Xbox One, PS4: Welcome to the Draconian Age Part 1

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One of the oddest turns in my writing career was a two-year stint I put in as a professional gaming journalist / critic for the now sadly defunct Footprint Media, for the allXbox.com, allPS2.com, and allCube.com sites.

I had never set out to get paid to write about videogames, but after submitting a few user reviews to allPs2.com and allXbox.com on a lark, the site’s owners were impressed by them and offered me the chance to officially review a couple of comp copies of games a PR rep had sent them, and they were mine to keep when I was finished.

That went well and evolved into writing news, reviews, previews and other features and collecting a monthly paycheck for my efforts.  Not nearly enough to work at it full-time, but it did pay bills and the pay along with free, retail version review copies that could be traded in when I was done made an expensive hobby almost profitable.

The sites eventually waned as more and more competitors entered the field, and ours, which consisted of a staff of three, just couldn’t compete, and the decision was made to pull the plug on them not long after the Xbox 360 launched.  While I was sad to see the gig (and the paychecks and stream of free review games) end, in some respects I was glad to be absolved of the responsibility.  I was starting to get burned out — playing videogames nearly seven days a week in between when I was sitting at a keyboard writing about them, and forced to look at them through a completely different lens as a pundit / reporter than I would if I was just a player / consumer– and decided not to pursue the journalism track any further.

I found that I was able to enjoy gaming more by not having to professionally analyze it, and I decided to hang up my press credentials before I stopped enjoying them for good.

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Even though it’s a good fit for the overall nerdfest that is Public Domain, I’ve been leery of bring games too heavily into the mix here: it just feels somehow awkward to me to return to those old stomping grounds.

But I pretty much knew Sony’s February announcement of the PS4 would get me to take up the old soapbox at least once more, and I thought I’d wait until Microsoft tipped their hand in an official capacity on the next Xbox in order to be able to really be able to comment as a whole on Sony and Microsoft’s plans for the next generation of console gaming.

My feeling is, right up front, that this new generation is first and foremost about attempting to control how gamers access content, and through that, start to alter their habits as consumers.  It’s not really so much about better specs — in fact, at this point, the specs of each console, how they compare to each other and to the current models, which is normally the fodder of determining which is going to be ‘better’, seems almost absent from the debate.

While it seems that MS dispelled the rumor about the always-on-internet required functionality of the Xbox One, there’s also a lot of fine print going on here, with outlets reporting that while the Xbox One doesn’t have to be constantly online it will need to get online once every twenty-four hours or so, presumably to ‘check in’ with a centralized server.

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Why?

Well, that’s the question that hasn’t been definitively answered, but one big clue seems to be in the confirmation that Xbox One games will have required installs, and part of that install is to tie an individual copy of a game on a physical disc to your Xbox Live profile / account.  MS executives / reps involved with the reveal kept referring to this particular personalized data as ‘bits’, presumably to try to spin some damage control.

At that point, once the bits are parked on your console’s hard drive, and as soon as the Xbox One goes online and ties those magic bits from that copy of the game to your Gamertag, your Gamertag will need to be activated on any console that you attempt to play that game on, and it will need, before too long, to be signed on to the internet.

Sounds an awful lot like DRM to me, which even the PC segment of the gaming industry is starting to back away from.

If the One can’t call home, the console stops playing the game and will prompt whomever is using the game to sign on and purchase a new license to the game.  How much does the license cost?  According to one report — it may be up to the full retail price of the game.

And you thought $10 Online Passes were harsh, eh?

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So, basically, this means you can forget giving an Xbox One game to a friend, co-worker, or family member to take home and play, unless you plan on giving him or her your Live login info, as well.

So lending out games will be out, but what about game rentals, from Gamefly or Redbox?  I didn’t see anything in particular there, but you can bet the plan is going to be that MS will authorize special rental agreements with these parties and that part of your rental charge will go directly into MS’ coffers.

Does that mean the Xbox One won’t play used games?

No, it doesn’t — there were specific statements that you would be able to buy and sell your games . . . as long as you check with Microsoft and presumably, they get a cut of the transaction.

Details, of course, will be forthcoming, while Microsoft executives are presumably in a bunker somewhere near Redmond, Washington watching the internet implode and brewing up another batch of the candy-coated meth they’ve been eating like Skittles.

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(Sony is being very coy about these same used game questions for the PS4, stating they may have a ‘solution’ for this, as well . . . so let’s not pat them on the back too soundly just yet. )

What happens if you don’t have internet access for a temporary period, or if there happens to be an extended outage?

