This has been an interesting year for gaming consoles. Both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were announced to huge fanfare, but it wasn’t polygons or frame rates that attracted the most attention. Instead, DRM has been the biggest point of contention leading up to the launch of the next-gen hardware. Microsoft came out strongly in favour of an all-digital future, but ended up being sent home with its tail between its legs. Now we’re in something of a holding pattern – one that isn’t likely to change any time soon.
Initially, the Xbox One was something of a mess. It was locked down in a number of confusing ways, and Microsoft had a difficult time explaining all of the intricacies to the general public. After a series of foot-in-mouth moments, Redmond executed its now-infamous policy change. This dramatic update removed online check-in and game sharing features meaning that, like the PS4, the Xbox One is largely staying the course set by the preceding consoles.
Both the Xbox One and PS4 will allow unfettered access to any disc-based content. You can borrow, trade, and sell your physical games as you see fit, and that’s fine. The situation is more complicated on the digital distribution side. Much like the current Xbox 360 setup, the Xbox One will allow unlimited access to any of your downloaded games on your primary device. Whether you’re online or off, the console you used to buy a piece of content has permission to play the games no matter what. In fact, other users can log in and earn separate achievement points from your games.
Unfortunately, the problems begin when you add more than one console to the mix. You can always download and play your purchased titles on any console, but you’ll need to be signed into your online account. If you have more than one Xbox One in your home, you’ll need to keep at least one of those connected to the Internet to play your non-disc games.
The PS4 may be a little more versatile in this respect. The legalese attached to the upcoming PS4 title Knack notes that downloads can work with “up to 2 console systems that are associated with the purchasing account.” This sounds like PS4 downloads will work just like they currently do on the PS3; two people can share a game, so long as their consoles share a PSN account. However, there’s a chance that this is just left over from PS3 legalese, and Sony hasn’t yet remembered to remove it.
Sony also offers Cross-Buy games (purchase a Cross-Buy game once, it works on both the PS4 and PS Vita), as well as Remote Play. While those two features don’t normally fall under the umbrella of DRM, being able to play a game on an entirely different piece of hardware does, which is what both features allow you to do.
If you’re headed to a friend’s house with spotty Wi-Fi, maybe it’s better if you just brought the whole console with you. None of this is a deal-breaker for most people, but it does – once again – make digitally distributed goods substantially less versatile than games on physical discs. No lending, borrowing, or trading download-only games with friends – and we largely have ourselves to blame for that. This could be exactly the future that Microsoft hoped to avoid.
The outcry Microsoft faced with its initial Xbox One plans has maintained consumer rights on physical items, but really set back progress on flexibility with digital games. Hopefully, Valve’s Family Sharing and EA’s refund programs will set a positive precedent that Sony and Microsoft can latch onto at some point in the future. Until then, discs will remain the best choice for console gamers.