I take no credit for either the title nor the picture:
If you had not already felt the Earth’s sudden wobble from the magnitude of Microsoft’s about-face, allow me the pleasure of informing you: the Xbox One no longer has its ridiculous DRM. Namely:
- No internet connection is required to play games.
- No 24-hour online check-in.
- You can buy/sell/gift/rent/lend game discs just like on the 360.
- You can purchase digital versions of games on Day 1 and play offline (once downloaded).
One of the “casualties” of this Lance Armstrong-level backpedaling is that you can’t have that whole “10-person family sharing” plan or the ability to “take your games anywhere by logging in.” Often lost amongst the Apologist tears though was the simple fact that logging on from a friend’s Xbox One basically meant you would have had to wait for a 10+ GB download before playing anyway. And what were the odds that more than one member of the family could play the same game at the same time? In other words, you are not any worse off than the present system of just taking the disc with you.
Plus, you know, used games.
On a semi-related bit of interesting news, apparently Valve snuck some interesting code into the Steam software: shared libraries, e.g. lending digital games. Obviously nothing is formally implemented yet, but the premise seems to be that once you lend a game to a friend, they can play it until you log on to play it yourself (which then bumps them off). Which is… pretty remarkably clever if you think about it. Valve could just as easily went the other way, where you couldn’t play until your friend “gave it back,” which would probably discourage people from using the feature at all. Assuming there is no transaction fee or anything, I would feel comfortable giving one or two of my Steam buddies access to everything.
Regardless of which way the shared library plays out – if it plays out at all – today was a huge win for consumers everywhere. I am not quite ready to declare victory yet, but the future sure is looking considerably brighter than it was, oh, two weeks ago, eh?
So, I have been and will continue to be on vacation at the beach with family until the end of the week. The internet service down here is absolutely abysmal – we’re talking 5 Mbps shared across 40 rooms – which is why I have not been on top of the comments and general news. I suppose that might sound bad, caring about frivolous internet things while at the beach. But honestly, if I knew it was going to be vacation back to 1994, I might have passed. Also, the ocean seems saltier this year and there was a fly in my soup.
That said, how ’bout that PS4 news?
- No new restrictions on used game sales.
- No internet connection required.
- $399 vs Xbox One’s $499
It wasn’t all good news – a Playstation Plus membership is required for all multiplayer, just like Xbox Live today – but it was a fantastic PR coup for Sony to have been quiet all this time before launching into these consumer-friendly revelations.
A couple Apologists skeptics from around the web have tried to paint Sony with the Xbox One brush over the used games quote though:
“The DRM decision is going to have to be in the hands of the third parties. That’s not something that we’re going to dictate or mandate or control or implement.”
“Aha!” the Apologists cried. “Same thing as Xbox!”
Not really. In fact, not at all. The key point here is that Sony’s strategy is unchanged from the current generation. Remember Online Passes? Those were 3rd party attempts at mitigating secondary game sales, all of which happened in this generation. If EA suddenly changes their mind vis-a-vis reintroducing Online Passes, Sony isn’t going to stop them, but at least it isn’t turned on by default as it is in the Xbox One scenario. As Destructoid put it:
The major difference between PS4 and Xbox One, of course, is that Sony hasn’t made it easier for corporations to control the behavior of their customers, because the PS4 doesn’t tie your copies to your accounts, or initiate checks to scrub traded game data off your system. Basically, Microsoft designed the Xbox One to make it as easy as flipping a switch to eradicate any possibility of sharing your games, while Sony is maintaining its policy of this current generation.
Or you can go with the Game Front article for even further clarification:
“The Online Pass program for PlayStation first-party games will not continue on PlayStation 4. Similar to PS3, we will not dictate the online used game strategy (the ability to play used games online) of its publishing partners. As announced last night, PS4 will not have any gating restrictions for used disc-based games. When a gamer buys a PS4 disc they have right to use that copy of the game, so they can trade-in the game at retail, sell it to another person, lend it to a friend, or keep it forever.”
