Mr Nelson, I Have Some Concerns About a (Potential) All-Digital Future

All-digital is probably going to happen, but what do we need to consider before that happens?

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For me (and presumably many other people), the Xbox One is a fantastic console; it brings together a wide array of options within a dedicated gaming machine that has provided a wide range of brilliant gaming experiences so far.

I would argue that the Xbox One has always performed well, selling out around the world at launch, having a dedicated fan base and an extensive range of great programs including backwards compatibility, Xbox Play Anywhere and of course, Xbox Live. When you look at the sales figures though, it has been clear that Sony’s PlayStation 4 has had the lead right from the off. I would always argue that which console you play on doesn’t matter, they are essentially the same, what should make your decision is:

  1. Who you are playing with – if all your friends you play with online are on PS4 then you might feel a little isolated on an Xbox One on your own (except for the random people online of course).
  2. What games you want to play – if you’re a massive fan of the Gears of War series, you aren’t going to get that on Sony’s machine, so Xbox may well be the choice for you there.

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There are other factors that you may want to consider: controller design/feel, timed exclusives DLC (not sure why) and developer backing are just some that go into the reasons for buying a console. Of course, first impressions of the console are vastly important. Just look at the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 reveals. It is fair to say that Microsoft’s reveal of the Xbox One was a misfire. I understood what it was about and had wanted to see more game footage, but I did have concerns: always online and the inability to trade your games in, much like PC gaming.

As you would expect, there was an outpouring of anger and disdain from the online community (I know, shocker, right?). Thankfully, Microsoft reversed these unpopular decisions, especially after Sony took the opportunity to capitalize on this and mock Microsoft for their consoles decisions. Despite this backtracking from Microsoft, it was months before people knew the facts, working in a specialist gaming retailer at the time of the consoles reveals and launches, I was still having to quell people’s concerns about not being able to trade and whether the Kinect was sending its feed to the CIA (*rolls eyes). From all of this, despite the damage control, the momentum built from the success of the Xbox 360 was certainly sent on a diversion of “scenic route” proportions.

Flash forward three years to the end of 2016 and we can see a change of fortune, the Xbox One has been winning the sales figures for consecutive runs, outselling the PS4 for four months straight and even drawing with them on Black Friday. There is a strong back catalogue of games, there are excellent exclusives galore and a strong install base from continued interest in providing great value. There’s also been new hardware iterations in the Xbox One S and the Elite Controller. Microsoft need to keep this momentum going and they will know this.

Looking forward to the future and what their next steps are will be vitally important for them to continue to succeed (and they are, both consoles are). Knowing what Sony have lined up in the likes of The Last of Us: Part Two, Days Gone By and Horizon: Zero Dawn will certainly be tempting for people, but it’s not just the games. Knowing what the future holds for Xbox as a platform will also be important to people, especially if Microsoft want people to buy into their brand and earn their customers loyalty. We know that Project Scorpio is coming, whatever form that will take and there is a great amount of buzz about it, as well as the grumblings you would expect to find about pretty much everything these days. Looking to the future is always important for longevity.

unbox3In a recent interview with Gamespot, Microsoft’s Director of Programming for Xbox Live, Larry Hyrb (Major Nelson) spoke briefly about what that future may hold for the Xbox platform, which, is the umbrella for Windows gaming and Xbox gaming under one platform. The interview is an interesting read about the near future and where Xbox is currently, but the important focus of the interview was to query Major Nelson about Xbox’s intentions regarding an all-digital future for Xbox.
It was perhaps a little apparent at the Xbox One reveal that Microsoft were perhaps pushing a little for people to go for an all digital console, despite providing a disc based option, the original proposed design would mean that any games would be registered to the console and only that console, meaning it couldn’t be used elsewhere,maxresdefault-2 or traded (in a traditional sense). There was to be a policy of digital rights management (DRM) in that you would need to own the licence to the game to be able to play it. Much in the way that PC gaming has been for many a year. Subsequent backlash and mocking from Sony meant Microsoft, thankfully, ditched this policy and reverted to how it has always been.

