Microsoft’s Xbox One DRM: How It Could Have Been Done

The reaction of the public to the now former DRM policies of the Xbox One has been confusing to say the least. Microsoft’s announcements of the policies in the PR nightmare that followed the initial reveal of the Xbox One were received about as well as Frankenstein’s monster to a torch-and-pitchfork-armed angry mob. The gaming community argued their points of view all through the weeks leading up to E3 2013, which spanned both sides of the argument, but left the perceived consensus that the public was against the policies of Xbox One. Despite delivering a more core gamer focused media briefing at E3 than they had in past years, Microsoft found themselves overshadowed by the announcement that Sony’s PlayStation 4 would not require an online connection at any time.

At the risk of losing ground to Sony in the upcoming console generation, Microsoft reversed its decisions on the Xbox One DRM. Not just on the 24 hour limitation, but on all of the Xbox One’s new online features. The reaction of the gaming community toward Xbox One’s policies had seemed to change in an instant from anger and alienation to the disappointment and regret that consumers would not be able to take advantage of those features that were beneficial to consumers. I can only imagine that members of the Xbox One team at Microsoft were left stunned by the reaction.

Deciphering the Viewpoint

We can interpret this series of events in a variety of ways. We could assume that the more vocal members of the community were only heard when their side of the argument was at stake. This is probably somewhat likely, but deeming it the sole reason leaves us with having learned nothing. We could also consider the spread of information on the Xbox One policies was not handled well by Microsoft. This is also probably likely, but puts Microsoft in a position of trying to improve its message over its product. I would argue that the truth is actually a combination of these two ideas, with one addition. The possibility is, and stay with me here, that perhaps the gaming community wanted some of the Xbox One’s features, but not all of them.

Could it have been done?

I’ll argue that it could have been done with full acceptance from the public. I’ll even argue that Microsoft could have been the one to do it. I’ve heard the arguments that this generation was the wrong time, and that Microsoft was ahead of itself with these policies. I disagree. Microsoft’s attitude that this was the generation to separate the Xbox One from the competition was not flawed in itself, but rather the execution was at fault. Here’s how I think Microsoft could have gotten the community on its side with Xbox One:

The Example

The Steam community has raved about the potential of using a set top box or console with the service for quite some time now. Steam recently introduced Big Picture mode, a UI designed specifically for use with a television set and controller, all while rumblings of a Steam box have been turning in the rumor mill. Anyone who says that consumers have not wanted a Steam-like experience on a console would have to be in denial. However, it’s no secret that Steam suffered its own growing pains in the beginning. In the design of the Xbox One, Microsoft could have taken advantage of what Valve had learned through the evolution of Steam. With this understood, the Xbox One’s 24 hour check-in is baffling. It is the one policy introduced by Microsoft that seemed to be panned from both sides. Why introduce a problem that the competition has already solved?

Controlling the Message

To the outside consumer looking in, it almost seems as if Microsoft believed that the restrictions involved with the Xbox One would just be glanced over and ignored, like every other Terms of Service agreement. It is also possible that the policies were still being finalized up until the console reveal and were still not well understood even internally at Microsoft. Unfortunately, what Microsoft saw fit to release in an unfinished state, the gaming community saw as a potential deal breaker.

I believe that there are circumstances under which the gaming community would have accepted the policies of Xbox One (with the exception of the 24 hour check-in). Microsoft’s own preparedness to speak to the policies and inform the consumer is one of them. The customer needed to see that Microsoft was taking the changes seriously and understood both sides of the argument. The problem with the message following the Xbox One reveal is that the it seemed to be all restriction with no benefit to the consumer. It wasn’t until nearer to E3 when these benefits, such as the family share plan, were announced and by then the damage had been done. If the benefits to the consumer outweigh the restrictions of the policies, then the community will see them ultimately as a win for them.

An Olive Branch

The ultimate benefit to consumers in an all digital gaming platform is a reduction in the price of games. Since publishers and developers gain the previously lost sales due to used games, they can afford to offer new games at a reduced price. This argument is made in favor of the Xbox One, but seems to be arising from using Steam as an example for the all digital model. The problem is that the digital game sales on Xbox 360 have developed the reputation of maintaining the launch price for games long after other retailers have reduced the price for disc based versions. This begs an important question regarding Steam sales. Does Steam provide reduced pricing because they have competition for digital sales on PC, or because there is no space for used sales?

I believe that had Microsoft made a commitment to Steam-like sales on digital games through Xbox 360 prior to announcing the new policies of Xbox One, the gaming community would have been much more accepting of the lack of trading or used game sales. There is no competition for Microsoft in digital game sales; you can only purchase digital games for Xbox from Xbox Live. Microsoft should have recognized this as a concern for the consumer and offered sales on the current generation as an olive branch.

Conclusion

An argument that continues to be thrown around by those in support of Xbox One’s DRM is that it is not the fault of publishers and developers to want to not lose used game sales to GameStop and other re-sellers. I think it’s important to understand that despite the events surrounding the Xbox One, the gaming community does not hold an opinion against that idea. Gamers want to support the industry and the creators, and we understand that used game sales are ultimately a detriment to that. We can remove used games from the market entirely AND do it with gamer support, but the platform needs to remain as accessible as it is today.

It’s easy to point out all of the ways that the Xbox One announcement went wrong after the fact. It is much more difficult to anticipate these problems ahead of time. These features will be available on consoles sooner than later, probably even in the upcoming generation, despite how things have shaken out so far.

Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment or get in touch with me on Twitter.

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