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The Xbox One and the Future of Video Games

For a long time now, I’ve had a draft post saved on my WordPress dashboard entitled “The Changing World of Video Games”. I’ve worked on it at various times, usually when hot-button issues in the gaming world inspired me, but I never finished it. The central theme of the piece was that video games are changing, starting to become altogether more social, mobile, slim and trim entities than the blockbuster, AAA, interactive cinema that they’ve been for the last several years. Much of this change has been driven by two factors: trends in electronics and how people use them, and the insane amounts of money it takes to produce a AAA game like Mass Effect or the recently Oddball-reviewed Tomb Raider.

In the draft of my unposted article, I mostly took the position that this change amounted to a “dumbing down” of video games and that I was disappointed to see studios moving toward social-driven fluff that was devoid of story, hamfisted by terrible touch screen controls and left up to your Facebook friends to actually keep running. I never committed to publishing the piece, though, because of a nagging feeling that I came off as a Luddite or a fuddy-duddy who was resistant to change for the sake of it.

After the news that’s come out of the video game industry this week, however, I’ve had further occasion to think on the subject and have decided that it’s time I said something.

I’m getting old.

At least, that is the only explanation that my confused mind can come up with as to why I just don’t feel entirely comfortable with the next generation of game consoles and the types of games that we’re starting to see coming out of AAA studios and publishing companies. I feel like the reasons I used to play video games — the primary one of which was to lose myself in another world for hours on end — are no longer being catered to, in favor of casual, bite-sized experiences that I can have in a few minutes’ time while I’m waiting in line at the doctor’s office or at the DMV. And on the business side, it seems that hardware manufacturers and publishers are getting together to try and further erode what few rights we “licensees” of their software (a.k.a. games) once had, while failing to deliver us any meaningful benefits in return. It all adds up to a very underwhelming outlook for games, from the perspective of a guy who grew up in a time when you could spend more than a year playing the bejeezus out of a single game (Wolf3D, Doom and Duke Nukem 3D all come to mind) by playing and replaying them, creating your own mods and trying other gamers’ custom add-ons. What we’re aiming for now is a locked-down system of bite-sized drib-drab entertainment that you don’t own, can’t modify and should feel good about paying full price for even long after it’s been released.

The Games They Are A-Changin’

Deus Ex: The Fall being played on an iPad.
Deus Ex: The Fall being played on an iPad.

This past Wednesday, game publisher Square Enix announced a new entry in the Deus Ex game franchise. This is a franchise that started back in the halcyon days of PC gaming in the year 2000 with the incredibly well-done Deus Ex, one that is now often held up as one of the finest PC games ever made. Although its first sequel was fairly mediocre, the second sequel — 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution developed by Eidos Montreal and published by Square Enix — was in my opinion a masterstroke, a feast of sight and sound which I called “an epic win” in my review of it on this very site. Since then I (and many gamers like me) have been clamoring for Eidos Montreal to release a follow-up. So when Square Enix announced that a new game called Deus Ex: The Fall was coming from Eidos later this year, we all just about wet ourselves.

Until we learned that it was a mobile game. One that would be exclusive to iOS first, and then later Android. No console release. No PC release.

While the press happily threw around photos of a guy playing The Fall on his iPad, commenters on Internet game blogs set it on fire. “I never asked for this,” lamented half of them (repurposing one of the more famously hackneyed lines from Human Revolution), each of them thinking he was the funniest dude on the webz. Despite their unoriginality, I felt their pain: we didn’t ask for this, not a mobile game, not a simplification of one of our favorite hardcore stealth-action shooters of this generation. Since nearly every action-shooter I’ve played on an iOS device has been a poorly-controlled mess whose interface sucked away every potential meson of fun that might have been had (Marathon, I’m looking at you), this is equivalent to announcing a new Deus Ex title and then telling me that it’s a Deus Ex-themed bead-and-wire game from Bill Knapp’s. Absurdly esoteric metaphors aside, it was a huge let-down to fans like me.

And yet, it should have come as absolutely no surprise in light of the way the video game industry is changing — or at least, in light of the way its often badly-mismanaged publishers like Square Enix are pushing for it to change. Gamers and media alike were impressed when it was revealed this past April that Square’s utterly fantastic Tomb Raider reboot managed to sell 3.4 million copies in its first month, a feat that is normally bested only by the most wildly popular “dudebro” shooters like Call of Duty and Halo (you know, the games even your librarian has probably heard of). They were also shocked when Square Enix proceeded to call sales of Tomb Raider “disappointing”, and revealing that the company was taking an unprecedented $90 million loss. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that Square had banked on Tomb Raider selling an astonishing six million copies in its first month, a figure that could only have been expected by a medicated asshat with a malfunctioning neocortex. Either that, or someone with absolutely no knowledge of the games industry whatsoever, someone like an executive-of-the-week with no practical experience, whose only goal is to pull as much money out of his ass as quickly as possible. You know, like a CEO who got his job merely because he raised his hand when the chairman asked if anyone wanted it.

