So, the new Xbox has been revealed. It has specs that now actually look like a computer’s—the older ones only started to have sizeable hard drives toward the end. This one launches with 500GB of drive space, 8-core processing, 8 GB of RAM, and some neat new Kinect features.
You can watch live TV on it, it seems, and using Kinect you can give it verbal orders that it will listen to (“Xbox, watch TV”). They fixed the D-pad on the controller, by the looks of it—each direction on the pad is separate from the others, rather than all clumped together around a plastic circle.
The new console also portends some disconcerting new realities, although at least Microsoft had the decency to handle those well. All games are downloaded entirely when the disc is inserted and the game becomes attached to your profile. The disc is no longer useful at that point…except that you can give it to your friends and have them download the whole game, as well. Since this process allows for much greater sharing than simply lending your buddy a game disc (which you’d presumably need to play the game yourself, in most cases), people who want to use the game disc to download the game again will have to pay a fee to have access to the content.
It sounds good, but this places new, DRM-esque restrictions on the game content that may threaten the large used-games industry and the business model of stores like EB Games, which make large profits from buying used games cheaply and selling them at near-new-game prices. It also means that for the Xbox One, the very nature of how games must be played makes it impossible to lend your buddy a game to play for a week, and presumably, means you can’t bring that fun party game to a friend’s house and play some 4-player co-op unless you plan to install the game on your friend’s console and account, and only use it there. As well, up-front full-game install times mean you might not be able to play that new game you brought home for at least a few minutes as the game downloads, possibly more if the game is old and needs to download mandatory updates, too.
On the other hand, this transfer fee, for allowing another person to play the full game on their console while you still have the game on yours…if it’s cheap, it might be an interesting alternative to the used games market. If you bought a game you liked and all of your friends could download a discounted copy of the game from your disc for 10-20$, that would be really interesting. Even if the fee for downloading a game the second time is the retail purchase price, borrowing the game from a friend will be easier for some people than going to a store—and in theory, games purchased directly from the Xbox this way will be cheaper, since there’s no middleman like EB Games there to collect a fraction of the profits.
People on the internet who talk at length about the impending corporate controls imposed that would limit the used-game market often talk about the possibility that consoles will make it mandatory for video games to be online at all times, ensuring that people with hacked consoles aren’t playing their games or that people with hacked game copies cannot play at all. And all that doesn’t mention that when you connect at all times, sometimes your online connection drops, and you get booted out of your game—a conspicuous problem to have when you’re playing a game’s single-player component, for example. Thankfully, Microsoft hasn’t made online connections mandatory, but just as with the Xbox 360 (I think—I know the PS3 did it), they allow game manufacturers to do so if they choose. As well, they’ve provided game-makers with an incentive to do so: Microsoft is making it possible for games to offload some processing power to Cloud processors, which means that the games could process more complex images at any time than with the console alone. That means better-looking games that can do more things at once, and while this would require the games to be always online (although in theory, they’d only have to be online when said cloud processing is in use…), the ability to play better or more-desirable games might make many gamers willingly choose to play such online-enabled games.
Although both of these controls could be limiting and invasive, at least Microsoft has the decency to make them appear to be part of larger functions of the console. Do you want games that download entirely to the system’s large hard drive, so that you can play them with fewer load times? Then you’ve gotta install the full game. (Why are they making that mandatory, I wonder…) Do you want games that process efficiently by making use of cloud processing? Then they’ve gotta be connected to the network all the time. I’m starting to question the need to make full game downloads mandatory, but it’s a neat idea in most cases, and cloud processing will only be a part of some games, so if you don’t want to play those games, you don’t have to—although if the processing works smoothly and allows for some interesting-looking games, you might just want to, despite your interests.
Also, this is a great boon for game developers. Many game developers have talked about the “scourge” of the used game market, and I’m sure having $10-20 versions of your year-old games available on shelves eats into profits. (It’s hard to even find a new copy of a game in stores 1 year later, but that’s partly because of the used game market’s influence.) Some games like Mass Effect 2 and 3 have started including content in them that only the initial owner and purchaser of the game would get, and people acquiring the game second-hand would be required to purchase. Since the bonuses were not required to enjoy the games, I thought that was a nice compromise at the time, despite the criticisms directed at EA for the decision. Now, whenever a person lends another person their game disc and that other person downloads that game, the game’s developer gets paid for that second game download, instead of a third-party with little influence on the game development (i.e. a video game retailer).
That’s a big deal, and probably a positive shift for developers, despite apparently restricting the freedoms gamers previously had to play and share games. However, this is such a threat to EB Games’ business model that I expect them to lobby hard against the console and be highly critical of its decisions. I don’t recall the PS4 including used-game controls, a fact that might play into their marketing plans: “just as the Xbox 360 had the draconian limitation of forcing you to pay to play a video game online and we did not, the PS4 will allow you to play what used games you please! The PS4 is the console of gamer freedom!” I hope that Sony goes that way, becoming the console-gaming equivalent of a Libertarian.
(Update: I did some research, and apparently there’s some reason to doubt that even the PS3 will allow the used-games model to continue as we know it, perhaps only allowing you to play a portion of the game before being asked to buy it: http://kotaku.com/5986055/sony-wed-like-a-straight-answer-about-this-used-games-stuff)
Regardless of the unfortunately-restrictive turn that console gaming is making, I appreciate the almost political way in which Microsoft is balancing multiple interests. Limiting the used game market makes developers happier, richer, and thus able and incentivized to make better games for your hardware, but it also angers the rank-and-file gamer, which will itself hurt profits. Microsoft seems to have found a balance where these restrictions are possible, but only by providing features that gamers might actually want.