The XBO DRM Change; Why It Matters.

Replacing today’s scheduled review so I can go back and replay The Last Of Us…

Those who will give up their essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety and will see neither.
– Benjamin Franklin, American Statesman, 1775.

More than two centuries on, it’s amazing how quickly we are willing to throw away such a fundamental lesson on the nature of power.

Whilst many celebrate Microsoft’s dramatic (but inevitable) u-turn on DRM and restrictive online rules, there are plenty who lament the loss of innovation that such a system might have brought. And I accept, there were many ways in which the system could have been made to work for us. But it is important that we first understand that whatever changes were made to assure us of the validity of this system, that it began not to please us or ensure our safety and security; it was designed to watch us, because the industry is in turmoil. And the only manner in which it knows control is to control its subjects – or in this case, its customers.

You see, budgets are becoming incredibly large. An average game nowadays will cost a good ten million dollars, and your marketing budget can be anywhere up to four times that as well. You are talking substantial amounts of money, and that is before you get to the idea that some games last barely a few hours. Games as a disposable entity, costing such huge amounts, are the societal and industrial norm. The idea of value for money has been slipping for years, and as games have grown shorter and lost sight of the concept of value, so too has the second hand market grown in size, practically proportional to the descent of the industry as an entity. The industry clearly dislikes the second hand market because, in their mind, someone who waits two weeks and buys a used copy of the game is cheating them out of a sale. However, the first question to ask is the simple one; why is your game on a used shelf two weeks after its release anyway? If, in the example of Tomb Raider, the brunt of your sales are in the first two weeks and then they spiral into nothingness towards the end of the month, this is not a notable issue with us as consumers – it’s an issue with them and the notion of their product not being as satisfying.

Companies would like to blame you and me, and many apologists for the industry will say that used games will hurt the industry. And yes, used games will hurt the industry, but only because the industry lets used games hurt it. It’s only an issue because the industry has let it become such an issue, and would rather blame those buying the used games than confront the difficult home truths as to why their game has dropped in value so considerably. We are being asked to assume blame for something that is beyond our control; again, if a game like Tomb Raider can sell 5,250,000 (5.25 million) units in 28 days and not be considered a success, is that really the fault of the consumer? The consumer will simply follow the path of least resistance; if, on day fourteen, the used games section becomes saturated with games which are £10 cheaper, why is a company really surprised that this happens? And yes, again, why is it that the used game market can hit saturation so soon after a release?

This is the issue with online checks, DRM and such forth; the industry isn’t looking at the problem. It’s making an excuse, it’s looking for someone to blame and it thinks that consumers will assume it, because hey, we’ve assumed plenty of draconian rubbish the last few years. Day One DLC and Season Passes, only to be trumped months later by a better value Game of the Year edition that later adopters will get for far, far less than any initial purchaser. The reams of useless and sometimes tasteless content. The pointless games, like Resident Evil: Revelations HD, games which are of considerably lesser quality than their original counterparts. We’ve been conditioned to see much of this as normal when, before the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 came around, much of this was unheard of. PC Games had expansion packs, but hey, PC Games were cheap. Now pricing is equalised across the board – again, because this suits the publishers better.

And Microsoft is surprised that when you chip away at the last bastion of consumerism, the notion of ownership of that content, that the consumer market finally bites back? I’m not surprised by it at all. I am more surprised it took it this far to provoke such a volatile reaction.

When the industry looks at itself, in a mirror, it will see something rather unpleasant. Sony and Nintendo, as companies, also make games. But arguably the games they make are often justified by the profits made by their hardware; they are prepared to let time take its course and get a higher quality product from it in the end. Microsoft, the young guns in the market, are more intent on being the first for everything and much like a certain video games chain store in the UK (called GAME), spending vast amounts of money to be seen as first is not always the most articulate or sensible idea. Nintendo and Sony still struggle with the concept with their experience in the market, so of course Microsoft have some time to come to terms with this. It thinks having exclusive content for download for a game will attract customers through its doors first, and arguably it’s sensible logic. But equally, if the content doesn’t justify the expense then you have a social scene to cherish; customers in your arena, all baying for blood. If you’re going to offer such things, the quality has to be exceptional. If it is not, then you can only create the impression that you prefer quantity rather than quality, and this is again something Microsoft have been accused of in recent years. When Nintendo can turn around and mock you for your actions, you may have an issue.

There is also the issue of what some call “Kinetic Tampering”.

Rather like a genetic scenario, evolution happens over many generations, gradually because that’s how evolution works. You don’t notice evolution because it is a slow, methodical process that often passes completely unnoticed because it seems perfectly normal and natural. Evolution is not the same as a mutation, which is often more sudden and more prone to close examination. Microsoft were pushing a mutation of the digital scene rather than a natural evolution; Nintendo’s slow lowering of digital prices is an evolution of the concept because you’d ask yourself why on earth Nintendo would sell a game at £54.99 when it can be bought in a shop brand new for £34.99 or so. It’s merely an adjustment that allows the growth of something to be more constructive over the coming years. Microsoft had to continue to justify its actions; worse, it was being forced to offer compromises and promises in order to justify its abominable creation. Friends list sharing was a lovely idea, but ultimately one had to ask how Microsoft planned to make such a thing possible under such draconian security measures. Microsoft had to promise things; promises it would seem it was simply unable to keep, ideas which would never really come to fruition. It knew that admitting that such things were not technically or feasibly possible under its roof would be the death knell.

