I have to admit, it was exciting. It was a kick watching "evil" Microsoft get their ass handed to them by gamer-loving "good guys" Sony. Sure, that was a gross oversimplification: It was really just two profit-minded corporations duking it out. But last week's E3 provided the sort of dramatic, good-vs-evil narrative that we rarely get anymore.
Today, Microsoft did the right thing. They listened to consumers and finally acted like the good guy. And that's not just a PR win for Microsoft. It's a win for everyone.
Earlier this afternoon Microsoft's Don Mattrick announced a sweeping, unprecedented about-face for the Xbox One's controversial and unpopular DRM policies. Among the policy changes he announced: You won't have to connect your Xbox One to the internet every 24 hours to play games. You can loan physical games to your friends. You can play the Xbox One in any country. And you can buy and sell used games.
In other words, in a lot of ways it'll work just like the Xbox 360. Hooray! Things are staying the same.
It's not all rainbows and sunshine. The neat-sounding "family share" plan, which would let you license up to 10 Xbox Ones to play your games, iTunes-style, is also no more. You also won't be able to have your full game library travel with you. We've no word yet on whether or not indie developers will be able to self-publish on the Xbox One like they can on the PS4, nor on the system's onerous Kinect camera requirement. And the Xbox One still costs $100 more than a PS4, though a Microsoft spokesperson told Kotaku today that, "We are very confident with the value we provide at $499 and the unparalleled, all in one games and entertainment experience that Xbox One offers."
But even taking all of that into account, it's a massive turnaround for Microsoft and the Xbox One. "Xbox 180," indeed.
The Xbox One makers were doubtless driven to make these decisions by last week's E3, where a feisty Sony directly took on Microsoft's DRM policies during Sony's E3 press conference. Sony's Jack Tretton stood on a stage and proudly announced that the PS4 would support used games and, in a direct shot at Microsoft, wouldn't have to check in online every 24 hours. The crowd went apeshit. Then
Tretton Sony's Andrew House announced the PS4's price at $399, $100 lower than Xbox One, and all but dropped the mic while walking off stage. In a manner of minutes, Sony "won" E3.
Microsoft's swift(ish) response is welcome, if overdue. Ever since the Xbox One was first announced in May, it's felt like watching the gang who couldn't shoot straight. And one of the worst parts, as someone who really likes cool video games, has been knowing that there would doubtless be some neat stuff going on with the Xbox One, but that that stuff would keep being overshadowed by Microsoft's idiotic DRM policies. Now, hopefully, we'll get to start talking about the interesting things the Xbox One can do, rather than talking about all the stuff we wish it didn't.
At E3, there were some really cool things going on in Microsoft's booth, but no one was talking about them. Project Spark sounds like a fascinating idea, but I've seen next to no one talking about it. As I sat there in a back room of the Xbox E3 booth watching an absolutely batshit (in the best way) demo of SWERY's episodic mystery game D4, I couldn't help but think, "Dude, there's some good stuff happening on Xbox One!" But nope, no one wanted to hear about it. And with good reason. As long as Microsoft kept on going as they had been, there's a good chance no one would've.
Today's decision, like the original decision to add DRM, was doubtless made so that Microsoft will make more money. Sony's decisions were made for the same reason. Both of these companies are competing for your dollars, and in theory, both of them want to give you a reason to buy their box over their competitor's box. Today, it seemed like Microsoft finally figured out that the best way to convince consumers to buy their product is, well, to make consumers think you care about them in the first place.
It remains to be seen what kind of impact the various Twitter campaigns and negative press had on Microsoft, and what exactly drove them to make this decision. And not to sound crazy cynical or anything, but it's a safe bet both Sony and Microsoft (and Nintendo, and any other gaming company or publisher) will continue to try to get as much money out of their customers as they can get away with.
Competition between the console makers may once again concern itself with who is doing the most things that customers want, rather than the fewest things customers don't want.
But today's reversal levels the playing field substantially, and that's great news for everyone. Soon Sony will once again have to say, "Well, sure, the Xbox One has this feature, but now we're gonna have that feature!" And Microsoft can counter with some other feature. (And Nintendo can say, "Yeah, but check out this new Zelda game!") And competition between the console makers may once again concern itself with who is doing the most things that customers want, rather than the fewest things customers don't want.
(And hey, maybe now all of those companies can start to come up with reasons we shouldn't just buy a living-room PC or a Steambox. I'm waiting to hear it, guys…)
It'd be hasty to say that Microsoft is out of the woods. They're the ones who got themselves into this mess, after all, and they did so fairly recently. The company seems to lack the sort of leadership that would've stopped this kind of clusterfuck from transpiring in the first place. From the moment the Xbox One was announced, its messaging has been a mess of corporate-speak, contradictions and vaguely menacing obfuscations, wandering around aimlessly and pissing off everyone it stumbles into.
Compared to Microsoft, Sony appears poised and ready, a company with seemingly strong leadership and a number of clearly defined goals. They've set out to win over developers and land exclusive games and content, they have a robust indie recruitment strategy, and they seem to take their customers very seriously. (Or, at the very least, they take courting their customers very seriously.) Microsoft, with their bumbling TV-TV-Sports-Call of Duty announcement event, weird pre-E3 info-dump and let's-not-mention-the-elephant-in-the-room E3 press conference seems to be more of a leaderless bureaucracy.
So I'm certainly not ready to start putting money on Microsoft just yet. That said, with a single press release, they've pushed themselves off the ropes and gotten back into the fight. Maybe now they'll start throwing punches of their own, telling us in clear language why their console is better than Sony's. (And will Nintendo get involved? Or are they content to stand outside the ring, doing their own thing as they have for almost a decade?)
It's been exciting watching Sony kick Microsoft's ass, but a fair fight will be better for everyone in the long run. Grab your popcorn, this should be fun.
To contact the author of this post, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter @kirkhamilton.