Gamespot were very keen on asking Major Nelson whether the new program ‘Play Anywhere’ was perhaps an attempt to draw people to the idea digital games media. His response was the following:

“I think the world is—with every passing year and month, every passing moment—the world is more and more comfortable with digital purchases, and frankly that’s what consumers are demanding. They want to have that flexibility of content unlocking and being available the moment a game is released. Being able to download it at their leisure.”

He goes on to talk about the importance of the brand ‘Xbox’ (for PC and console players alike) and having a great deal of flexibility in what is provided. They then discussed the move to Project Scorpio and likened it to the mobile phone market in the way they release updates of devices and all of your “content” goes with you, i.e. contacts, messages, downloads, music etc. via the cloud. This is something I have witnessed recently, I upgraded my Xbox One to an elite model (with the Elite controller and 1 TB hybrid drive) from my Day One edition and all of my digital content was waiting for me when I signed into my account, as well as my game saves that are also stored in the cloud (a life saver if your console breaks).

Of course, there was no commitment to a digital only Xbox and Major Nelson isn’t likely to announce that any time soon, especially with Project Scorpio getting the majority of the right buzz. I do have some thoughts regarding a move to all digital, both positive and areas of concerns. These are things we need to consider if we would make this move, as it may come around in the next couple of iterations of consoles. The Nintendo Switch certainly looks to be mainly digital, though details are still scarce on that one.  I have tried to summarize my thoughts and concerns below:

Cost

480xnx366340-jpg-pagespeed-ic-mihgv3ypenOf course this is one of the major concerns relating to digital only. Where PC gamers often benefit from a huge range of heavily discounted titles and the Steam sales are things of legend in how cheap they can be, consoles are yet to catch up. It is getting better, some of the deals, especially during Black Friday this year, were very reasonable. Other times, they are ridiculous, who is paying $70 for some of these digital games, considering the lack of a physical presence (box, manual, disc) should mean it was cheaper to produce. If console games were able to emulate the affordability of PC games, I’m sure that they would be embraced with open arms.

The other consideration to this is that a digital only Xbox console should, in theory, be cheaper to manufacture as there is no need for a costly Blu-ray drive. In his interview with Gamespot, Major Nelson spoke about choice and flexibility; providing a digital, cheaper Xbox may be a welcome option for customers. Of course, the flip-side of that is that they are then restricted to digital only content and that super cheap preowned game you’ve seen in your local game emporium is no longer an option, which flies in the face of what Larry Hyrb has said he is all for. Do love me a paradox.

Preowned

Microsoft was accused of trying to eliminate the preowned market with the original design of the Xbox One, making games linked to a console, trading of DRM to a title would have been done through their Azure cloud system and would allow you to trade digitally. The logistics were never revealed as Microsoft of, course, repealed this move pretty quickly. This isn’t the first time the preowned market has been threatened. Companies see it as them losing out on capital as a preowned game is owned by the retailer meaning that all profit goes to them. It feels short-sighted to me, as the money earned from preowned allows companies to continue to purchase stock from games developers and companies. It was heavily rumored that the PS3 would not work with preowned titles before it was announced. The introduction of ‘online passes (remember those) were a means to try to disrupt the preowned market meaning that if you bought a game new, you wouldn’t have to pay extra to play the online portion of the game. A morally abhorrent move from many a game company that has thankfully died off, usually because retailers were reducing the preowned price enough that the online pass price was still cheaper than the game brand new.

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Preowned is great opportunity to pick up games on the cheap to give them a go

People like to trade in, I do; I prefer to buy a boxed copy because I know I can trade the game in when I have done playing it and put that money towards another title, perhaps a new release. This is why I think the all digital and the slight hatred of the preowned market is unnecessary; it provides people the opportunity to seek out older games that are no longer in print anymore and a way for people to be more effective with their money, especially if they have little intention on returning to a game that has been completed. There are few games I keep once I have completed the campaign, 100% the achievements and played plenty of the multiplayer, especially with the sheer volume of releases there are. So getting a few bucks for it makes sense to me, no good taking up space on my shelf.

