We don't always like being nonplussed

Friday, June 7, 2013

Frivolous Fridays: Why It's (Somewhat More) OK When Steam Does It

So we've learned a lot of things about the Xbox One, and most of them are pretty awful. For one thing, you have to check in once a day before you're allowed to play the games you've bought. Second, they weaseled their way out of taking responsibility for their anti-used-games tech, saying that "publishers can enable" your ability to actually own your property. But they don't charge any fees, see. It's all the publisher, using technology that Microsoft created for the express purpose of allowing the publisher to "enable" something you've been able to do on any other console to date.

And we've already got apologists defending this bullshit. "What's the big deal about an always-online console?" Now, not much. In a Goodwill in 2033 when you're looking for the games you played as a kid? Lots. "Why should publishers allow used games?" Books survived being loaned out for milennia, and people tended to buy books after they read the ones they liked. So, why shouldn't they? Why are they special?

But here is the tough one: "Steam already does most of this, so why is it okay for Steam and not for Microsoft?" So I put some thought into that.

 First and most important is that you don't have need of an expensive proprietary device to use Steam. There's talk of a Steam Box sometime in the future- though after the first model was rumored to cost over $1000 the talk kind of settled down. But at the moment, Steam is a PC service for PC games. Meaning that if Steam ever goes away, you may in fact lose your games... but you don't lose your PC. When the Xbox One's online service is ended in eight years in favor of the Xbox Two or Xbox 720 or whatever the hell it ends up being called, you have a very expensive Blu-Ray player. And since the tech industry is already making noises about the resolutions above 1080p that would make Blu-Ray as useful as your DVD player is on your HDTV now, well...

Granted, your current PC will likely be less useful than even that in 2021. But you can take your Steam account from one PC to the next... which probably also gives it a leg up on Microsoft, considering that they've also made zero effort to make the Xbox One backwards compatible. In other words, the only part of your purchase that Microsoft is actually comfortable with letting you own- the Xbox One console itself -becomes completely useless when they say so.

Console gaming was more or less invented and perpetuated as an alternative to expensive and complicated PC gaming, which for a long time was hobbyist-only territory and still struggles to get out from under the shadow of that. The standardized format of consoles makes life much easier for everyone because if you buy an Xbox 360 disk, you can be 100% certain that your Xbox 360 will run it. This is- along with simpler and more comfortable controls -the strength of console gaming.

Unfortunately for console gaming, Steam has streamlined the PC gaming process to a great degree. Though they've done so at the expense of actual ownership; you'll never be able to trade in a Steam game for something else. They've made up for that largely with reduced price and greater ease of use- you can and we have frequently grandfathered our older PC game purchases into Steam. And a lot of those games work with an Xbox 360 controller now, solving at long last the problem of standardized non-keyboard controls for PC gaming.

They answered the most important question a consumer can have when you inform them that you're depriving them of a long-rendered service: what's in it for me? The problem is where Microsoft wants it both ways: they want you to buy the proprietary device and games, but still not actually own any of them. And they've been completely unable to explain to consumers the benefits of not owning their software anymore.

It's extremely doubtful E3 will provide us any answers to that question, considering that Microsoft is feverishly cancelling as many interviews as they can.

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