Sunday, 9 June 2013

Xbox One Thoughts


Microsoft's Xbox division have been sliding over the last few years from their late 2000s image as the prime movers in the console business into something more like classic corporate Microsoft. This transition has hit a new peak in the last month with the reveal of the Xbox One, and the associated furore around DRM, privacy concerns, and apparent sidelining of the core gaming audience. On the last point, my opinion is that I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt; Microsoft representatives all but said that the reveal three weeks ago was to get all of the information that gamers hate being talked about at E3 out of the way (TV, TV, TV, sports) so that the focus at E3 could be on games. As for the rest of it, I have opinions that I don't think are easily captured in a tweet, or an image with some snarky text on it. So here it is in long form.


Enraging The Internet

I haven't been surprised by many of the announcements Microsoft have made mostly because of the amount of information that leaked out in the months leading up to their reveal event. What has surprised me is the terrible PR work Microsoft has been doing. Not having prepared answers to questions about always online requirements and used game sales for the interviews directly following the reveal is astonishing. Waiting two weeks before putting out statements on the specifics while rumours solidified into assumed facts is stupid. A five minute meeting before the big day in which someone said "If you're asked about DRM or always online say we're not talking about that at this time." would have put them in line with Sony's poker faced response to such questions. The "Sony is games" versus "Xbox is TV" narrative would still exist, but the Sony-as-benevolent-consumer-advocate image would not have grown. I don't care about who "wins" beyond wanting some decent competition, and thinking the Xbox controllers are comprehensively better than DualShocks, but watching a company that big screw up PR that hard is mind boggling.


The Key Fact

Microsoft have made the decision that owning a disc no longer serves as proof that the owner has the right to play the game. The new interpretation is that buying a disc confers a licence to play the game and a convenient copy of the data required to do so. Although this has technically always been the case, as a practical matter it has been disc equals game. It is worth noting that consumers have for a long time expected paying for a game to mean more than simply being able to play the game on the disc: Things like rebalancing for multiplayer games and bug-fix patches have significant cost which gamers expect to receive for free. The downsides of the new interpretation to consumers are myriad, including no or limited ability to resell or lend games, and are causing a lot of anger.

Changing the definition of game ownership so that having a disc doesn't mean owning the game is the root cause of most subsequent DRM decisions Microsoft has made, and most of the anger that has come from consumers.


Microsoft Don't Care About Consumers

Lots of people have referred to the Xbox One's DRM measures as anti-consumer. Mostly people are not clear on the definition but it seems to roughly mean "it is more difficult to consume the media I have legally purchased". This is true and as such it sucks. Then again, a consumer is of no inherent value to Microsoft. What Microsoft wants is profitable customers. There are several ways in which, thinking only of games, a consumer can be a profitable customer:

  • Buy a new game on disc. The store, the publisher and Microsoft all get money.
  • Buy a new game digitally. The publisher and Microsoft both get money.
  • Pay for a Live Gold subscription. Microsoft makes money.
  • Buy DLC. The publisher and Microsoft make money.

Ways in which a consumer is non-profitable customer

  • Buy an Xbox One. Historically, for the first couple of years of a generation manufacturers sell consoles at a loss. Buying a console actually costs Microsoft money.
  • Use a Live Silver account. While I'm sure the cost of running Xbox Live on a per user basis is quite low, it is non-zero. Silver accounts are free and as such if a person uses an Xbox One, for which they must have a Live account, their continued use of the service costs Microsoft money

I would assume by now that the Live Silver costs are offset by advertising revenue, so I suppose a Silver account might be profitable over time. Finally, there are ways in which a consumer is not a customer at all

  • Borrow a game from a friend. Nobody gets money.
  • Buy a used game. The store gets money.

This last list is the critical one. It is absolutely true that inhibiting lending/reselling game discs is an erosion of consumer choice (whether or not it's an erosion of consumer rights is a trickier one, given the above redefinition of what a game disc signifies) and that the Xbox One is worse for consumers than the Xbox 360 was. The reason is straightforward though: Microsoft is a company trying to make money, and consumers who aren't customers are at best not making Microsoft any money and, at worst, costing it money.

Does this strategy mean that it will become more expensive to be a console gamer if you choose to buy an Xbox One? Overall, yes. For me it probably won't because I don't buy used games, and I've borrowed maybe half a dozen games over the course of the entire previous generation, half of which were on PS3 anyway (I'd still prefer if I could lend/borrow games of course). For people who trade in a reasonable proportion of the games they buy and use that money to purchase more games, it will be either more expensive, or they will play less games.


