After the Adam Orth PR disaster and subsequent apology several people have asked me what I think about the rumors around always-on-digital-rights-management (DRM) in the next generation xBox and the potential to not support used games.
I don’t have definitive knowledge here. I can say that I have been hearing conflicting stories from insiders about what “always on-line” means, and it sounds as if there is confusion internally and externally about how users and games will be authenticated to xBox Live (XBL) accounts and to the console, and it’s all about the used-games market.
Purely from an end-user simplicity and usability perspective, I personally think it would be incredibly stupid to require on-line access all the time. Always-on-line authentication for instant piracy prevention is something that overly-anti-piracy numbskulls at Microsoft have been suggesting for 15+ years for Windows and Office as a way to combat piracy on PC’s. It has never been reasonable to do this given the spotty connectivity of the world’s computers, although some of their other dumb-crazy/-irritating ideas — DRM companion chips, Intel “secure-boot”, etc — have made it into the PC ecosystem, just like they stuck these overly-protective and mostly ineffective and expensive things into the original and subsequent xBox. For the most part, all of these mechanisms do little to protect from hard-core pirates and simply cause problems for average users and hobbyists who aren’t trying to pirate but are just exploring their paid-for hardware devices. And they stifle independent game development quite a bit. There are so many edge cases about missing credentials, delays propogating authentication and revocations, that I think it’s simple a very bad idea to try to build always-online, instant authentication into consoles.
So maybe, maybe xBox will require always-online and try to perform real-time piracy prevention. If they do I think that is and will become another Stupid, Stupid xBox! moment for them because users will hit the many horrible edge cases and hate it.
What I think is vastly more likely, which has been misunderstood in these always-on leaks and speculation, is requiring that online checks happen eventually but not instantly. Specifically on-line checks:
- initially or within N-hours/-days of a new or used games first being inserted or launched, so that the physical disc can be paired/bonded to your XBL account and to some degree to your console, and sometimes (re)paid for, and
- occasional on-line checks to de-authorize discs/content that has been paired to another account or console.
The specific purpose of the on-line authentication checks and pairing of content to the XBL-account/console is to make sure the game studios can take a cut of used-games downstream. Today I can buy a brand new (disc-based) copy of a game, play it out for 72hrs, then resell it for almost full price. Game studios aren’t too keen on this. What they would prefer: I can buy EA’s HotNewGame for $70, play it out, then sell it to my friend, Abe, as a used title or to GameStop for some money, but when Abe or some other user inserts the disc that was paired to my XBL-account, eventually (within some hours or days) he will need to pay up to EA to enable the used copy to continue working. There’s not much difference between a time-limited free-trial and a used game at this point.
Making the used game market less profitable for consumers and more profitable for the game studios has always been the intent of controls and limits on used games, just as a small closed market with tight-DRM and limited indie-developer access is intended to prop up game title prices for studios (and for the console maker, who let’s remember, needs to see a lot of licensing revenue come back to pay for the hardware losses). On-line checks and title pairing to XBL or device would help make the knee-jerk “no used games” decision less a binary and PR-unfriendly on/off for the platform, and let the market find reasonable prices for used games. If you as a buyer know that a used copy of EA’s HotNewGame bought from another player for $20 then costs another $50 to activate, you’ll just buy a new copy for $70. Or you will negotiate down from $20 for the used copy to a reasonable rate.
If this pairing and non-instantaneous occasional on-line authorization and de-authorization of content is indeed what Microsoft and the game studios are dreaming up for the next generation xBox, I actually don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world. I do think there are a lot of obscure errors about network connectivity and key-server outages revocation lag that can crop up even when you go with deferred authentication, which I would hope they simplify and eliminate and err-towards making gameplay work for the majority of users rather than ensuring tight control 100% of the time.
I also hope that game studios charge a reduced rate based on how long a title has been out and leave a little oxygen and profit in the used-game ecosystem for users – if they don’t, that will cause further PR backlash.