Video Game Roundtable: The Digital Age, Xbox One, and Always-On DRM

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[Editor’s Note: This discussion started before June 19, when Microsoft reversed course on its Xbox One DRM policies. The discussion recounts our staff’s real-time reactions to the announcement.]

Mike Wall, TechnologyGuide Assistant Site Editor:

The dust has settled and another E3 has passed.  Not surprising the most notable story to surface revolves around the beginning of the new console generation and Sony’s and Microsoft’s respective offerings. However, behind that a much larger debate is taking place; what are the rights of the consumer in the emerging digital age?

\"XboxMicrosoft’s Xbox One personify the industry’s move towards the digital distribution, while Sony’s PlayStation 4 exemplifies staying the course; but there is a whole portion of this discussion being ignored, the actual games.

The entire industry is making a push towards online connectivity, with many of this big games shown at E3 (Titanfall, Destiny) being “always online” titles. Understandably, users are concerned about Microsoft’s built-in DRM practices, but the fact that many publishers look to instate similar practices within their titles appears to be eluding the public?

Previous attempts to offer always-online games have been met with vitriol (Diablo III, Sim City), yet these games are being unanimously praised. Is this a more palatable form of DRM? Are these games doing something different that makes their always-online status acceptable?

Grant Hatchimonji, Brighthand Site Editor:

I don’t think those always-online games are getting a pass at all. Just because they’re not specifically targeted by peoples’ scorn doesn’t mean people are okay with it. People just tend to take issue with the idea on a grander scale rather than call out specific games. In other words, they’d rather trash the general idea of always-online and/or the platform for always being online rather than its games.

The masses have made it abundantly clear that they don’t care for this always-online push. Diablo III and Sim City just happen to be what people point to when they need proof that always-online is a poor choice (with the obvious exception of MMOs, where it’s necessary) because they were among the first high-profile games to do it. It resulted in a total nightmare, and that’s exactly why people think these games and the similarly always-online Xbox One are doomed.

JR Nelson, DestopReview Site Editor:

\"OnLive\"The real problem with the always-online games, thus far, has been that the concept has been poorly implemented. All it\’s going to take for gamers to get past the idea is for a couple of good games to do it well, and then that will be that, regardless of how annoying it seems at the moment.

All of these arguments, both pro and con, are going to seem so old when game streaming really takes off. I\’m not sure if the PS4 is going to make it successful or not, but it\’s certainly going to be the first serious and truly mainstream effort in that direction.

(I don\’t think that OnLive was really all that mainstream, or good, for that matter).

Jeff Dunn, TechnologyGuide Staff Writer:

I agree with J.R. There\’s obviously an ulterior motive behind this idea of \”let\’s make our always-on multiplayer-only games as single-player-esque as possible.\” It rhymes with \”smreventing smiracy.\”

That being said, these games do look great, my personal favorite was Tom Clancy\’s The Division, and if they hold up, I think they\’ll ease that transition over to the concept. There\’s no reason that always-on has to be inevitable, though, and the key for Sony, Microsoft or whoever else is to clearly demonstrate the benefits of always being online. Automatic updating isn\’t going to be enough.

Jerry Jackson TechnologyGuide Managing Editor and NotebookReview Site Editor:

I\’m honestly a little surprised multiplayer game developers haven\’t tried to implement a \”reward\” system as part of DRM … by always being online and having a authenticated version of the game your player account gets extra goodies to use in the game and those rewards give you an advantage in the game.

As Jeff pointed out, developers need to clearly demonstrate a benefit to players, and gamers would certainly understand the concept of free rewards that help your character in the game.

Grant:

There is a reward: you get to play and/or experience all the features of the game you paid for.

Jamison Cush, TechnologyGuide Chief Editor:

My phone is always online. My PC is always online. As are my HDTV, Roku, tablet, Wii, and Xbox 360. So what\’s the fuss here? Because I don\’t engage in multiplayer, there is no real benefit for me to have my consoles connected. But since they sit there stationary, and once upon a time I connected to download an update or check out Xbox Arcade, I\’m connected.

On the rare occasion I take my Xbox elsewhere, there\’s a 99% chance I will have access to an internet connection of some kind, and if I don’t, it\’s because I\’m camping and don\’t want to play videogames anyway.

I can see why this would be an issue for those in the Armed Services, serving abroad, but I\’m sure Microsoft will figure something out in this special case as it\’s a potential PR nightmare otherwise.

Mike:

\"DiabloI think the “fuss here” is that people don\’t see the functionality that they are getting in return. Look at Valve’s Steam Service for example; when it first entered into the market people were not very fond of the idea, but people love the service now because it has shown its value offering overall convince and great deals.