Once again, Xbox bigwigs mushmouthed their way around questions or promised more details at a later date, but the key seems to be that once your Xbox One checked in with Mother MS, it establishes the fact that you do, indeed, have internet access for that console, and if you refuse to give Mother a heads up on what you’ve been doing every day or so, your console is going to assume that you’re up to something ‘shady’ (like borrowing a game and trying to beat it quickly without paying the license fees before you go online again) and after a set grace period that will take into account a temporary outage, will stop you from using some of the console’s functionality until you get back online.

Like, you, know, actually playing games.

What happens if you live in an area that doesn’t offer broadband internet?

I didn’t see this addressed directly, but my reasoning is this — Microsoft won’t tell this customer ‘SOL’ outright.

What they’ll do is set up some sort of alternate method for you to register the console under a ‘non-internet’ account, but they’ll still require you to activate each game you play via texting or calling them on a phone.  When you insert a game disc for the first time, the console will generate a one-time code that you’ll either need to text, e-mail, or enter under an automated phone menu, and you’ll receive back a code that will need to be entered into the console for the game to start.

Voila — that copy of the game is registered and if anyone else tries to use it or register it, the same lockout until license fees are paid DRM will apply.

Don’t expect a break just because you live in the sticks or some underdeveloped part of the world.

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I have to be honest, this flat out amazes me.  If I’d have been covering this at a journalist the event, I’d have gotten up and walked out of the presentation, professionalism be damned.  Sony and Nintendo, both of whom are no stranger to hubris and arrogance, have never even come close to this over the course of multiple hardware generations.  The Xbox has one successful generation and all of a sudden, out come the jackboots and stormtrooper gear and they declare themselves dictator for life.

And the truly hilarious thing is that MS can’t even declare a decisive victory over this current generation.  If the conditions for victory are consoles sold, Nintendo wins and it doesn’t really matter if both Sony and MS both continue to support the PS3 and 360 for another couple years — Nintendo has, as of the first week of May, 2013, sold 99 million Wiis worldwide.

Both Sony and Microsoft are sitting at a dead heat at 77 million units globally, each, with only a mere hundred thousand separation between the two.  And the average weekly hardware sales figures are also almost too close to call, at around 100,000 new PS3s and 360s being purchased each week.

Even if Nintendo doesn’t sell one more single Wii, and assuming MS and Sony  continue averaging 400K sales per month, it would take either of them until 2017 to catch up to where Nintendo is right now.

And Microsoft, at one point, had a ten million unit lead over Sony that they managed to blow!

What makes them think, crowded on the same second-place podium as Sony tugging the silver cup back and forth, they’ll be able to create and then enforce an entirely new paradigm for how people purchase console games?

That’s what we’ll discuss when we continue talking next-gen gaming in Part 2 of ‘Welcome to the Draconian Age’.

— mal

Thanks for stopping by Public Domain!  While we’re talking about videogames, I’d like to offer my suggestion for a classic game that has yet to have a remake: 1980’s Berzerk.

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Granted, it doesn’t look like much, but this game scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.

It’s pretty basic: you’re in a maze and you’ve got a laser gun.  Robots are trying to kill you, and they’ve got a laser gun and will also kill you if you touch them.

And the walls of the maze are electrified, so you touch them, you die.  The goal is to simply escape the room.  You don’t have to kill a single robot, but if you don’t score points, you won’t earn extra lives.

Seems pretty simple . . . until you factor in Evil Otto, who was a bouncing completely indestructible smiley face that would pop out if you dawdled too long.  Otto can pass directly through the walls, so he’s pretty much a homicidal homing missile fired directly at you, and nothing can stop him.  (Bonus: Otto will kill the robots if he touches them, so you can be slick and manipulate him into doing your dirty work for you, since he’ll move in a straight line toward wherever your current position is.)   He moves fairly slow as long as there’s robots on the screen, but if you kill all the robots, Otto goes into turbo mode and is as fast as you are.

And I didn’t mention that unlike most games, when you die, the maze gets reset — and there’s a randomizer, so just trying to memorize a precise pattern doesn’t work.  You’ve got about two seconds to get your bearings when the maze comes into view before the Dalek-like robots open fire, and the game doesn’t always plop you into a nice, safe position behind cover when you respawn.

Now make this into a 3D modern first person shooter with the same rules: touch the walls, you die.  You don’t have the top down view now, so you really are trapped in a maze.  If you die, walls in the maze reconfigure slightly so it’s not the exact same as it was.

And if you take too long to find your way out, you’ve got an unkillable enemy chasing you down.  Toss in some random deathtraps, like water jets that spray and create electrified puddles you have to jump over, or grease jets that make you slide out of control.  Dim the lights or make them go out completely and choose to use your ray gun as a diffused beam flashlight instead of a weapon with a slight delay to switch back to fire mode.  Trip a beam and it activates loud death metal music that means you can’t hear the clanking robots patrolling around the corner.