After talking about how bummed they were with their financial performance, Square Enix went on to announce that they were undertaking a three-part initiative to reform the company, one of which is to “focus on tablets and mobile”. Shortly after making this announcement, Deus Ex: The Fall was announced…for tablets and mobile. Of the Apple flavor, at least.

Now look, I’m not butthurt because I don’t have an iFruit. On the contrary: in my family we have two iPhone 5s and an iPad 4. On the hardware front, I’m perfectly equipped for The Fall. I just don’t want it. I want to sit down on my comfy sofa in my darkened game room, light up my 60-inch plasma, pick up my Xbox controller and slip on my circumaural wireless headphones while I immerse myself in the world of Deus Ex. That is how I played Human Revolution (it was the first game I played on that new plasma TV in fact), and I practically felt like I was there. I do not want to sit there with a tablet in my hands and buds stuffed in my ear canals while I attempt to take down some guy with a precision tranquilizer shot by stabbing clumsily at a backlit piece of glass with my fat index finger. It’s like going to a movie theater to be surrounded by the sights and sounds of the cinema, only to end up watching the film on a 17-inch CRT with a mono speaker.

But that’s Square Enix’s new strategy, because they took a $90 million bath on Tomb Raider. Why did they take that bath? They’d ostensibly have us believe that it’s because making a AAA “hardcore” game is not profitable. I’d argue that it’s impossible to be profitable when your budget stems from such an irrational premise — that you can actually hope to sell 6 million copies of a game in one month — that it’s terminally flawed from the get-go. But let’s not raise the specter of mismanagement, irrational budgeting or flat-out incompetence at the publisher level. That would be akin to the U.S. government admitting to the people of America that they had been careless and lackadaisical about spending our tax dollars.

I suspect that we’re going to see more and more of this. Just as the music industry has blamed piracy for its supposed difficulties in making money (read: making as much money as they’d prefer), the games industry is about to start blaming their cost problems on the end user for either not buying enough product or for buying used copies of said product; i.e., “not paying their fair share.” They’ll use this as an excuse to dial back production values and dribble out mobile-friendly crap filled with in-app purchases and monetized upgrades. Not all of them will do it, but we’ll start to see it more and more. And for those of us who enjoy games in sets of contiguous and engrossing hours, not as bite-sized fillers of fluff, it is damned unfortunate.

License for Swill

The video game world isn’t just changing on the software front. On the hardware front, we’re about to enter an exciting new generation of consoles from the likes of Microsoft and Sony. Well, it’s a new generation at least; whether it’s exciting is left up to your discretion, and I dare say that if you value your consumer rights, the Microsoft portion of the next generation has been looking less exciting every time Major Nelson opens his mouth.

Just this afternoon, a trio of articles went live on the official Xbox Wire news site, answering many of the worrisome questions many of us had after the next-gen Xbox One’s reveal a couple weeks ago. Microsoft had raised many of these questions by omission when they hinted at disturbing changes without providing any actual details. Would the new Xbox One block used games from being played? Would it require an always-on connection to the Internet? Would its Kinect peripheral remain on at all times, constantly surveying the sights and sounds of your living room even when the console is turned off? Today, we saw answers to many of those questions, and the reaction from the Internet was typically swift and deliberate.

Microsoft has revealed that:

  • The Xbox One requires that you connect to the Internet at least once every 24 hours, or you will be unable to play any of your games offline. I guess our men and women in uniform who are deployed, college students at universities that have blocked Xbox Live ports, and people in rural areas are all out of luck. If you fail to check in, you’ll still be able to watch TV and Blu-ray movies, though. We wouldn’t want to interrupt your revolutionary TV watching experience on your game console, would we?
  • You’ll be able to give your Xbox One games to friends, but only once and only if they have been on your Xbox Live friends list for at least a month. This means effectively that you could digitally sell or give away a game to a friend permanently, but not loan it to him — and he apparently won’t be able to sell it or give it away to anyone else afterwards.
  • Only “authorized resellers” will be allowed to buy and sell used Xbox One games, meaning that you will not be able to buy or sell used games via Craiglist, garage sales or likely even eBay or the Amazon marketplace. Presumably this is the “GameStop provision” so that better-known retailers can continue operating, while completely removing the right of first sale between individual players.
  • Although Microsoft is technically allowing you to sell or trade in games to an “authorized reseller” such as a GameStop or Best Buy, they are giving publishers the final say as to whether each individual game they produce allows this. For instance, the aforementioned Square Enix could forecast that their next AAA blockbuster (assuming they ever make another one) will sell eight million copies in its first month, and to help ensure this, they’ll lock out all copies of that game from being traded or resold, meaning everyone will be forced to buy new. Leaving the choice up to publishers — the entities who most want to stamp out used game sales — is Microsoft’s way of passing the buck and saying “Hey, it’s not our fault” when publishers invariably clamp down.
  • Microsoft has stated that the ability to loan or rent games (such as from a Redbox kiosk or the GameFly service) will not be available “at launch”, but that they are “exploring the possibilities with [their] partners”. Take a guess how many people will be less likely to buy an Xbox One when they see their local Redbox carries only PS4 and Wii U games!

