I think it's safe to say that the Xbox One reveal hasn't exactly gone down well with gamers. In fact, in all my years of gaming, I don't think I can remember a console reveal that has been received so poorly. The Wii U reveal at E3 may have been underwhelming, the famous PS3 reveal embarrassing, but neither inspired the same amount of disappointment and outright anger that Microsoft managed today.
I should know. I've been out there ranting on the forums with all the rest of you guys.
'But what if you want to bring a game disc to a friend's house and play there? You'll have to pay a fee—and not just some sort of activation fee, but the actual price of that game—in order to use a game's code on a friend's account. Think of it like a new game, Harrison said.'
The fact Microsoft's own support team are conflicting with what their corporate vice president is saying kind of implies that Microsoft have done-clusterfucked this issue. If they're not stomping on used game sales, then they'd just outright state it. No hassle, no bother. They'd just come out and say "Our console supports used games." The fact that they can't even put out a consistent message suggests they've got some kind of shenanigans going on behind the scenes. Shenanigans that don't bode well for us gamers who actually buy second-hand games on occasion.
Now, that's not what's got me worried. It's been clear for a while that a) Microsoft are ramping up on the corporate douchebag behaviour, and b) they're more interested Xbox being an entertainment centre than an actual games console. If they want to stomp on used games, then fine, they're free to do that. We're free to take our business elsewhere as result. My worry is about the PS4.
"But Titus" I hear you cry, "All Sony has to do is allow used game sales, and they'll automatically sell a bajillion more consoles than Microsoft."
See, now that's my main worry. If Sony allows used game sales.
"But Titus" you cry once again, "Sony have already said they're not going to stop used game sales."
...yeah, see, here's the thing. That's not quite what Sony said. When Gamespot interviewed the head of Sony Worldwide Studios a while back, Shuhei Yoshida, after the reveal of the PS4, they asked him to clarify Sony's position on used game sales. Specifically, they asked him whether second-hand games would require an activation code on the console. His answer?
"It's a publisher decision. We are not talking about it. Sorry."
That is not the same thing as saying the console won't crack down on used games. In fact, it's not even close to saying that. What Sony have essentially implied is that while they won't stomp down on used games, they will allow other publishers to do so if they so desire.
Now, here's where things start getting worrying. In a console ecosystem where one console doesn't play second-hand games and another does, the latter has got a huge advantage over the former. However, when you have got a console that cracks down on second-hand games, and another console that can crack down on used games, then that advantage disappears. Why? Because the publisher, if they so desire, can choose to crack down on both platforms. Both become equally valid platforms for pushing DRM. Whatever advantage the PS4 may have had would be undermined by publishers being free to engage in the same anti-consumer behaviour they get as standard on the Xbox One.
Remember all that brouhaha when rumours came out that EA was burning all its bridges with Nintendo over their refusal to allow Origin on Wii U? At the time, I was somewhat puzzled, as I wasn't sure what that meant for both Sony and Microsoft regarding the same. It didn't seem feasible that both companies would be actively trying to stomp down on used games and integrating DRM on their consoles as standard. Not when one company could drop said feature and get an instant marketing advantage over their competitor. Now, though, I think that puzzle is starting to piece together.
What we're likely to see is one console that enforces DRM on behalf of the publishers, and one that allows publishers to push their own DRM. And in both cases, the net result is the same for the publisher: they crack down on those used games they hate so much, and push this "games as a service" line even harder than they have hitherto done.
This would explain why EA are so nonchalant about abandoning the Wii U. They've essentially got two other platforms where they can bring in Origin and have complete control over the purchases of their consumers. If Sony had actually gone out of their way to make sure anti-consumer DRM wasn't a part of the PS4 architecture, then EA would have been faced with the choice of either betting their Origin schemes on a single horse, Microsoft, or abandoning them altogether. If Sony are letting them freely push their own DRM on PS4, then that gives them enough wiggle room to push the same strategy on two consoles and focus on making Origin a console service, even at the expense of having a presence on Nintendo's console.
This would also explain why Microsoft feel they could get away with such an anti-consumer practise. If Sony just came out and said "We're not going to let publishers piss all over gamers who buy or sell second-hand games", then that would literally give them every advantage over Xbox One. But Sony haven't come out and said that. Instead, they've chosen some very vague wording and an implication that DRM is based on third parties, rather than being built into the system.
Microsoft would have no reason to crack down on used game sales unless they felt Sony at least had a similar contingency. Publishers would have no reason to push for in-built DRM on one console unless there was at least a similar contingency on the other. If FIFA 14 is going to have DRM software on one console platform, then it would only make sense for EA to push to have similar DRM on the other leading console platform as well, right?
