Thursday, June 20, 2013

Microsoft Backpedals on Xbox One DRM Policies

Backpedal (verb): to retreat or move backward.

Last night the internet saw Microsoft go into full backpedal mode on their DRM practices for the upcoming Xbox One in a post on their site titled“Your Feedback Matters – Update on Xbox One.”  The post was courtesy Don Mattrick, the President of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business unit, and seemed to address a score of concerns gamers had following the product launch event and E3.  Citing that his people had heard directly from many fans (read:  pages upon pages of ASCII middle fingers on their Facebook page), he announced that DRM practices for the Xbox One would be somewhat rolled back to how they are for the Xbox 360.  Here were the main hits:

An internet connection will not be required to play offline Xbox One games – After a one-time system set-up with a new Xbox One, you can play any disc based game without ever connecting online again. There is no 24 hour connection requirement and you can take your Xbox One anywhere you want and play your games, just like on Xbox 360

Trade-in, lend, resell, gift, and rent disc based games just like you do today – There will be no limitations to using and sharing games, it will work just as it does today on Xbox 360.

This means that if I want to lend my friend a game I just need to give them the disc.  Things will mostly roll on like it currently does for the Xbox 360 generation.  It’s a good thing that Mattrick and his crew rolled these back if for no one’s sake than their own too, because things were starting to look pretty grim for team Microsoft on the gaming front.  Their licensing model was convoluted and strange for borrowing discs and game rentals.  Military personnel were calling it “a sin against all service members.”  And then there was Sony, their main competition for the last couple generations of gaming consoles, absolutely drilling them on their policies with not only their own business practices but veiled commercials targeting Microsoft to the delight of all watching.  I mean we all remember this video on sharing games from PlayStation’s YouTube channel, right?

Did anyone else get a very thumbs up / thumbs down Gladiator vibe from that whole thing?  I sure did, and it was hilarity that won in the arena.

Sony had the pole position in the console press conferences, showing off the PS4 hours after Microsoft was shilling the One.  After the disappointment of many after the Xbox One show, Sony had the opportunity to say “Hey guys, don’t worry!  We’re still here to save you!”  And it worked.  Like gangbusters, kids.  Sony offered a unit that cost less, had better hardware specs, nixed the DRM, had no requirement for an always on, always listening camera, and didn’t charge $60 a year for online services.  How can you lose with that kind of show?

So was it Sony putting pressure on Microsoft by just being themselves or was it truly the Xbox team listening to their fans.  “We have listened and we have heard loud and clear from your feedback that you want the best of both worlds,” Mattrick said on the Xbox Wire.  Maybe it should have read “Pleas guys, don’t leave us for Sony.”  It was probably a combination of both.  And that’s what’s awesome about the whole thing.  What this showed was that the gaming industry can still be affected by competition and vox populi – even though companies run on margin and greed, that they can shift gears when they previously said they can’t when their dollars are threatened.  It’s the beauty of the system – a company can shift gears once they realize that consumers aren’t going for what they’ve got.  And to the conspiracy theorists, no, I don’t think this was a planned stunt from the get go to come off harsh then pick up the image of “listening to the fans.”  That strategy would have only worked if they had a PS4-killer level function in the Xbox One, which they didn’t.  In all I’m glad they rolled back the DRM, but I think the damage is still done.

And that’s my opinion regardless of the borderline insane ramblings of Cliffy B, who claims that it was Sony alone, and not the “whiny internet” that forced Microsoft’s hand.

Sony still has a lot of those advantages listed above going for them.  The price of the PS4 is still about $100 less than the One, and that also comes with no yearly payments for online services.  And money is always a factor.  It was part of the reason for the success of Nintendo’s first Wii console after all.  But the other disadvantage they still maintain is the Kinect requirement.  The Kinect still has to be plugged in and powered on for the console to function, keeping my privacy concerns right where they are.  Enough to make the fact that they rolled back the DRM, while fundamentally good, also completely moot.  I still need more than “I promise Nene, I’m not listening” to make it happen for me.

