Saturday, June 8, 2013

Xbox One - the facts and the feelings.

Microsoft doesn't come off very well in this article, but keep in mind - Sony hasn't confirmed or denied digital rights management being present in the PlayStation 4.  At this point, we just don't know - though we think we do.  

Last night, in celebration of my paramour's twenty-fifth anniversary of life, we got together with some friends at a pub across town.  Her cousin (a deeply affable fellow, possessed at all times by good cheer and optimism) is a 360 owner, somewhere north of the 'casual' zone of gamer.  I think he's got a dozen games for it - and didn't have it connected to the 'net until just this past year.

If you've read your local paper or any print magazine's coverage of the Xbox One, you get a very different story than the one you and I are familiar with - one in which Microsoft is making all the right moves - so I was curious what his impression of it was, and asked if he'd checked out the news on it.

"Oh yeah!  That looks really cool!" his eyes lit up.

"Have you heard about the connection requirements?" I asked.

"Yeah, you have to put in a password or something?"

I moved across the table, sat next to him, leaned over and explained The Deal.

"I'm not buying one," he said.

There's been a lot of talk about how badly Microsoft screwed the pooch in the messaging department over the past month, but it's worth noting that such reflections are solely the purview of our culture.  Gamer culture.

We've heard every single thing Microsoft has said about the One, as opposed to what a local or national news outlet saw fit to print or report based on a Microsoft press release.  Reading my local newspaper, you'd think everyone who set eyes on the Xbox One at its reveal presser fell straightaway in love with the device.

Now, with Microsoft clarifying the most glaring questions surrounding its platform last week (and cancelling all interviews with the media following their upcoming E3 press conference, so follow-up questions cannot be asked), they are set to move into E3 without mentioning the elephant in the room at all.  They'll get up on stage, talk about games and how connectivity is a dream future in which we all ride our very own Rainbow Dash around a cyber-utopia - and that will be the story millions of consumers who aren't part of our culture will happily swallow.

Even within the media that we rely on to cover this subject with a depth and passion that mirrors our own, there is an interesting schism.

Polygon - a site which just last week was under fire for giving the otherwise uniformly-critically-acclaimed The Last of Us the lowest score of any game it reviewed in the previous month (and banning commenters who suggested it was, perhaps, due to the $750,000 Microsoft spent on the site's pet project) - posted a scathing editorial yesterday regarding the new console.  Here's a highlight:
"It's aggressively anti-consumer and anti-middle class, and it outright ignores underprivileged gamers. It's gross, despicable, greedy, pathetic, cowardly and out of touch with a growing global resentment for corporations. 
Microsoft has designed a policy by committee, with that committee representing the interests of large video game publishers and retailers, and internet providers."

Joystiq, on the other hand, maintained an elegantly evasive, just-the-facts approach to the story, with three short articles that toe the line of Microsoft's message as faithfully as possible, providing zero insight into the implications of the policies they're covering.

It's worth noting that Edge did the exact same thing.

Somewhere in the middle-ground, Destructoid's Jordan Devore didn't go for bombastic condemnation in the style of Polygon, admitting only a reaction quite similar to ours - sadness, and disappointment - in an otherwise very even-handed article, calling it '"ugh, really?" news'.

IGN, on the other hand, went above and beyond Joystiq's approach, going so far as to smooth over some of the more offensive aspects of the console by advising their readers of a sourceless rumor:
'Microsoft is "experimenting with special exemption codes that could be given to select people in very particular, internet-free situations, like active-duty soldiers serving in war zones."'
(The Xbox 360 has long been a mainstay of entertainment for armed forces stationed overseas, to unwind with after a long day of soldiering.  The Xbox One's inability to play any video games without a connection to the internet every 24 hours essentially denies out-of-country soldiers the same opportunity.)

Unable to report anything good on the news, IGN shoehorned an un-founded or entirely invented silver lining into the narrative.

Kotaku - never one to back down from a controversy, and always one to fan the (highly profitable) flames of gamer passions - goes straight for Xbox fans, chiding them for timidly accepting the restraints Microsoft sees fit to impose on gamer's ownership of their media.

