Xbox One’s DRM u-turn: thank Sony, not the core

Thursday, 20 June 2013 09:15 GMT By Patrick Garratt

“The internet” is currently involved in a frenzy of self-congratulation over Microsoft’s abandonment of Xbox One’s various DRM restrictions. We did it, the Ouroboros cries. Actually, you didn’t. Sony did.

If Sony hadn’t been so bloodthirsty, we would never have seen the intense anti-Xbox reaction over E3 week or the subsequent pre-order shifts. And, in all likelihood, we would never have seen Microsoft change its DRM stance on Xbox One.

Following The Great E3 Press Conference Day of 2013, during which Sony mercilessly humiliated Microsoft in front of a Californian crowd of whoopers and wailers, I bumped into a senior developer on the Microsoft booth. The conversation immediately swung to the previous evening, and, thanks to the feverish reception of Sony’s performance, I was told of turmoil among the developers and publishers assembled in LA. Those that had sided with Microsoft were doing more than wobbling, he said. They were seriously questioning whether or not they’d backed the appropriate horse and were making instant moves to better engage with Sony. Microsoft’s policies had been well known for some time, but it was, in fact, the reaction to Sony’s E3 showboating that was forcing what appeared to be a movement in content to PS4. Remember, Microsoft didn’t even mention DRM or online check-ins in its press conference, a showing from which I’d left generally positive.

Later on in E3 week, the anecdotal evidence from retailers was piling up. The press conferences (which, for the record, gave us our biggest ever traffic day by a huge measure) had apparently exacted a real effect on PS4 and Xbox One pre-orders. Amazon, it was said, was anticipating shipping seven PS4’s for every Xbox One. One independent retailer, who I won’t name here, was claiming Xbox One pre-orders were down 40% while its PS4 allocation had vanished in a twinking. Gossip is as gossip does, but journalists ignore this sort of talk at their peril. This was not a normal situation. During many conversations I had with publishers, developers and retailers that week, it was generally assumed that Microsoft would have to backtrack on at least some of its DRM policies, such was the weight of negativity towards Xbox One. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” was a phrase heard many, many times over those days in and around the LACC.

Who was Microsoft listening to when it decided to abandon years of work last night? Was it listening to the publishers who were instantly threatening to pull exclusive content over to PS4? Was it listening to developers, teams petrified that Xbox One’s restrictive rights stance would create a spike on which their businesses would be skewered? Was it listening to independent teams, furious at their continued exclusion from the Xbox platform? Was it listening to the American military, a fervent supporter of Xbox in the past, now suitably dramatic over the “sin” of online check-ins? Was it listening to the words that came out of Don Mattrick’s mouth when he said you can use an Xbox 360 if you don’t have an internet connection?

“We did it.” Francis, as ever, is required viewing.

Or was it listening to the forum legions and their tedious vitriol? Did internet discussion really kill the Xbox One DRM dream?

It would be foolish to say the hardcore didn’t have a part to play in what happened yesterday, but it would be well to remember that those conferences were watched by millions of people who wouldn’t know what VG247 or CVG or Kotaku or Reddit was if it walked up and blackened their eye. Microsoft’s DRM policy was unpopular among games site communities before E3, but the situation wasn’t exposed to the mainstream until Jack Tretton’s unforgettable pro-gamer slides in the PS4 press conference. The hilarious truth is that Microsoft was listening to Sony, was listening to approval for PS4 and what it could mean for Xbox in financial terms. Sony was driving the Xbox team into a situation where it was sure to launch with little momentum, a disastrous state of affairs endured by PS3. You can thank Sony’s aggression at E3 for Microsoft’s prostration yesterday. Maybe PlayStation’s passion for slamming Xbox’s head into the kerb was a little too ebullient. If Sony hadn’t been so bloodthirsty, we would never have seen the intense anti-Xbox reaction over E3 week or the subsequent pre-order shifts. And, in all likelihood, we would never have seen Microsoft change its DRM stance on Xbox One.

You didn’t do it. Sony did.

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