Below are a few things I feel are on the horizon with video games in general, some of it being paved by Microsoft but others have been a long time coming. My evolving opinion on this matter is based on the most current information; at the time of this writing, about the direction for Xbox One and how it plans to treat games and the people who consume it.
Have any of you ever vacationed in a log cabin somewhere? Sure, by day you go do the outdoors thing; fishing, hiking, biking, swing from ropes into the river and ride an inflatable donut down the stream. But what do you do when the sun goes down? Some people roast marsh mellows and play their guitar while others choose to huddle up inside and indulge in a little something that reminds them of the world that waits outside of that cabin in the woods. Some people just like to sit in front of a small television monitor and play and converse about games, much like they would around that fire pit. With the inclusion of this connected world, it is at the exclusion of what some people would consider a past-time for them and their families and friends.
The old saying goes that you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Playing your games anywhere at anytime are two eggs sitting by the pan right now.
Though used games will not completely disappear Microsoft has found a way to make money from second-hand sales of games. The latest approach seems to imply that used game retailers like GameStop will need to integrate Microsoft's proprietary software into their own systems. This new software will allow resellers to wipe clean any permissions that may exist and sell the game just as they did before. After permissions have been wiped, any installs of that game that exist on consumer hard drives will be bricked copies that can be reactivated by repurchasing a new license. This is very likely part of that "every 24 hours" check that Microsoft is talking about. It's very possible that games will have their licenses refreshed every 24 hours until that license has been invalidated by a retailer or migrated to a new user. If the license fails to refresh (as a result of no internet access) then it is likely that the game will not be able to boot. The games themselves are not likely hindered by no internet, but the Operating System (OS) is probably handling the license checks prior to booting the executable, or a special sector has been injected to the executable at compile-time to manage the rights.
All of this suggests that Microsoft could open the platform to consumers, allowing them to resell their own game licenses away to other Xbox users, for a likely cut of 30-40% of the sale price. It does raise suspicions that Microsoft is working to muscle out GameStop by allowing them to integrate this resellers software, only to cut them out of the picture entirely once their own "real money" market opens up on LIVE. Given that is all my own speculation, I don't know what the likelihood may be and I don't know how to feel about it until I hear these sentiments from the mouth of someone at Microsoft. Until then I only say this, GameStop is in trouble and Microsoft is positioned to make a lot of money with an Amazon-like real money market integrated into LIVE.
I would expect all of this to be behind a Gold/Platinum Membership pay-wall of course.
I would caution Microsoft with rushing this tactic. If GameStop and other used game outlets catch wind while resellers still have a leg to stand on then cutting all Microsoft products off of their shelves (or drastically reducing their presence to a kiosk to avoid contractual issues) would be a huge setback in this race for consumer mind share. We all know that everyone is chasing the Steam dream, and this is a probable incarnation that Microsoft is planning to execute.
When I was young (you are probably going to hear this a lot) and broke, I made agreements with my friends. We all received different games on our birthdays and Christmas, so we coordinated into a trading ring. I hand over Ninja Gaiden for a week and he introduces me to Metroid. I let a friend play my Final Fantasy game and he let me play his Contra. There are so many amazing games I would have never even known about without this trading ring. And if I had not played those games in my prime of consumption then I would not have the same respect and excitement for them today. I wouldn't smile when I hear the title music to Contra, or the classic Capcom jingle and how that reminds me of my countless hours of Street Fighter II for SNES. Both were games I discovered by borrowing from a friend and eventually buying for myself.
How many of us out there would trust a friend to borrow a game we've purchased? Of those friends, how many would you trust with your bank accounting information, social security number, and mother's maiden name? This seems to be the mental leap that Xbox One is asking us to take by locking games to a users profile. If we are now unable to indefinitely loan our personal goods to another individual then we've lost a major method of product discovery. Certainly we could tell our friend, "you should buy this game," but there is no message more powerful than handing our disk to that friend and saying, "play this game".
I never used GameFly but I was big into renting games at a young age, when I had more time than money. I remember going to this little run down Mom&Pop rental store in a seemingly abandoned shopping center that was loaded with video games. I grew up in a not-so-nice part of town so it was always an adventure to get there, crossing the street if you saw a deal going down on the corner ahead, or avoiding eye contact with that weird strung out lady who always hung out on the same street every day. In spite of the dangers, it was the place to go because the Blockbusters and other major chains of that time had not really embraced video games yet.
Today services like GameFly offer a safer alternative to what most of us probably had to do as children to rent a video game. Game rentals are not always money in the pockets of publishers and developers but I wonder how many of us would have followed this career path if we couldn't have played dozens of games for the price of maybe two. How many of us would have been paying customers of high end goods and services today if it wasn't for the handouts that rentals had given us back then, when money was tight?