Storage

2583618-jpegCoincidentally, I was recently talking to my friend about the benefits of digital games over the physical alternative. I was explaining to him that I like having a collection of games, my all time favorites will remain on my shelf. I also get to display any collectibles I have amassed from the special editions that have released over the years (my Dishonored 2 Corvo mask and Bioshock: Infinite Songbird statue being my top two highlights). Though he did make a very good point, he is moving house soon and realized that he has a lot of clutter and currently does not have the storage capacity to have all of these knickknacks on display, games and collectibles. Digital only does alleviate this issue here, having a complete digital library, or a digital library of some description allows you to manage all of your gaming experience in one place. In the same way that many people have abandoned their physical books to store them all on a Kindle (never to be sold on once read) or all of their music on their phone via Apple Music or Spotify (on that one, I still own over 300 CDs and I will keep them!!!).

In fairness, I have over 200 titles ready to install on my Xbox One as well as the 30 odd games I have boxed on my shelf. I would certainly struggle if all the games I owned were all physical. Perhaps that would be a deterrent from my buying anymore games until I cleared some space in my home. Though, those 200 plus games are mine forever, I can’t trade them and sometimes the price different isn’t much. This week Divinity 2 is on sale on Xbox with the Deals with Gold, I almost bought it for £11.25 until a quick glance at Amazon revealed that it is only £14.76 for a physical copy. Now for that extra £3 I can trade it in at a later date and recoup some of my expenditure, maybe not loads, but it’s better than nothing. Though I won’t be able to play it for a long while, given how much I’ve already got to play as it is, so it would just sit on my shelf taking up space. I panic buy sometimes because I worry that a game will go out of print and become hard to find, therefore pushing up the prices of those copies that are available in stores.

Stores
As convenient as online shopping is, there’s definitely a place in our shopping world for bricks and mortar stores. We can go there for advice, trade opportunities and to have a browse. If consoles in the future were to go all digital, what would the stores stock? It would be the consoles and the credit only, presumably, for the new consoles at least. I believe that many stores could suffer and gamestock530potentially close if they do not have the potential income and footfall from the trading in opportunities.

Plus, it gets people out and socializing with like-minded people. I have had so many good conversations in my history of working at the specialist retailer (12 years) with customers and got them excited about their gaming choices and how to get it set up etc., providing an important level of customer service that doesn’t exist with online shopping. What happens to that if everyone is digital only? Catastrophizing a bit now, but hypothetically, it could destroy our way of life in terms of our social ability and damage some of our high street, losing people their jobs, their livelihood and therefore the economy suffers (super worst case scenario).

Internet

Of course the whole major crux of the matter comes down to the internet. An all digital console and service would require a stable, reliable and fast internet connection, especially if you’re wanting to download a 50GB+ game. From what I understand there are a lot of services that are spotty to say the least. Living in the UK, I know full well that our internet providers are not brilliant and they’ll cut out randomly, or they’ll be outage. And that’s on my side of the fence.

On the other side of the fence is the stability provided from the providers. You have only to look at major game releases from the last few years to know that they weren’t particularly smooth; Battlefield 4 stands out as one of the most obvious choices. The game servers were down and unstable for about six months, for me anyway. It took forever to get that game right. To truly embrace all-digital you would need to ensure that your servers (in both games and online retail stores) are functional and can provide the service needed, under the demands of an ever-expanding user base.

Further to that, not everyone has or uses the internet. A smaller minority now, but still a fair number. Some of these people may have access but chose to not because of concerns about sharing their information and most importantly financial details online. Given the DDoS attacks of the last few years (strangely quieter for 2016) and the huge data breach at Sony a couple of years ago, it’s understandable.

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So where does this leave us? Personally, I think an all digital era of consoles if probably inevitable, though I do think it will be while away. Seeing how music, movies and books have all been adopted into the all digital market is telling. Though, as Major Nelson, spoke about in his interview with Gamespot, choice is key. I think you need to continue to provide people with the choice of physical or digital. If we went all digital with no other option then it’s kind of hypocritical to say “choice is important” if you’re essentially going to ignore it. I’d like to think that these are concerns that the hardware developers at Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are all aware of and striving to ensure that they do whatever they can to provide great gaming experiences for the customer.

If you have any thoughts on an all digital future give us a comment below or on the RGM Forums.

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