Backpedaling on Xbox One DRM Policies Is Precisely the Right Move by Microsoft

Welcome back to the game, Xbox One.

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And just like that, with the punch of a publish button and a note from Microsoft biz honcho Don Mattrick, the company has deep-sixed two of the most reviled corporate positions concerning your rights as a consumer in years.

I wondered if this wasn’t inevitable back when I first read about Microsoft‘s plans for the Xbox One just before E3 — plans to force gamers online every 24 hours and banish used gaming and game lending to fringe scenarios involving hard-to-explain, tortured rules. You’d have to check in once every 24 hours to play offline games, said Microsoft. Why? It wasn’t clear. Something-something about ensuring you had all the updates, even if that was more likely code for thwarting piracy and collecting reams of unspecified data about user behavior.

You could also lend disc-based games to a friend, said Microsoft, but only once per game, and then only if said person had been on your Xbox LIVE list of friendlies for a month. This was especially galling: a policy with no discernible benefit to consumers, and if anything, a nakedly aggressive move by Microsoft to eliminate game lending and thereby increase revenues. Microsoft was up in everyone’s business, in other words, for reasons that seemed more about business than doing right by buyers.

No more, because Microsoft has seen the light. Take a bow, Internet — you won! Here’s Microsoft’s Mattrick with the good news (emphasis his):

An internet connection will not be required to play offline Xbox One games – After a one-time system set-up with a new Xbox One, you can play any disc based game without ever connecting online again. There is no 24 hour connection requirement and you can take your Xbox One anywhere you want and play your games, just like on Xbox 360.

Trade-in, lend, resell, gift, and rent disc based games just like you do today – There will be no limitations to using and sharing games, it will work just as it does today on Xbox 360.

In addition to buying a disc from a retailer, you can also download games from Xbox Live on day of release. If you choose to download your games, you will be able to play them offline just like you do today. Xbox One games will be playable on any Xbox One console — there will be no regional restrictions.

These changes will impact some of the scenarios we previously announced for Xbox One. The sharing of games will work as it does today, you will simply share the disc. Downloaded titles cannot be shared or resold. Also, similar to today, playing disc based games will require that the disc be in the tray.

Make that a full reversal, then, bringing Microsoft into alignment with Sony’s PlayStation 4 concerning DRM. That’s great news, and not, as some have quipped, because the Internet got its way: popular opinion isn’t valid on its face. It was wrong and embarrassing, for instance, to watch a vocal minority of players go beyond validly critiquing BioWare’s Mass Effect 3 denouement to demanding the developer rewrite the game’s ending. Sometimes legitimate displeasure that should have ended at critical dismissal (and lessons learned) boils over into selfish entitlement.

I’ve been careful to point out, for instance, that requiring an Internet connection in 2013 is hardly a radical notion. Yes, as we’ve heard, people serving on submarines would have been shut out, nor did it help that Mattrick’s initial reaction was to posit the Xbox 360 as Microsoft’s official game system for the disconnected (whether he meant it dismissively or not, that’s how it came across). But people on far-flung submersibles also can’t, as far as I know, use cellphones or play games like World of Warcraft. If an always-online system offers legitimate benefits to always being online, there’s no need to structure your system to accommodate every outlier (the corollary being that you’d best have those benefits laid out like ducks in a row).

That said, even if you accept that always-online is a valid model for a game console in 2013, Microsoft could have introduced a version of it that made the transition (whether psychologically or literally) easier for buyers. This wasn’t an all or nothing scenario. Steam, Valve’s digital gaming service, has a workable way of letting you circumvent its online requirements by allowing you to “unlock” offline play for single-player games, so long as you’ve logged in, at some point, while connected online. Once you switch to offline play, you’re good to go.

In any case, there’s still reason to be cautious here: Xbox One will still watch you when it’s on. It’s still gathering information, collating and storing that information for who knows how long, with Microsoft using that data to improve its services, but also to scrutinize your tastes and habits in an effort to sell you (or help others sell you) more stuff. We also don’t know anything about the system’s security safeguards. As I wrote in my “5 Questions for Microsoft” about privacy, “Don’t patronize us in your upcoming Xbox One privacy FAQ, and don’t assume the only thing we care about when it comes to data aggregation and transmission is anonymity (or that that’s a sufficient definition of privacy and security).” We deserve to know more about what sort of information Microsoft’s collecting and what it’s actually doing with that information. When a company elevates a product’s level of consumer scrutiny, the burden of transparency goes up, and I’d argue that’s way up when you’re talking about cameras in living rooms.

Looking back, Microsoft’s been pretty consistent in ignoring criticism about the Xbox 360. When people griped about the company’s extortionately priced, proprietary Xbox 360 hard drives, Microsoft spun a dubious tale about drive imaging costs. When people griped about the company sequestering multiplayer behind Xbox LIVE’s paywall, Microsoft blamed its matchmaking “service” (when people further asked why Netflix and Hulu were behind the paywall — services Xbox LIVE adds no value to — Microsoft was reticent). When people griped about the company’s $100 Xbox 360 USB wireless adapter (in a market where functionally identical adapters could be had for less than half that price), Microsoft just dodged the criticism.

That makes this Xbox One reversal monumental — the first time Microsoft’s made a U-turn on what would have been, by any measure, major gaming-related policy shifts. To be fair, they also happen to be safe, future-proof shifts. While they’ll probably impact Microsoft’s bottom line on some level, by depriving the company of revenue it might have gained in forcing more people to pay for games outright, there’s nothing backward-looking about these choices. People arguing otherwise have that part wrong. This whimsical notion that games in a pre-reversal scenario might have been cheaper is magical thinking (games on Steam aren’t cheaper, incidentally, and both Microsoft and Sony already run comparable game promotions on Xbox LIVE and the PlayStation Store).

The Xbox One post-reversal is essentially the Xbox One pre-reversal with wiser, friendlier, more market-aware DRM. It can still be an always-online machine if you like — no one’s forcing you to disconnect or turn the system off. You can still buy all your games digitally and say farewell to the used market if that’s your pleasure. Options, in this case, are our friends, not stumbling blocks on the road to some utopian future paradise where we’re in full doublespeak mode, heralding protectionist policies as “trailblazing.” And remember, Microsoft can shift these policies as it likes. Mattrick’s note applies to the Xbox One at launch, not necessarily the Xbox One in a year or three or five. Mark my words, we’ll be circling back and having this conversation again soon: always-online is coming, and the shift from disc-based to digital-only software — as well as the question of whether we ought to be able to resell the latter in some form — is inevitable.

But today, we’re back to choices, and kudos to Microsoft for having the nerve to reverse itself. It couldn’t have been easy, and the company deserves our respect for making it happen.