For once, gamers have had their collective will recognized in the face of corporate opposition – and from no less a source than Microsoft, the lumbering Behemoth to Apple’s shimmering Leviathan in the tech and computing world. From their online check-in requirement to their restrictions on used and loaned games, the company has backed off from a variety of controversial plans, securing a clear and decisive victory for a vocal gaming community. And now, looking over the cooling embers of the previously burning effigy of Microsoft’s Don Mattrick, we can finally ask ourselves this important question: did we just collectively screw ourselves over, big time?
Because there are three reasons to think we just did exactly that.
#1: Maybe our gaming policies shouldn’t be limited by people who live in the deserts or the boondocks.
One of the most controversial decisions on Microsoft’s part was the requirement – the absolute, non-negotiable requirement – of an internet connection in order to play any of the Xbox One’s titles, whether online or off. If your console was unable to ‘check in’ with Microsoft once every 24 hours, you could say goodbye to the ability to play anything in your library until that changed – even if the title in question was an entirely offline, multiplayer lacking affair. Don Mattrick, who apparently likes to take public relations tips from Marie Antoinette, didn’t help matters by candidly suggesting that gamers who couldn’t meet this requirement were probably best off sticking with the 360. I wasn’t at this conference, but I can only imagine Mattrick followed this up by yelling “SUCK IT!” and driving off in a limousine, flipping two middle fingers for the cameras the whole time.
Now, the PR blunders of Microsoft aside, it’s not as if there’s no valid point to this sort of complaint. There are military personnel who are located in the ass end of nowhere for whom getting a console online every 24 hours probably isn’t within the realm of possibility. Likewise, there are gamers who live in rural areas – and as someone who lives in the Northeast of Pennsylvania roundabout what’s known as “Amish Country,” I can understand the plight of gamers stuck in the middle of nowhere without much in the way of reliable internet access. I feel bad for them. In fact, the prospect of living in an area that lacked reliable broadband internet access is actually a little terrifying to me.
But I also don’t want game or hardware developers to make their decisions based on people stuck in these situations.
Let’s face it: no one considers the existence of World of Warcraft or any other MMOs to be insults to the rural gaming populace or insults to the men and women of the armed forces, despite their non-negotiable online-only aspects. We don’t regard the fact that Steam largely lacks snail-mail distribution of boxed games as some kind of heartless decision on their part. In fact, in America it’s estimated the 90% of all households with computers have broadband – and if you have broadband, chances are you can meet a once-a-day mandatory check-in time. And if you can’t? Well, it really seems like the lion’s share of that 90% seem comfortable with that. Rather like how most of us don’t snarl at how the latest Crysis game is leaving out people who are stuck playing on an Apple IIgs. Most of us PC gamers don’t even care when Mac users can’t play a popular game. In fact, if you want complete honesty? Quite a few of us find that pretty funny.
The point is that the gaming public seemed to rush to denounce Microsoft for excluding a segment of the market, when the fact is we’re entirely comfortable with excluding even larger portions of the market on a regular basis in the name of greater entertainment. If all of us were really only willing to play games that the largest segment of the world population was technologically capable of playing, we’d all be playing checkers. Those of who’d rather see gaming options advance beyond the lowest of the lowest common denominators should probably be wondering if this was a particularly good hill to plant our flag on.
#2: Most of us have already accepted limitations on trading, loaning and renting games
While the requirement to check-in with Microsoft online may have ruffled some gamers’ feathers, the inability to freely trade, loan and rent copies of games yanked those feathers out by the fistful. This issue wasn’t much of a surprise – for a long time now both hardware and software developers have been mulling over what to do with the used game market, and ‘what to do’ has been largely cashed out to “how to destroy.” Microsoft decided to take one for the team on this, being forthright in presenting policies meant to completely control the play and resale of titles on the Xbox One – at least insofar as the developers and publishers wanted them to. That meant that the final say as to who played what game would be taken away from the end user and instead placed in the hands of Microsoft and the likes of Electronic Arts.