This is good news for gamers, indeed. In a nutshell, you can buy a used single-player game for the PS4 and play it all you want. If you want to go online with it, you may have to deal with some sort of publisher-determined DRM, be it an Online Pass or whatever.
Not that I’m going to buy one anytime soon – I just bought a PS3 last Christmas. But it’s nice to know that whenever I do hop aboard the next console generation, I will have the opportunity to catch up on all the games I’ve missed by hitting up Amazon or some local place and not be paying full MSRP out the ass for 2+ year old games.
(This is followup to my In Defense of Used Games post.)
I believe that eventually we will see the resell of game licenses. Given how our present trajectory is clearly in favor of restrictive limited licenses, games-as-services, and exclusive accounts everywhere, from whence does this optimism spring? Basically, it springs from what I imagine to be an inevitable reconciliation between what is legal and what consumers see as reasonable and/or how they play games in the real world.
I am going to divide this model into roughly two parts: the Practical and the Legal.
The Practical Disconnect
There is an incredible disconnect between what companies write in their ToS/EULAs and how people actually use the products in question. In fact, even the question of what amounts to game piracy is not as clear-cut as you might think. If you download the Tomb Raider reboot off of Pirate Bay, that is clearly piracy, sure. But suppose you let your little brother play the copy that you legally purchased. Is that piracy? Instead of it being a family member, suppose you let a friend come over and play it. Is that (still) piracy? What if you let a complete stranger play your copy of the game?
Now suppose this copy of Tomb Raider in question was purchased on Steam. Does that change anything at the family/friend/stranger level? It does:
“When you complete Steam’s registration process, you create a Steam account (“Account”). Your Account may also include billing information you provide to Valve for the purchase of Subscriptions. You are solely responsible for all activity on your Account and for the security of your computer system. You may not reveal, share or otherwise allow others to use your password or Account. You agree that you are personally responsible for the use of your password and Account and for all of the communication and activity on Steam that results from use of your login name and password. You may not sell or charge others for the right to use your Account, or otherwise transfer your Account, nor may you sell, charge others for the right to use, or transfer any Subscriptions other than if and as expressly permitted by this Agreement (including any Subscription Terms or Rules of Use).”
In our all-digital future, everything is tied to accounts. Ostensively, account-sharing is a bannable offense. In fact, if Valve suspects you shared or sold a given Steam account, it will ban all accounts in your possession, even if nothing untoward was happening in the others. And yet the problem with account-sharing is that it shouldn’t actually be any company’s business who is sitting in the chair, behind the keyboard/controller. I mean, it is technically their business – because they say it is – but it shouldn’t be.
I am not playing WoW right now, despite having multiple level-capped characters and a large sum of gold doing no good to anyone. If I resubscribed and started playing again, Blizzard would be happy. If I resubscribed and let a friend play my character, Blizzard would still be happy… up until the moment they realized what I was doing. But provided we did not alternate log-ins from multiple IP addresses or whatever, there is really no way for Blizzard to tell the difference between us. And yet that is “illegal.” Why? Because presumably the threat of account closure is supposed to induce the friend to purchase their own account/expansions/etc and work their way from scratch.
If letting friends and family members play your games does not count as piracy, neither should letting them log onto your account(s). Indeed, the only way the company would be able to ascertain a difference between users is with intrusive biometric privacy measures like… an always-on IR camera powerful enough to measure your heart rate via body heat to ensure only the True Owner ™ utilizes the account. Otherwise, these measures simply fail unless you attempt to log in from two places simultaneously. These companies are writing rules and contractual terms they have no means of enforcing outside the most heinous of nightmare scenarios. Or, I guess the Honor System.
Perhaps you do believe that your little brother playing your copy of Tomb Raider counts as piracy. In which case I have two questions: 1) why haven’t you turned yourself in, and 2) how far does that really go? Is it piracy for him to watch you play? Or is the crime committed only when he touches the controller? What if it is a strategy game in which he tells you what moves to make, and you simply act as his inputs? Still probably worth a $150,000 fine, wouldn’t you agree?
