This afternoon, Microsoft essentially threw a Molotov on a grease fire when they announced that they were backing away from the DRM, used games and online check-in features for the Xbox One that have caused so much consternation amongst gamers. After being flanked and decimated by Sony during their E3 press conference, and after a near terminal case of Foot In Mouth Syndrome in the wake of it, we knew Microsoft was on the defensive. However, adhering to the well-worn rule that corporations on the level of Microsoft never admit that they're wrong, many people just expected them to slide quietly into a second place showing in this generation's already carnage-fueled Console War.
However, in comes today's announcement which amounts to a full strategic retreat. It's not worded as such, naturally, (it's been pleasantly PR'd into almost sounding like it was their own idea) but just about all of the issues that stuck in people's craw were addressed: No daily online checks which will brick your system if you don't have a stable connection. You can resell or trade your games to whomever you like at the cost of announced features like family sharing and disc-free gaming. DRM will be up to the publishers and, after seeing the fit people have thrown in the last few months, there's a good chance they'll only institute it slowly and quietly. Also, to match Sony, the system will not be region locked. Unless you're like me and you mistrust the notion of cloud computing and/or hate the notion of an always on Kinect watching you like the quietly judge-y eye of Sauron, there's no reason the Xbox One shouldn't regain a place at the top of your Christmas list.
This has naturally provoked the usual responses: gamers cheering victory at having won a rare battle for game ownership and at the same time decried as a loss to publishers and developers by guys like Cliff Bleszinski. It's also been the subject of a lot of empty cynicism, typified by this tweet from John "TotalBiscuit" Bain (proof that not all bowler hat wearing British video game personalities are created equal) in which he turns his nose up at the idea that the hashtag culture and Facebook posts had any bearing on changing Microsoft's position because... dead revolutionaries in Turkey?
First of all, that is some wild, wild false equivalency there. To somehow equate actual dead human beings with a consumer rights issue in regards to a video game console reeks of an almost Autistic disconnection to reality. Mothers are mourning their dead children right now. You're arguing about video games. These two things don't belong anywhere near each other. For any reason.
To be fair, Bain clarified his position in subsequent tweets, almost to the point of completely neutering his original statement (unless you happen to be one of the ten people in the world who truly believes that their tweets were solely responsible for Microsoft's change of heart) but I bring it up more as an example of a particular worldview. Bain is far from alone in his assessment. There's a lot of people supping on sour grapes tonight.
To listen to the few developers and publishers willing to speak on the subject publicly, you get the impression that they aren't so much angry as exasperated. Like kindergarten teachers wrestling with a particularly unruly child. To hear them tell it, we just don't understand what they're trying to do with the Xbox One. We don't understand how badly developers are being hurt by used game sales. And if we did, we'd be completely on board with Microsoft's new all-in-one entertainment box of pure joy.
This speaks, in bold and italics, how little they think of their audience. And yet I still can't see them as mustache-twirling villains. I believe that they believe what's coming out of their mouths. Having worked for a Giant Unnamed Corporation for six years now, I see how these decisions happen. The people in charge are so removed from the way normal people operate that they're completely unable to relate. They think they're being magnanimous but they don't actually know anyone who is being directly affected by their policies. It's not evil (not normally), it's just out and out ignorance. So, yes, people like Cliff Bleszinski have yet to find a burden they aren't willing to unload on gamers to line their pockets, but they've convinced themselves, though ego and love of money, that we don't really understand what we want.
The Xbox One is not a carefully crafted compromise between what gamers want and what publishers and developers need. It shifts the playing field so far away from the rank and file user that a backlash had to happen. Microsoft would have us believe that they're essentially giving us Steam in a box with some bonus accoutremounts like "cloud computing," an always-on Kinect and TV integration. They also continue to completely miss what makes Steam appealing.
Valve's genius lies in the fact that they aren't a publicly traded company at the constant mercy of perpetually paranoid and frightened millionaire investors. They also have an unconventional management structure that companies like Microsoft, Sony, EA, Activision, et al, would never have the bravery to implement. They want the money Valve makes and the goodwill it's gotten them without the sacrifices and risks they've taken to get there.
