Rumor About Xbox One Family-Sharing's Downsides Has Flaws of Its Own [UPDATE: Microsoft Debunks]

We prefer to report on rumors that we can prove are true or outright debunk, but sometimes we get the ones we have to address without being able to say with certainty one way or the other. Enough of you ask about it; we need to tell you what's up, as best we can.

The hot rumor in question started swirling yesterday when an anonymous, supposed member of Microsoft's Xbox One development team dumped a heartfelt note on Pastebin about Microsoft's dramatic DRM about-face. The Pastebin author lamented the hard work done by Microsoft to prepare for its original vision of an Xbox One that restricted gamer's rights with game discs and expanded digital rights in exchange. The Pastebin writer then dropped this bombshell about the console's since-shelved family sharing plan (emphasis added by me):

The premise is simple and elegant, when you buy your games for Xbox One, you can set any of them to be part of your shared library. Anyone who you deem to be family had access to these games regardless of where they are in the world. There was never any catch to that, they didn't have to share the same billing address or physical address it could be anyone. When your family member accesses any of your games, they're placed into a special demo mode. This demo mode in most cases would be the full game with a 15-45 minute timer and in some cases an hour. This allowed the person to play the game, get familiar with it then make a purchase if they wanted to. When the time limit was up they would automatically be prompted to the Marketplace so that they may order it if liked the game. We were toying around with a limit on the number of times members could access the shared game (as to discourage gamers from simply beating the game by doing multiple playthroughs). but we had not settled on an appropriate way of handling it. One thing we knew is that we wanted the experience to be seamless for both the person sharing and the family member benefiting. There weren't many models of this system already in the wild other than Sony's horrendous game sharing implementation, but it was clear their approach (if one could call it that) was not the way to go. Developers complained about the lost sales and gamers complained about overbearing DRM that punished those who didn't share that implemented by publishers to quell gamers from taking advantage of a poorly thought out system. We wanted our family sharing plan to be something that was talked about and genuinely enjoyed by the masses as a way of inciting gamers to try new games.

That hit on Thursday, just one day after Microsoft reversed its DRM policy and finally gotten the console out of the state of confusion it'd been in for weeks. There we were—those of us who had been paying attention to what Microsoft had been promising for the Xbox One—confused again.

Family sharing was only going to be limited to 45-minute glorified demos? Didn't they say... wouldn't they... what? How? Did they really? We all missed that?

UPDATE: Spare yourself the tedium of reading any more of the words written here. Just read these Tweets and consider the Pastebin rumor demolished by these two top Xbox execs.

@lx_KillFace_xl There was no time limit, it was as we described. Team still investing in more digital features over time.

— Aaron Greenberg (@aarongreenberg) June 21, 2013

And

@EvilFiek No, that would be silly. Don't believe everything you read online!

— Marc Whitten (@notwen) June 21, 2013

See, Family-Sharing was always cool after all. The rest of the original story follows...

Until that Pastebin hit, we at Kotaku and anyone else who talked about the Xbox One's family sharing plan assumed that Microsoft intended to let families—groups of 10 people, technically—share full access to games, with just one catch: only the head of household and any one family member could be playing the same game at any time.

This was cool.

Even our crotchety outlet, in the midst of baking the Xbox One in flames a couple of weeks ago, couldn't help but admit that this sounded awesome. It also looked like a big wink from Microsoft: give up your ability to lend games and sell them back to anyone other than "participating retailers," but, you know, you can share them with your, uh, family.

Just last night, I wrote about a crew of Xbox fans who were actually disappointed by Microsoft's DRM flip and wanted to surrender some of their disc-game rights in order to have the originally-pitched family-sharing plan. These people were severely bummed, but probably wouldn't be if the family-sharing they were giving up was limited to the weak, 45-minute demos described by the Pastebin writer.

So what's the truth?

Microsoft would know, but they're not offering an official comment, a spokesperson told me when I started inquiring. Darn. Makes sense, though, right? If the plan was as great as it seemed, they may not be in the mood to remind people that it's no longer announced for the Xbox One. And if it's as bad as the Pastebin person put it, it would make Microsoft look like bad for letting people believe it was far cooler than it really was.

The rumor gained momentum yesterday on the gaming message board NeoGAF, largely, it seems, because of a comment from a user called Crazy Buttocks On a Train who'd correctly predicted some of Microsoft's Xbox One E3 press conference announcements. In a thread about the Pastebin he'd chimed in with "60sigh—", which was taken by other forum members to be a confirmation of a 60-minute family share time limit. I've reached out to Mr. Train for more insight. If he shares, I'll let you know.


The problem with the plan presented in the Pastebin document is that it appears to be nearly useless.


As best as I can tell, there's been no better corroboration for the Pastebin rumor, and so we have something of a war between the aspects of the Pastebin plan that appear to make no sense and the lingering question of, wow, Microsoft would really have tried something this annoying?

The problem with the plan presented in the Pastebin document is that it appears to be nearly useless. Say what you will about the now-scuttled plans to require disc registration and even a 24-hour online check-in, but at least Microsoft could argue that those were needed to track licenses and enable gamers to have different types of access to and flexibility with their games.

I just can't get past these two huge flaws with the pastebin plan:

  • Why would Microsoft offered timed demos only to family groups? Or, to flip that, on a console where demos are likely to be offered for many games, what added value would a gamer get by being in my "family"? Access to a wider swath of demos?
  • And why would Microsoft limit access to these supposed timed-demos to only two family members at a time? What could possibly be the harm in letting all 10 members of a "family" play the same 45-minute demo simultaneously?

