Xbox

Xbox One's Awful DRM Drowned Out Some Really Cool Games

If you were in Los Angeles last week, and you happened to stumble into a bar or a restaurant, and you saw a group of people in business-casual atire and/or flannel, you probably overheard something like “Wow, Sony sure won E3.” This, of course, is preposterous. Nobody wins E3. You just survive it.

But it is fair to say that Sony’s press conference had the greatest impact on the gaming community, mostly because of the last few minutes, when Jack Tretton took the stage and fired an AK-47 into Microsoft’s skull. “You know how those guys are doing all this used game nonsense? WE’RE NOT!”

It was the best moment of E3, and possibly one of the best moments of any E3 — by refusing to restrict used games or require an online check-in, and then rubbing that fact in Microsoft’s neon green face, Sony immediately won favour — and the conference — in many gamers’ eyes. It was a hilarious blow, and a very human moment at a conference that often feels like it’s staffed by robots.

For the rest of the week, that was all people could talk about. DRM. Used games. Always-online consoles. How Sony listened to its fans for the PlayStation 4. How the Xbox One is ostracising military. And people with no internet. And people who want to borrow games.

It’s a real shame, because Microsoft’s showcase was actually rather impressive. If they hadn’t saddled their Xbox One with the type of anti-customer policies that drive people nutty, maybe last week’s narrative would be a little bit different.

Maybe, if not for DRM, more people would be talking about Sunset Overdrive, the Xbox One exclusive by Insomniac Games (the folks behind Resistance and Ratchet & Clank) that looks a lot like Overstrike, the game that the disappointing Fuse was supposed to be.

Maybe we’d be fawning over Below, the lovely roguelike by the people who made Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery, one of the most interesting games on iOS. Also an Xbox One exclusive.

And then there’s Project Spark.

You’re forgiven if you don’t know what that is. There were a lot of prettier, shinier games to watch and play at E3. But Project Spark was one of the most creative, most unusual, most interesting things there.

On Thursday, I was ushered into a back room of Microsoft’s E3 booth to take a closer look at Spark, which is less of a game and more of a game editor, like Game Maker or Kodu. You can start with a blank screen and sculpt a map out of nothing, then drop in creatures, and objects, and houses, and all sorts of other accessories. You can paint and program and add goals and behaviours and eventually turn your blank canvas into a video game. Then you can share it with everyone you know.

“This is the future,” I scribbled in my notebook at the time. (I underlined it, so I must have thought it was a profound thing to write.) Perhaps I was impressed by the giant touch TV that the demonstrators were swiping like a futuristic painting. But I was also blown away by what they could do with this thing.

One game created in Project Spark, for example, was a straight-up recreation of Limbo, complete with 2D platforming and chiaroscuro backgrounds.

Later I heard that they were showing off a turn-based RPG. We didn’t get to see that one at my demo, although we did watch the people at Microsoft Studios convince a rock to launch into the air and explode.

Spark also has a built-in programming language. It’s based on contingencies — every line is WHEN X, DO X — and you can use it to play around with behaviours for objects in your game. Simple, but potentially powerful stuff.

“This should challenge the conventions of what a game is,” one of the developers told us.

It’s impressive. Here’s a video montage of some of the stuff people have done in Spark, set to Fallout Boy music, because why not.

Perhaps, if things had gone a little bit differently last week, we’d be talking about the creativity that Microsoft could cultivate with experiments like Project Spark. Maybe we’d be discussing how player-driven content is a trend that all game developers need to embrace, and how Project Spark is a great example of the type of you-centric mentality that turned Minecraft into a global phenomenon.

But E3 2013 was not a convention about games as much as it was a story about rights. There are people who believe that when a person buys a game, it is theirs, and they have the right to do whatever they’d like with it. Perhaps there are people like that at Microsoft, and perhaps they even work on Project Spark, which is a game that, unlike the console it’s associated with, puts the player’s desires first. (Maybe that’s why Project Spark will also be available on Windows and Xbox 360.)

There are also people who believe that used games are killing the video game industry, and that the future is digital. They believe that there are benefits to a console that is always connected to the internet, and that a game disc is not something you own, but something that simply exists to transfer “bits.”

That’s the story of E3 2013. Games took a backseat. This year’s conversations were all about customer rights.

It’s funny: even beyond their traditional ritual of cars and guns, Microsoft had some very cool things to show. An adventure game from the people behind Alan Wake. An episodic murder mystery helmed by the guy who made Deadly Premonition. And Project Spark, which could train a whole new generation of video game designers and creators, and influence the world much like Minecraft did before it.

But nobody was talking about any of that. In the gaming community, conversations about the Xbox One will always start and end with the most important issue of this generation: DRM. That’s the fight that Microsoft has brought upon itself. And if they don’t figure out how to make their policies more palatable to gamers — or get rid of those policies entirely — it’s the conversation we’ll be having for the next 10 years.