Needing The Internet For DRM

In addition to the negative consequences intrinsic to the disc no longer being the game, there are also negative side effects. If a game can be installed from the disc and played without the disc in the drive then piracy on consoles goes from being quite difficult to being so trivial that many consumers probably wouldn't even recognise it as piracy. As a result in order for games to function the Xbox One needs to connect to the internet for verification at least once every 24 hours. This window constricts to once every hour if the game is being played on a console that isn't the personal console of the game owner. Microsoft don't have to lock down easy copying of course, it is still possible to copy like this with a music CD and the music industry isn't dead, but it was always going to lock it down.

I can't speak to how big an issue the 24 hour check is going to be for people. My internet is reliable enough that I can't remember the last time I went 24 hours without service and even the one hour version would surprise me if I was impacted by it. That said, I have no idea how flaky or unreliable internet connections can get in places I don't live, but I defer to people who are in this situation as to how bad it might be (One thing that does frustrate me reading the complaints about the online requirements, mostly made by gaming press living in San Francisco or New York, is their condescending assumption that major American cities are the only place in the world with reliable internet. It's OK, you guys, we have the internet elsewhere in the world, and in cities with populations under a million, don't worry about us). Also worth remembering is that for those people who will use their Xbox One primarily for multiplayer gaming (never mind Netflix and that other non-gaming stuff), these online checks mean nothing at all. Their console is already checking in multiple times per second, so once every 24 hours shouldn't be a problem.

There are a raft of legitimate reasons someone might not be able to connect their Xbox One to the internet for in a 24 hour period: moving house and waiting for internet to be connected, weekend away in non-internet capable area, running a fighting game tournament, deployed to a military base. The first two cases are a straightforward business decision: the customer is always right but Microsoft are going to insist on proof that the user is a customer, and make the call that a very rare occurrence is not going to be enough to drive the customer away completely. The second two are interesting cases from a PR standpoint, and I'm intrigued to see if Microsoft do anything to deal with them.

Some people have argued that the online restriction would be acceptable if it was 72 hours, or maybe 7 days. 72 hours is borderline because it gives someone a weekend to play a game without ever being verified, which is enough time to comfortably play through a game in a lot of cases. 7 days is the point at which the check might as well be removed; the protection it provides Microsoft is so negligible that the positive PR spin of not having online checks at all would be worth more.

As with restricting used game sales, does the online check make it harder for people to play games? Yes. It makes it slightly harder for paying customers, and much harder for non-paying consumers. Microsoft have clearly weighed the numbers (how well remains to be seen) and decided that it's worth it. Being treated as an income stream rather than a beautiful snowflake is fair cause to get angry, as is being told how and when to consume media, but it's hardly a feeling that should be new to anybody who interacts with the modern world.


Just Like Steam, Or Not

This argument is being used quite a lot, and for good reason. The Xbox One policies on ownership of disc based games are very similar to Valve's Steam service. Most people are familiar with Steam as a purely digital service, but it has been and still is possible to go into a store and buy a boxed copy of a PC game that uses Steam. That boxed copy will provide a key and a disc with the game content. Once the key is entered into Steam, the disc might as well be a coaster for all the consumer rights it confers.

The major difference is that there is no serious used game market for PCs. There are a number of reasons for this but chief among them is the heavy DRM imposed on PC users by companies like Valve (Steam), EA (Origin), and Blizzard (Battle.net). Consumers don't expect to be able to trade in PC games because they haven't been able to for the better part of ten years. Console owners feel aggrieved because they are losing the ability to do something, which is fair enough.

As an aside, if there's something the Xbox One systems is more similar to than Steam it's the existing Xbox 360 digital marketplace. The disc-based policy of the Xbox One One can be summarised as being a slightly more flexible policy of the rules that govern existing Xbox One digital content.

Valve have, both through action and good PR, generated a massive amount of goodwill in the gaming community. Their service is reliable, customer support has a good history of helping people out with troubleshooting and refunds. Games often have their price dropped over time to reflect a realistic market value, and Steam runs sales which heavily discount games on a regular basis, to the point where the most common complaint people have about Steam is that they have bought more games than they can possibly play. The last important difference is that the PC isn't only publisher sandboxes; when it comes to indie games at least there are a wide variety of DRM and restriction free outlets which help to keep some of the worst practices publishers could engage in under control.

