Today, after a week of intense negative reaction from gaming enthusiasts and the games press, Microsoft announced major changes to their previously stated policies regarding digital rights management and internet connectivity for their new console, the XBox One. (Giant Bomb broke the story.)
In a post on the Xbox Wire entitled "Your Feedback Matters — Update on Xbox One," Don Mattrick, the Microsoft executive who announced the policies and has borne the brunt of internet anger against them, wrote about the two major changes:
An internet connection will not be required to play offline Xbox One games – After a one-time system set-up with a new Xbox One, you can play any disc based game without ever connecting online again. There is no 24 hour connection requirement and you can take your Xbox One anywhere you want and play your games, just like on Xbox 360.
Trade-in, lend, resell, gift, and rent disc based games just like you do today – There will be no limitations to using and sharing games, it will work just as it does today on Xbox 360.
These policies bring Xbox One basically into line with the PlayStation 4.
So what does this mean? Maybe less than you think. In the short term, it's probably a smart PR move for Microsoft. While backtracking certainly doesn't look good, the controversy had started to bleed into the mainstream press, and it had allowed rival Sony, which eagerly took up the banner of gamer outrage, to score some shots at last week's E3 conference.
Going forward, there is no question that certain segments of the internet — specifically the subreddits, forums, and enthusiast websites that have decried these policies — will celebrate, if not gloat. You will probably read the phrases "unprecedented reversal" and "historical capitulation." In the long term, though, the trend in game dissemination is obviously, and inexorably, toward digital downloads and streaming. Of course, downloading and streaming require an internet connection, and the ability to legally share downloaded or streamed media is usually limited to Kindle-like onetime "loan" policies. In other words, the changes Microsoft was attempting to bring to game discs are built into the foundation of the future of games.
By the time we reach the peak of this hardware generation, it's possible, even likely, that only a very small segment of the market is still going to be buying physical copies of games. (And if you look at computer games, this has been the accepted model for more than half a decade. Valve's Steam service is wildly popular.) If you read previous statements from Microsoft executives about the changes, they seem to have genuinely felt that they were moving the market forward, ushering it through an inevitable transition. At some point in the last week, Microsoft may have simply realized that taking sustained public damage over a policy regarding a dying form of technology was just not worth it. So what does today's news ultimately mean? The way people buy, consume, and share games is going to change, but thanks to an extremely vocal and vigilant group of advocates, it is going to change a little bit more slowly.