Rumour About Xbox One Family-Sharing's Downsides Has Flaws Of Its Own

We prefer to report on rumours that we can prove are true or outright debunk, but we sometimes get the ones we have to address without being able to say with certainty one way or the other. Enough of you ask about it; we need to tell you what's up, as best we can.

The hot rumour in question started swirling yesterday when an anonymous, supposed member of Microsoft's Xbox One development team dumped a heartfelt note on Pastebin about Microsoft's dramatic DRM about-face. The Pastebin author lamented the hard work done by Microsoft to prepare for its original vision of an Xbox One that restricted gamer's rights with game discs and expanded digital rights in exchange. The Pastebin writer then dropped this bombshell about the console's since-shelved family sharing plan (emphasis added by me):

The premise is simple and elegant, when you buy your games for Xbox One, you can set any of them to be part of your shared library. Anyone who you deem to be family had access to these games regardless of where they are in the world. There was never any catch to that, they didn't have to share the same billing address or physical address it could be anyone. When your family member accesses any of your games, they're placed into a special demo mode. This demo mode in most cases would be the full game with a 15-45 minute timer and in some cases an hour. This allowed the person to play the game, get familiar with it then make a purchase if they wanted to. When the time limit was up they would automatically be prompted to the Marketplace so that they may order it if liked the game. We were toying around with a limit on the number of times members could access the shared game (as to discourage gamers from simply beating the game by doing multiple playthroughs). but we had not settled on an appropriate way of handling it. One thing we knew is that we wanted the experience to be seamless for both the person sharing and the family member benefiting. There weren't many models of this system already in the wild other than Sony's horrendous game sharing implementation, but it was clear their approach (if one could call it that) was not the way to go. Developers complained about the lost sales and gamers complained about overbearing DRM that punished those who didn't share that implemented by publishers to quell gamers from taking advantage of a poorly thought out system. We wanted our family sharing plan to be something that was talked about and genuinely enjoyed by the masses as a way of inciting gamers to try new games.

That hit on Thursday, just one day after Microsoft reversed its DRM policy and finally gotten the console out of the state of confusion it'd been in for weeks. There we were — those of us who had been paying attention to what Microsoft had been promising for the Xbox One — confused again.

Family sharing was only going to be limited to 45-minute glorified demos? Didn't they say... wouldn't they... what? How? Did they really? We all missed that?

Until that Pastebin hit, we at Kotaku and anyone else who talked about the Xbox One's family sharing plan assumed that Microsoft intended to let families — groups of 10 people, technically — share full access to games, with just one catch: only the head of household and any one family member could be playing the same game at any time.

This was cool.

Even our crotchety outlet, in the midst of baking the Xbox One in flames a couple of weeks ago, couldn't help but admit that this sounded awesome. It also looked like a big wink from Microsoft: give up your ability to lend games and sell them back to anyone other than "participating retailers," but, you know, you can share them with your, uh, family.

Just last night, I wrote about a crew of Xbox fans who were actually disappointed by Microsoft's DRM flip and wanted to surrender some of their disc-game rights in order to have the originally-pitched family-sharing plan. These people were severely bummed, but probably wouldn't be if the family-sharing they were giving up was limited to the weak, 45-minute demos described by the Pastebin writer.

So what's the truth?

Microsoft would know, but they're not offering an official comment, a spokesperson told me when I started inquiring. Darn. Makes sense, though, right? If the plan was as great as it seemed, they may not be in the mood to remind people that it's no longer announced for the Xbox One. And if it's as bad as the Pastebin person put it, it would make Microsoft look like bad for letting people believe it was far cooler than it really was.

The rumour gained momentum yesterday on the gaming message board NeoGAF, largely, it seems, because of a comment from a user called Crazy Buttocks On a Train who'd correctly predicted some of Microsoft's Xbox One E3 press conference announcements. In a thread about the Pastebin he'd chimed in with "60sigh — ", which was taken by other forum members to be a confirmation of a 60-minute family share time limit. I've reached out to Mr. Train for more insight. If he shares, I'll let you know.

The problem with the plan presented in the Pastebin document is that it appears to be nearly useless.

As best as I can tell, there's been no better corroboration for the Pastebin rumour, and so we have something of a war between the aspects of the Pastebin plan that appear to make no sense and the lingering question of, wow, Microsoft would really have tried something this annoying?

The problem with the plan presented in the Pastebin document is that it appears to be nearly useless. Say what you will about the now-scuttled plans to require disc registration and even a 24-hour online check-in, but at least Microsoft could argue that those were needed to track licenses and enable gamers to have different types of access to and flexibility with their games.