Friends list sharing was the straw that broke the camels back I sense. Microsoft had, arguably, been trying very hard to defend the industry and its right to protect its content. However, here was a system where a game could be purchased once and shared between up to ten people. One sale, ten users. This flew in the face of such notions of defending the industry and protecting its content largely because it knew, given the option, no other publisher would ever consider this a reasonable idea. In a market already trying to justify ludicrous costs and expenditure, the notion that a machine was offering a digital service that could cut your sales numbers down by nearly 90% would have sunk without a trace. A great idea, but one that the industry wouldn’t be able to stomach and truthfully, one that even users might have had issues with as well. Can’t play the same game at the same time, can’t share with people who haven’t been friends for at least thirty days (and some wanted this to be ninety days!), had to be logged into the Internet at all times, thereby seemingly creeping in the DRM and always-online component which has seen much derision.

Neither way seemed like it could feasibly function. And I assume even if Microsoft could find a moral middle ground for it, making this work technically speaking would have been a logistical nightmare. It is a concept that sounds brilliant, but only on paper. The reality is a far more complex demon than anyone gives it credit for.

You can’t force change. Change is a natural gravitation and there is already a deep-seated consumer resentment over many issues in the market today. These issues can’t just be tarmacked over in the quest for progress, because someone at some point is going to ask why the ground is so incredibly bumpy. Sony and Nintendo didn’t announce much in the way of change because they didn’t see the need for it. Microsoft was hoping that it would not be alone, that listening to the publishers would make it more liked and more successful but I assume one glance at pre-order numbers for the PlayStation 4 (which we are being told will be sold out for months!) and the sudden jump in Wii U sales (usually on the back of any silly Microsoft announcement, correlation and causation perhaps hand in hand here) has reminded Microsoft that publishers cannot pay the brunt of their wages. That is done by consumers, who buy, subscribe and download through the system. Without consumers, publishers won’t stand anywhere near it because they cannot see the market value in it.

The massive change of heart at Microsoft is because consumers have spoken, and in a massive voice. The relentless mocking on Twitter, the reams and reams of bad press it has endured in the past couple of weeks, the criticisms from some developers and its market competitors and the pre-orders and sales they have enjoyed in the wake of all of this has reminded Microsoft that a console cannot be a dictatorship. They cannot govern a userbase with an iron fist, as that can only lead to revolution and destruction. A console is a tool, a device – some may argue even a toy. It is not a right, it is not a way of life and it is not so important that you cannot live without it. Microsoft cannot simply assume success will follow success; ask Sony, who assumed the PlayStation 3 would simply sell itself after the behemoth that was the PlayStation 2. Or Nintendo, who had to work hard to sell the 3DS (which is now selling like mad!) after the DSi, and who are still working on selling the Wii U, after assuming a new Wii would simply shift the same numerical units as the previous Wii because… well, because.

Hubris is a wonderful thing because it keeps the industry humble. It’s the realisation that you have become an arse which brings you back down. Microsoft have, to their credit, at least realised very quickly what has been happening and have moved swiftly and decisively to make those changes. The fight back is not yet complete; arguably, there is still much left to discuss. The Kinect 2.0 – a device many of us neither need nor want – is keeping the cost of the machine very high. In some cases, it simply won’t recognise people (wheelchairs and crutches sound like they will make it freak out. WHY DO YOU HAVE WHEELS AND NOT LEGS ASGFHRGGRKHHAA ERROR! ERROR!). Or it could be abused by outside forces. It’s removal would put it more in like with the PS4 in terms of cost, which may also put more pressure on Nintendo to get the ball rolling, and adjust its costs.

Competition is like that, it improves things. Microsoft envisioned a future where publishers could run rings around us; and expecting a publisher, or Microsoft, to give us more for your money without putting prices up isn’t possible when a marketplace has no competition prompting it to do so. It saw a place where the rich and powerful could suppress the market, dictate policy and rules and deny us even the most basic of consumer freedoms, like choice and the expectation of quality. Going back to how we do it now is not really backtracking; it’s simply putting the train back on the rails. We do not need to go down this dark alley, lured by promises of Halo and sharing. Sometimes if a dodgy bloke is leading you into a dark alley, your survival instinct telling you to run like hell is more powerful and dominant than any temptation.

All this matters because what we now have is a real next-generational fight. And more than that, if publishers are struggling, perhaps now they will take a closer examination of themselves rather than simply blame the consumer in the manner of which they have been doing in recent years. The consumer has flexed its combined musculature and the result has been an alarming but ultimately refreshing wake-up call for one of the biggest names in the business, one of which seemed to be doing everything to hurt itself. You almost expected the XBox One team to talk about Tiger Blood and “Winning”. It was an alarming meltdown. A very public one too.

We have reminded one of the biggest names in the business that we control success and failure. Our money is what talks, and we are very happy to spend it elsewhere if you do not speak our language. That is a significant victory, and one for which we should be incredibly proud of.

However – the next gen isn’t over until it is over. The release is but one step. There could be up to ten years of this upcoming generation, and in spite of this victorious moment, there will be many more battles to fight. Hopefully, we can expect a bolstered consumer community to reject more and more stupid ideas, and bring the industry back in line in general. And no, this will not be pretty. And I agree that some publishers will crumble into the dust as a result. This is the way of change. This is how evolution works. Those who cannot adapt, die. And it will be crushing and desperately sad, but this is the way of it.

We have many more years to go. And it isn’t merely Microsoft we should be watching, but all of them.

But if nothing else, this is a warning shot. A sign that consumers are not the easily manipulated fools they assume we are. That our money matters. And that is, right now, a deep breath of fresh air that I think many of us really desperately needed.

It matters because consumers stood up for themselves and took their money elsewhere.

And not even Microsoft can argue with that.

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