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CaimDark avatar 10:05 AM on 06.20.2013  (server time)
Why Invoking Steam And iTunes To Defend The Xbone Fell On Deaf Ears

As expected, after Microsoft's shocking reversal last night, while the overwhelming majority celebrated, a few lamented the loss of the "awesome" "features" they'd just lost thanks to whiny online nerds. Among them is the Gizmodo article Sterling just  responded to, and while he did a great job demolishing the supposed virtues of "the future", there are a few thing I'd like to add, specifically regarding the most common defenses of Microsoft's DRM: Steam and iTunes.

There's no other way to put it: anyone who invokes Steam or mobiles as a defense of the Xbone is misguided at best and outright dishonest at worst. First, let's back up a little to Steam's early years.

At first, I actively avoided Steam. I didn't like the idea of being forced to have a third-party software just to play games I bought at retail. Slowly but surely, however, I came around. So how come that couldn't have happened with the Xbone? Man, there are so many reason, and so few hours in the day, I'll try to keep it as brief as possible.

My reaction to anyone who uses Steam to defend Microsoft's DRM.

The pre-digital distribution PC world was quite different from the console world then, and to a large degree, even from the console world now. Rampant piracy, real or imagined, led to ever more convoluted and draconian DRM measures. Constant updates and patches that had to be manually downloaded and installed added yet another hassle. What Steam did was come and say "hey, I'm offering you a service that, at the end of the day, keeps all the restrictions you already have to deal with, but streamlines them and makes them a lot more painless". Steam didn't become the beast that it is by imposing a slew of restrictions that no one had to deal with before and banging people on the head until they were convinced to embrace "the future", which is what Microsoft attempted to do. Steam offered a way to make life EASIER, not harder for the sake of "the future".

Oh, and those sweet, sweet prices. 75% off sales! That's all thanks to the magic of digital distribution, and if only we got rid of discs, consoles will instantly join that fantasy land, right? Er, no. This may be a good time to point out that, despite popular belief, Steam is only one of many places where you can buy your games. Yes, Steam has incredible sales. Do you know who else has 75% off sales? Amazon. And Gamersgate. And Greenmangaming. and Gametap. And GOG. And Impulse. And all the others digital stores I'm not aware of. Do you know why they all have those sales? Hint: it's not because digital makes everyone feel goody goody. It's because of a little thing called "competition". You know, that thing that is utterly and completely absent from the console digital stores? If you believe a digital-only console world where each platform has a single store monopolized by the platform holder is going to mimic the price effects of competition because DIGITAL, well, I regret to inform you that Santa Klaus doesn't exist.

There's another part of the puzzle that sets PCs and consoles apart: retail. Consoles still rely on specialized retailers like Gamestop that they can't afford to seriously undercut with their digital offerings. PC has no such concern, and Microsoft's Xbone would do nothing to change that dynamic.

There is yet another factor I'd add, though this one is less straightforward, and admittedly is solely my interpretation. Valve is a small (yes, compared to the likes of Microsoft or even Sony, "small" is an apt description) and, most importantly, privately-owned company effectively controlled by a single man who can do whatever the hell he wants. Valve doesn't have analyst expectations to beat, quarterly profits to show, demanding investors to please. This allows Valve to take more risks and do things differently. If you don't believe being publicly or privately owned can have a huge different in a company's management, just consider that Michael Dell is taking his company private in a 24 billion deal so he can focus on his long term recovery strategy without the pressures of quarterly results. It feels like a lifetime ago, but when Valve started experimenting with big sales (which led other stores to follow, which in turn led to even bigger sales. Again, competition), it was just that: an experiment with no guarantees it would work. Are you willing to swallow Microsoft's dictatorship on the off chance they are willing to take similar risks in the future? I'm not. Oh, and have I mentioned that Steam can be used offline? Yeah, those corporate white knight always gloss over that small detail.

I'm almost sad Microsoft backed down, I'm gonna miss these!

Finally, judging from everything I wrote, you'd think I'm a fan of Steam, right? And you would be correct. Yet, I have no intention of letting a platform holder dominate console gaming like Steam does PC gaming, because I recognize that, for all its success, Steam is a massive erosion of consumer rights. One whose legality is not even 100% assured given the decision in Europe that digital software is, in fact, consumer property. Steam made the more unpalatable aspects of PC gaming a lot more palatable, and so it succeeded, but console games are still generally expected to be the property of the consumer, and that's how they should stay. As it is today, most console games are like toys: you unwrap, you play, you own it. The fact we have lost that right on PC only makes me all the more protective of those rights on consoles.

Then we come to iTunes... this one is so baffling, I don't even know where to start. At face value, the comparison to Steam might seem to hold water, so it's worth devoting more attention to it, but iTunes... seriously? I'll just leave this quote from the Gizmodo piece:
Fair enough. But compare that to the benefits of DRM. It helps build an ecosystem that is easy and convenient and, most of all, affordable enough to draw customers. That's what Apple did with iTunes and music, and it's what Amazon did with books. The content was just too easy to get and too cheap to bother with pirating it. We could have had that with the Xbox One and games.

Do you follow his logic? Because Apple sells songs for $1 a piece, it follows that digital would suddenly make those massive multi-million dollar $60 games that fail when they sell only 3 million copies "too cheap to bother pirating". Do I really need to debunk that? Does anyone? It's hard to even believe the author is writing that in good faith.

You know you're desperate when you resort to World of Warcraft to justify demanding  an Internet connection for single-player games.

Kyle Wagner, the writer of the Gizmodo article, concludes by recognizing this episode proves our voices do matter but lamenting "how widely that nerd-influence can swing an entire generation of hardware, based solely on the whims of internet jokes based on information that isn't even accurate, and tinfoil fears about worst-case scenarios" and "Microsoft losing its nerve on this isn't just disappointing for the features we lose. It's unfortunate because it shows just how heavy an anchor we can be." I'm sure Adam Orth and some hardcore Xbox fans share his sadness. Fortunately, most other consumers celebrate Microsoft's humiliating U-turn for what it is: evidence that gamers and consumers aren't nearly as naive and gullible as Microsoft and Kyle would like us to be.

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