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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Xbox One's "Family Sharing" ... actually a timed demo?

Microsoft has not been having a good time over the last week or so.  They effectively handed Sony one of the most brutal E3 victories in recent memory (and possibly like .... ever), to the point where Sony can even add in details like requiring a PlayStation Plus account for online play (but not, Sony is quick to point out - online apps like Netflix).  The Internet then proceeds to spend nearly every waking hour after E3 trying to come up with the best visual meme to ridicule the Xbox One.  Somewhere in the middle, Amazon quietly pulls a poll from their site because the PS4 was voting out the Xbox One to the tune of 100:1.

So Microsoft goes into damage control and reverses their DRM policy completely.  At the same time, they also remove some features, like disc-free gaming (when originally bought on the disc), voice activated game swapping (since apparently Kinetic is too stupid to know if the game actually exists now) and ... family sharing.

Family sharing could have been Microsoft's ticket to a better user story.  In fact, by all measures - it should have been.  The idea that up to ten people could effectively play your games without actually buying said games seems like the kind of pro-consumer story that Microsoft's DRM nightmare needed to give it a softer side.

It would have made such a great commercial:

"Hey have you played X"?

"No, can't.  No money."

"No problem, just say 'Xbox One, play THIS AWESOME GAME'"

OK, maybe it doesn't write itself - but you get the point.  That's something people might be able to get behind.

Problem was - instead of a really commercial, Microsoft just left big questions open.  How is "my family" defined?  Can I play the game while they play?  Is it my entire library or is there some other limit?  Certainly with the release still a few months out, some of these details might need to be ironed out first ... but Microsoft never went past the elevator pitch on this one.

Turns out, their might have been a good reason why:

First is family sharing, this feature is near and dear to me and I truly felt it would have helped the industry grow and make both gamers and developers happy. The premise is simple and elegant, when you buy your games for Xbox One, you can set any of them to be part of your shared library. Anyone who you deem to be family had access to these games regardless of where they are in the world. There was never any catch to that, they didn't have to share the same billing address or physical address it could be anyone. When your family member accesses any of your games, they're placed into a special demo mode. This demo mode in most cases would be the full game with a 15-45 minute timer and in some cases an hour. This allowed the person to play the game, get familiar with it then make a purchase if they wanted to. When the time limit was up they would automatically be prompted to the Marketplace so that they may order it if liked the game.
-- Heartbroken MS employee

 That's from a Pastebin post being circulated around, apparently from a grief stricken Microsoft employee lamenting the demise of the "Always Online" vision. Neogaf grabbed it, and seem to confirm its authenticity ... not in an official Microsoft way, but apparently a user (possibly an MS employee) there quelled an Internet forum's doubts.  Which is actually pretty compelling, if you think about it.  They also point out that this neatly fits into the whole "one hour online" check if you were playing on an Xbox other than your own.

The sad thing - this is actually pretty plausible.  Why have such a strict DRM policy just to basically allow only one out of ten people actually buy the game?  Sure, GameStop won't see the cash ... but neither was the publisher.  And if you weren't keeping track - that was pretty much the entire point of the DRM.

For the record - PlayStation Plus members already get these, although not for every title.  They're called timed demos and they don't have to be shared - any member can just grab them and go.  With Gakai added to their toolkit, it will probably get even better with the PS4.

If this is true, it is painting a very sad picture of Microsoft being completely out of touch with gamers.  For one thing, if people bought the Xbox One and found out when they got home how this great feature actually worked - the media backlash would have been a sight to see.

It's bad enough that they went through all of E3 without really being able to sell pretty much anyone on why DRM might be positive - it seems like they've gone out of their way to try to sneak some fast ones past gamers, especially on top of the cloud computing hocus pocus they've been schilling about.

I have my doubts about this being a purely timed demo.  More here:

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