Microsoft's flip-flop on its controversial game licensing policy, which would have restricted game ownership on the Xbox One, is a well-deserved, albeit ephemeral, win for consumer rights.
Yes, thanks to vocal disdain for the anti-consumer policy (and applause for Sony's decision to maintain the status quo) on the internet, at press conferences and during late-night television talk shows, both next-generation consoles will launch with game licensing similar to that of current platforms: no recurring online authentication of your game library, with the freedom to trade and sell used games.
Microsoft's flip-flop is a well-deserved, albeit ephemeral, win for consumer rights.
That will change, both for the worse and for the better. Microsoft's shift in direction is the best proof of how, when it comes to DRM, even one of Earth's largest companies will find a way to be agile.
Microsoft fumbled the messaging, and its reversal on policy is the company taking a timeout to regroup on the sidelines. Many commentators were quick to begrudge the company for excising the few positive points of the original policy: the ability to share games with up to 10 family members; the freedom to maintain a game library in the cloud; and the ability to trade digital games, an option unavailable in any other digital marketplace.
Fret not: Those perks, and presumably more, will appear on the Xbox One. They are future leverage, the spoonful of sugar that will help the eventual DRM medicine go down.
When it comes to DRM, Earth's largest companies will find a way to be agile.
The same goes for Sony, whose consumer camaraderie is merely the positioning of public opinion. If Polygon ran a blind items section, you'd have seen a post about a certain first-party executive overheard on the day of his console announcement making sweeping changes to business strategy.
Both companies have been in a silent game of million-dollar chicken for months, hoping they'd agree to similar policy, and both have now balked, choosing to maintain the status quo for the time being. But in time, both will gradually tiptoe closer to Microsoft's original stance. Sorry, rental shops and retailers, your boisterous celebration and inflated stock values will be short-lived. There are simply too many third-party interests and too many long-term opportunities at play. The hand that feeds you intends to smother you in your sleep.
An always-online console, or at least a disc-free console, stymies piracy, sure, but more importantly, it rewards complete control of the marketplace to the console maker. Sony and Microsoft can cut out the stores, the distributors, the delivery trucks, the stocking warehouses and every other middleman that takes its part of a game's profit. The heads of these companies have seen the billion-dollar success of Apple's closed marketplace on iOS, and they will find a way to emulate it.
And here's the kind of, sort of, maybe good news: Both Sony and Microsoft know they're now competing for the best messaging of the DRM they will eventually enforce. The companies are motivated to make this digital shift — which is inevitable — as painless as possible. Now consumers should let the companies know what they want.
Sony and Microsoft are competing for the best messaging.
The ability to trade digital games, lower prices for digital software, subscription services à la Netflix, family sharing, an always-accessible digital game library, digital game lending: these are just a few of the options Microsoft and Sony can consider to incentivize consumers to choose their platform.
I suspect both companies assumed DRM was too complicated, too nitty-gritty for the average consumer. They're right, the term itself is frustrating and obtuse. But everyone understands what it means to sell a used game or lend a game to a friend. Everyone will know what it means to have those options taken away. The battle of DRM is more clearly defined as the the battle for ownership.
Whichever company loses, we should stand to win.