Microsoft details Xbox One DRM
June 7, 2013 | 08:54
Microsoft has responded to criticisms surrounding its vague statements on how the Xbox One will handle second-user games - and the news isn't all good.
Rumours began to spread well before Microsoft ever announced its console that the Xbox 720, as it was then known, would feature a draconian digital rights management (DRM) system designed to curtail the second-hand games market. It's something the gaming industry has been moving towards for years: console games are increasingly coming with single-use codes that unlock extra levels, multi-player access or pre-paid downloadable content required to get the full experience. PC gamers, meanwhile, are increasingly purchasing titles from digital distribution services like Steam where there is no way to sell second-hand titles at all.
Second-hand sales are a problem for the industry, it's true: every time a game is sold new the publisher and developer receive a cut, but a second-hand sale puts money nowhere but into the retailers' pockets. In this, it's analogous to piracy: people are playing the game, but the developer isn't being rewarded. This, however, is a byproduct of the first-sale doctrine, which states that once you've bought a product you're free to dispose of it as you wish by reselling, giving away or even destroying the item entirely - so long as you don't sneakily keep a copy.
Enter the Xbox One.
Unlike its predecessor the Xbox 360, the Xbox One is designed to allow gamers to install games to its internal hard drive and play them without needing to insert the disc in the drive. Without this simple physical DRM - no disc, no game - it's clear Microsoft had to come up with something else, but in doing so it appeared that the company was signing a death warrant for the second-hand games market.
Following numerous complaints, the company has broken its silence on the matter ahead of its more detailed Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) unveiling to clarify things. First, the company has stated, is that the second-hand games market will continue. Any game purchased on disc for the Xbox One can be traded in for cash or credit, and - contrary to earlier rumours - Microsoft will not be taking a cut of the proceeds. All that is required is for the user to uninstall the game from their console and remove the license link from their Xbox Live account - something the retailer will check has happened before accepting the trade-in. The retailer is then free to sell the game on, and the second buyer will be able to install and play the game without difficulty.
At least, that's the idea. Sadly, Microsoft has decided to leave this ability up to individual publishers - meaning that if EA, for example, decides it doesn't like second-hand sales, it can disable that feature and prevent any of its Xbox One games from being trading in, trampling all over the first-sale doctrine in the process. As to how a buyer will know whether the game he or she is in the process of purchasing will be valid for resale, that's an issue Microsoft hasn't addressed - but we'd hope there'd be an obvious logo on the case of restricted titles as a warning for those who don't like to build up a game library. It's also possible for publishers to charge retailers a fee if they do enable second-hand selling of a given title - with this fee completely up to the publisher to decide.
Another issue stemming from Microsoft's announcement is the hint that retailers looking to accept Xbox One trade-ins will need to be part of an official trade-in programme. While the company has claimed it won't be charging for membership, only approved retailers will be given access to the licensing system in order to check and revoke licences for titles traded in. Smaller, independent game stores - many of which are reliant on the second-hand trade - are likely to be excluded from this list.
What about private sales?
Microsoft has some seemingly good news on that front: users who want to sell or give away one of their games to a friend will be free to do so, simply by using a transfer wizard on the console itself. Sadly, this comes with its own set of restrictions: users can only transfer a title to someone who has been on their Xbox Live Friends List for 30 days or more - meaning sales of second-hand games on auction sites and forums are dead in the water - and the title can only be transferred once. In other words, if you sell your completed copy of Halo 12 to Little Timmy for £20, Timmy can't turn around and sell it to someone else once he's finished with it - that game is then tied to Timmy's account forever. As with second-hand sales, this is also a feature that needs to be explicitly enabled by a given publisher.
It's not all bad news, though. In an effort to introduce a little carrot to go with all that stick, Microsoft has announced that all games installed to an Xbox One console will be accessible from any other Xbox One console providing the user is signed in. Want to play games round a friend's house? No need to lug discs with you, just sign in and choose from any of the games installed on your own Xbox One - providing your friend has a fast enough internet connection to download the chosen games before it's time to go home, of course.
For families who game, there's even better news: up to ten Xbox Live accounts can be tied together as belonging to family members, and all installed games will be accessible to all family members regardless of location. It even seems possible for two or more family members to be playing the same game at the same time on different consoles - despite buying just one copy of the title.
The rental issue.
Microsoft has confirmed that, at launch, the Xbox One will have no way to support game loans or rental - a move that is likely to put a significant dent in the profits of game rental services like Lovefilm should the Xbox One take off - but claims to be 'exploring the possibilties with our partners.' The company has also released details for the Xbox One's network requirements, confirming that the console will need to check in with servers every 24 hours in order for even offline games to be played and ideally needs a broadband connection of 1.5Mb/s or higher. 'In areas where an Ethernet connection is not available,' the company adds, 'you can connect using mobile broadband,' seemingly ignorant of the capped connections and high per-megabyte charges levied by most mobile networks throughout the world.
While Microsoft has nailed its colours to the mast, Sony has yet to clarify its own stance on second-hand sales and related DRM technologies with more details expected to be released as part of the company's E3 unveiling.