Microsoft Still Has Work to Do (and an Idea They Can Steal)

By Andrew Fultz

My favorite meme inspired by the fiasco.
My favorite meme inspired by the fiasco.

The voice of the discontent and justifiably offended fans of Microsoft has been loud and frustrated for well over a year now. The source of their frustration, of course, began with the May 21, 2013 announcement of the Xbox One (XBO). Now a well-known story, Microsoft spent the majority of its announcement of a game console talking about everything but games, unless of course you count the time spent disallowing the use of used games on the new system, always on DRM, and a required daily internet connection “check-in.” When Sony announced that their console would allow used games (and would not altogether be a terrible mess) at E3 2013 just a few weeks later, Microsoft changed its stance so quickly that politicians were embarrassed for them. Unfortunately, the damage was done.

Part of that problem, which is often forgotten, is that when Microsoft pulled the plug on the used games ban and other hated features, they also pulled some of the more exciting features of the XBO with it. The console was supposed to have a feature that allowed games to be shared digitally among family and friends. That was a wonderful idea (a system selling idea, in fact), but Microsoft claimed that it had to be eliminated in order to get rid of all the hated features. If you believe that claim for a second, you probably know a round room is always warmest in the corner, too. In effect, Microsoft was taking their ball and going home. In effect, they took their ball and went home, showing further disregard for fans.

Completing the 180, Microsoft has continued its reversal to the point that the initial focus of the XBO, the Kinect, is no longer sold as a pack-in accessory to the console. In fact, the word “Kinect” was used only once during their E3 2014 press conference. Once!

Xbox One with Kinect. Now being offered Kinect-less.
Xbox One with Kinect. Now being offered Kinect-less.

At every turn, they have tried to show that they are sorry for being so ridiculous. To their credit, Microsoft spent almost the entire E3 press conference talking about games, and again, only mentioned the Kinect one time. That cannot be overstated. They are showing that they are listening. They hear the outcry. Unfortunately, their policies were so egregious and arrogance so foul that simply doing what Sony does (Games with Gold, used games, no DRM) hasn’t been enough to sway the sales numbers in their favor, and I don’t expect that it will be.

For one, the entire Internet community (yes, the entire thing) is very fickle and has only ever forgiven a small number of transgressions. They don’t forget, and they rarely relent. So a simple apology and removal of features won’t win over the masses.

Secondly, while Microsoft has been trying to rebuild and refocus its image, Sony has been standing on the other side of the great chasm with open arms welcoming those hurt and bruised by Microsoft’s arrogance.

So since the changes have them on an (ahem) even playing field, why would Xbox 360 owners who made the jump to PS4 go back to Microsoft? What’s the benefit?

There’s no exclusive to sell them on the jump. There’s no mind melting system feature to inspire a switch. Why spend $399 (the price of a Kinect-less XBO) on a system that has slightly worse features and is made by a company that has proven itself untrustworthy, when you have already spent or could spend the same amount on a system that’s better?

This means that Microsoft’s task is taller than perhaps they have foreseen to this point. Being even with Sony won’t convince gamers to bury the hatchet and come back to the system.

In celebration of the World Cup...SONY WITH THE EQUALIZER!!/Photo:dual
In celebration of the World Cup…SONY WITH THE EQUALIZER!!/Photo:dual

When Sony started slow against the Xbox 360 in the last generation of consoles, they used the strength of their unprecedented PS Plus to recover. Microsoft’s task, then, is to find a new feature, new business model, or new way to provide deals on games that makes the incredible value offered by PS Plus seem putrid. This is certainly a tall order, but it’s a bed Microsoft made for itself. Fortunately, rather than lie in that bed, Microsoft has already announced (and subsequently repealed) a feature that would push them in the right direction.

Remember that digital game sharing idea they pulled when they backed off the always-on DRM? A huge, huge step in the fight to sell consoles would be to reinstate that portion of the console, sans DRM.

For the unfamiliar, the premise of this technology was that a friend could give you permission to play a game that they own digitally, provided you were the only one playing it at that time. In other words, you could share your digital rights to a game the same way you can share a hard copy of a game (Except, of course, when you get the digital version “back,” the disc isn’t scratched to pieces because no one takes care of your stuff like you). Clearly, Microsoft has already made huge strides in making that kind of sharing work, and there’s still no apparent reason why the DRM was required for that feature.

Further, if MS could make the sharing feature work, then they could develop a method of allowing you to sell your digital rights to a game at a discounted price to other Xbox Live users. In effect, they would have the world’s first official digital used games store, which would be significant in its own right, but imagine a world where the used game killer became the champion of used games.

Plus, if they saw fit, they could build the infrastructure to give themselves and each game’s developer/publisher a cut of the used sale price, thereby appeasing Joe AAA Game Publisher CEO. Unfortunately, that part makes it sound dangerous, and I certainly believe that in the ridiculous world of the video games business that such a feature would be organized in a way that spurns the consumer in every way. But let’s pretend for just a moment that our favorite hobby’s industry isn’t run by money hungry businessmen who overspend in development and expect the consumer to pay the bill.

A to scale representation of a soccer hockey court field
A to scale representation of a soccer hockey court field

That feature would mean that you could buy a game digitally and play it to your heart’s content, asyou can now (we’ll call the game Soccer Hockey 2015). Typically, once your heart is content and finished with a digital game like Soccer Hockey 2015, you own it forever, but you delete it to make space for your next download (probably Soccer Hockey 2016 because even in our dystopian world, the industry is full of sequels. We’ll never escape sequels) and never see it again.

In our new dystopian world though, you recall that your friend has expressed an interest in Soccer Hockey, so you offer to let him/her try it out via Xbox One’s fancy digital game sharing feature. And guess what! Your friend loves it! Now guess what!? With MS’s new “Used Game-a-Palooza Store” (patent pending), you can sell that digital copy of Soccer Hockey that you’ll never play again to someone else and make a little bit of your money back on your digital purchase. Of course, this money would be locked away in Microsoft currency, but that would be no different than having credit at GameStop or Best Buy, except neither of those brick and mortars can offer you anything for digital property.

That’s the level of innovation Microsoft needs to sway core gamers back to them. That’s a world I want to live in. That’s a world where I buy an Xbox One. Would you?

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