If companies could go this far, they would. That is the copyright endgame: the limitation of the experience to a single, paying mind. Thankfully, they lack the ability to dictate what happens in the privacy of our homes. Except, you know, for all the times that they can.
The Legal Aspect
“Notably, the ReDigi case turned in large part on the same phrase at issue in Kirtsaeng—whether the copies at issue were “lawfully made” under [the Copyright Act]. In ReDigi, the court held they were not. “The first sale doctrine does not protect ReDigi’s distribution of Capitol’s copyrighted works,” Sullivan held, because the files at issue are “unlawful reproductions” and therefore not “lawfully made.” And, also like Kirtsaeng, the court said the proper venue to decide the core issue—whether buyers of digital products can resell them—is Congress.
“ReDigi effectively requests that the Court amend the [the Copyright Act] to achieve ReDigi’s broader policy goals—goals that happen to advance ReDigi’s economic interests,” Sullivan observed, adding that “amendment of the Copyright Act in line with ReDigi’s proposal is a legislative prerogative that courts are unauthorized and ill-suited to attempt.”
The hinge of the case was that even though ReDigi’s process involved removing the music file from the original computer, technically ReDigi was still “creating” a copy on their own servers by virtue of the transfer process. That was the entire hang-up, or more accurately, the technicality. Even Google tried to get involved in the case by coming to the defense of ReDigi, arguing a judgment against ReDigi “would put the entire cloud computing industry, worth an estimated 41 billion dollars, at risk.”
Incidentally, as pointed out in the concluding paragraphs of the same article:
To make his point, Sullivan stressed that the first sale doctrine does still protect the ability to resell digital music—you can still sell your “computer hard disk, iPod, or other memory device” onto which the file was originally downloaded, he wrote. While conceding that practice might prove to be “onerous,” he suggested there may also be reasons why such “physical limitations” are desirable. “It is left to Congress, and not this Court,” he concluded “to deem them outmoded.”
In other words, you can resell your digital music, as long as you originally downloaded them onto, I dunno, say a $6 MicroSD card. Or a $2-$5 USB stick (which are 1gb in size… Jesus, time flies). Preferably we could cut the bullshit and just print the CD/DVDs ourselves, but I imagine there is no direct-to-CD argument that can be made, else they would have made it.
The salient point here is that the current system is, at best, untenable. As more and more aspects of our lives migrate more fully into the digital realm, Congress will revisit this subject again. Honestly, they really should not have to – it would be better for everyone involved if companies came to this voluntarily. Hell, I have been shitting on the Xbox One pretty often, but Microsoft is apparently putting in a “used digital game” framework, in some murky form or another. It would be the height of irony if Microsoft ended up starting a revolution in the same way that Steam made digital games mainstream. Both Apple and Amazon have patented second-hand digital marketplaces, by the way, but have yet to actually do anything with them.
Some people get the impression that I am anti-IP, or that I am antagonistic to copyright. That is not really the case, although I do believe “life of author + 70 years” is absurd welfare for corporate rent-seekers rather than to the actual benefit of society, e.g. the entire original purpose of copyright. I mean, are there really artists out there that would look at something like Life + 5 years and go “fuck it, I’m not going to bother”? Give me a break.
Anyway, what I desire is for the designers to partner with consumers, for all of us to cooperate for the common good. I don’t like GameStop any more than game designers do – they really are just parasitic middleman – but only one of those two parties actually make efforts to improve consumer surplus, even if it’s just by accident. And if there was any enduring message that came out of the wild internet heyday, it is that you Can’t Stop the Signal. Revenue models are going to have to change, whether you like it or not. If game designers want a piece of the the new paradigm, they have every opportunity to get aboard the train.
Before I start, there is one fundamental truth that needs to be acknowledged: a used game sale is a new game sale at a lower price-point. No one is seeking out used games because they are used, they are sought because they are less expensive. Incidentally, this same principal applies if someone is able to re-sell a game they bought, as the ability to recoup part of the cost means the original purchase becomes less expensive.
