Wednesday 22 May 2013

Rental & Game Purchases and Why it Matters

I am not going to touch the approach Microsoft (MS) used for this reveal. I believe others have quickly gotten to the core of the issues that this presentation had compared to the focus Sony decided to take a few months ago. This is just about the details, as they have been confirmed via interview, of how DRM is handed on this new device for physical software purchases.

I don't buy used (unless I need to get my hands on Shadow Hearts: Covenant because at some point I lost a box of PS2 titles during a move - this does not appear to be for sale new anywhere from old stock, digitally or not, and so I cannot give either the developers or whoever owns the rights to the stuff they created any money; also see System Shock 2 until a month ago) and this goes as far as looking for new stock for PS2 titles (as in I just paid for a new copy of Persona 3 FES a few weeks ago). That said, there are no more demos and the TV/movie/music world has moved to a subscription model so I do rent games and consider this a normal part of consuming mainstream media. I often buy them once I've played them but only the ones I want to own so one day I will play them again without the need to worry about the previously discussed used game hunting where you pay some 'collector' rather than anyone related to actually creating the thing (seriously, if you have a mass produced PS2 title on ebay for £100 go jump into a fire and if you own the rights to it then PSN is a solution to my desire to give you money, even if I'm going to also need you to not track illicit downloads as I grab the ISO to actually play on a better device called my PC).

That said, my major issue here is not that rental services won't stock Xbox One games (for all we know MS have got a plan for rentals just like they have a plan for used that no one is allowed to know because it is anti-consumer and so not telling us is better than confirming our worst fears). My issue here is that it is a step beyond signed code and signed code was already the limit of my acceptance of 'purchasing' this product rather than getting it as part of a £10/month or less, all you can eat subscription which is clearly labelled as a rental agreement where I own nothing and when it ends I have nothing but my memories.

Right now I buy a console game for my closed platform console (which cost me less than it cost them to build it and ship it to me + pay staff along that chain to help move it) and the signed code on the disc and any anti-piracy techniques they use to press it allow the box to recognise the disc and play the game. This will work as long as I can get a box to run and the discs haven't degraded - at which point, where the 30 year old silicon / foil coated plastic is probably no good, we hope that a preservation effort has been in place to collect archives of the data, that I retain my right to hold private copies of, and an emulation device that reads and executes it in a close approximation of the original device. This is what a console game purchase means and is how they can maintain the same unit price despite dropping replication costs (memory chips on a cart anyone? manuals?) and a widening customer base that more than makes up for their extravagant R&D and (more critically) advertising budget. Inflation makes me feel like the deal I am getting is pretty good still.

Whatever policies MS put in place for used and rental services for the Xbox One in the future, the games are not auth'd by having signed code and security features on the disc you buy. The console sounds like it will still require signed code (and maybe the discs have some security features to stop them reading in other bluray drives and stop BD-Rs reading as normal discs in the Xbox One) but the auth is a cd key that uses an online check to refresh the auth status and so far sounds like it expires after 24 hours.

If you cannot get online in 24 hours then it doesn't matter if you have a disc with the game on, your games will not launch. If MS cannot get their servers online for the window when you need then then you cannot play any of your games. If MS retire their servers or allow EA to run their own auth boxes and EA retire those servers then you will no longer be able to launch your games. They will simply not work. This is a rental service without the corresponding price change. With their throw away comments about b/c MS have said they do not care for the cultural artefacts being generated on their platform. There is no retro gaming to MS. There is no generation of objects with ongoing value to society. "Games do not matter" is the message.

There is merely product to be consumed before it goes bad, rotten. I do not feel the need to consume from the trough being offered to survive, there are alternative channels where I can avoid contributing to people who have this disregard for the value of the product, who only focus on the cost/price and pumping swill. I play to relax, to express action in a safe virtual space, to communicate or spend time alone, to look at a space and rule system developed by someone whose perspective may be foreign to me. But this is not the only place I can pay people for their games, DRM free is a thing and so are open platforms and there are a lot of good games out there vying for my time and money.

How is this different to Valve/Steam? Other than the many games that don't use Steam DRM and so are just using it as a pipe through which I can access the data, even Steam DRM is built on top of an open platform (as in Windows is open, not FOSS 'open'). Owning the CPU means I can subvert this system, it means that there can not be a perfect offline DRM system as I can get between the hardware and the game/ecosystem and lie to it. If you give me an auth ticket that lasts for 12 hours then I can make sure the auth system never thinks it is more than 12 hours later by lying when it asks the time. Even if you try to tie the in-game systems into the clock (so I can't lie while playing), this only means I can't play for more than 12 hours at a time (then I quit and reset the clock to the start of the 12 hours) and even this is a hack away from defeating. Steam currently gives out auth tokens that last for 2 weeks (and simultaneously unlock all games that use Steam DRM) and is so popular I probably won't even need to use my expertise to defeat it if the servers ever go down.

Open systems mean we have a much better chance of exerting the rights we are paying for. The console system only works because they had physical tokens so they lasted effectively forever (until it was so historical that Moore's law and accumulated knowledge could be used to break down anything that was locked) and a razor/razorblade model to give out subsidised hardware to make cash back on a cut of every sale (so us hardcore gamers who paid for a lot of titles were ideal customers for software and hardware groups).

You can't just try to import the anti-consumer side of the Steam digital store DRM system onto your closed platform and expect it to be fine without changing your pricing strategy. Especially when you're also telling consumers their existing digital purchases will not play on the new xbox without so much as a mea culpa. Especially as a mandatory DRM system rather than an optional service for the developers on your system to utilise if they want to.

This proposed system, from the outlines they have currently explained, is too defective by design for me to sign up. I want to give someone money for new Forza, Halo, any Remedy titles, and more. But not at those buy prices for a rental. I want to own these potentially classic games to play when I want, just like I can with the decades of accumulated history of gaming I have on my shelves and (open platform) digital stores.

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