Unlike the concern about online capabilities, this was a decision that affected just about every console gamer around. Everyone I know who games on a 360 or PS3 has either picked up a used game in the past, sold one of their used titles, or lent their games to friends – this isn’t some rare and obscure practice existing on the fringes of the gaming community. On the other hand, the inability to trade and resell titles we own isn’t unfathomable to another large class of gamers – those of us who use Steam, a service so well-loved that it’s not unheard of for people to pass up ridiculously discounted desktop computer titles if the game cannot be seamlessly integrated with their Steam library. But as of right now, there is no way to trade or sell a used game on Steam – nor can you sell your Steam account itself.
This isn’t a situation that has Steam users outraged and screaming about the injustice of it all – or, if anyone is outraged about it, they’re in a tiny minority at this point. We’re used to it, and we accept the situation. Sure, ask us about it and we may say it sort of sucks – but ‘muted disappointment’ is the strongest reaction you’ll typically get on this topic. Granted, this has to be considered apart from Microsoft’s previous requirement of a check-in once every 24 hours – something Steam doesn’t feature – but the fact is that gamers have shown themselves to be plenty accepting of a lock on game-trading. Now, someone could argue that there’s a slew of benefits that come with Steam ownership, deep discounts on games in particular. But if that becomes the main complaint, then that’s just showing that our problem isn’t with restricted game-trading, or even digital-only copies. It’s that we want games to be cheaper, or to end up discounted more than they tend to be with consoles.
But to admit that much is to admit that heavy restrictions on game trading or used titles after all. Many of us, quite possibly the majority, accept it with Steam – why wouldn’t we accept it with Microsoft?
#3: This was a victory for a crappy status quo more than a victory for gamers
As pointed out at the start of this article, getting Microsoft to change its policies in the face of a public outcry is no small feat. The fact that the collective will of gamers was sufficient to result in a massive turnaround of Xbox One policies was a positive thing in many ways, most of which can be summed up as “yay, sometimes corporations listen to us”. Instead of having to spend the next few months with a marketing team trying to “educate” us about the many benefits of Microsoft’s Xbox One’s policies, gamers have successfully convinced Microsoft to stay the course and continue with the previous generation’s distribution and used games options. The status quo. Complete with day-one DLC, brick-and-mortar store supremacy, and more.
I’m not saying that Microsoft was right on the cusp of ushering gamers into some kind of technological Garden of Eden and we decided to forsake it in favor of Gaming Calcutta. Instead, I’m saying that Microsoft was for a moment going to try something legitimately new with game distribution. Granted, new doesn’t mean better – this could have ended up moving console gaming into a markedly worse situation. On the other hand, if worries about the potential abuse of a new system dominated our gaming concerns, Steam with its then-crazy ‘you don’t get a box and a disc when buying a new game’ policy would have never seen the light of day. We wouldn’t have free-to-play MMOs that gave us a whole lot of gameplay for the low, low price of zero matched with an in-game store. We wouldn’t have a whole lot of advances, period, especially because some of the benefits of a new way of doing things aren’t necessarily apparent until after they’ve been around for a while.
But thanks to a combination of legitimate gamer outrage exacerbated by some of the most mind-blowing publicity gaffes the console world has ever seen, we’ve successfully gotten the gaming giant to blink and change its mind about how it’s going to operate in this upcoming generation of hardware. And what if it didn’t? Well, if it turned out that all of their decisions led to nightmarish results (like the Divx of old ended up as), at the very least we could have hoped that the market would have pulled the plug on their experiment (like we saw with… well, the Divx again). So the Xbox One would have either changed its policies at that point or ended up being dominated by the Playstation 4 – not the most negative result in the world. On the other hand, if the full-on embrace of digital distribution and associated lockdown of rentals would have led to a Steam-style console renaissance, complete with deep discounts on older titles, we could have seen the console market dragged towards a newer, more positive direction that the entire market could benefit from.
At this point, however, these speculations are entirely moot. Microsoft has caved, and the status quo – for better or for worse – has been maintained. As emotionally satisfying a victory as this may be for many gamers, I still can’t hope but wonder if it really was the best outcome in the end.
Victor Grunn has been a gamer since the days of single-button joysticks and the Atari 800XL. When not lamenting the loss of the Ultima series or setting people on fire in Team Fortress 2, he's an aspiring indie game developer and freelance writer.