A lot of people are assuming that Microsoft handed the next generation to Sony on a platter today. I'm not so sure. I think based on everything we're seeing, the statements given by those in charge, the behaviour of certain publishers, what we're seeing is a move towards DRM on consoles, and an industry wide move on the part of publishers to try and bite into the used game market. Because if there's one thing I'm certain, this is all at the behest of publishers. Consoles that have built in DRM (Xbox One), or allow them to put up their own DRM (PS4) get support. Consoles that don't let them put up their own DRM (Wii U) get the shit hazed out of them.
At the very least, I would be hugely surprised if we don't hear more from Sony between now and release about what exactly they mean when they say "It's a publisher decision." And I would be very surprised if it's not a more bitter pill than gamers were initially expecting. If Microsoft go all in with in-built DRM, it's because that's what publishers have pushed them for. I cannot think of how those same publishers wouldn't have pushed Sony for the same thing, or for a similar alternative.
Cynical? Sure, I'm a character straight from a Raymond Chandler novel. But the last ten years of gaming for me have been nothing but an exercise in cynicism. Project $10, Ubisoft's always-online, and Xbox Live adverts took whatever optimism I may have had for the gaming industry, and kicked the shit out of it out in the back alley. The Xbox One reveal may have been one mother of a let-down, but I very much doubt the PS4 has been given the crown to Generation 8. I guess time will tell. I hope I'm wrong. But then, I hoped Dead Space 3 and Mass Effect 3 wouldn't require EA accounts to play online on consoles. And look what happened there.
If I were to try and truly render my cynicism on the issue, this is how I think it might sound...
"The cigarette smoke hovered around me like a lover's perfume. Stale, clinging, but with a scent I'd always savour. It was past midnight. I should have clocked out hours ago, but my friends Jack and Jim had kept me for an after-hours meeting. Five slugs already, and I was still seeing straight. It was going to be a long meeting. Really, I should have been charging overtime. My sense of charity is going to kill me one of these days...
The door swung open, and the dame walked in. And what a dame she was. First thing I noticed, she had a real thing for the number eight. Eight cores in that pretty little CPU of hers. Eight gigs of the fastest RAM money can buy. She said her name was PS4, and she needed my help with a problem. "Honey" I said, "We've all got problems. What makes me think I can fix yours?" Turns out, Madamoiselle PS4 has a cousin. Xbox One, the most successful whore out on 52nd street. Every night, she's pulling in the richest clients this city has to offer: EA, Ubisoft, Activision, the new bourgeois as I like to call 'em. Every night she's getting their cash like she's house-owner winning at the casino of life. Not just cash. There's rumours they're giving her marriage proposals, exclusivity deals, exclusive DLC... and all they're asking in return is for her to make a few calls, call in a few favours. There's some used sales been going on around 52nd, some games changing hands without cash flowing in the right directions, and they'd like to see 'em taken care of.
"And let me guess" I said. "They made the same proposal to you?"
If looks could kill, the look Madamoiselle PS4 gave me would have gotten her five life sentences in any court in America. "Whatever do you mean?"
"Ma'am" I said, "I ain't young anymore. I've been around the block, seen a few things. And if there's one think I know, it's when I'm talking to a whore. You're no high society lady, but you've got RAM so expensive I could mortgage my apartment on it. I bet you're down there on 52nd Street too, wowing the customers with your big round polygons and your tight little texture maps. Teasing all the boys with your pretty Killzone demos and your oh-so-revealing Diablo III announcements. And those monied men chatting up your cousin, I'll bet they tried to make exactly the same deal with you."
She looked at me with a wary eye. I could tell I'd got her spooked. But I could also tell I'd rumbled her. She was in the same business as Xbox One, selling the same wares, making money out of other people's pleasure. Professional intuition is a wonderful thing. Never let me down yet. She firmed her expression up, obviously trying to regain her footing. "And if that were true, what business is it of yours?"
"Well ma'am," I said, "I'm a professional private investigator. Finding answers is my business. And as a professional, I'm interested to know what your answer was."
She looked at me without blinking. I could tell she was a wily one, a regular street cat dressed up in a classy black outfit. I'd spooked her before, but now she had her composure back. The only sound was the soft crackle as I drew in on my smoke. Her answer came wrapped in a voice cool and uncompromising. "That," she said, "Is a publisher decision. I'm not talking about it."
What a dame! I knew right then and there, as soon as she said it, that this was a woman who would either make all your dreams come true, or leave your hopes crushed like broken glass in the gutter. And right then, my intuition failed me. I had no idea which she was. All I could do was pray she was the former, and fear she was the latter...