Final verdict: Sony still has the upper hand.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

US Military Ready to Court Martial the Xbox One

Remember a while back when former Xbox director Adam Orth put his foot in his digital mouth, tweeting to us all that if there is an always on connection (of course before they confirmed it) that we can all #dealwithit?  As you know, I had some fundamental problems with the sentiment.  Orth went on to be completely dismissive about folks that didn’t have a constant and reliable internet connection.  That covers a lot of folks – gamers that live in the rural United States without broadband or have to rely on spotty satellite service as well as members of our armed services that are deployed abroad.  I spoke to some of my friends in uniform when that information came out, and they were unanimously unpleased.  Gaming is how some of them blow off steam while deployed in remote areas or at sea, and a requirement for online check ins with the inability to play offline without one puts that to an end.

Those statements seem to be resonating with American military personnel.  For example US Navy Lieutenant Scott Metcalf, according to reports from The Navy Times, has gone from eagerly awaiting his console’s arrival to not even being sure that he’ll be buying one from Microsoft.  The always on policy as well as other aspects of the Xbox are what he calls “showstoppers.”  Here’s what a Microsoft spokesperson told the Military Times about Xbox functionality:
“With Xbox One you can game offline for up to 24 hours on your primary console, or one hour if you are logged on to a separate console accessing your library. Offline gaming is not possible after these prescribed times until you re-establish a connection”
The Times outline the other problems that Lt. Metcalf and others have with the new device.  For starters, the Xbox One is only supported in 21 countries – meaning it’s unavailable to any personnel deployed outside of those zones.  If somehow the lucky military gamer in question is in one of those 21 countries, games are region locked, so guess what?  No buying games locally or firing up a disc from home – because if your XBox Live account is linked to a different region, you’re looking at no joy.

More so than the always on component of the console and the inability to play games offline – or even really at all in some cases, is the security issues.  This is a huge issue in the past couple weeks, especially considering Germany’s consideration to ban sales of the console considering it a surveillance device.  It’s absolutely no surprise to me that the US military feels the same way.  In your living room, an always on (and always listening) Kinect unit might pick up a conversation between you and your friends, or where you want to order takeout from.  Now imagine that you living room is actually a military unit, where a Commander has a lot more to worry about being picked up than a food order.

Metcalf isn’t the only one with issues.  Naval aviator Jay Johnson is outspoken about the topic as well.  Johnson, who served tours on three Nimitz-class carriers, describes gaming as “my sanctuary. It is where I went to calm down after a long day of flying.”  In a piece he wrote for Gamasutra, he describes it simply as “the single greatest sin Microsoft has committed against all service members.”  And he’s right.

What makes this whole thing even worse is Microsoft’s attitude about the whole thing.  While our military personnel are losing a way to escape their sometimes harsh realities, Don Mattrick keeps on with a “sucks to be you” demeanor, stating that if they don’t want a console that has an always on component, that they can always buy an Xbox 360, which allows full-time offline play.

His words in an interview at E3 reflect that:
“When I read the blogs and thought about who’s really the most impacted, there was a person who said, ‘Hey, I’m on a nuclear sub.’ I don’t even know what it means to be on a nuclear sub, but I’ve got to imagine that it’s not easy to get an Internet connection. Hey, I can empathize. If I was on a sub, I’d be disappointed.”
Great, they empathize.  Too bad they’re not going to do anything about it.  There haven’t been any plans or even words on their part to address the issue.  But hey, they’ve got a 360 for you.  It’s absolutely shameful that in a room where these things are discussed at Xbox HQ, there was absolutely no foresight to what their policies could mean for our fighting men and women having a little piece of home when they’re deployed abroad.  Said best by Johnson -

“No longer will the sounds of Master Chief saving the human race echo through the hallowed halls of the USS Abraham Lincoln, or any other USS ship, when we have a few hours respite. No longer will you see Marcus and Dom sawing through the Locust Horde at the bases in Afghanistan after the Marines have returned from patrol and want to escape their reality for a bit. Those days are now firmly behind us.”