Microsoft's Xbox One turnaround shows gamers fighting the future, not embracing it

Well, gamers, your wishes were granted. In a stunning turn of events, Microsoft has completely reversed course on the most onerous aspects of the next-gen Xbox One. The console’s contentious connectivity requirement? Gone. Its iron-fisted grip on used games? Toast. Region locks? Sayonara.

Indeed, even people on nuclear submarines will be able to get their game on, thanks to the sweeping changes announced Wednesday. Microsoft Interactive head Don Mattrick is really, truly eating crow.

But here’s the rub: By ditching those controversial features, Microsoft is also forced to ditch some of the Xbox One’s most exciting innovations. By listening to gamers, Microsoft is delaying the future. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

Microsoft’s sudden about-face is that dramatic. And, since gamers are a fickle bunch who can’t decide whether to embrace the digital future or stick to the safety of the physical past, it was utterly inevitable.

A future spurned

While everyone was busy fretting about the Xbox One’s need to phone home once per day, they overlooked the awesome benefits provided by Microsoft’s digital-focused vision.

Yes, the used game restrictions were more reminiscent of Steam than of buying Nintendo cartridges at a swap meet, which burns when you purchase an honest-to-goodness physical disc. And yes, the merest hint of always-online digital rights management raises the hackle of gamers across the globe—with good reason, as anyone who has suffered through the Sim City launch or some of Ubisoft’s heinous persistent authentication schemes can attest.

The Xbox One’s daily phone home scheme was closer to an antivirus update than Diablo III’s constant checks, though, and while the console’s demonized changes were indeed major ones, the downplay of discs enabled Microsoft to enable features that frankly will never be possible as long as authentication is keyed to a piece of physical media.

The ability to play an installed game without the disc physically being in your Xbox One’s drive was an enchanting idea that almost smacked of witchery to longtime console buffs like yours truly. Alas, that magic is gone with Microsoft’s reversal.

If you want to share an Xbox One game like the innovative Project Spark, you’ll now have to hand your friends a physical disc. The ability to digitally share games is gone.

With it went the charming idea of digitally sharing your downloaded games with ten friends or family members, which sounded way more useful than schlepping around your tangible game collection from house to house. Digitally downloaded games can’t be shared any more, either. And since you’ll once again need to have a physical game in your disc tray to play it (Xbox Live downloads aside), the ability to quickly switch from game to game is largely extinct, too.

So many nifty innovations, gone, gone, gone.

New flash: No console manufacturer is ever going to give us a system where we can download all the games if we want, or buy them on disc if we want, and play games without the disc in, and never check online, and let us pass our disc around to all our friends so we can all play off a single game purchase. It’s just not gonna happen.

Always online, despite Microsoft’s changes

Bungie’s Destiny is built around a seamless online experience. Even if the Xbox One works without an Internet connection, Destiny won’t—and many other games are built around the cloud, too.

The much-maligned (and now dead) required Internet connection was good for more than just DRM, too.

Knowing for a fact that every Xbox One was connected to the Internet gave game developers an extraordinary amount of freedom to design games built around an online experience. Proof of that was found in abundant effect at this year’s E3.

From EA’s Need for Speed Rivals to Ubisoft’s The Crew to Bungie’s fantastic-looking Destiny and beyond, a cornucopia of console games have embraced the idea of seamless multiplayer action, where your single-player experiences can masterfully slip into multiplayer shenanigans without any overt actions from the player. One minute, you’re just another member of a massive single-player street race; the next minute, you’re being hunted down by another player who had assumed the role of a cop car in what began as a single player mission of his own.

Single player? Multiplayer? I’m not sure, but I am sure that it’s awesome, and it’s only possible in online consoles.

Will titles like these be put on hiatus thanks to Microsoft’s decision to dump the Xbox One’s online requirement? Nope. The software will still require an Internet connection even if the hardware does not. You’ll just be missing out on the axed perks previously mentioned—and you still won’t be able to play these types of games unless you’re online.

The victory over Xbox One’s digital practices is beginning to look truly Pyrrhic, indeed.

Microsoft’s server farms let games (like Forza 5) offload some graphical elements (such as lighting) to the cloud, theoretically helping developers to create a more lush visual experience.

Worse, the decision to dump a connectivity requirement could hinder what may be the most forward-thinking aspect of the next-gen console. Microsoft’s vast farm of servers dedicated to the Xbox One allows developers to offload some of the computational load to the cloud, theoretically enabling better graphics and performance than a stand-alone console can provide—especially a few years down the line, when the Xbox One becomes a bit … aged.

It’s a wonderful bit of future-proofing, but now it’s just a wee bit less wonderful than before.

Again, the lifting of the Xbox One’s online requirements doesn’t mean that its cloud-enhanced capabilities have to disappear. Developers can still leverage Microsoft’s servers, and many no doubt will. But without the guarantee that absolutely everyone will be able to access said offsite capabilities, you have to wonder if manufacturers will curb their ambitions. Relying on the cloud gets tricky when your customers can remain firmly grounded.

Too far, too soon

Microsoft’s reversal was all but guaranteed. Gamers hate change. After protests swelled and Sony’s resounding “PS4 is built for gamers” burn at E3, Microsoft had to shift the Xbox One’s course—especially since the forced change of Windows 8 still burns brightly in everyone’s mind. The Xbox One simply tried to do a little too much, a little too soon.

But the schism remains.

If we want to freely share and rent games, we have to live with putting the disc in the drive. If we want a digital sharing family plan and other cool cloud-connected features, we need the console to connect and authenticate our rights. We can’t have it both ways.

You gotta make up your mind, gamers.

But not today. Take your time. There’s no rush any more. Thanks to our collective indecision, it looks like we’ll have to wait yet another console generation before the opportunity to truly embrace the future arises again.

In the meantime, don’t lose those discs.

TechHive’s Jason Cross contributed to this article.

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