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Published on May 29th, 2013 | by Christian

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Next-Gen DRM – Backwards Thinking

During this past weekend’s news post, I wrote at length about my impressions of the Xbox One reveal, and also speculated a bit about what kind of draconian DRM schemes would be in store for next-gen console owners based on a few quotes from folks at Microsoft that have been circulating around the web.  At this time, it’s incredibly unclear as to what the hell is going on with the next Xbox in terms of used games and required online authentication DRM.  So, for the sake of the rest of this post, I’m going to operate under the assumption that used games as we know them will not exist and that you’ll need to get online once in a while (say every 1-3 days) in order to authenticate your games and play them.  A lot of people have compared this to Steam, even some journalists, but this is complete crap.

To start, lets talk about the restrictions that one faces when using Steam.  You need to be online when starting up the steam client in order to play your Steam games, though you can switch to offline mode and continue to play if you lose your connection.  Also, once you’ve purchased a game on Steam it is tied to your account and once installed cannot be transferred, lent out, or sold.  So far, this sounds pretty similar to what we can assume is going to be going on with the Xbox One and probably the PS4.

So, if PC has already got it so bad, why am I so bent out of shape about the next gen consoles?  Well, people seem to be overlooking the fact that Steam does not exist on a propriety (i.e. closed) hardware platform.  The Windows PC has been around for a long time, and backwards compatibility is not really an issue on the PC the way it is on consoles.  When you buy a new PC or upgrade your hardware, there is no question as to whether or not you’ll still be able to play your old PC games.  There’s also no question as to whether or not the PC will persist as a platform. Of course it will! This is basic stuff!  How much faith do you have that Sony or Microsoft will still be in the games business in 15 years?  What will happen to all your online-required digital content if the platform holder goes out of business? Existing PSN and XBLA content is already not making the jump from this gen to next-gen, so what indication is there that this will be any different down the road?

On top of my doubts about the longevity of these platforms, there’s also a price issue.  Steam is famous  for having insane software sales at least twice a year, and rolling specials the rest of the time.  It seems this is the logical fruit consumers would harvest when they buy into an ecosystem that cuts out the overhead associated with the distribution of physical products.  The thing is, though, that digital distribution has existed on consoles for years, and prices have behaved in an almost completely contrary fashion there.  On consoles, the physical discs tend to drop in price far quicker than the digital games, probably because retailers have to compete against each other in the physical marketplace while there is no competition to drive down prices for digital downloads on XBLA or PSN.  Even Steam has to compete with other digital PC game sellers like Desura, Green Man Gaming, and GOG.  Such competition cannot exist on XBLA or PSN because there is only one seller.

Digital distribution has not resulted in price drops on consoles up until now, ostensibly because of the platform holders’ relationships with retail outlets, but retail game sales will still be happening next-gen so I don’t see those price drops coming any time soon.   I can only imagine that this is a way for Microsoft and Sony to eventually kill boxed retail game sales.  It makes a ton of sense, even if it is completely pointless and greedy.  Right now, the only reason I choose physical discs and carts is because I like  my games to be transferable and retain value.  If those benefits go away, there will literally be no reason to buy physical products aside from the occasional collector’s edition that comes with a nice art book or sound track or something.

Maybe this isn’t as big a deal for some gamers, but for me it’s huge.  If I spend money on a game, I want to own it.  To me, if I can’t lend something out or resell it, it’s not really mine.  I’m willing to make an occasional exception for Steam because I have a lot more faith in the longevity of the PC platform, and because Steam has been a demonstrably good value for years.  Maybe prices on PSN and XBLA will catch up with Steam eventually, but as long as the hardware is closed I’m going to think twice before purchasing any software.  I won’t go on record and say that this will keep me from buying a next-gen console, and  I’ll probably still buy a PS4 eventually regardless of how content rights management works.  However, I can imagine my software purchasing habits changing dramatically if console games stop being transferable. I’m sure I’m not alone in this either, and with console holders selling hardware at a loss and making up the difference in software sales, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around what their long term goal is here.

 

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