It’s a strange situation isn’t it? It’s difficult to parse. Using Steam, PC Gamers have been used to the idea that they cannot ‘lend’ games to their friends for years now. If PC gamers can deal with it, why can’t console owners?
It’s an argument I’ve been hearing a lot this morning and it holds weight. Steam essentially operates with a higher level of DRM compared to the way Microsoft intents to sell and regulate its products with the Xbox One. We should get over it, the argument states. This is the Brave New Digital World. We must get with the program.
And there is a certain irony in comments on forums and social media: ‘I’m going to skip this generation, stick to my PC’. Yes, by all means, stick to the medium that invented the draconian DRM that’s about to be inflicted upon us, stick to the service that’s more rigid and locked than the one we’re supposed to be boycotting.
But it doesn’t feel right, does it? It feels wrong. It feels wrong to be restricted in this way. As though something console gamers have taken for granted — the ability to swap games, share with our friends — is being stolen from us or, at the very least, limited dramatically.
While it has its flaws, the analogy I’ve been using is the car: if you are correctly insured anyone can drive your car. There is no fingerprint detection, Kinect isn’t hovering above your rear-view mirror measuring heart rates, shutting the engine off when it senses a stranger is driving the car. The same goes for any physical product you own: clothes, shoes, sporting equipment, houses. If tennis rackets had the technology to implement fingerprint recognition, would we be charged for lending our equipment to friends on the court? I don’t know. Part of me thinks companies will charge whatever they think they can get away with.
At its root the issue is one of perception, and what consumers expect, what they are used to. Will consumers endure this reality check?
Because the fact is we’ve never really owned video games in the way we thought we did. All we ever really purchased was a license to consume them. The only reason we could swap, share and trade games in the past is because the technology to stop these transactions didn’t exist. Now it exists, and here we are. The cold hard reality of what we actually own when we buy a video game has come crumbling around us. And it hurts. It makes us very angry indeed.
The issue is one of perception.
For years now we’ve been buying products digitally, for years we’ve subscribed to the idea that we don’t really own the media we paid money for. We bought music on iTunes, then we streamed it for a subscription on Spotify. We watch TV with Netflix. We buy video games on our iPhones.
I’ve never heard anyone complain they couldn’t lend their digital copy of Braid on XBLA to a friend. I’ve never heard that complaint. Because when we buy a physical product the belief of the consumer, right or wrong, is that we own the product we paid money for — it’s ours to share if we see fit. That belief may be incorrect, but that’s what we believe; that’s what decades of buying physical product at retail has taught us and there’s not a single piece of PR or marketing buzz word that will change that. In this case the customer is always right, especially if the customers — en masse — decide to not buy the Xbox One because of it.
It’s a strange, complicated grey area; it’s reflective of an industry in transition. Microsoft is attempting one hell of a juggling act but there are one too many balls in the air. There’s retailers, who Microsoft needs to help put its box in the living room it so sorely craves. There’s the publishers, who are hurting in a marketplace that demands a high level of product but wants to pay less for it. Then, more importantly, there are the consumers who don’t want their perceived rights stripped from them.
Someone has to lose. Retailers want a guarantee that physical product has a future, and they want to protect those sweet, sweet trade-in margins. Publishers want a cut of that deal, and a way to mitigate losses. Consumers want to share games with friends. What we’ve ultimately been given is a halfway house solution for an industry that’s neither here nor there.
Retailers get their trade-in margins… kinda.
Publishers protect their IP… kinda.
Consumers get to share games like they used to… kinda.
If the console was a digital only device this wouldn’t be a problem. But the industry isn’t quite ready for that. Retailers won’t sell a digital only console at dead zero margins if they can’t sell games to offset that risk. And are consumers really ready for a digital only console yet? In five years time, probably. But Microsoft needs to sell this thing sooner rather than later and high level broadband penetration isn’t quite at that tipping point yet. Not quite. I have no doubt that Microsoft expects to slowly eke away from the retail model over the course of this new generation, but the mainstream market isn’t quite there yet.
What we’re left with is a compromise that pleases no-one. And that’s dangerous. For everyone involved.