I just can't get past these two huge flaws with the pastebin plan:

  • Why would Microsoft offered timed demos only to family groups? Or, to flip that, on a console where demos are likely to be offered for many games, what added value would a gamer get by being in my "family"? Access to a wider swath of demos?
  • And why would Microsoft limit access to these supposed timed-demos to only two family members at a time? What could possibly be the harm in letting all 10 members of a "family" play the same 45-minute demo simultaneously?

In lieu of a new, clear response from Microsoft about the family-sharing plan, you'd think we'd be able to resolve this by simply referring back to Microsoft's policy description of its family-sharing plan or to interviews with Microsoft officials about it.

Here's the official Microsoft description:

Xbox One will enable new forms of access for families. Up to 10 members of your family can log in and play from your shared games library on any Xbox One. Just like today, a family member can play your copy of Forza Motorsport at a friend’s house. Only now, they will see not just Forza, but all of your shared games. You can always play your games, and any one of your family members can be playing from your shared library at a given time.

Let's check out some interviews, shall we?

From Ars Technica's interview with Xbox 's Yusuf Mehdi:

Since its announcement, there has been some confusion over the details of sharing your Xbox One game library with up to 10 "family members." Mehdi couldn't give comprehensive details, but he did clarify some things. (...) You'll be able to link other Xbox Live accounts as having shared access to your library when you first set up a system and will also be able to add them later on (though specific details of how you manage these relationships is still not being discussed). The only limitation, it seems, is that only one person can be playing the shared copy of a single game at any given time. All in all, this does sound like a pretty convenient feature that's more workable than simply passing discs around amongst friends who are actually in your area.

From YouTuber Angry Joe's chat with Xbox's Major Nelson:

Major Nelson: "There's certainly a lot of scenarios that this enables and I'm sure that our audience is going to get very creative. For instance, if I had a son and he was away to college, if I bought Halo — the next Halo — I could drop it in, call him, and say "Hey, go ahead and download it if you wanna check it out." 'Cause you have to remember: everything is digital, it's in the Cloud...That's the benefit of our approach and the architecture of the system."

(Listen a little further into Angry Joe's interview and Major Nelson makes a point of saying that you'd only have been gifting Xbox One games to people who were outside of family plan, as if being in one wouldn't require gifting. Hmmm.)

Each time, we're so close to getting clarity, right? And yet each time, it's narrowly missed. It's like we were all trying to solve a whodunnit and we all forgot to ask what colour shoes the murderer was wearing. And the colour of the shoes turned out to really matter. Bad simile? You get the idea.

Here's one more interview. This is me with head of Microsoft Studios, Phil Spencer. This is an expanded transcript of what I posted earlier this week, the interview conducted last week at E3 before the policy flip. Note the mention of music-sharing. Man, we were so close to pre-debunking this...

Spencer: The other thing I would [point to] is my family and their ability to have access to that content.

Kotaku: The 10-people thing, right?

Spencer: Yeah, that's right.

Kotaku: And who can be in this family? Anybody? Can we be in the same family?

Spencer: Yeah.

Kotaku: What would be the limitation on that? Because it seems like that would be the way to get around this stuff, to just make my nine friends family.

Spencer: We think that's the advantage. Now, the family-sharing... go through the documents and the post. This is why you have to have the other side of the kind of nuts and bolts about how the policy works. But I do think that sharing in a family group is an important part of the positives in our ecosystem. When I buy songs, MP3 files and I put them on a server, my daughters can also listen to those songs. They have access to them. Think about our library of is something that we want to be sharing. You don't have to send in your birth certificate. You define what a family unit is and the people who connect to you and how that library works. Your family has access to that library.

Kotaku: So I could buy an Xbox One game and by putting you in my family you could therefore not have to buy it. The restriction would be that only one of us could be playing it at a time? Or do I get rights because I'm the head of household to play no matter what?

Spencer: So, you should go and read the...

Kotaku: When I read it, it read as if the person who sets it up always could play their games...

Spencer: That's right.

Kotaku: ... because it says you have access to games at at any time, but that members of family can only play...

Spencer: That's right.

Kotaku: So I'm understanding it correctly?

Spencer: You're understanding it correctly.

Kotaku: At most, two people will be able to play at any one time.

Spencer: The concurrency, yes.

Kotaku: And I think that's one of the one where people go, 'Oh, that's a nice thing.'

Spencer: I think so as well. Well, it's not really about what I think.

He doesn't outright say it, but it sure seems like we're talking about sharing full games, no? It's difficult to imagine that, throughout this conversation, he's only talking about 45-minute demos. I'll happily eat some crow if proven wrong.

