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Why we should be wary of the Xbox One

Over the past few weeks, Microsoft has been having something of a public meltdown. After nearly a year of rumors and speculation about DRM methods and internet connection requirements, the gaming community’s worst fears came true in a painful hour-long trainwreck of a console unveiling. Between Call of Duty‘s stupid dogs and the goofy staged conversations between Microsoft and ESPN executives, the whole thing felt like one of those E3 “highlight” reels of dumb screwups stretched out to fill sixty minutes. A few days ago, the Xbox website updated with some clarifications about used games, internet connections, and sharing.

I probably don’t need to do a recap here. If you’re reading this piece, odds are you’re already mad.

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Frankly, Microsoft deserves the roasting the internet is giving them. The Xbox One is being pitched horribly. It is attempting to appeal to too many audiences at once, stretching itself between the casual TV watcher and the core gamer, and addressing the needs of neither. What person who consumes a lot of TV programming in 2013 watches anything other than sporting events live, and doesn’t already own some form of cable box? What gamer wants a console aimed primarily at an activity that isn’t gaming? The Xbox One does a disservice to both sides of that divide, and everyone in between.

This is beside the point, though, as we approach E3. The bulk of outrage is directed at the console’s DRM system, which essentially renders physical disc purchases useless, and ties all games to an umbrella account. Yes, this probably sounds familiar. Yes, this is what Steam and the App Store and other digital download platforms do. No, those are not valid counterarguments. Consoles are not PCs or smartphones. They are not open systems with the power to copy files or burn discs.

PC piracy was (and is) a very real problem that was dealt with much in the same way that the music piracy problem was dealt with. After years of punishing consumers with garbage solutions like CD keys and StarForce, the digital download market provided a convenient service that gave people a reason to pay for licenses to games. Apple did the same thing with iTunes in the early 2000s; they were still selling mere licences to music, but they did so in a way that didn’t feel like a slap in the face — and to this day, digital music sales have remained strong. Why is this true, when I can Google the name of any album I want and have a free download in seconds? Why does Steam rake in money, when the good ol’ boys at Razor 1911 are still providing cracked, free versions of games? Gabe Newell was right. Piracy is a service problem.

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The Xbox One does not provide a good service. It takes a system that has worked perfectly well for consumers for the past few decades — the very complicated buy a goddamn game and put it in the goddamn console system — and replaces it with a new management system clearly designed to be convenient for Microsoft. I as a consumer gain nothing from being unable to lend games to friends who haven’t been on my friends list for 30 days. I as a consumer gain nothing from having piles of useless discs lying around. I as a consumer gain nothing from being forced to connect to the internet every 24 hours, lest I lose access to all of my video games.

There are counterarguments to this — sure, the times that I am without internet are slim to none. This is still no excuse. For one thing, there are people well-off enough to afford the luxuries of video games who do have to deal with crappy internet connections. For another thing, it is not my connection I’m worried about. Time and time again, game companies have been proven to have difficulties maintaining servers. We’re (for some reason) done being mad at Sim City, Diablo III, and every Ubisoft game from the past four years, but the proof is plain: these companies have plenty of trouble maintaining their own connectivity.

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Boo hoo, one says. Children are starving in Uganda and you couldn’t play Sim City for a week.

Arguing relativity does nothing for these issues. Sure, not having access to video games isn’t the end of the world. It’s also something that is entirely preventable currently. Once again, these requirements empower no one but Microsoft and the publishers they are trying desperately to court.

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A time will come where I will gladly give up physical copies of games. In fact, I’ve already done it — my Steam library is 300 games strong, and each one of those games is at the mercy of Valve and its partners. This doesn’t bother me in the slightest, because Steam provided a welcome alternative to insidious third-party security programs and folders full of 26-digit license codes. The PC’s digital structure has also yielded wonderful discounts on virtually all software, cutting out production and shipping costs and providing a deal I’m willing to take: sure, I don’t own my PC games the way I own my SNES games, but the amount of freedom I’ve had to give up is pretty much zero.

Not so with consoles. I’ve enjoyed the luxury of being able to bring games to other houses for years. I’ve had the ability to sell and trade copies since I started playing console games. I’ve been able to haul consoles around and play them any time, anywhere, without having to worry about connecting to the web to ensure some kind of security. With the Xbox One, all of these things are possible; but they are possible only with asterisks and small print, in ways monitored by Microsoft to maximize profitability for them and keep the bogeyman of piracy at the door. What do we gain as consumers from these new restrictions? What saving or new convenience is being passed on to us?

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Until Microsoft can provide answers to those questions, we should all be wary of the Xbox One. The digital-only future is inevitable, but we can do better than this.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in October 2006.

Gentle persuasion

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