Speculation: Used games management on the Xbox One

Filed under: Tech,Thoughts and Ideas — Tags: , — Sebbs @ 11:39 pm June 16, 2013

So, there’s a lot of angry people on the Internet right now, all upset over the DRM policies Microsoft has announced for the Xbox One. It seems to me though, after reading a lot of these comments and reactions, that most of these people haven’t read much into it themselves, either jumping to conclusions, never reading past the news headline (virtually all the headlines mention the online check-in requirements, but not the game sharing) or just joining the bandwagon.

I’m writing this partly to try put my understanding of Microsoft’s system down in a clear and concise manner, but also to detail how I see it could actually be implemented. Let me say here that I do not work for Microsoft, nor am I receiving any payment or benefits from them for writing this. This is all just my understanding and ideas based on the information publicly available in the press.

What we know

The details on lending and selling games, and buying used games seems to be what most people aren’t taking the time to read into. Once they hear DRM and “24-hour check-in” they just freak out and grab their pitchforks. I’ve had many conversations this past week with people who know those two points, and nothing else. So, to begin, here is my understanding of what the Xbox One’s DRM does.

Microsoft wants you to be able to download access any game you currently own (whether you bought it digitally through the Xbox Live Marketplace, or a physical copy of the game from a bricks-and-mortar store) on any Xbox One console you log in to. This means that you get the digital copy (on the cloud) of any game you buy on disc. You’re also able to share access to your game library with up to 10 friends, which Microsoft is calling your Xbox Family. The only restriction on this is that two people can’t play the same game from your library at the same time on different consoles (obviously, if they have their own copies of the game, then that restriction doesn’t apply).

For Xbox Live to know you purchased the physical copy of the game, there will have to be a license associated with that disc/purchase. The best way to think of this is like CD keys in PC games, which register against your account with that publisher (Your Battle.Net account with Blizzard and the StarCraft 2 and Diablo 3 games are easy examples of this). Because your purchased license is no longer the disc itself (the disc is more just a convenient means of providing the game content), you can’t exactly just lend the game to someone just by lending the disc. This is mostly what the 10-person Xbox Family is for, as a replacement to the traditional game lending system. In some ways this is more convenient too, as you don’t have to physically give them the game (in person, by mailing, secret agent drop points etc).

So, now that buying a game is essentially only buying the license for the game, how will trading and reselling a game work? Just as games can be bought online from the Xbox Live Marketplace or from a physical store, likewise there are two ways the license for a game can be transferred to another player. The first is just transferring the license directly to a friend online, the only requirement being that they have been on your friend’s list for at least 30 days. This will likely be done directly on your console, and presumably works both for games you physically purchased as well as Xbox Live Marketplace purchases. The other is the traditional method of trading/selling your game to a physical store, such as EB Games, JB Hifi, Gametraders et al. This would almost certainly only apply to games you purchased a physical copy of, and would result in the license for that game being unlinked from your Xbox Live account. I’ll be detailing my vision for the whole system for linking/unlinking licenses for physical games from your account in a moment.

The part where this gets a bit muddy is publishers being able to place restrictions or charge fees on the license transfers. Whether or not any publishers are actually going to restrict or charge for the license transfers remains to be seen. However, this is not so different from the current state of play on Xbox 360, PS3 (and soon the PS4) as well as the PC. EA’s Online Pass is a recent example, where the Online Pass was required  in order to play multiplayer online – the original, initial purchase of a game that required this gave you the Online Pass with the game, but those who purchased a used copy of the game would have to purchase the Online Pass.

This is all why the online requirement exists; so the console knows which games you’ve relinquished your license for, which licenses have been transferred to you from a friend, and what new games you and your Xbox Family have purchased that you can now have access to.

How might it work

So, that’s all the information I’ve pieced together from various articles and interviews. How might this actually be implemented though? How will the system know the disc you’ve just popped in the slot is brand new from the store, and not one you’ve borrowed from a friend? I mentioned CD keys before, and they are the foundations for how I see this system being built. (Just a quick reminder, this is all speculation on my part). Every game license for every game will have a unique key associated with it, and trading the games will actually be trading this license (from the data point of view, this is the same for both digital-only purchases and physical purchases). All this data of what keys for game licenses your account owns will sit in a database back at Microsoft. Approved retailers would also have some basic access to this database, but I’ll get to that shortly.

There are two ways I see the Xbox One doing the initial assignment of a physical game license to your account: from the disc, or from a code the user has to enter.

The disc-based method would have the unique key for that license at the start of the disc. I see this either being stamped on every Xbox One disc before the game gets stamped to it, or a blank, writable section at the start of the disc (when the disc is first played in a console, it sees the section is blank, generates/retrieves a new key and writes the key to the disc. From then on, that disc is tied to that license key). The process to associate the license with your account would be completely invisible to you, occurring automatically on the console when you insert the disc. However, these both present some challenges in the design and manufacturing side for the disc and console.

The other method is the user entering the code for the license when prompted by the console. We currently do this for PC games, as well as DLC from the slips included with the day-one release of games. Having to enter the string of letters and numbers with the on-screen keyboard is a bit of a pain though. However, we can make this a bit easier. The code for the license key could be embedded in a QR Code or Microsoft Tag. You could then scan this in using the Kinect sensor. Or, using your smartphone or tablet’s camera via the SmartGlass app. If a new license needed to be issued for a copy of a game, Microsoft or the retailer would simply be able to print out (or email) the new key as well. The obvious drawback for this method is it requires the user to perform this before they can actually start playing the disc in the console.

When you want to trade in/sell your game to an approved retailer, you would be asked for the email address (and maybe some other pieces of information just to make sure that it is your account) used for your Xbox Live account that you have the game license tied to. The retailer would then be able to remove the game license from your account in the database (another step the QR Code/Microsoft Tag method would assist in). For a retailer to be approved would just mean the retailer had submitted an application to have access to the database, and been granted login credentials by Microsoft. A web service (requiring the aforementioned login credentials) would be public entry way to the database, with the retail store staff talking to the web service via a web site, a small application Microsoft distributes as part of granting approval, or integrated into the retailer’s POS system (for those franchises big enough to have a POS system they can make modifications to).

And there we have it, how I think some of these new processes with buying, trading and reselling physical games on the Xbox One may work. Of course, transitioning to this new method is going to be disruptive, but it’s not easy to merge the physical and digital game sale markets for the result Microsoft seems to be trying to achieve. I hope reading this clears up some of the confusion and fosters a bit more creative and constructive discussion amongst gamers.

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