Bitch-slapped: DRM, groupthink, and the not-quite-so-next-gen


So after announcing a predictably controversial (and I’ll get back to that in just a moment) DRM scheme for the Xbox One, Microsoft has decided to reverse the policy completely and instead keep things working in the future pretty much exactly the same way things work now with the Xbox 360. It’s not that the way things work now is bad, mind you, but how many people stopped to consider whether the way things might have worked in the future could maybe be better?

The problem – or at least a big part of it – is DRM, and I don’t mean any particular DRM policies, I mean the actual letters “D”, “R”, and “M” assembled in sequence in the same place at the same time. It’s more or less the orthographic equivalent of a huge neon swastika superimposed on an inverted crucifix beamed out onto a gathering storm over a grim, sooty industrial citystate where bar-coded citizens in orange jumpsuits hunch between mounted camera arrays and gunship spotlights on rainy streets patrolled by anonymous, visored police as loudspeakers issue proclamatory reminders of the punishments for subversion.

Or, in the favourite – and seemingly only – four-syllable word of the mainstream gaming commentariat, something something “draconian” something.

A collection of games obtained by the human resistance including a number of oppressive DRM schemes like code wheels and serial keys.
A collection of games obtained by the human resistance before routine incineration. Some of the tyrannical DRM schemes found restricting civil freedoms include serial keys, code wheels, and those puzzles where you have to look up certain words on certain pages of the game manual. One specimen featured the terrifying slogan “Don’t copy that floppy”, promising dire vengeance of his head who dared.

I’m not going to pretend that specific DRM policies in the recent past haven’t been terrible or even that the original Xbox One DRM policy was entirely exempt from real criticism, but instead I would propose that, as a sort of baseline, digital rights management isn’t some inherently evil and oppressive system designed exclusively to undermine consumer rights or the sanctity of marriage or the taste of hotdogs, or whatever it is that people like to shout about. DRM doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and it often isn’t.

To put this in perspective, Microsoft already employs a comprehensive DRM scheme for the Xbox 360. Ongoing access to Xbox LIVE, for example, is subject to certain terms and conditions that restrict modified consoles from using the service, and you can’t play an Xbox game without the disc in the optical drive, even if that game is installed to the hard drive.

It’s DRM, it’s just not something we usually think about as DRM because we apparently prefer to reserve the word for ponderous manifestos about the end of the everything and copy-pasted image memes comparing this week’s most egregious offender to a something like a brick or a Kinder Egg that really doesn’t make much sense if you think about it too hard but maintains public outrage anyway because the public doesn’t think about things too hard because thinking is hard too.

And so it was hardly surprising that, subsequent to the Xbox One’s DRM policy announcement in the online gaming press as exactly that – a DRM policy – the news was met with tremendous hostility by a lot of gamers. But hold up, let’s just look at that DRM policy as it actually was:

  1. Game licences were attached to user accounts instead of physical discs, and accessible to that user account from any Xbox One console via the cloud. Once a game was installed to the console, the disc was no longer required, and as such, users would be able to swap between games without getting up to do it.
  2. A single game licence (or some limited version thereof, according to unverified rumours) could be shared by its attached user account with up to ten additional user accounts, with a one-(other)-at-a-time play limit.
  3. The Xbox One console required a connection to the Internet once every 24 hours, presumably in part to minimise the obvious potential for abuse of policy items 1 and 2. Without making this connection, you wouldn’t be able to play your games.
  4. It would be possible to sell your games (both the game discs as well as the digital game licences), although actual information about this was very vague.

There’s one huge, serious, legitimate issue presented here, and that’s the connectivity requirement, and that’s really only for those people (some of them) without access to an Internet connection, and not those people (most of them) who’ve spent the last month dosed up on caffeine and constantly refreshing comment threads under articles about the Xbox One DRM policy so they could complain about how a connectivity requirement is literally Hitler.

There’s also the lesser issue of what-if, as in what if the bombs drop or megasharks attack and Microsoft’s servers go offline, and nobody can ever play their games again. Whether or not that even matters in a post-apocalyptic scenario, I don’t see people asking Valve the same thing about Steam. And no, Steam’s offline mode doesn’t count because, let’s be honest, it’s about as reliable as Valve’s Half-Life 2 episode release schedule.

That's what you get for nagging about Half-Life 3.
That’s what you get for nagging about it, nerds.

Finally, there’s the non-issue of selling used games because there simply wasn’t enough actual information about it to make anything like an informed response. Not that it stopped people from whining about an activation fee for used games two weeks after Microsoft confirmed that there was no activation fee. Misinformation is so much more exciting than reality, isn’t it?

The only significant loss here (and it was significant), of course, was the easy lending of disc-based games that current gen console owners enjoy now. But how much longer can we realistically expect physical formats to be around?

If the Xbox One’s original DRM policy reminds you of the way that the Xbox LIVE Arcade’s (and every PC online platform) digitally distributed games already work – minus the sharing and selling stuff – it’s because it’s more or less exactly the same. Behind the Xbox One policy was a new business model with the digital focus that industry analysts have been forecasting for the next generation of consoles for the last five years already. This was a next-gen concept that added something more authentically “next-gen” than just better graphics, and now it’s cancelled.

… Not that cancelling it has made much difference to a lot of those people who complained about it, and are now declaring that it’s “too little, too late” and that they’ll be spending their money instead on Sony, a company that refused to impose DRM (mostly) out of LOVES AND KISSES 4 GAEMERZ and totally not as a prudent political manoeuvre to make up for adding paid subscriptions for multiplayer.


I think what’s most frustrating, though, is that daring to say anything tentatively positive – or, rather, not overwhelmingly negative – about the original Xbox One DRM policy invariably invites tedious accusations of bias (with added cash incentives if you work in the press or, somehow, even if you don’t), because in the gaming community at large, there can be only one point of view and it’s always the loudest one. Well, that one and the “PC gaming is better, LOLOLOL” one. The line for bar-coding and jumpsuits is just over there.