If game rentals go away then we may be seeing the early onset of an even bigger gaming recession in 10-20 years when the cash-strapped children of today grow up to be young professionals and find themselves buying things other than video games. They will because they don't have that feverish nostalgic affection for an industry that they were barely exposed to outside of some toilet squatting distractions on their smart phone and a couple of crappy discount games that Grammy bought them for Christmas. If progress stays the course, they probably won't even be able to trade those games in towards a good game which means it was money spent and lost.
I frequently go to websites like GameInformer.com where they have a long library of short Let's Play (LP) style videos but of classic games. I love that there are people out there doing this because it helps me put my memories into perspective. Was Link to the Past or Ninja Gaiden really as good as I remember? Yes, yes they were! Can watching this video inspire me to break out the dusty old console or even buy them again WiiU Virtual Console? Absolutely!
One of my largest concerns with the direction that is being taken with Xbox One, and much of the industry, is that this brave new connected world also means that we are giving up on the classics. We all know that there is a magic number for every single connected game on the current and future market. That magic number is a product of the amount of money a game is producing, the server resources required to run the game, and the man-power needed to keep it operational. If all of those values add up to a negative income expect a press release of servers being shut down. That is simple internet business and you don't stay in business by being charitable with your services.
But what then will happen to the cult classics? What about the critical darling that never gained traction but is still loved by its small fan-base? What will happen if those fans simply can't play the game anymore because the 1% of code that is inexplicably cloud-based has been shut down. Are these fans expected to #DealWithIt and play the next game in the queue before that disappears as well, or play in seclusion with their buggy cracked versions and home-brew servers to keep their dreams alive?
I feel that any game, even the small successes and critical darlings have a right to exist and be played in 20 years. But as games become more of a service that superficially relies on the "cloud" we can expect less of this long tail to appear with the cult classics of tomorrow.
I tend to drive my wife crazy because I never watch TV, at least not like most people might be expected to. I don't typically watch each weeks' episode, biting my nails for the next week to appear, tweeting "OMG" about every twist in the show as it happens. I sometimes wait for an entire season to roll by, sometimes multiple seasons before I plop on the couch for a sleepless marathon of tearful laughter and excitement. Having the history of that piece of entertainments perception from the world but experiencing it for the first time is a very different experience than following along with the live broadcast. I am more easily able to see the foresight, and sometimes the lack of foresight, of the writers and how they crafted this season long adventure. The pieces just seem to fit better than my memory serves.
This same sort of binge and purge behavior is one that I exhibit with my video games as well. I don't always pickup a game on day one, and if I do the game might sit there for months or years before I get to it. Strange I know, but my time is limited and there is comfort in knowing that I have the disk and that the experience is waiting for me, at my own pace, in my own time. I know that someday I'll be able to drop the disk in and play the experience I paid for. If a game came out with rave reviews then I have no issue with paying full price and playing it when I have the time, even if the game is only $30 by the time I break open the plastic wrap.
If the new future of games is about consuming media before it's gone then I may find myself purchasing less games. I don't mind paying money for an experience I'm sure to enjoy later, but paying money for an experience that I may never have is another issue entirely.
In many ways, this connected future is an inevitability. Just like the internet is replacing the public library system, or handkerchiefs and baby cloths are succeeded by Kleenex and Huggies; the modern man likes to feel clean and agile. No one wants to be bogged down by the presence and inconveniences of physically persistent goods. Paper cups and plates, plastic non-reusable squeeze bottles, individually sealed plastic utensils; disposable products are the future of everything we do because it feels neat and orderly when we throw it into the magic forget-me-now box we call a trash can.
No one wants to be seen as a hoarder or deal with finding a place to put the box for that new game they just bought. As a result we have embraced digital distribution and neat and tidy systems like Steam and Xbox LIVE and PSN, our own private little forget-me-now boxes. For all of the amazing progress that digitally distributed games have brought us, it has also invited all of our worst fears. Digital games haven't really gotten much cheaper than their retail counterpart but we now have to contend with all of the piracy prevention tactics that come with putting an infinitely replicable piece of content out on the web. In the past the physical disk was often the prevention method, but things are changing. Publishers are trying everything from Diablo and SimCity style of "No really, it's not DRM" piracy prevention to more classic profile locked services like Steam.
The digital nature of video games is very much a double-edged sword. The majority population are slowly giving up their rights as consumers of a product to avoid the actions of the minority who exploit a resource that is not finite. If we were talking about hardware, a physical non-replicable object, I doubt many of these woes would exist. We don't hear about headphone or video card manufactures discussing the need to lock their products to a single user. When I look at this new digitally distributed cloud-based landscape of today I do wonder sometimes if we all got exactly what we asked for, even if it wasn't exactly what we wanted...