Today's surprise announcement, a nearly complete reversal of a set of policies almost universally hated by gamers, comes with a price, said Marc Whitten, corporate vice president of Xbox Live, in an interview with Polygon today.
Those unpopular policies, which required online checks and limited the resale and use of used games, were tied to what Whitten called Microsoft's vision of the future, a future the console won't exactly be able to embrace with these changes.
The new Xbox One secondhand game policy is identical to that of the Xbox 360, and users won't have to check in over the internet at all in order to play offline single-player games. Microsoft also said today that all Xbox One games will be region-free, a reversal of its policy on Xbox 360. Physical copies of games will behave exactly as they do now with the 360, but without a region lock.
But gone now is the ability to share a game library among up to 10 family members, Whitten said. Gone too is the ability to roam, popping into a friend's house without a copy of your game and simply downloading it from the cloud to play. While games will still have to be installed, the disc will have to be in the tray for the game to function, a system which verifies a gamer owns the title they're playing.
"While we are adding in the ability to use physical discs, we still believe in the power of a digital and cloud-powered future played out at launch and rolled out over time."
Despite the pullback on Microsoft's take on the future of gaming, the company is still working to lean into both digital and cloud-based gaming, he said.
For instance, when you go to a friend's house to play a game, you'll have to install the game on their console. If they decide they want to buy the game after you leave, they'll just have to pay for it online. The previously installed copy will function immediately like a digital copy, but without the need for another download. All games will still be released as download copies day and date with retail stores, Whitten said.
"While we are adding in the ability to use physical discs, we still believe in the power of a digital and cloud-powered future played out at launch and rolled out over time," Whitten said. "You are going to see us invest a ton in all of the ways digital builds experiences."
In making those favorable changes, Microsoft also removed the previously announced ability for users to play games without the disc in the console's drive. Under the old policy, that would have been possible once the game had been installed to the system's hard drive. Microsoft had also outlined a family sharing plan that would have allowed each user to share their library of Xbox One games with up to 10 family members. Users also would have been able to log in to their account on any Xbox One console and instantly have their library available to them.
Another feature drawn into question with the policy change is the Xbox One's use of cloud-based processing. During E3, Microsoft officials touted the cloud's ability to amp up a game's look and feel. The policy change means that consoles will no longer have to check in online, meaning that an internet connection for the console, beyond the set-up, isn't required.
Whitten said that Microsoft still plans to make full use of cloud processing for appropriate experiences.
"We want and expect most people to take advantage of those things, but we also want to give people the choice that they can play offline."
"You have to be connected [for cloud processing to work]," he said. "All of the things that require the internet will require the console to connect. We want and expect most people to take advantage of those things, but we also want to give people the choice that they can play offline."
Whitten said it will be up to third-party publishers to decide whether they will require an online connection for their games, either because it has an online experience or because they need to utilize cloud-based processing.
With a sudden and drastic change in policy, I asked Whitten how sure gamers can be that Microsoft won't change things again before launch this fall.
"There are our policies and we are really excited about them," he said. "By adding them we have shown that we are definitely listening."
Now that the Xbox One policies more closely match those of the PlayStation 4, is it possible that the price will also see a match, dropping from $499 to $399?
"On the price we feel strongly that we are delivering an immense value in gaming and entertainment," he said.
It's clear that this was a move made in reaction to the blowback from gamers, but why was it so long in coming? The E3 reaction was just a continuation of the reaction to the console's unveiling.
Whitten agreed, but said Microsoft officials wanted to finish explaining themselves before changing their policy.
"What we wanted to do was tell our complete story," he said. "We knew our complete story was partially told at the Xbox One unveil and partially told at E3. We wanted to put our story out there and show the great games we have coming. We did that and people gave us a ton of feedback."
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