 Nightmare fuel: Saw meets Doom.  It’s the Dark Souls of shooters, where the odds are stacked against you and getting higher with each level you clear.

And imagine multiplayer, where you can just sneak up behind your friend and shove them into the wall to watch them twitch and fry, slap a device on their back that draws the robots and Otto to them like a beacon, or randomly teleports them somewhere in the maze.

Oh, and the coin-op version of this game talked.  If you escaped the maze without killing a single robot, it would cackle: “Chicken, fight like a robot!”  Add in the idea that the robots in the maze have gone insane and mutter to themselves, sometimes randomly killing each other, and constantly taunting you, and you’ve got laughs a plenty.

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6 Comments

  1. I pretty much totally agree with you. It’s shocking how Microsoft have been handling issues such as internet connectivity and trading games and so on. It’s exactly as you said, it comes off as complete arrogance! They seem oblivious to the fact that these are the kinds of issues that really matter to people. In particular, the internet connection requirement and the license fee issue have been bothering me the most. I was an Xbox fan, but with those kinds of demands made on me as a consumer, I’m not sure if I will be getting one, at least in the near future.

    • Thanks, Sam. I have a *very* hard time believing people aren’t rioting in the streets over this, and that there still seems to be huge interest in preorders despite so much not being at all clearly defined.

      This was the most slick PR I think I’ve ever seen — don’t state anything clearly, but be quick to rush out statements defending the muddle. They’re very clearly feeling out public opinion to see what they can get away with, as well as waiting for a response from Sony so they don’t have to be the only bad guys.

      They’ve already completely destroyed Gamestop’s ability to negotiate with a 19% total drop in stock value in a week’s time based solely on rumor and conjection, which was absolutely intentional, and I’m not sure who’s drinking the Kool-Aid of “there’s no fees”: if they’ve stated they will allow for pre-owned games, but they’re going to require the console to ‘check in’ to be fully functional, why else would they bother? At the absolute best they’ll at least force Gamestop to quietly track sales and collect fees to be redistributed along the way, bump up the price of pre-owned software, as well as make trade-in less attractive.

      They’re going to aim for the idea that you, as the consumer, can ‘resell’ your physical games digitally via Xbox Live, which is why there’s an individual unique code attached to each physical game disc — once you sell that code to another user, and they download and activate the game, then that Blu-Ray will be headed toward the handy recycling bins I’m sure most retailers will be forced to have (or MS will find a way to amend the unique code so that Gamestop can sell the disc again, with the proper fees going to the proper parties, and there will be a huge warning sticker right on the front of the box: MUST HAVE BROADBAND INTERNET CONNECTION TO VERIFY. And then MS will pat themselves on the back for ‘going green’ and reducing carbon footprints for not requiring all those pesky Blu-Rays to be shipped around and being able to re-use a now otherwise worthless product).

      MS will take a cut of the sale for being middleman and ‘payment’ will be given to the seller in the form of their unique digital currency system — possibly with an option to convert those points to a cash-equivalent gift card of some sort, but with a serious loss in value for doing so, as they want all that digital value to stay within their proprietary system and be used on digital goods and services on Xbox Live. Wait until the incentives like trade in a game and get two months free of Live Gold start, or they’ll throw in some downloadable game for free to both the buyer and seller in order to get people to try out their new all-digital marketplace system and stay outside of Gamestop’s brick and mortar stores, period.

      Nintendo has played some sneaky games in the past with trying to pressure retailers not to sell or promote competitors’ products, but this makes that bit of strongarming as innocent as a little toilet paper in the front yard as a prank.

      Wait until the next phase of the PR campaign rolls out after E3 when they start to try to guilt gamers out of buying pre-owned games under the current system because it takes food out of the mouths of rank-and-file employees at game development studios, just like the MPAA did with their anti-piracy PSAs in theatres: only like the MPAA, they don’t tell you that the reason movie tickets are so expensive is that because the studio takes such a huge cut that the theatres have to charge what they do just to eke out a profit.

      This is really a watershed moment, because if enough people accept a technology manufacturer can do this, this DRM will end up in EVERYTHING — you’ll have DVD players equipped to go online and see where you got the movie from. Download a song to your iPod and it will want to ‘check in’ to see who gave it to you, where you got the CD or MP3 from.