Microsoft have approximately none of this. Live is a reliable service, but when it comes to customer service and reasonable pricing (especially if for those in non-US regions), Microsoft is found wanting in comparison to Valve. On the positive side Microsoft have actually started to have serious sales on Xbox Live over the last eighteen months or so. Whether this has been a fire sale to try and get people back into a flagging platform, or a permanent decision that providing customer discounts is a worthwhile action remains to be seen, but the idea of competitive pricing and sales has at least gained enough traction at Microsoft that they've tried it.

These differences are important because in the new console-as-a-service world that Microsoft are trying to bring about, the lock-in is total. It is no longer possible to buy a console, never connect it to Live, and just play the games as they come on the disc. When a company asks for that level of trust from a customer, they need to prove that they deserve to get it.


On The PlayStation 4

I don't want to include much in the way of Sony comparisons here because it mostly deals with information about things Sony has yet to talk about in any detail and "Sony will probably be the same" is not a compelling argument in favour of bad behaviour. However, I do want to make a quick point about the always online aspect. The Xbox One information suggests that a 1.5Mbps connection is required for a "comfortable experience". What exactly that means remains to be seen. It could be anything from the Xbox One is constantly streaming all sorts of data at 1.5Mbps and will permanently consume at least that much of a home internet connection, to 1.5Mbps being the speed at which things like marketplace pages load responsively. Whatever the case, when Sony get around to providing such details I find it difficult to imagine that the PS4 will be providing its most talked about features (live HD streaming of gameplay, day one digital purchases, streaming playable game demos) "comfortably" with less than a 1.5Mbps connection. Both console launched have talked extensively about connectedness and that means bandwidth, and lots of it.


Privacy Invasion

I have talked elsewhere about the problem of using "listening" but I'm going to do so anyway because there's not a better verb at hand. The major privacy concern with the Xbox One is that the Kinect must be attached and that it will be listening even when the Xbox One is turned off. Specifically it will be listening for "Xbox On" so that it can turn the system on. Microsoft have explicitly stated that this feature can be turned off, and that all other Kinect sensor features can be paused. This, of course, has not been enough for some people who still have concerns over what exactly the Kinect is capturing and what it's doing with that data. I'm going to ignore the vague unease people may feel about their Xbox One "watching" them or "listening" to them, because it's not. It's an inanimate object. The more real concern about what is being done with captured data is trickier. The only real way to be sure about that is to wait for a few weeks after launch when somebody captures all the information being sent out of the Xbox One and finds out what's in there.

Personally I would be no more concerned about Kinect invading my privacy than any other device or online account I have, which is to say not more than I appreciate the provided service.


Just Like An iPhone, Or Not

The argument has been made that the Kinect is no more invasive than the GPS, camera and microphone in an iPhone. After all, the Kinect is just a camera and microphone. The counterargument is straightforward: on an iPhone the user has control over when and how those services are used, on the Kinect there is no such control.

In terms of as-advertised functionality, there is no difference. On an iPhone, the sensors are only used when the user explicitly allows them to be used. iOS has built-in controls to force a dialog asking the user if an app can use GPS data, for example. On the Kinect, despite people apparently wilfully misreading the FAQ, the user can turn off all the functionality. When turned off, the sensors are still powered but are not capturing any information.

When it comes to tinfoil-hat territory, things look a bit different. On the iPhone all of the sensors are soft controlled by iOS. It brings up a dialog asking if an app can use location data, but the user can't be sure their choice is being respected. The microphone turns on when a user answers a call, but there's no way to force it off at any other time. Siri sends a lot of the processing of commands to remote servers, maybe Apple are leaving the microphone on, capturing everything it picks up and sending it to be remotely processed by their nefarious black ops division. How can a user know that the camera is off, maybe it has a permanent FaceTime connection to the Illuminati. It's not even possible to safely turn the phone itself off because the battery is always connected.

None of this is actually the case and no normal user worries about it, because it's insane paranoid bullshit. For some reason though, people are willing to believe Microsoft will secretly leave the Kinect on in direct contradiction to user input, capture data and stream it all directly to the NSA as part of some sort of PRISM-esque Orwellian nightmare. Or worse, sell it to advertisers.


In Conclusion

I don't currently plan on buying either an Xbox One or PS4 at launch, solely because no games that interest me have been announced as console exclusive, so I can play them on my PC. The Xbox One is, depending on your definition of course, somewhat anti-consumer and it is worth considering the privacy implications if you choose to buy one. I think it is fair to say that the Xbox One is reflective of an attitude from Microsoft that is less interested in what consumers want than what consumers will accept, and that it is a product aimed to work best for those most able and willing to spend money. However I think the magnitude of the reaction is disproportionate to the what the real negative impact will be for most gamers. I'm normally wrong about these things.