Some will look at all of these interviews and find no contradictions to the Pastebin plan. They'll believe that all these Microsoft officials, fired up to present what they already knew would be a partially unpalatable Xbox One DRM strategy, wilfully let people believe that their "family" would get access to entire games on Xbox One when in fact they'd be getting access to a lunch break's worth. They'll believe that Microsoft allowed us to think that they were going to let families borrow books when they were really only going to let families tear out a page or two and pass those around.

Microsoft has earned our scepticism on itself, but, call me naive, I'm just not buying this Pastebin plan. What I am buying is that timed access may have been part of the overall Xbox One strategy. Maybe for everyone. Maybe for a lower tier of family-sharing (could there have been silver and gold versions?).

Ultimately, I want all of you who care about the Xbox One's future to know what the truth is and to know whether that family plan, as we thought it was formulated, has a shot at coming back. So many of you asked me about this on the site and on Twitter that I wanted to address it, and I apologise for not being able to give you a succinct answer. At least know that I'm extremely sceptical of the Pastebin description.

Microsoft, this week, remained committed to a digital gaming future of some sort. Should they bring family-sharing back, let's hope they bring back the version that we thought we were getting. That's the one we thought we were talking about. That's the one that sounded pretty good.


    Aaron Greenberg posted on twitter this morning to there was to be no limit on play time... and that it was the full game, not merely a demo.
    He also said they were talking about how to get it working now that they've changed the online stuff.

    Of course, now that it's not happening, he could just be saying that knowing full well that we have no way to refute his claim.

      Greenburg is a f***-wit. I wouldn't believe anything that mouth-breather has to say.

      He's a PR guy, therefore everything xbox = awesome in his world. He's not worth the time to say his name.

    As useless as the sharing thing would be, it would make sense if their goal was to justify the DRM without actually giving away anything worthwhile. There had to be some sort of limit on family sharing, there was no way publishers was going to support it.

      There was mention that on the primary console (read: head of the family) there was a 24-hour internet check-in requirement, and that on other console (read: family/friends) there was a 1-hour check-in requirement. Is it coincidence that the 1-hour check-in coincides with the rumoured 1-hour access time on shared games? I don't think so. It makes sense that you could access a game for an hour and then when checking in online it would take you to the store to ask you to purchase the game. Of course, you could say no and just re-start the game and pick up from a saved game instead of starting afresh. It's here that Microsoft was tossing around how to limit people from simply completing the game in 1-hour increments.

    They couldn't have been THAT stupid...could they? One of the upsides to the original vision was the family sharing plan. If it were indeed a demo of sorts, it would have pissed off the few gamers they had left on their side. I do hope the family sharing makes it back in though. Sharing your game with whoever you want at any location in the world was a pretty good deal.

      They couldn't have been THAT stupid...could they?
      Through experience, I have learnt to never ask myself that question.

    Would they really give away 10 copies of a game for the price of one.

      No and that was not what the family sharing was. It was one retail licence (the buyer) and one share licence (the lucky friend that gets online first out of the ten). It would have been great for my family who have two consoles and also two of whatever game is played online.

      Not a chance. There was definitely going to be a limit, but that was what they hadn't fully decided yet, thus the kind of 'vague certainty' you got in the interviews.

      It's really not that different from the current system. One person buys a game, lends it to his friends, trades it in, whatever, and they only see profit from the initial sale.

      I could easily see a game going through more than 10 consoles in it's life.

        The only thing different from what I see, is the ability to do it remotely. Which is cool if there is no time limit. If there is a time limit, then it's just a demo right? Why not just download a demo and not include all that DRM? Ah that's right, justification.

      But they are not giving it away. Think about it, it's the same as having a disk and sharing it with 10 friends, only one gets to play it. Family sharing was almost exactly like disks now but with less hassle. No developer would lose money because it happens right now. The hour check in was probably to verify someone else wasn't playing the game at the same time, the 24 hour checkin on the shared library owners machine also makes sense as they don't need to be checked as often because they can play the game at any time.

    If they were demo games, they wouldn't have needed to increase the DRM checks to each hour for people borrowing the games (as was reported during E3) — it also completely defies logic to think that people would be required to "share" a demo of one of their games with a limit of 10 people, when anyone can download demos of a game for free, at any time.

    What the exact plan was, we'll likely never know... but man, people need to stop reporting on unverified ramblings 'n rumours from reddit and random dumps on pastebin — mostly because if you give them half a second of thought you are inclined to think they're bogus, but also because they have no journalistic credibility and don't deserve to be reported on.

      What the exact plan was, we'll likely never know... but man, people need to stop reporting on unverified ramblings 'n rumours from reddit and random dumps on pastebin — mostly because if you give them half a second of thought you are inclined to think they're bogus

      Yep. Even from the just simple point that it means Microsoft sat on this info while watching their console crash and burn. If the family plan was as generous as we're hearing now Microsoft would have won the generation in a single presentation.

