As the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) wages on in the wake of PAX East (check out our extensive coverage in videos and podcasts), the one topic that doesn’t seem to die is this rumor that the next Xbox console will require an always on connection, install games directly to the hard drive (utilizing disc-based media only for the purpose of distribution of data), and that it will potentially block used and/or rental games. There are aspects of this that don’t seem to connect, like the fact that it requires a consistent Internet connection but claims to use discs as a distribution method, but the fact that Microsoft has remained completely silent has me cautious. Sony isn’t out of this either – despite claims that they will not block used gaming, the technology is clearly present in PS3 media, not to mention later claims that developers and publishers can encrypt blocks if they want to. I don’t care if Sony doesn’t want to take personal responsibility for it, they are in the same boat as Microsoft. Nintendo will jump on this bandwagon too, just as soon as it can figure out a proprietary way of implementing its own version. I know many gamers cannot fathom this concept that used or rental gaming, a popular format, would go away and thus prevent them from experiencing the newest games. At the same time software sales are at an all time low, especially on new games, that I honestly think the breaking point has been reached and publishers would rather you pay the full price for the game or not make it available at all. Clearly neither is a viable option; without gamers there’s no audience and without developers there’s no one to create content. Let’s not forget about the large number of employees currently making an income off GameStop, Gamefly, Redbox, and plenty of other used and rental-based companies that would be without a job if this were blocked. We need to stop working against each other in this industry and start figuring out how to make it work, to compromise. It’s a marriage and we’re in it for the long haul.
Fear not, everyone, I have a relatively simple solution that, in theory, should work for the masses. It won’t be without its haters, hiccups, and growing pains, but as I see it this is the best shot we all have. There have also been hints of this system mentioned in the past but I have not seen an article that lays it all out. I’m not taking ownership of the idea of licenses, just this method of its implementation, and only for the purposes of discussion.
Now we know that individual game discs can be linked to individual consoles, that each console has a specific serial number for individualization, that these serial numbers can be registered with the manufacturer, and that in the event of console replacement or failure we can register the new serial number with the manufacturer. This process of registering is much like you see today with a cable box, cell phone, or even car, it allows the companies to tie a specific person/household to a specific piece of hardware. With this in mind you can use flexible licensure to properly manage used games, rental games, and customer service. That’s the key to this idea and how it will have to move going forward: through temporary and permanent licenses that tie the media to the console. Here’s a breakdown of how it works in all scenarios – users, game shops, and rental companies.
Owners are the easiest. These are people who purchase a game new and bring it home. Upon initial load you register the disc with the device, a permanent license with the device is made, and hopefully the game is also unlocked digitally via the digital store in case the disc gets damaged or lost. See it doesn’t matter if you lose the disc, it’ll only play on your device, so publishers are covered. Now lets say you want to give the game to a friend, sell it to someone on Craigslist or eBay, and even bring it over to a friend’s house – no problem. You will have to break your license, which should be free of charge, that will no longer pair the game to your device, removes it as a downloadable item on the digital store, and any data (other than saved data) stored on the console will also be deleted. Then another user can pay a license fee, which I think precedence safely puts us at $10, to pair the game up to their console and enjoy the same benefits you did. This puts the licensing fee on the new buyer, not the previous owner, and makes things work much like today. If you give your friend a game and they want to play online, they have to pay a $10 initial fee, just like today. If you sell a disc to someone on eBay and it gets lost in the mail, someone else can find it and tie it to their console to play it, just like today. This brings up an interesting side thought, though, because Sony and Microsoft may be able to track that disc to a user in the event something like that does happen and block them out. You can also safely sell it to GameStop, who should have a simple interface to verify a clear license, like used cell phone stores verify a clean electronic serial number (ESN) on a phone. Your biggest hiccup is bringing a new game over to a friend’s house, which I hope can be solved with a simple temporary license that would be less than $5 and only work for a few days/weeks that are preset by the original licensee. In all reality, that’s getting complicated so you may want to prepare for the reality that bringing a game to a friend’s house may not be possible anymore unless your console comes with. We did it in the 90s plenty, you can handle it nowadays too.