Microsoft wants the cheap and dirty answer to Steam. (Sometimes called "EA Origin.") Some game journalists, most of whom should know better, have talked pie in the sky fantasies about the Microsoft equivalent of Steam Sales and whatnot, also completely ignoring exactly how unique Valve's position is. Want proof? Look at Microsoft's attempt to steal Sony's shine with the Playstation Plus and their virtual library. Microsoft's offer? Halo 3 and Assassin's Creed 2. Games you've already played and sold years ago. Games that are multiple iterations removed from that by now. Games you can pick up for the low, low price of $3 or $6 used on Amazon, respectively. Games that have been cross referenced and double checked on spreadsheets for their minimum effect on the bottom line. Meanwhile, Sony is offering interesting indie titles like The Cave and Thomas Was Alone as well as smaller games like Sleeping Dogs and Spec Ops: The Line.
So, yes, Microsoft is clueless. They're looking at numbers and missing the big picture. Sony is only marginally better, having had their own descent into hubris with the PS3 announcement. Even now, their position is to just maintain the status quo, allowing them to pull ahead by virtue of doing absolutely nothing. Certainly GameStop is no hero, having sketchy policies that undercut their consumers as well. (Personally, I go to Mom and Pop used record stores for my game trading.) And while Microsoft soils their chinos? Valve is already floating the possibility of digital used game trading which will put them another generation ahead of their console brethren and win them a whole new round of plaudits.
These corporations exist to make money and will only give back as little as they can to maximize profits. That's business. Not good, not evil, just business. Yet corporate types and their apologists are only part of the problem. Some people are evidently immediately suspicious of what they see as an angry mob which steamrolls over any nuanced position.
While there's certainly no shortage of pointless, free floating anger on the Internet, it's often given far too much weight by virtue of the fact that people are drawn to negativity. A lot of these angry social media commenters are professionally angry. Acknowledging them validates them. Most people have a hard time keeping in mind that when it comes to dealing with trolls, you are actually the least important part of the equation. Their anger and whatever wires got crossed in their heads are the real issue. You're just a convenient target. There's a certain amount of ego you have to let go of if you're ever going to survive the Internet.
Which brings us to the courageous souls rolling their eyes at the idea that this angry mob of people who don't want to give up their consumer rights have somehow deluded themselves into thinking their voices matter, even if all they could do is change a Facebook photo and tweet at some monolithic corporation. Because, y'know, people are dying fighting for freedom in Muslim countries and that.
Firstly, if you're doing something, you're not doing nothing. That just seems like common sense. I'm a hack blogger no one cares about, I like talking to people about subjects likes this, but most people have lives and jobs and kids. This is of interest to people insomuch as they like games, but they're limited in the amount of time they can spend. There are no trenches here. There are no battles to be fought. You commiserate amongst friends, you refuse to pre-order, you tweet your displeasure at Microsoft. That's more or less the extent of what you can do. Because, at the end of the day, you're arguing about a luxury item.
If you really hold people gathering together around a common cause to be such a useless endeavor, what were you expecting to happen? An actual movement? Occupy Microsoft Headquarters? You'd just mock them for that too, for taking things too seriously. The reality is that every little bit helps. It fosters an atmosphere for discussion and gets the information out. Just because they don't wear the slogan on a t-shirt or tattoo it on their skin doesn't mean they aren't helping.
I consider my cynicism towards giant, multinational corporations to be an informed cynicism based on experience. In a sense, I admire Microsoft for being so ballsy with their wanton greed. Usually there are systems in place to hinder creativity, foster a sense of homogeneity, and avoid risk. People, on the other hand, are endlessly surprising. This isn't some kind of soppy, wet Liberal hugfest either. Microsoft's decision, I'm sure you'll find, was motivated by not wanting to lose money. They're worried about losing money because people were taking to social media and talking about how much they don't want what Microsoft is selling. Which translated into slower pre-order numbers. Which, compounded with the messaging problems they've been having, translated into A Problem. Twitter wasn't the only factor, but it was a factor.
One of my biggest problems with this industry is about how the gaming press, developers and publishers treat the people who make their livelihood possible. There's a disdain in a lot of people I find very disturbing. As if somehow we random dudes wield a power equal to the multi-million dollar corporations who provide us with our entertainment. Where all people remember is the troll who told them to "fuck off and die" and not the ten people who praised them. As if that's everyone else's fault and not the fault of the troll and the failing of the person's own ego.
We don't have any real power. That's what makes Microsoft's reversal all the more delicious. No one with any sense is claiming full credit for it, but nor are we just buzzing flies, fit only to be swatted away by those with a bigger soapbox to stand on. We won a very minor victory in a not-particularly-important fight. If someone wants to make a comprehensive chart about how much money the industry is losing to used games sales vs. how much they're losing to bloated budgets for bland sequels with diminishing returns, I'm down... but, if you don't mind, I think I'll take my victories where I can find them.