Without further ado, let me examine each of TB’s arguments against used games:
1) Used Game Sales support shady/pushy retailers
Or, the GAME (in UK) and GameStop Are Bad argument.
It is absolutely true that retailers who specialize in used game sales push used games sales over new ones; the original sale is a recouping of an investment for the store, whereas each additional resell is nearly pure profit. I am not interested in defending the practices of GameStop (etc) though, primarily because it is irrelevant and red herring besides. No matter how much you swing the “games as licenses” argument, the fact remains that used game sales are legal in the United States and presumably elsewhere – GAME and GameStop would have been sued into the ground otherwise. The shadiness of any organization does not reflect on the product they provide. You can picket Wal-mart for all sorts of legitimate reasons, but that does not make cheap groceries immoral.
I have gone into a GameStop all of twice in my life, whereas I frequented a mom-and-pop used game shop next to the local theater for the better part of a decade. I went there because their used games were cheaper, and you received more store credit (or cash) than GameStop provided, all in a no-pressure sale environment. Ergo, any argument that uses the removal of used games as a vehicle to attack a retailer you don’t like is simply ridiculous. GameStop’s practices have nothing to do with the “question” of used games, as there are alternative stores which do not behave in similar fashion.
2) Used games do not depreciate
This honestly reminds me of the “you wouldn’t download a car” PSA. Even if we take this claim on face value… so what? Is the argument supposed to be that used game sales would have been fine if the AI started glitching out on its own five years from now?
To be charitable, I am going to assume instead that people are referring to how physical depreciation of goods naturally differentiates two otherwise identical products, potentially justifying the premium on the unused version. In which case, I’d argue that something similar already occurs even in purely digital products.
Videogames are not released in a vacuum – they are always a product of their times. While the actual data bits do not decay, the value and meaning of them in the mind of a player certainly can. There are whole classes of videogames that I literally cannot bring myself to play anymore, because the graphics are too primitive, or the resolution too low, and so on. Innovation in mechanics or design can render older titles feeling stilted or slow, even though nothing in the original game itself has changed. Some games hold up better than others, of course, and many older games are arguably better than new titles. But on a certain base level, videogames do depreciate, if not literally then culturally.
If you do not find this counter-argument particularly compelling, that’s fine, but allow me to make two final observations. First, no one expects a game to remain $59.99 two, three, four years after release. If games do not depreciate in value, why do you think we see the companies themselves reduce the price? Second, how much do you think your unopened City of Heroes or Battlefield 2 box will go for these days?
3) Music and Film industries are less harmed by secondary sales
TB’s point here is a roundabout justification for how videogames are a special case when it comes to secondary sales, despite music and movies also being digital goods without depreciation. Buying used movies is less harmful to studios, he argues, because a particular film can make the bulk of its money in the theater, followed by Pay-Per-View, DVD sales, rentals, and finally syndication on TV networks. Similarly, music artists get the bulk of their profits from concert tickets, in addition to (small) payments from streaming services and finally the default CD sales. In other words, music and movies have multiple revenue streams whereas videogames have just the one.
To which I must ask: whose fault is that?
As a consumer, you are not responsible for a company’s business model. It is perfectly fine to want the developers to be paid for their work, or to wish the company continued success. But presuming some sort of moral imperative on the part of the consumer is not only impossible, it’s also intellectually dishonest. You and I have no control over how a game company is run, how much they pay their staff, what business terms they ink, or how they run their company. Nobody asked EA to spend $300+ million on SWTOR. Nobody told Curt Schilling to run 38 Studios into the ground. Literally nobody wanted THQ to make the tablet that bankrupted the studio.
What is worse though is the implicit moral superiority that is derived for buying “legit.” If game companies and their designers deserve to be paid, and we have some moral obligation to do so, doesn’t that mean they deserve ALL the money? I cannot even begin to imagine the mental gymnastics Total Biscuit had to perform when he denigrated used games and celebrated Steam sales in the same breath. When you buy a game for 75% off, that is you robbing the game company of 75% of the money they deserve. Not even deserve, really, considering by many metrics they are entitled to much, much more than the purchase price given the total amount of enjoyment derived.