In fairness, the news today wasn’t all bad. Microsoft also told us that the Xbox One will allow you to designate up to 10 Xbox Live members as “family” with whom you can freely share your entire library of games. Additionally, each and every game you activate and install against your Xbox Live account will give you cloud-based access to that game from any Xbox One console that’s connected to the Internet, meaning that you can visit a friend’s house and play your games on his console without having to bring all of your discs along with you. It also means that if you purchase digital copies of a game and don’t actually have discs for them, they aren’t stuck on your physical console at home.

However, the bullet points above should raise serious questions from any level-headed gamer who is old enough to understand the monetary and consumer-rights ramifications that Microsoft’s new Xbox ecosystem is trying to create. Microsoft would like you to buy into a system where all games are purchased new, where publishers (i.e. copyright holders) have total control over whether you can resell a physical copy of a game (running directly afoul of the First Sale Doctrine codified in U.S. Code Title 17 Section 109), and where you aren’t allowed to rent a game to see if you like it before paying $60 that you can’t get back due to the aforementioned limitations on trade and resale. In my opinion, this is corporate control run amok and it is asking too much.

Edit 6/7/2013: Last night, a Reddit user created an infographic that highlights all the things you won’t be able to do with the Xbox One that you can legally do with the Xbox 360 today:

Xbox One Infographic: What You Can't Do

Naturally, Internet reaction to Microsoft’s announcements today was swift and damning. “It’s like the world’s longest car crash,” remarked one person after point after point was revealed by the game blogs. Another quipped, “And like that, Microsoft went crazy with the nail gun and the coffin can never be opened.” Over time, incredibly heated debate erupted on blogs and forums between people arguing for Microsoft (or for game developers) and those arguing for the protection of consumer rights.

But how is Microsoft’s new Xbox One economy any different from Steam, you ask? Steam, the popular digital storefront and distribution service for PC games, has many of the same restrictions. As all goods you buy from Steam are digital, you effectively own only a license to use those goods, not a physical copy that would be subject to the First Sale Doctrine (although this is still undergoing legal debate worldwide). You cannot rent games from Steam, you cannot sell them to your friends (you can gift them, however), and you cannot return them once you have bought them. What’s the difference?

In my view, there is a very important one. Steam makes clear its restrictions while simultaneously offering significant benefits in exchange. Although you don’t have the ability to sell, trade or return Steam purchases, you can oftentimes make those purchases for a mere fraction of full retail cost. The loss of Right of First Sale and the need to check in over the Internet to verify ownership become easier to tolerate when you can pick up a game for $5 or $10, instead of the $60 most Xbox games retail for. I have also never seen a new, retail copy of any Xbox 360 or PS3 game sell for less than $20, even years and years after release. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I am saying that it doesn’t happen often. Steam sales happen every week — or even more often. And if Steam isn’t discounting something you want, try Amazon PCDD, GameFly, Green Man Gaming or GoG. In the PC world, you have choices. In Microsoft’s next-gen world, you have none.

With Microsoft being the exclusive gatekeeper for what gets approved for publishing on the Xbox One platform, I see no reason to believe that any of this will change. Games will continue to cost $60 or even more, old games will continue to sell for upwards of $30 or $40 long after release — even digital copies — and now you will have even fewer rights than before. When money’s been tight and I really wanted a new game, I’ve often traded in a couple of older titles to help offset the cost. If that goes away, and if new-copy pricing remains as stagnant as it has for this past generation of consoles, then there’s no doubt that I will be buying fewer games. And if the hundreds of comments I’ve seen on the Internet today are any indication, I’m not alone. How that’s a win-win for Microsoft and their publishing partners is anyone’s guess.

A Lukewarm Reception

In the end, all of the gaming news this week has left me increasingly underwhelmed with the so-called “next generation”. Despite being a hardcore Xbox fan since the original ‘Box launched in November of 2001, as I sit here today I find myself vastly disinterested in, if not outright against, the idea of purchasing an Xbox One. For the first time since the original PlayStation, I find myself very interested in what Sony has to say about its own upcoming PlayStation 4 at E3 next week. If they take a step back from the ultra-monetized iron-first approach that Microsoft appears to be taking, I daresay Sony might win the next-gen war…by default.

We shall see. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy my Xbox 360 and its fantastic library of games. And I’m glad I got rid of my failure-prone “fat Xbox” consoles last year, because I might be gaming on the 360 for a long time to come.

Me, not staying current with technology? Yep. No question. I’m getting old.