Microsoft has done a swift about-face on its Xbox One DRM policies, abandoning its need for an always-on internet connection.
That's meant the end of some of Microsoft's plans for Xbox One game sharing, with a "heartbroken" Microsoft employee taking to Pastebin to bemoan the decision. The anonymous Microsoft staffer claims that Family Sharing linked to your Xbox One account was one of the big plans for the console, with members on your sharing plan able to access a special demo mode of your game for between 15 minutes and an hour before choosing whether to purchase.
In terms of innovation, and to a degree, user-friendliness, clinging to physical media is something of a backward step. Microsoft deserves credit for trying something new rather than stagnating – but the public reaction suggests that people just aren't ready for a digital sharing model. And really that's no surprise, because digital sharing models are necessarily built on shaky foundations – the artificial restrictions of DRM.
Back in the days of the PS2 and original Xbox, you could only play a console game with a physical disc. With the current generation of consoles, video games publishers are gradually having to confront the same problem that's already dogged the music, film and publishing industries; games can be bought and sold as data, without any physical object involved. And since game data is no longer tied to any sort of physical scarcity mechanic (the number of discs in circulation), publishers are forced to introduce DRM to limit how you can use that data.
Physical limitations are something that people can easily understand. A game disc can be bought, sold and shared; gold is valuable because there's a finite amount of it, and so forth.
But because data can be copied and traded freely without physical limits, it's immediately apparent that any form of DRM is an imposition. It's the same problem faced by the backers of Bitcoin – by introducing artificial measures to restrict the supply of the currency, the absurdity of trying to impose limitations on an effectively infinite resource becomes apparent.
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It doesn't help that those limitations have yet to be standardised. The restrictions on sharing ebooks differ from those of sharing music, and those on sharing data – creating further confusion in the mind of us users. After all, if it's all made up of 1s and 0s, why should you only be able to gift your Kindle books to a single friend for a fortnight, when you can share your Xbox One games among friends and family members on an even shorter time limit?
Try explaining the Xbox One's now-defunct sharing measures to the man or woman on the street, and their eyes will glaze over. Or they'll start asking awkward questions like, "But why can I only have 10 people on my sharing list?" The answer, of course, being, "Because that's the restriction imposed by the publishers." Show them the PS4 sharing video, and they immediately get it – because it's based on a trading model that we've used for years. If you own a book, or a cassette tape, or a disc, you feel as if you own the information on it.
But with something as intangible as data – which is relatively easy to copy – for consumers to accept DRM, we need some further incentive beyond access to the data itself. We are, after all, happy to accept DRM if it helps us to do things that we couldn't before; Spotify and Netflix let us access a library of content across different devices, meaning that we don't have any incentive to copy it. As Netflix's Ted Sarandos says, "One of the side effects of growth of content is an expectation to have access to it."
It's interesting that just as we reach the point where we don't need discs to play games in consoles, discs have caused such a furore. It's because they still have value as a token, rather like the little message on a $10 note – "I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten dollars."
It's also ironic that Microsoft's planned DRM was, in some ways, more forgiving than a disc-based medium, letting you share your games with 10 people for a limited amount of time, versus lending your disc to one person and being unable to play the game yourself. Maybe we're just not ready to make that leap yet – and that's why the Xbox One had to change.