In lieu of a new, clear response from Microsoft about the family-sharing plan, you'd think we'd be able to resolve this by simply referring back to Microsoft's policy description of its family-sharing plan or to interviews with Microsoft officials about it.

Here's the official Microosft description:

Xbox One will enable new forms of access for families. Up to ten members of your family can log in and play from your shared games library on any Xbox One. Just like today, a family member can play your copy of Forza Motorsport at a friend’s house. Only now, they will see not just Forza, but all of your shared games. You can always play your games, and any one of your family members can be playing from your shared library at a given time.

Let's check out some interviews, shall we?

From Ars Technica's interview with Xbox 's Yusuf Mehdi:

Since its announcement, there has been some confusion over the details of sharing your Xbox One game library with up to ten "family members." Mehdi couldn't give comprehensive details, but he did clarify some things. (...) You'll be able to link other Xbox Live accounts as having shared access to your library when you first set up a system and will also be able to add them later on (though specific details of how you manage these relationships is still not being discussed). The only limitation, it seems, is that only one person can be playing the shared copy of a single game at any given time. All in all, this does sound like a pretty convenient feature that's more workable than simply passing discs around amongst friends who are actually in your area.

From YouTuber Angry Joe's chat with Xbox's Major Nelson:

Major Nelson: "There's certainly a lot of scenarios that this enables and I'm sure that our audience is going to get very creative. For instance, if I had a son and he was away to college, if I bought Halo—the next Halo—I could drop it in, call him, and say "Hey, go ahead and download it if you wanna check it out." 'Cause you have to remember: everything is digital, it's in the Cloud...That's the benefit of our approach and the architecture of the system."

(Listen a little further into Angry Joe's interview and Major Nelson makes a point of saying that you'd only have been gifting Xbox One games to people who were outside of family plan, as if being in one wouldn't require gifting. Hmmm.)

Each time, we're so close to getting clarity, right? And yet each time, it's narrowly missed. It's like we were all trying to solve a whodunnit and we all forgot to ask what color shoes the murderer was wearing. And the color of the shoes turned out to really matter. Bad simile? You get the idea.

Here's one more interview. This is me with head of Microsoft Studios, Phil Spencer. This is an expanded transcript of what I posted on Monday, the interview conducted last week at E3 before the policy flip. Note the mention of music-sharing. Man, we were so close to pre-debunking this...

Spencer: The other thing I would [point to] is my family and their ability to have access to that content.

Kotaku: The 10-people thing, right?

Spencer: Yeah, that's right.

Kotaku: And who can be in this family? Anybody? Can we be in the same family?

Spencer: Yeah.

Kotaku: What would be the limitation on that? Because it seems like that would be the way to get around this stuff, to just make my nine friends family.

Spencer: We think that's the advantage. Now, the family-sharing... go through the documents and the post. This is why you have to have the other side of the kind of nuts and bolts about how the policy works. But I do think that sharing in a family group is an important part of the positives in our ecosystem. When I buy songs, MP3 files and I put them on a server, my daughters can also listen to those songs. They have access to them. Think about our library of content...it is something that we want to be sharing. You don't have to send in your birth certificate. You define what a family unit is and the people who connect to you and how that library works. Your family has access to that library.

Kotaku: So I could buy an Xbox One game and by putting you in my family you could therefore not have to buy it. The restriction would be that only one of us could be playing it at a time? Or do I get rights because I'm the head of household to play no matter what?

Spencer: So, you should go and read the...

Kotaku: When I read it, it read as if the person who sets it up always could play their games...

Spencer: That's right.

Kotaku: ... because it says you have access to games at at any time, but that members of family can only play...

Spencer: That's right.

Kotaku: So I'm understanding it correctly?

Spencer: You're understanding it correctly.

Kotaku: At most, two people will be able to play at any one time.

Spencer: The concurrency, yes.

Kotaku: And I think that's one of the one where people go, 'Oh, that's a nice thing.'

Spencer: I think so as well. Well, it's not really about what I think.

He doesn't outright say it, but it sure seems like we're talking about sharing full games, no? It's difficult to imagine that, throughout this conversation, he's only talking about 45-minute demos. I'll happily eat some crow if proven wrong.

Some will look at all of these interviews and find no contradictions to the Pastebin plan. They'll believe that all these Microsoft officials, fired up to present what they already knew would be a partially unpalatable Xbox One DRM strategy, willfully let people believe that their "family" would get access to entire games on Xbox One when in fact they'd be getting access to a lunch break's worth. They'll believe that Microsoft allowed us to think that they were going to let families borrow books when they were really only going to let families tear out a page or two and pass those around.

Microsoft has earned our skepticism on itself, but, call me naive, I'm just not buying this Pastebin plan. What I am buying is that timed access may have been part of the overall Xbox One strategy. Maybe for everyone. Maybe for a lower tier of family-sharing (could there have been silver and gold versions?).

Ultimately, I want all of you who care about the Xbox One's future to know what the truth is and to know whether that family plan, as we thought it was formulated, has a shot at coming back. So many of you asked me about this on the site and on Twitter that I wanted to address it, and I apologize for not being able to give you a succinct answer. At least know that I'm extremely skeptical of the Pastebin description.

Microsoft, this week, remained committed to a digital gaming future of some sort. Should they bring family-sharing back, let's hope they bring back the version that we thought we were getting. That's the one we thought we were talking about. That's the one that sounded pretty good.

To contact the author of this post, write to stephentotilo@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @stephentotilo