That sounds absurd, and it is, but that is my point; you cannot make the moral imperative argument and only go halfway. A company either deserves $59.99 or they don’t. Alternatively, you are not responsible for their business models at all, and are fully justified in maximizing your consumer surplus, e.g. by waiting for sales, buying used, etc. It is noble to wish these designers success, at least when such nobility is followed-up with busting out your checkbook. Otherwise, it is so many empty words.
4) Once used games are removed, games will be cheaper
No, seriously, Total Biscuit actually said this, presumably with a straight face.
Why in god’s name would anyone rationally assume that the removal of competition (in the form of secondary sales) would force or even encourage game prices to decrease? Everyone keeps pointing to Steam with its effects on PC gaming, as if Steam weren’t the exception that proved the rule. Everyone acknowledges that used games on the PC haven’t existed for quite some time, but no one seems to follow-up that thought with what should have been an obvious question to ask: were there big discounts on PC games back before Steam?
Good lord, no! You were at the complete mercy of retailers who almost never marked anything down from MSRP. And why would they? You literally could not buy these games anywhere else. If you found a good deal, it was likely because nobody was buying that game and the store wanted to liquidate their stock. Outside of fire sales, there was/is always going to be resistance from retailers over discounting a game’s price because there is a minimum cost involved with pressing a DVD, shipping it across the country, unloading it in the back, and paying people to sort and shelve it.
Incidentally, this is another reason why I don’t think future console games will be cheaper: there will still be hard copies sold. Do you think retailers would let Microsoft sell Halo 6 for $40 online and $59.99 in stores? Of course, there is a pseudo-analog that exists right now between PC vs digital download games, with things wildly alternating for no apparent reason. For example, it’s somehow $20 cheaper Amazon to ship me DVD of Bioshock Infinite than it is to download a copy of it. Or maybe that does make sense, insofar as what I explained earlier about retailers trying to liquidate stock.
If you legitimately believe Xbox One games are going to be cheaper, let me ask you two things. First, what kind of deals have you seen on XBLA titles? Similar in size, scope, and frequency to Steam sales? Microsoft has already dabbled in digital games for which no secondary sales exist, so their pricing behavior now may reflect any potential behavior in the future. Second, what kind of deals have you seen on Origin in the last, I dunno, two years? There have been a few recently, but very rarely more than 50%, and they are not nearly on a scale as Steam. That is a publisher who has as near a 100% profit margin on every digital sale as possible, and even they are not willing to compete on price with retailers who sell game codes on EA’s own platform!
The point here is that Steam is the exception that proves the rule. I bought Tomb Raider on the PC for $20 a mere three months – three months – after its $49.99 release. Granted, it was via Green Man Gaming, but it activated on Steam. Do you honestly believe that the only difference between our present console MSRP reality and a hypothetical all-digital future is the mere possibility of resell? That companies would be fine with a $30 markdown for a limited time a few months after release? Maybe. Maybe we don’t see similar sales because GameStop (etc) would buy a few pallets of discs at $20/each to sell at $40 after the sale is over. Then again, I could have done that exact same thing via GMG and just sold the activation codes. Actually… that’s not a bad idea…
Simply put, this argument requires a striking amount of faith in game publishers to work. Consumers are being asked to cede an enormous amount of implicit value, not just in resell value, but also in control over how they play these games (tied to accounts, phone home every 24 hours, no borrowing, etc). We are asked to cede these values all in the hopes that companies like Microsoft will not simply keep charging $59.99 out of… well, out of the goodness of their hearts. That is not enough for me. There is certainly every economic incentive to keep things running business-as-usual, after all.
5) Used games cost the companies money in terms of support/servers.
It is true that game companies “must” provide support to even non-paying (i.e. used game) customers in a way that movie and music companies do not. However, there are two things wrong with the argument TB is presenting. First, it sort of assumes that the game was not worth playing for very long in the first place. Total Biscuit’s example was how a company would need to provide support to a gamer for two months, and then a new player who bought the copy from the first guy for another two months, and a third person, and so on. The difference between that scenario and one guy who plays continuously for 6+ months is… what?