Now for used game stores, like GameStop, this will require more architecture and a consistent computer keeping in contact with either the manufacturer or publisher, whomever becomes the gatekeeper of the licenses. With this they will be able to issue new licenses, break licenses on games they personally own, and interface everything within the store and possibly even without a cost to the consumer. Whenever you buy a used game from GameStop, they will tie the disc to your console right in the store, so there’s no risk of any funny business. You can take the disc home, use it, and even return it within 7 days, like today, because GameStop can re-break the license. Even if you lose the disc they can simply have you return it (probably with a replacement fee), and get the publisher/manufacturer to issue them a new disc, the old one is useless anyway once they block the license. GameStop will have to pay a fee for this service, which they can hopefully tie into the buying/selling rates and adjust so the price on the used game is the price you pay, license included. It’ll do away with games under $10 for sure, but you will probably still see most games selling between $15-$30 used. Also the developer/publisher finally gets a cut on used purchases, possibly even equal to that of new, and everyone’s happy. GameStop may skim its profit margin a bit with this new system, but the alternative is closing house so I’m sure they’ll get on board. Other brick & mortar stores will have slightly bigger issues, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles, you can either get in line or drop out of the market. They’ll even be able to verify you’ve broken your license or break it for you when you sell your games, all they’ll need is a signature that they usually get anyway and anything they break can be re-issued at anytime if given scenarios occur. How do they know your console’s info? Why you register it online and tie it to your PowerUp card, of course.
Rental will be the biggest headache and may not even work, but this method is completely possible, especially with Gamefly. All you do is register your console(s) with the site when you become a member (or get a new console), then the site has the same ability as GameStop to add and remove licenses. When they ship you a game they tie a license to it. Since the game only works in your console for the time being and you can keep games as long as you’re a member, they simply don’t worry about it until you send it back. When you do ship it back, simply let them know you have via the site interface and they can instantly break the license and send you a new licensed game. If you keep the disc, they don’t care because it won’t work, and there can be penalties for unreceived discs after a set period of time, say two weeks. They can get replacements upon blocking out the serial number on the misplaced disc, and renters instantly get a new game. Provided you stop thinking of the discs as actual games and more of storage compartments for data the risk of today’s used and rental markets is removed. Even RedBox should be able to do this by having you register your console with them and using the email address, plus when you return the game the license immediately breaks so scams where you trick the box into thinking the disc was returned won’t work anymore, the game won’t play on your console. This will increase the price of games to rental companies, as clearly paying a fee of $10 is not a good rental market price, even if they can discount it. I suggest a higher rate for rental games, like we used to do with VHS tapes, that ups the price to more like $100 for a rental licensed version and it can only be to pre-approved companies.
This seems like the best and most viable option where everyone wins, and it doesn’t even affect the process or retail price of new game sales. Yeah, it sucks that you need to have a disc, a license, and an Internet connection to tie the two, but hopefully the verification will be a quick authentication when you load the game that only checks in at random intervals, that shouldn’t even affect modern architecture because games do that most of the time anyway. People will scream about those that don’t have internet connections, well sadly friend you are not a viable market to the gaming industry anyway so they aren’t going to cater to you. As for slow internet, a 2 KB authentication code should work fine on dial-up, let alone even the slowest of contemporary connections.
There are flaws, of course, with this system. Off the top of my head it does mean that if your Internet goes down so does your current gaming session. It also means that during the inevitable system maintenance, server crashes, hacks, and several other things that companies can experience will also prevent you from gaming. Provided that they keep the data transfer small, and it should be if we’re talking solely about license authentication, there shouldn’t be bogged down server issues like we’ve recently seen with Sim City and Diablo III. It also means that parents have a major set of headaches on their hands with license maintenance, kids swapping and losing games, bringing home the wrong disc, not having that information at GameStop in 5:00 pm Christmas Eve, and a myriad of other non-gamer parent woes. It also severely ups the ante if these companies get hacked or gain access to authentication servers, but I’m telling you these risks exist with this ideology already, just in a different form. I’m sure there’s a whole slew of other considerations that I haven’t touched on, please feel free to list them or discuss them in the comments below. As it stands though, I’d like to think that this may even be a good thing because it’s a solution that’s “good enough” for everyone, it doesn’t block rentals or used sales (and thus saves jobs), and for the first time in history game companies can get paid for their work on the used gaming market.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author, Fred Rojas, and not necessarily those of the B-Team Podcast or any of its other hosts.