People aren\’t seeing that with Microsoft and they certainly didn\’t see it in the instances of Diablo III and Sim City. As it’s already been noted, I think people are starting to see the possibilities from always-online in terms of software. All of the titles mentioned here have received numerous “Best of E3” accolades (whatever that\’s worth), but it speaks to the point that people see the benefit of the system much like they do with MMOs.

Microsoft needs to speak to that functionality and discuss the benefits that it will offer as both a system and service. If the convenience outweighs the concession of physical copies, people will be far more open to the idea.

Jeff:

Much of it is a perception problem, yes. Gaming is like the last bastion of ownership in the entertainment world. Spotify owns my music. Netflix owns my movies and TV shows. Google owns everything else. And I can totally understand why people don\’t want Microsoft to own their games, especially since they\’re more expensive than any comparable piece of entertainment, and since they arguably foster the most emotional connections to their players. People want to be treated like people, not \”users\” or \”consumers.\”

Also, it has to be noted that we\’re still far from a connected society. I believe 70% of Americans have broadband, which is a majority but still leaves millions out in the dark. And many of those who do have broadband are still harboring dinky speeds. It gets worse overseas. The fact that Microsoft\’s TV and multimedia plans are so \’Merica’-focused right now only furthers that sense of an elitist machine.

Mike:

I think both Jeff and Grant touched on the ultimate issue, a sense of ownership. Even if people will be relatively unaffected by the 24-hour ping or have constant internet access they want to feel that they own the product they paid for.

Honestly if the video game industry wants to continue this practice, the most important transition is to change the view of games. Similar to the music industry, the video game industry will need to shift perspective from property to a service. I think that\’s obviously Microsoft\’s endgame with this console.

\"Netflix\"

Jamison:

I\’ll gladly let Microsoft \”own\” my games if it drives down the cost. I\’m about playing games, not owning them. Just as I am about watching movies and listening to music, not amassing a collection of discs.

Who is going to argue that Netflix and Spotify haven\’t been beneficial for consumers? I now have thousands of hours of music and movies at my disposal for less than the cost of one CD per month. Please, please, please, let games go that route…. legally.

Jeff:

There\’s a whole other debate to be had about whether or not going all digital and eliminating used game sales will actually drive down the costs of games. A $10 a month \”Xbox gaming\” subscription service is not going to sustain AAA development today. Not a chance in hell. Not when it costs this much. (Side note: would something like that engulf Xbox Live Gold?) Yes, Steam sales are a thing, a very popular thing, but Sony and Microsoft have been very stingy with lowering the prices of digital copies of games versus physical ones.

The question we have to answer is, why always? Why do I need Microsoft to make sure I\’m not up past curfew every night? What does that do for me? Why can\’t I choose when I want to be online and use all these purportedly awesome features? We know there are benefits to being connected; now tell me why I can\’t use my $500 Xbox *at all* if I don\’t want to play ball.

Grant:

Sure always online works for MMOs and similar types of games, but what about other genres? That\’s why people don’t want always-online for games that aren\’t MMOs, because then you run that risk of suffering that annoyance of disconnects/downed servers for nothing, essentially. I can understand shrugging your shoulders and saying that\’s just the nature or risk of the system with something that NEEDS that always on connection, but when it isn\’t necessary to core gameplay mechanics, that\’s a whole other story.

Mike:

Yeah I think the model is certainly getting forced into areas where it shouldn\’t (again look at Sim City). It\’s the same with the use of micro-transactions and the free to play model. All of these models can produce great games, but it cannot be applied uniformly across all of them.

It\’s pretty obvious that the game\’s industry needs to change. The current AAA model isn\’t sustainable, games that are selling millions of copies are being deemed as failures. Publishers want to paint piracy as the end-all-be-all solution to the issue, but that\’s only a small piece of the puzzle.

The industry was irrevocably changed with the introduction of the smartphone. Not only does the game industry receive market pressure from consumers who are playing games via their mobile devices, but console adaption is expected to be far slower this generation thanks to the fact that people buy new $600 smartphones every two years.

The same big budget strategy where everyone races to be the next Call of Duty doesn’t work, because for every big success there are five failures. Look at THQ, look at Square Enix’s current financial issues; it only takes a few mistakes to be in serious trouble in this industry.

Digital is going to open the barriers to distribution and help to ultimately create a more sustainable industry. But as some of the AAA publishers dissolve you are going to see them try to justify their existence and part of that will result in them trying to cram these titles into models into games they don’t fit in.

Read on to page two of this discussion, and get the experts’ take on Microsoft’s reversal regarding its “always online” Xbox One connection.



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