Total Biscuit’s second point about non-payers in multiplayer (presumably driving up bandwidth costs or whatever) caused me to facepalm IRL. Maybe he has never heard about why the Free-2-Play model works, or more importantly how it works? Someone playing the latest Call of Duty secondhand is providing content to “legitimate” players in a way that a no-longer-playing gamer by definition is not. I mean, that’s the premise of the argument, right? That the first dude sold his game, and is now an empty seat in a lobby somewhere. You do not even need to have the full F2P development plan set up to appreciate the fact that an extra body is making your multiplayer experience that much more worthwhile when it otherwise could/would have been nobody.
As I pointed out in the beginning, let me point out again: used game sales are new game sales at a lower price point. Nothing is stopping companies from lowering the prices for their games and otherwise being more competitive with used games. You might think that used game prices would simply adjust to compensate, and maybe they would, but that is an argument against selling at anything less than full MSRP, ever. Which is clearly ridiculous.
In any case, time marches on. Even though I see this forceful transition into all-digital games as a net-negative for gamers (and it is), I am obviously not against digital platforms themselves. I am just a bit miffed that the transition is being accelerated by Microsoft (etc) before the question on the transferability of licenses is fully settled, at least in US law. Believe me, the day will come when we shall be able to buy a Steam game (license) and then sell it to someone else after we are done.
At which point I’m sure the suits will pine for the days when it was at least possible for someone to lose their disc.
Edit: Removed incorrect “et tal” usage. Thanks, Tobold.
The Xbox One reveal reminded me, forcibly, that Microsoft is the company behind the console. I mean, obviously, right? But between Windows 7 and Bill Gates building better condoms, I temporarily forgot about Games for Windows Live, Windows 8, and all the markedly cynical shit the Redmond company pulls as it endeavors to further erode all consumer surplus and out-EA EA.
Remember the always-online brouhaha? Well, the new Xbox doesn’t require an always-online internet connection. Except when you play a game for the first time. Or if the game company feels like pulling a Maxis and “off-loading computations to the cloud.” And just kidding, your Xbox needs an internet connection to phone home once every 24 hours or it presumably bricks itself until you do.
So how often does it check your connection? “Depends on the experience,” Harrison said.
“For single-player games that don’t require connectivity to Xbox Live, you should be able to play those without interruption should your Internet connection go down. Blu-ray movies and other downloaded entertainment should be accessible when your Internet connection may be interrupted. But the device is fundamentally designed to be expanded and extended by the Internet as many devices are today.”
Oh, how nice of them that your Blu-ray movies “should” be accessible when your internet connection is interrupted.
In return for all of these restrictions, you get to opportunity to… pay full MSRP for all your games! There are no used games for Xbox One, there are simply game disks which will prompt you to pay a “fee” of the full price of the game to play it. Remember when we thought EA eliminating the Online Pass was a gesture of contrition and good will? Surprise! It was cynical bullshit because Microsoft is handling the Online Passes now and adding them to 100% of all future Xbox games.
A lot of the Xbox Apologists have pointed at Steam in making their arguments that things are not so bad. In fact, there is talk that you may be able to sell your used games game licenses to other people on the Xbox Marketplace, in a sort of virtual GameStop setup. Okay… details? If it is true, and assuming you can set your own price, and assuming there isn’t exorbitant fees, then great! We just had to give up renting games, letting your friend borrow your games, and in the case of Steam comparisons, getting 50% discounts on brand new games released just three months ago.
I am not an Xbox customer; I neither bought any of the prior consoles nor plan to purchase this new one. But this sort of shit will affect every one of us. We already see DLC for our PC games delayed because of “Xbox exclusives.” Ports of future Microsoft games could be pulled from Steam just like EA pulled theirs, ostensively so we can have the privilege of paying more money for no conceivable consumer gain. What we see today is what we can expect more of tomorrow – not just from companies like Microsoft, but from everyone who thinks they can get away with it.
And that sucks.