  2. I enjoyed this piece. I’m looking at it a bit differently, but I can agree with you most of it. I actually will enjoy all access anywhere I am to my library (with a broadband connection). I have looked at it this way, I very rarely disconnect my consoles from the internet. Therefore, as an individual, it doesn’t affect me. But for a lot of people in rural areas it wouldn’t be a good thing. The check-ins seem to be in place just to verify you have traded or gifted any titles away, and new purchases. I know as a consumer its easy to assume they are trying to “watch you”. Essentially yes, they are watching, to make sure you own your content. I’m ok with that. Seems I’m the only one ok with it. This is no fanboy biased opinion as I own both now, and will own both next gen.

    • Thanks for the compliments. My take is that I agree that the business end needs tweaking — no, pre-owned games aren’t ‘fair’ to publishers and developers.

      However, it needs to be a two-way street. Publishers and developers need to stop being wasteful with their resources, which includes spending ridiculous amounts of money on mass marketing campaigns when the core audience for this product can very easily be reached through cheaper alternatives — i.e. websites, blogs, etc.

      Rather than have annualized sequels and incremental improvements on gameplay, properly utilize DLC to keep gamers engaged with an IP — which has a side benefit, because even if you bought the original disc pre-owned, you’ve still got to pay the publisher directly for the additional content.

      And stop with the constant race for ‘better’ technology and instead focus on streamlining the development process, bringing down the cost of making a game and make the games cheaper. Which means not throwing out perfectly good hardware every five years as an arbitrary part of the business model.

      Yes, there’s always going to be that segment of the audience who wants everything free or for next-to-nothing, but I really do believe that the MSRP of $60 for a game isn’t working — which is why retailers are constantly dumping the price of new software to get it to move. People would buy less pre-owned games if new games were more reasonably priced. Retailers have been making that happen by sacrificing their end of the profits and selling the games for less just to make a sale, but that’s not going to last forever — especially if the consumer base is greatly reduced from the 70+ million potential customers any given game has on the 360 and PS3.

      With this new generation, basically they’re not going to acknowledge the problems with their business model, they’re just laying it on the consumer to pay more for the experience to make up the shortfalls. You can’t keep running a business with very shaky logic and just expect customers to open their wallets wider to fix your shortsightedness and mistakes. I’m all for being a little more fair, but I’m not going to be punished for a business model that’s 15 years out of date.

  3. My concern is that people will realize that yes, the 360 has games they want, and they’ll justify it to themselves that yeah, it’s okay to totally restrict my rights as a user. I play games, I love games, I want to play the new games on every console. But at this point, the Xbox One is the only console I have immediately and strongly not wanted to own. I hope Microsoft relents on this. The future is more openness, more availability, not iron grip control over your platform and customers.

    • Right. We’ve got a culture where the consumer has a lot of choice over how they engage with something, and by locking it down and trying to dictate terms, there should be trouble.

      What bothers me is that everything about this system completely favors the platform holders. They’re trying to shame / punish us for buying pre-owned games, sharing games with friends, rentals, etc.., but they’ve been pushing download only games — which is great — but because they’re completely cutting out the technology to make backwards compatibility possible, in order to make the hardware cheaper to manufacture and more profitable — those games are now locked to an obsolete platform.

      Sure, you can just hang onto your PS3 / 360 to play them . . . until something goes wrong with your hardware and it needs replaced. How long are they going to support the PS3 / 360 online infrastructure before they just turn those servers off, and you won’t be able to re-download the software you 100% legally purchased and have no other means of obtaining a new cpoy.

      With each new generation we seem to be losing features but paying the same if not more. With the PS2 you had full backwards compability except for a very small handful of technologically incompatible games. Then the next gen comes and we lost most backwards compatibility unless you paid extra for the PS3 model that allowed for it. MS allowed for some Xbox BC but notice we’ve been getting a lot of HD remakes of PS2 / Xbox era games as of late . . . so clearly there’s a market for those, as long as people want to pay to play them again.

      Now we’re potentially losing a lot more, all in exchange for games that are slightly more pretty-looking.

      The terms of service here with this transition are real shaky and subject to change at any moment, which should really give people pause before they’re buying into it. How you use the hardware can change dramatically depending on what policies they decide to institute — don’t be surprised if at some point they take away or further restrict the game sharing capablity, for instance, because they find out people are using it too much and it’s cutting into new sales. And the fact that they seem to be really shady about coming out and setting down what the rules are in plain, consise language is troubling. “Well, we might allow for rentals . . . if we can find a way to strongarm Redbox, Gamefly, etc. and make them give us a cut.”

      I do give MS a lot of credit for what they came up with, because a lot of it is brilliant, if not a little underhanded — putting the blame on game publishers, for instance, to determine individual DRM terms so the consumer views them as the bad guy, when in actuality MS benefits just as much from new game sales because they get a per-copy royalty on each new sale, which they don’t get on the pre-owned games . . . but the average consumer will just see the publishers as being greedy and point the finger at them.


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