. In addition, games can only be traded once, and only then to people you’ve been friends with for more than 30 days. This news, coupled with the fact that the successor to the Xbox dynasty is $100 more expensive than its Sony counterpart, seems to doom the console before it even hits the shelves.
But isn’t that what Steam does?
Steam, the popular PC gaming market place, has largely the same restrictions. Once you buy a game from their online store, it is tied to your account. It can’t be transferred, and all games bought through Steam require Steam to be online (or at least, logged in) before they will run. And yet, Steam does incredibly well. Their community is large, developers are happy with its results, and consumers like the fact that they can get games cheaply and quickly, with the added benefits of cloud storage, game synchronization, and a nice community to boot.
It seems as though Microsoft is just awful at telling people this. A frustrated Microsoft dev anonymously commented on the console’s release, making a number of points about the its goal and purpose. His most notable point was that by restricting the ability to resell games, things like licensing fees and anticipatory price hikes can be reduced or eliminated. If the console takes off (which, if only because of its name, is more likely than not), it could conceivably create a Steam-like environment, where games are cheap, no one gets ripped off by GameStop, and people can watch live TV while playing Gears of War. Plus, how awkward would it be for a game to be $20 less for the Xbox One than on the PS4?
This, obviously, remains to be seen, but it does poke at a few important issues. Firstly, what makes Steam so successful and Microsoft so loathed, when they effectively have (or will have) the same business model? Apart from Steam’s good-guy reputation (supporting the indie game culture and being run by Gabe Newell) and Microsoft’s large, corporate bulk, there is the concept of physical media.
Physical media is, by most accounts, dying off. People buy their music online instead of getting CDs, and people rely on Netflix and the like for their movie fix. Aside from music enthusiasts and vinyl collectors, physical media is all but going extinct. The Xbox One gnaws on Blu-Ray discs to deliver content, a crutch that will ultimately hurt it. When people buy games on discs, they have a feeling of ownership. When people buy games on the iTunes AppStore, they don’t seem to typically think, “damnit, I’d love to give this game to Joe, but I just can’t.” Similarly with Steam, there doesn’t seem to be much of a demand to resell games (if you can consider such a thing possible). The Xbox needs a fail-safe way to ensure that games don’t rely on the physical media. My Steam games can’t get scratched, broken, or stolen, an advantage I happily trade for Steam’s DRM.
Again, I’m not going to lose hope in the Xbox One completely. I’m not about to buy one right away, and certainly not until the advantages (and disadvantages) of its seemingly-draconian DRM come to light, but there’s still hope yet for Microsoft’s amped-up VCR.