After a couple of weeks of pussyfooting around and pretending that rules which clearly would have needed to be drawn up months ago were not actually quite ready yet, Microsoft has unleashed its licensing and connectivity outline for the Xbox One upon the world.
It’s a draconian set of principles, plucked from the dampest of publisher wet dreams and designed to remove or alter almost every level of control that a player previously had over their console games.
“But wait,” ask many Xbox players, pushed face-to-face with monstrous digital DRM for the first time. “Isn’t this just the same as Steam?”
Well, in some straightforwards ways, yes. In many other (rather important) ways; no, not even close.
Here’s where the two are kind of the same:
(1). Both Xbox One and Steam tie games to a user account. Once activated, they sit in your digital library and have restrictions on what you can actually do with them.
(2). Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
Here’s how they differ:
(1). Let’s start with the one minor way in which Xbox One’s system is actually more positive than Steam. You can (albeit in a absurdly limited way) re-sell or trade your games; if a publisher allows it, and only at “participating retailers.” It also seems to be possible to give a game to a friend as a one-time transfer. On Steam you can only ‘gift’ games at the time of purchase, or by passing on spare, unused codes.
(2). Ok, now the biggies. Steam won’t stop you playing the games you own if you lose internet access for more than 24 hours. Xbox One has to phone home every day. When functioning as intended (and yes, it’s only fair to say that there have been issues with this,) Steam will let you play games in offline mode indefinitely. If your internet connection is down then you (obviously) won’t be playing much multiplayer or redownloading something from your library, but everything else will work as it should.
That’s a pretty huge difference. Unreliable internet, which only affects … ooh, I don’t know, most of the world that isn’t a major urban area in the United States … doesn’t prevent Steam gaming.
(3). Sales, man. Nobody really likes the fact that Steam ties a game to a lone account and prevents you from selling, trading or doing much of anything with it post-purchase, but the policy is tolerated (in part) because PC digital platforms hold so many regular sales. There is vast, open competition between Steam, Amazon, GOG, Green Man Gaming and the myriad of other digital sellers out there. Hell, even Origin manages a halfway-decent sale every now and then.
A used game market for PC titles has kind of faded into irrelevance, because it’s possible to pick up even major releases for about $5.00-$10.00 USD a mere six months after they come out.
I’m not going to try to predict how Xbox One pricing will evolve in the futu … actually, you know what, yes I am. The exact same closed market of retailers who are selling console games now will still be selling them once the Xbox One is released. Do you think they’ll have a sudden change of heart about their business model and start slashing those $60.00 USD prices? No, neither do I.
(4). Unlike Xbox Live, Steam does not require an ongoing membership fee to access the full extent of its features. Xbox One is going to literally make you pay to not be allowed to do things with your games. Welcome to the glorious connected future.
(5). PC digital is a wacky, wild wasteland of fun. We have to put up with a fair amount of DRM nonsense on PC, it’s true. But that’s offset by all the benefits: modding, indie bundles, alpha/beta tests, variable pricing models. You’ve got everything on PC, from DRM models to rival Xbox One’s (hi there, SimCity) to digital platforms that are 100% DRM free (‘sup, GOG.)
Hopefully that clears up some of the confusion, and provides a handy set of retorts for the next time someone says “But Xbox One is just the same as Steam! Why are people upset?”
“Yes,” you can reply. “It is the same. Except for all of the ways in which it is completely different.”