E3 is looking like a bit of a downer.

As E3 draws closer this year I find myself thinking the focus will not be on the titles coming out by year’s end or early next year. Rather it seems this year those covering the event will be really looking at how heavily entrenched DRM schemes will be.  For those who missed it, the entire internet literally flipped it’s lid after Microsoft’s Xbox One reveal.

While some of it’s higher ups gave conflicting answers about just how deep the DRM will go on the new system, it does seem they are moving toward a CD-Key styled approach. For years, those of us who have played games on computer platforms have dealt with the fact that publishers have been selling us licenses rather than games. In their minds, or at least the people helming the publishing companies’ minds purchasers don’t own anything except the ability to play titles as the publishers see fit.  This started around the time the 8-bit home computer platforms started fading away. Before long, we were mostly using MS-DOS, and then Windows. Platforms that in the business world, had been using licenses for awhile. Eventually this would become the norm for computer games.

Games started out trying disc protection. When that didn’t work publishers tried putting in annoying screens where you had to type a word, phrase, number, or answer that only the paper manual could solve. Eventually games started coming with CD-Keys. Codes needed to be inputted into a program to authenticate, and run. Until the advent of digital distribution we even needed to keep the disc in the drive because of the unethical types who might try to return the software to the store after having installed it. These days most of your games, even those you buy at a store in physical disc are tied to a digital store of some sort because the CD-Key authenticates with it.

Console games however have always been products rather than licenses. From cartridges to discs, they have always been considered property of the buyer. But with the information trickling in on the Xbox One, that is probably not going to be the case anymore. At least not on that platform. It’s been cause for alarm for a lot of people, and honestly it should be for everyone who cares about consumer rights. The shift to a license based console is worrisome. It cuts out the ability for one to lend their purchase to a friend to try out unless they want to let that person log into their Live account remotely which also means some folks may end up losing friends over hijacked accounts. It effectively ruins the ability for Gamefly, or Redbox, or the few small businesses still renting games or movies to rent Xbox One discs.

This also effects the second hand market which is obviously the target of this move. Publishers want everyone to buy a new copy. A license forces them to do so. Pop a previously used copy, and the system will ask for a log in, or to buy a new CD-Key.  This is the biggest controversy. Second hand markets are essential to the economy. It allows people who cannot afford the latest item to get it, or an older version for considerably less. In terms of media, it’s been going along fine for years. Used albums, books, films, shows have all found their way into thrift shops, yard sales, and discount retailers.  While all of those industries may have been vocal about piracy, it’s been rare to see complaints of second hand sales of them. Let’s not also forget that libraries, the places everyone in education, and academia implore us to visit, are around because of donated second hand goods.

Some folks seem to think that by cutting out the second hand market, and Gamestop in particular that everyone will magically start buying $60 full priced, day one games. What will likely happen instead will be more contraction. People who might have normally tried a title in a genre they weren’t familiar with because it was discounted second hand will likely stick to what they’re comfortable with. There also won’t be as many people buying the latest interactive Hollywood movie because they used to sell four old games to be able to afford it but can no longer do so.

To be fair, it’s been hinted that Microsoft will have some means of allowing second hand sales to continue. But even that is seen as being rather cumbersome. The rumored workaround involves some sort of software process that retailers like Gamestop would have to buy into. It would deactivate the CD-Key from the customers LIVE account, and transfer the license to the retailer. The retailer would then be able to sell the used disc & key to someone else. This also means Microsoft, and probably the publisher would take a huge cut. The retailer would also owe for the entire deactivation utility. So this will probably lead to even lower trade in values at retailers.

If those rumors prove to be accurate that still doesn’t bode well for specialty retail or big box stores. It especially doesn’t bode well for mom, and pop game stores who may not be able to afford the deactivation utility. Not helping these rumors is the patent for the new Kinect ability to tell movie studios if too many people are watching content on it at the same time.

All of this stuff will likely send the majority of the traditional 360 customers to Playstation 4  (Unless Sony decides to do something similar) or to Computers.

On many of the message boards I frequent, a lot of those who only game on consoles have wondered why PC players have dealt with being sold licenses for so long. There are a lot of reasons for this. Competition is probably the biggest one though. With Valve, EA, Ubisoft, GoG, Amazon, and other digital stores duking it out there are sales. Valve’s Steam sales are practically events two weeks out of the year. When hit games can be legitimately had for under $5 everyone is bound to try something.

But it’s more than that too. Steam has free weekends where players can try a game for two days straight then decide whether or not it’s for them.  GoG doesn’t put any DRM licenses in any of the games it sells. Buyers are free to backup their games onto DVD’s or a flash drive. All of the stores let you re-download games that have been uninstalled. Steam also does a solid for those with finicky internet connections by including an offline mode in it’s client. This way if the ISP is down, purchased games that don’t require an internet connection will still work.

It’s highly unlikely that the Xbox One will see any of these types of activity because LIVE is the only storefront on the platform. There won’t be a competing game seller offering better prices or services to spark competition. Neither of it’s competitors will differ in that regard either. Sony will have it’s PSN. Nintendo will have it’s eShop.

Microsoft did briefly mention at the conference it would have new IP’s, and exclusive titles. The thing is with all of the fervor those titles may not matter no matter how awesome they are.  The messages coming out since the conference have been cryptic at best.

It’s striking to say the least. E3 used to be the time of year to get hyped about all of the latest games, and gaming gadgets as news trickled out. Now it’s all about who has the least restrictions on your electronic entertainment.

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