"Maybe we are reaching a tipping point. The space where people draw the line and say, OK, I've put up with a lot of crap, but this is too much. I just want to buy a video game and play it, whenever and however I want, without you telling me how I can and can't use the expensive stuff I paid good money for. These roadblocks you keep putting in front of me aren't worth it, and no matter how good your games look, I'm not willing to put up with all these restrictions just to play them."
As I went through all the major websites researching this article, it's telling that there is one opinion I never found a journalist putting out there - happiness, or optimism.  Or any perspective suggesting Microsoft's strategy with the Xbox One will eventually offer a benefit to the consumer.

When I read Microsoft's official word on the subject, I certainly had my own feelings on it - but I didn't expect there to be so little counter-argument from the other side of the aisle.  No, it seems anyone prepared to discuss the nature of the "licensing" allowed by the Xbox One sees it in the same way: anti-consumer, pro-business.

Finally, when looking for the most thoughtful, meaningful and insightful writing on the video game industry, I find one is always well-advised to turn to EuroGamer, whose long history of harder-than-average reviews and transparent analysis of the tech behind the games uniformly provides the most even-handed reflections on the industry we adore.

The tagline for this article is "last time they shipped a console that didn't work by accident. Here's one that doesn't work on purpose."  A distressingly accurate summary. Tom Bramwell goes on to break down the details of Microsoft's execu-speak with far, far greater efficiency than I did last week:
"To save you skimming large tracts of condescending prose about how much Microsoft loves and respects you as a human wallet, here is a summary:
  • You do not own the games you buy. You license them.
  • Discs are only used to install and then license games and do not imply ownership.
  • People can play games installed on your console whether you're logged in or not.
  • 10 people can be authorised to play these games on a different Xbox One via the cloud, but not at the same time, similar to iTunes authorised devices.
  • Publishers decide whether you can trade in your games and may charge for this.
  • Publishers decide whether you can give a game you own to someone for free, and this only works if they have been on your friends list for 30 days.
  • Your account allows you to play the games you license on any console.
  • Your Xbox One must connect to the internet every 24 hours to keep playing games.
  • When playing on another Xbox One with your account, this is reduced to one hour.
  • Live TV, Blu-ray and DVD movies are exempt from these internet requirements.
  • Loaning and renting games will not be possible at launch, but Microsoft is "exploring the possibilities".
  • Microsoft may change these policies or discontinue them at any point."
The only argument in favor of Microsoft's agenda here, is that it is superficially similar to a very successful digital distribution platform that's been happily accepted by gamers worldwide. 

But that is false equivalence.  Ignoring the fact that Valve has anti-DRM measures built-in to Steam to ensure you will still be able play your video games if Steam ever goes belly-up or you are unable to connect to the service, ignoring the fact that their pricing models are entirely different and ignoring the fact that Steam doesn't require its users to log in to authenticate their account more than once a month, there is a different purpose behind Microsoft's DRM solution and the service Steam provides.

One is a DRM solution.  The other is a service.  That's it, man.  It's that simple.

Steam was successful and embraced by the PC gamer community because it solved a problem the consumer had.  It removed the non-standard DRM attempts of disparate developers and publishers and removed the need to go searching the 'net for a patch that would allow a game to work with your graphics card - Steam removed roadblacks between a gamer and their games. It made it easier to game, if your platform of choice was the PC.

It was a product, a platform, and a phenomenal cash cow for Valve, to be sure - but it became successful because of what it gave to the players.

As Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell, Kotaku's Luke Plunkett and Poygon's Chris Plante point out, the Xbox One's "game licensing" is not for your benefit or mine.  It is entirely a service provided to Microsoft itself, and its publishing partners.

And I sure as fuck don't play video games for Microsoft's sake.  The way Edge and Joystiq refuse to dip their toes into the implications of the policies they report on is a bit disappointing, but at least it pays the reader the respect of allowing them to come to their own conclusions.  Forbes, at least, is taking the long view.

"We’ve still got a lot of time yet before launch day. Microsoft may be trying to get all of this bad news out of the way at once, in order to get gamers excited about software at E3. Judging from the consistent reaction to every piece of news about the Xbox, it’s a tall, tall order. In the fall, we’ll find out if Microsoft can sell a games console while alienating a core consumer base. I don’t know that it’s impossible, but it won’t be easy."
The fact that the mainstream media (eg, newspapers, CNN) and IGN in particular are so prepared to gloss over the profoundly anti-consumer policies of the Xbox One... it's very sad.  And disappointing.

And a reminder that we should be ever-mindful of not merely what's being said, but who's saying it.

-a Primarily Sony Gamer

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