So, this is kind of funny, because my last post was almost a month ago, and in it I was cautiously optimistic about the future of console gaming. EA was dropping online passes! Microsoft was moving to real cash money, rather than dumb Points! Things are looking up, and maybe this means good things for consumers!
Well, I’m glad that I hedged my bets at the end, because the last few days of E3 announcements have been a rollercoaster of cheers and jeers. Specifically, since it’s getting the most negative reaction, let’s talk about Xbox One (or Xbone, as is my current favorite way to pronounce it). Old news, at this point, but I’m including it for context: Microsoft is moving to a distribution model that is a lot closer to Steam – discs are basically installation software for cloud-supported licensed software. This means a few things:
First, once you’ve installed a game once, the disc will theoretically not be needed to actually play the game. Second, renting/sharing/reselling games will all be done only in the way that Microsoft (and publishers and retail partners) allow. In general, handing your friend a disc for a game that is worth playing, but maybe not worth spending another $60 on is a lot harder. And finally, Microsoft will have final say over your ability to access your game library (including saying “no” when you are offline for more than 24 hours).
I guess the first one is kind of a bonus, since it saves some energy and noise and deals with lost/scratched disc media. Hooray. I mean, this is actually not terrible. I totally prefer digital distribution for a lot of things, and being able to swap games without swapping discs seems like a nice, if minor, quality-of-life improvement.
The sharing/selling/renting games thing, though, sucks. I’m sure we’re all getting tired of talking about it, but I have extensively shared, rented and purchased used games over my life, and I can’t imagine that I would be anywhere near as passionate about gaming as I am without those options having been available to me. I’ve never actually traded in a game at GameStop (though I have donated them to charity), and the pricing model there is pretty predatory, but there are large populations of people for whom purchasing multiple full-price games each year is simply not an option. Trade-ins and reselling facilitates all sorts of good things, and I do not in any way buy the argument that cutting off that market will result in better prices for everyone. Magically, and benevolently. Microsoft’s official word on how this will happen is “we’re still figuring it out – but we won’t be ready when we launch”. Which is pretty bad.
And that last point – that Microsoft has say over your ability to access your game library. This one is not being talked about too much (outside of the general “check in online every 24 hours or be hosed” discussion). Yes, Steam does this on PC. And we grudgingly accept it. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. I also very rarely pay full price for a Steam game. And Steam will allow me to play offline for a month at a time (still not really good enough). Plus, Valve is being sued in Germany for not allowing people to resell their games, so things may change there. And there are some alternatives. And it is not a massive paradigm shift, which is definitely part of the perception problem. Plus, what happens when the Xbone is eventually retired? Do we just not get to play any of our games anymore? Do we have to re-buy them all on the next system? Or trust that they will come up with some sort of plan that works for everyone? I don’t know about you guys, but I still have an NES sitting in my closet – just in case.
Look, I’m not going to buy in to all the hyperbolic shit about “SONY KILLED MICROSOFT FOREVER” or “MICROSOFT SIGNED ITS DEATH WARRANT” or whatever. I expect that the Xbone will, in fact, do fairly well. Even if we see a reversal of the 360 vs PS3 dominance this time around, I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. The competition between the two is good, and let’s not forget that Nintendo has a bunch of interesting ideas floating around, too.
I honestly wouldn’t even be particularly surprised if Microsoft’s all-digital-delivery strategy works out exceptionally well. I think there are a lot of potentially great things there – like the ability to share purchases with “family” members (who, keep in mind, don’t need to actually be blood-related). Having access to all my games when I drop in on a friend’s console is awesome, because it means I won’t have to pre-plan to bring my discs around. And if their strategy for being able to lend/resell/rent digital content ends up influencing Steam and the Apple Store and all the other digital marketplaces, that could be a major win for everyone, long term.
But those things do come with drawbacks, and at present, it is certainly making me lean the other way.