        That info was out there but you couldn't hear it because of the hysterical anti DRM screaming. Look I'm glad they reversed it but it wasn't rational thinking's finest hour. If you said anything positive about MS you got shouted down and insulted.

        Last edited 23/06/13 4:29 pm

          Yeah just like how Major Nelson kept saying "have you heard of your family sharing plan" OVER AND OVER. But was kept being asked "but the DRM" questions. People were just not listening at all.

    Pretty sick of Microsoft's continued lack of transparency. They're exactly the same as politicians at this point.

    Would it kill them to be honest (more than they've killed themselves already)?

    I really pity all those delusional, blind fanboys who thought they were going to be able to give away 10 copies of a game for free. Despite MS implementing draconian DRM, they really thought they would be able to con MS out of potentially $1000 per title LOL.

    Surely they can't be serious? Must be a few kids without a clue, mouthing off at anyone with common sense. All that DRM for some useless, gimmicky features.....and they thought everyone else was in the minority. Clowns.

    Nothing about the original version of their console was worth purchasing, duh that's why they dropped all of the BS. Billion dollar companies actually want your money, clearly they weren't going to get it with their original version. Anyone who was willing to support the plethora of DRM were likely weak minded teenagers who were brainwashed into thinking DRM and diskless gaming were anything knew & the future of tech. Go back to COD now kiddies.

      How do you figure them giving away 10 copies for free? It worked exactly the same way as disk sharing today, how is that giving away 10 free games?

    I don't think any of the above interviews were as clear as the pastebin post. Wasn't there a guy that was straight foward about the always on part? Didn't he say 'deal with it'? I wonder if the pastebin person is opposed to resigning. It's a rumor, no doubt, but so was what Mr. Orth said.

    If the family sharing is for full games and it includes 10 possible games being played out there for the price of one, then the only difference between that and the Sony system is the inability to play concurrently...And yet that method is lambasted in one of the interviews AND initially only included 5 people in the family group. You can't tell me that the ability to not play concurrently is so damn significant it turns "sonys horrendous game sharing implementation" into cloud sharing genius from a Microsoft perspective considering the absurd levels of DRM they were insisting on....a single player game especially is going to end up with 1/10th the sales across friends that simply stagger their time playing it.

    Well, it certainly sounds like there were strict limits, and none of the pieces quoted in the article say anything that contradicts a possible time limit. The MP3 sharing example is rather ironic given that any number of people can be streaming music or content from a Media server at a single point in time while XBox One only allows one person to be accessing the shared library at any point.

    As we are now, you can lend any number of games in your library to any number of friends and family at the same time. Under the new system, you'd need multiple XBoxes and multiple copies of games to effectively let more than 2 people be playing games from your library at any point in time.

    All in all, the whole sharing system was nowhere near as useful or revolutionary as Microsoft (and current articles lamenting its loss) make it out to be. With this new rumour, the fact that Microsoft always seemed to be presenting it in the light of allowing your friends to "check out" or "try out" games lends support to the possibility of it being a time bombed, temporary license. That is, beyond someone in your family wanting to play a game while your friend is accessing your library, effectively limiting their ability to play for any length of time.

    What I would have liked more than any of what they offered was the ability to spawn a copy on a "family/friend" account and then have it work under a site licensing style system (If you've ever bought or used enterprise software you should hopefully know what I mean). That way, you could play multiplayer games with family and friends without every single person needing to buy a copy.

    Last edited 22/06/13 9:10 pm

      I thought it was only one person from your Family Sharing group could play a game at one time not the whole shared library.

    Of course it was going to be monetized and limited in some way. I believe that only one of your family members on top of yourself, could be partaking in your library at any time, so effectively, you could have 8 other people waiting desperately for just one person to finish.

    As for the timed limit, the rumor is that it would take you to the marketplace once it hit that time - however, I don't necessarily see any reason why I couldn't switch back. I could very well imagine that every 30 minutes or hour I'm drawn out of my game, it shows me a big screen in the marketplace where I can immediately buy the game, along with any other titles that are on sale or from the developer of said game - essentially, commercials within your games. If every 30 minutes you were being drawn out of the action for a minute, I could imagine this being a nuisance enough to convince people to buy the game.

    Ok so this MS guy Arron Greenburg says it was full games not demo's, if he is lying then they can't bring it back with demo's (well they can but then they would be branded outright liars).
    Microsoft is too professional to outright lie, we have already seen what they do when they have something they don't want to tell you they avoid it or talk around the point, this guy just came out and said no.

    Greenberg, Witten and Nelson have already come out on Twitter to confirm it was the FULL games being shared.

    So yeah, spewing we lost that. Hope they bring it back at least for digital titles.

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