Dealing With xBox Always On

8 Apr

Nat Brown

xBox’s @adam_orth “deal with it”…. what a prick. in other news, new xBox controller relabels ABXY buttons FCKU.

— Nat Brown (@natbro) April 5, 2013

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.

8 Responses to “Dealing With xBox Always On”

  1. Daniel Jones (@MasterAir) April 9, 2013 at 1:48 am #

    One thing I believe that the console manufacturers need to work on is the pricing of their digital content. In my experience the cost to purchase a game from XBL or PSN with no ability to resell and different (and almost certainly lower) distribution charges is higher than I’d pay for the same game from a shop and certainly more than I’d pay on Amazon. If the digital content was more competitively priced, the problem with resale would certainly be reduced, even if it wouldn’t disappear.

    • natbro April 9, 2013 at 5:37 am #

      I personally agree with you – I think digitally distributed game title prices are far too high on consoles. That said, they are intentionally kept high – prices are pretty much “centrally planned” to be high – to ensure profits for the console manufacturer and the game studio. The subsidized hardware model of consoles has traditionally demanded this approach to recoup losses as quickly as possible. By keeping prices high on all titles, digital or disc, they also keep customers’ expectations consistent about what prices are going to be and they can continue to keep them high. This is just business – if you can create an ecosystem that can keep prices high, it’s good business to do so, whether you sell video games or laundry detergent or frozen food. Besides the nagging feeling among customers that we’re getting ripped off, which slowly erodes our good will about the companies and the console’s ecosystem generally, the other disadvantage to these high prices, though, is that they are poised to get disrupted by other consoles or micro-consoles or console-like devices (like Apple-TV) which don’t depend on loss-leader hardware sales, which allow smaller and independent developers and publishers and which allow arbitrary market-sensitive prices.

  2. Steve April 9, 2013 at 5:20 am #

    Always on, cannot play games when disconnected? Imagine the media shitstorm that will occur if (when?) the Xbox servers suffer a Sony-scale outage… Popcorn!

    • natbro April 9, 2013 at 5:41 am #

      Agreed, you just can’t guarantee enough reliability to make instantaneous/real-time authentication user (or PR) friendly. That’s why I consider it unlikely anybody would do this, it would be incredibly stupid. Far more likely there is an “eventual” need to authenticate and so the system provides the required security with more resiliency and greatly reduced potential for user interruption when (it’s “when” not “if”) outages occur.

  3. Mary Branscombe (@marypcbuk) April 9, 2013 at 9:31 am #

    It’s Intel that insisted on putting DeepSafe into chips, not Microsoft that wants some unknown hypervisor under its OS. Unless you mean UEFI security technologies, which are very little to do with Intel…

    • natbro April 9, 2013 at 9:48 am #

      I was trying to speak broadly (but perhaps did it too briefly) about the variety of hardware and software DRM & secure-boot initiatives that Microsoft, Intel, anti-virus vendors, game studios, and hollywood have all pushed for and implemented in the PC space and with legislation, like DMCA. You are right that Intel and McAfee were pushing DeepSafe, and UEFI was more of a Microsoft initiative, but there are countless other software and hardware DRM mechanisms that have been attempted in the last 15 years, most of them ineffective and in the end pretty un-friendly towards legitimate uses.

  4. V900 April 11, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    The biggest reason the used games market even exists, are the obscene prices that are charged for a PS3 or XBOX game. (And yes, I know it used to be even worse, but still.)

    50 or 60$ is just indefensibly high, which is why there IS such a big used games market.

    If the industry thinks those prices are sustainable, they got another thing coming. Apples AppStore has proven that its not necessary to charge obscene prices for good, quality software, and are getting users used to more reasonable prices.

    If they do go ahead with an “on-sometimes” DRM scheme like you’re suggesting, two things will happen. Firstly, the more casual gamers will drift over to iOS devices and Nintendo for a less intrusive, cheaper game experience, and secondly: The small hardcore gaming market that remains will increasingly shift to PCs as their platform of choice, because of the lower prices and less intrusive DRM.

    The industry are digging their own graves with this…

    • Jaded Consumer July 3, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

      Whether $70 is “indefensibly high” doesn’t turn on whether software is a game, but on things like (a) the investments made in the software and (b) what rights you are getting for the price. If you buy a transferable lifetime ticket, it’s worth more than if it’s a single-user license and/or bonded to particular hardware. Likewise, it’s worth more if it’s got great music and offers lots of hours of play before it feels old. Under some fact scenarios, $70 could feel like a good deal.

      If you’re buying a single-user non-transferrable license, maybe the right price is closer to the prices one finds on Apple’s store, which never sold anything else (well, you can hand your friend your device). There’s apparently quite a bit of desire to make games with low retail prices for iOS, and part of that attraction may be that every user is a new fee.

      The transferable game, by contrast, maxes developer revenue somewhere near game-price times the population of active users. Interestingly, ad-supported games pay developers for the active user base times the amount of time (assuming ads are proportional to time), which effectively rewards addictive quarter-eaters, sort of in the tradition of old arcade games.

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