A storm was brewing under Microsoft for a while before they revealed the Xbox One, and with the reveal, that storm was let loose in a torrent of anger and confusion. When we finally got some straight answers from Microsoft, the bad news was confirmed: The Xbox One will not allow us to play games if it cannot connect to Xbox Live at least once every 24 hours, and we will no longer be able to decide for ourselves what should happen to the games we've bought. But that's only one side of the story. The other side goes like this...
So much anger and confusion...
We live in increasingly digital world. Steam, iTunes, Origin, Google Play, and Windows Store are just some of the digital storefronts which will gladly sell us digital-only games with next to no rights for re-selling those games, getting your money back for an unsatisfactory purchase, or sharing your games with your peers. And we have all been gobbling it up to the point where this way of selling games has become a truly massive success. So massive in fact that EA's own Peter Moore expects the revenue from EA's digital sales to outdo that of their retail sales within a few years. With digital sales growing while retail sales are slumping, it's clear that consumers are increasingly taking to games that don't come in a box. Combined with the higher profit margins this gives developers and publishers, it's clear that digital game sales will play an increasingly important part of the industry going forward.
However, Microsoft knows that a digital-only route for consoles isn't viable yet (not to mention that some consumers, on the whole, still prefer buying their games physically). With retail games shipping on blu-ray discs, games can potentially take up to 50 GB of space, which is way too much in a world of small bandwidth caps and an average bandwidth of 2.9 MB/s (more detailed stats here). But rather than build a system that is rooted in the ways of yore, Microsoft has taken a hybrid approach that is prepared for the growth of digital. All your games are therefore now treated as digitally managed ones, it's just a matter of whether the game data was retrieved from a server or a disc.
Your games are on the other end.
This creates problems for us, the console gamers, though, as our discs can't be used the way we're used to. But rather than stick to the established ways laid down by Steam et al., Microsoft is creating a system which allows us to re-sell the discs we've got our games on, to share our games with our family and friends, and to give away our games to our friends. This is why Microsoft considers themselves to be good guys in all this (and frankly, these are very sensible improvements that would all be more than welcome on any of the aforementioned platforms). There are problems in the current policy, however. By leaving a lot of details up to the publishers, consumers won't be sure what they can and cannot do with their different games. And how will we be compensated if publishers choose to diminish the value of our purchases this way? Lowered prices maybe? Microsoft is setting a precedent by allowing their games to be resold and given to friends, but will that entice all publishers to do the same? Time will tell, but it would seem unlikely as publishers will surely experiment with what is and is not acceptable to consumers.
The most dangerous problem, however, is that of the online check-in. With the current policy, one of the few things that's certain is that if our console hasn't connected to Xbox Live within the last 24 hours, all our games are unplayable. It's understandable that Microsoft would do this; with the ability for consumers to resell, share or give away their games, it would be easy to, for example, take your console offline and then trade in all of your retail games, while still having these games playable on your console. But why should anyone be limited from playing the games they own, just because they haven't been able to connect to Xbox Live for over 24 hours for one reason or another?
No, going offline does not mean we're doing this...
In its current incarnation, this policy incriminates every Xbox One owner by saying ”If you're offline for this long, you're probably trying to scam us”. But what happened to "innocent until proven guilty”? Don't punish people for wanting to play their games if they are offline, or if Xbox Live is down. I also hope that when the time comes to retire all of the cloud systems for the One, all of this can be switched off, so consumers aren't just left with an expensive TV remote.
There is potential here for a very nice system which allows us all great flexibility in how we manage, share, and play our games, but it is hamstrung by a few anti-consumer decisions. So while policies like the ten person sharing and the giving away of your digital games are very nice and welcome improvements to existing digital games management, they do not currently outweigh the downsides. But the Xbox One is not out yet, and we still have a number of blanks that need to filled out before we can judge this system for what it really does. This makes it all the better that Sony is now putting the pressure on Microsoft to deliver some very good reasons for consumers to get excited about the One. But then Sony themselves could also learn a thing or two from what Microsoft is doing with our rights for digitally bought games.