The Xbox One died yesterday. The machine’s little heart withered away for good around 4:30 yesterday afternoon. It was a cold, lonely death. A stroke in an empty house. There was no white light. Nobody showed up for the funeral. It’s survived by its confusing name, bulky form factor, and litter of upcoming games. They’ll miss it. The poor thing.
The Xbox One has arisen in its place. The new One, that is, the One that’s just like the old one. It glided out from its tomb, a shining light, a beacon calling out of the darkness. “I’m here for you,” the internet heard it whisper as the summer sun burned bright. “I have returned.”
It came to save our fivers on used games again. It came to let us unplug our Ethernet cables again. It came to let people own the games they buy again. It came to let us bypass that thing all of us are always trying to avoid, in everything, ever. It came to let us sidestep the future. And we cheered and raved and celebrated because of it.
Okay, you get the point. Your video games tomorrow will stay just like your video games today. But you have to admit the moment was a little dramatic.
Microsoft doesn’t want this. Even in its changing course, the company let off a palpable sense of bitterness about its vision’s failure. “We imagined a new set of benefits such as easier roaming, family sharing, and new ways to try and buy games,” Xbox president Don Mattrick wrote. “We believe in the benefits of a connected, digital future.”
Imagined. It’s such a fitting word here, because Microsoft has been trying so hard to sell a fantasy over the past month. By implementing DRM and anti-used game policies, the argument goes, publishers could have made more money. Because they made more money, they could have lowered the prices of new games. By being always-on, the Xbox One could have become more like Steam, which is the reigning Messiah of digital distribution platforms. Could. Could. Could. Now we’re all going to die, you jerks.
Or not. Members of the games industry, especially the bigger publishers who have hawked DRM and the end of used games so aggressively over the years, have demonstrated time and again that digital distribution does not in and of itself equate to lower game prices. Steam has those wonderful sales, yes, but it still sells most new games at $50 or $60 like everyone else. More importantly, it operates in an open PC market and competes directly against multiple other platforms. That isn’t much like the walled garden the Xbox One was selling.
EA, for instance, has been one of the larger advocates of DRM with its former Online Pass program. Its Origin platform competes against Steam’s. It’s completely digital. And yet, the prices of those downloadable copies are almost exactly the same as their physical counterparts.
Go ahead and look at it right now. Tomb Raider is still going for 60 bucks. You can pre-order a deluxe digital edition of Battlefield 4 right now for 10 dollars more than that. The first Dead Space, which came out five years ago, is still 20 bucks – the same as it is in GameStop. Go look at the Xbox Live Marketplace or the PSN Store when you’re done. The same gluttony of pre-order bonuses and DLC packs and unadjusted price points are still running rampant. It’s all the same thing. There was no evidence to suggest that a heavily-digital Xbox One was going to change this soon.
Microsoft wasn’t just asking for five of your Benjamins with the Xbox One; it was asking you for blind faith. To buy into what it was selling, you have to believe that people who buy used games would still buy new copies after being stripped of their normal routine. You have to believe that people who trade in their games don’t use that money to go buy new ones. You have to believe that companies, out of the kindness of their hearts, will make your games cheaper just because you asked nicely. Is that how businesses work?
The idea behind all of this was that Microsoft would be cutting GameStop out of the equation, but again, even that requires a leap of faith. Microsoft’s vague plans mentioned that publishers could set up partnerships with retailers, and the reality is that the industry as a whole is just not ready to disjoint itself from the GameStops and Walmarts of the world just yet. The Xbox One couldn’t afford to piss off these mega partners, and so the $60 price point would likely have stayed in place to keep them happy.
There are only so many boogeymen the industry can blame for its problems before it realizes that it’s spending too much money on AAA games. Truckloads of dollars go into products, making their publishers’ expectations unreasonably high.
When Square Enix says games like Tomb Raider and Hitman: Absolution had “weak” sales after selling millions of copies, there’s a problem. When EA, the company that makes Madden and FIFA, lays off chunks of its company every few weeks, there’s a problem. When big-money game after big-money game tries to adopt to that gritty, Call of Duty template, only to realize that Call of Duty players are still playing Call of Duty (imagine that), there’s a problem.
None of this means that good games can’t exist anymore (relevant side note: letting indies self-publish would be a nice gesture from Microsoft), it just means that we need to stop looking for bandages and start looking for a completely new doctor. We need to hand out mirrors.
But with all of this being said, an all-digital gaming future is still on its way. And when it gets here, it may very well help those who are struggling. This doesn’t have to be an either/or problem, and I’d happily admit I was wrong if such limitations help.
Either way, Microsoft tried to nudge its base into something it wasn’t ready for, and it didn’t clearly explain what its benefits would be. Yes, family game sharing and playing one’s library on any console are neat, but they came across more as concessions for stripping away what consumers used to be able to do rather than true solutions. That’s the fault of both the console itself and Microsoft’s PR department.
Ultimately, Microsoft made these changes because Sony didn’t. It couldn’t afford to stand on its own island while so many Xbox 360 owners jumped ship. But Sony kept things the same because it’s strapped for cash, and it knew that’s what the mob wanted. It saw an opportunity for immediate cash, so it pounced.
Today, the mob has more power than it may have realized. Their outrage spread like a virus, incubated on forums and comment sections, spreading over Twitter, and landing like an epidemic on late-night TV. It was just too much, too fast, and it may have been suicide for Microsoft to continue forcing its square DRM peg into the spiteful market’s round hole. The future is staying in the future, and now we’re back at square one. A prettier square one with more processing power, but square one nevertheless.
And now, it’s time to put up or shut up. The current console business model could really fail this generation if things don’t change. All of industry’s middlemen could die off. A flood of PC and mobile games could arise in its wake. Or publishers could take more radical action themselves and think differently about how it builds and makes games. Could. Could. Could. We’ll see. The people got what they wanted. Now they have to live with the consequences.