Thoughts on the Xbox One's DRM

There's been a huge kerfuffle over the new Xbox's "draconian" DRM policies. And the fact that Sony has apparently avoided implementing any significant changes to the way console game DRM works is indeed a win for them, at least for gamers used to the status quo.

However, I really think Microsoft's approach makes the most sense technically and is the most forward-looking.

Why DRM?

This probably goes without saying, but I think we can agree that DRM (whether online or disc-based) is a necessary evil to fight piracy and protect and encourage the investment of game developers in producing games. While not perfect, DRM seems to be the best way to achieve this with today's technology.

There are a couple related topics worth addressing here:

  1. We need to acknowledge the fundamental difference between purchasing the bits of a digital download (be it a song, movie, or game) and purchasing the *right* to use that download. Legally, we were always buying the right to use the product, the fact that it came with physical media was just a technical necessity (and one which conveniently limited piracy by making it require costly duplication). The internet, however, makes the distribution of the bits much easier and scale-able and no longer an effective way to tie the distribution of the bits to the purchase of the right to use them. Disc-based DRM is an attempt to maintain that legacy relationship between the physical media and the right to use, and one that has worked reasonably well, but it's an artifact of pre-internet distribution models. Online DRM breaks free from this constraint and better reflects the true state of things - that you are purchasing the right to use the file, regardless of how you acquired it.
  2. Why has legal digital music distribution succeeded without DRM?
    1. I'd argue DRM has been a bigger problem for music partly because music, unlike movies and games, is usually enjoyed on many devices with lots of repeat use. DRM on movies and especially games is less of an issue because they tend to be enjoyed on specific devices which are known to support the DRM technology.
    2. I'd also argue that music DRM has been less necessary for the music sales model because the cost of music is low enough and the ease of legally acquiring music is much higher than piracy (and the quality, meta-tagging, etc. is more consistent). With games, the up-front cost is much higher, the volume somewhat lower, and the target audience is more tech-savvy, so piracy is likely to comprise a higher percentage of total distribution if effective DRM is not in place. Also, for music, some of the piracy concerns are being negated by the popularity of streaming services which are effectively DRM-based and which drive the cost down further while simultaneously making it easier to use. Movies have largely skipped the download-based distribution model and are increasingly moving in a streaming direction, too, I think also for the reason that it allows DRM to be implemented in a way that customers don't mind (they don't "own" the streamed song, so there's less opposition to the idea) and which makes for a great experience and value.

Why Disc-based DRM is the Status Quo

As touched on above, the fact that so many console games today have "disc-based DRM" is a relic of a past where internet connectivity and bandwidth was not ubiquitous. It is no different than music CDs and movie DVDs/blu-rays. And just as music has become almost entirely distributed online and movies aren't far behind, I believe even "hardcore" game distribution in the future will look far more like Steam and the existing Xbox/Playstation download stores than the current model of physically delivering a plastic, scratchable disc. And just as second-hand music stores have largely died, and physical movie rental/resale shops are in decline, the same will inevitably happen to stores like GameStop. Like it or not, this is the direction we're going, and yes, some things we're used to will have to be sacrificed.

Sony seems to be taking the easy "don't rock the boat" approach for now, sticking with disc-based DRM which is a known quantity to gamers and least likely to cause frustrations or growing pains. And that's an understandable position, and one that I recognize will appeal to a lot of gamers who've been burned by immature online DRM.

The Future

I think Microsoft, more than anyone else in the "serious" game space, is not only embracing the idea of detaching the right to use from the distribution media, but thinking of ways to make this model more customer-friendly than the existing approaches which have largely locked the use of that license to a single user (ie, Steam and the various App Stores).

Steam has been a great success on the desktop because it has combined ease of use, reliability, and good prices to deliver both serious and casual games via direct downloads and online DRM. Who's to say this same model can't work on the console? The fact that console games have been rentable, shareable, and resellable is a tradition, yes, and a nice feature. But if you ask me it doesn't make sense to stick with disc-based distribution just because people don't like change. Microsoft, for its part, is trying to bring some of these same benefits of the old model to the modern, online-based distribution model, and I think that's admirable.

Will there be challenges, both with technical implementation and consumer perception? Yes. But I think where they're going can be a much better world - one where purchasing games is as convenient as buying a song is today, where sharing that with friends can be done by just remembering your account password (or maybe by clicking a button without even being on the same continent as your friend), and perhaps where you can get money back simply for deactivating a game license (something not currently possible with any online DRM schemes I am aware of). Will some industries and use cases be rendered obsolete? Yes. But that's the case with every technological advancement. We'll survive and adapt, and in 10 years we'll probably look back at the way we used to distribute games in the same way that we reminisce about going to the music store to buy a new CD.