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Friday, June 21, 2013

How Xbox One's "Family Sharing" Probably Worked

This is a rough draft, but I'm publishing it anyway.

In my last post, I talked about the Xbox One's sharing model might have been a simple timed demo, based largely on follow up reports from a pastebin post.  I've been reading a lot of different posts in various places.  Much of it does not add up.  This is how I see it.

How Microsoft Sold It

Microsoft made it sound like family sharing would allow you to have a list of ten people, and anyone of those people could play any game in your library - as long as only one person on your list was playing the game at one time - indefinitely. Specifically:

Just like today, a family member can play your copy of Forza Motorsport at a friend’s house. Only now, they will see not just Forza, but all of your shared games.  You can always play your games, and any one of your family members can be playing from your shared library at a given time.

How "Heartbroken MS employee" described it

"Heartbroken" is an anonymous source, claiming to be a Microsoft employee working on their "Always On" strategy (which has now been dropped).

  1. 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.  We were toying around with a limit on the number of times members could access the shared game (as to discourage gamers from simply beating the game by doing multiple playthroughs). but we had not settled on an appropriate way of handling it.  One thing we knew is that we wanted the experience to be seamless for both the person sharing and the family member benefiting.  There weren't many models of this system already in the wild other than Sony's horrendous game sharing implementation, but it was clear their approach (if one could call it that) was not the way to go.  Developers complained about the lost sales and gamers complained about overbearing DRM that punished those who didn't share that implemented by publishers to quell gamers from taking advantage of a poorly thought out system.  We wanted our family sharing plan to be something that was talked about and genuinely enjoyed by the masses as a way of inciting gamers to try new games.

How the Internet interpreted Heartbroken's description

Access to the full game was only allowed for a time period up to 60 minutes, after that you have to buy the game.

The problem with Microsoft's story

As advertised, I actually have little incentive to buy titles - especially at launch.  Why buy when I can just wait to see people who have put me in their sharing plan might have bought it?  And then when I see that, why not just wait until someone else isn't playing it?  For publishers, which apparently MS was in negotiations with ( - why would this be an improvement over the used games grey market?  With this plan, I might actually forego buying a new game at all ... much less buy it and then resell it later.

To put it simply, if I have access to different libraries that I didn't pay for - and I can "check out" one of those games as long as nobody else is playing it (other than the original owner) ... there is a very strong chance that I could find a game to play for free rather than pony up $59.99.  Especially as time goes one and those libraries get bigger and there are more games and older games that others have probably finished.

The problem with Heartbroken's description

On the surface, the description seems like a plausible misdirection on Microsoft's part.  You can share your library (as advertised), but that game is really just a demo (not advertised).

However - this seems like a lot of engineering work to replicate what Sony already has done this generation with timed demos, with the added inconvenience that the game being demoed must be in this family Venn diagram to start.  More work, less benefit ... does not sound like much of a value add for either the consumer or even for Microsoft.

Aaron Greenberg said Heartbroken's information was "confusing and not true" (

Why is the Internet buying an anonymous post?

The most compelling reason is that a user named CBOAT on NeoGaf confirmed it, and CBOAT has apparently had a very high rate of success predicting information - leading NeoGaf users to believe he is probably a reliable Microsoft insider.  Neogaf also apparently is very quick to the banhammer with false rumors, and CBOAT has managed to hold an account for years.

CBOAT's exact post: "60sigh--"

He (or she) is known for posting in odd ways to defeat search engines finding the leaked info.


Here's my guess:

Family Sharing was never a demo program like PSN's timed demos.  Rather it was nagware.

First - accept the fact that the publishers would have always had final say in this program.  This falls in line with the rest of the Xbox One's DRM policies.  Can your game be shared?  Up to the publisher.  How can it be shared?  Up to the publisher.

Second - take Heartbroken's description of "beating the game through multiple playthroughs" not as a hard limit, but rather as a limit which could be set by the publishers to be sure that a game with 20 hours of play could not repeatedly be finished by constantly going back to the library 20 times every hour and having a save game that keeps their progression.

In other words, this is not a timed demo - but a full game that is gated every X minutes for Y number of times.  Every X, you are prompted to buy the game.  When you have played the game Y number of times - you have to pay the publisher.  Maybe some games you can play once for 15 minutes, maybe some you can play once every hour ten times.  All up to the publisher.

Why does that make sense?

This fits with Heartbroken's description - or at least that it was what Microsoft was still considering.  If fits with CBOAT's complaint that the max a user could play was 60 minutes (reading between the non-lines, as it were).  It fits with Greenberg's denial that these weren't time limited demos (because whether they are or aren't is completely up to your definition of the term, not to mention how the publisher decides to play it).

In some ways it is actually mutually beneficial to the gamer, the developer and the publisher.  The gamer gets (potentially) a kind of extended demo to try out games, the publisher is already guaranteed to block profits from used games which will cover if they don't get the uptick from shared games, and the developer sees the extra cash from the publisher.

All of this falls in line with all of Microsoft's messaging - from CBOAT to Greenberg.  It's a full game. It's not a demo.  At least not technically.  But yes, eventually you have to pay for the content.

It's not as consumer-friendly as the current model - but is an interesting feature made possible through DRM.

So why didn't Microsoft sell this better?

Try going to E3 with the message that you have a features which might be awesome - but only if the publishers let it be awesome.  Especially added onto an already negative campaign being warred about your DRM policy being too publisher friendly.  Add in your biggest competitor shoving the fact that none of this is a problem on their console in your face.

What do you do?  Do you overplay your hand by giving a lot of details which might be turned into fodder about how your great new feature is really just another publisher boon?  Or do you give out just enough information - but do it in a soft sell approach that won't raise too many questions?

I think Microsoft went with the former, which seems rational.  If I'm right - they would have been better served with the latter.

So why can't this happen now, just with digital downloads?

No profit motive for the publishers.  If Microsoft is going to allow the grey market back into Xbox One, why take the risk that someone might play a game for five hours and not buy anything?  That might have been something they would have stuck a toe into when Microsoft would guarantee that all transfer of ownership would go back through the publisher - but they've given that up now.  Along with giving that up, they're putting a (theoretical) chunk of change back into the red for the publisher.

Or in other words, if Microsoft returns to the status quo - so will the publishers.


I don't see this as a bad thing for consumers - right now.  Microsoft's biggest problem this generation is trying to force a "digital lifestyle" with a big stick, but no real carrot.  This could have been their biggest carrot, but it was obviously flawed.  Even if this theory is totally wrong - it was clearly too flawed to communicate correctly.

What Microsoft (and Sony, to be honest) need to do is not try to force gamers down a path of DRM policy to sell more digital content and make games obsolete - they need to figure out how to make buying digital content more attractive.

Steam has a DRM friendly, digital only model.  It's also the easiest and sometimes the cheapest way for PC gamers to buy games now.  Microsoft was not selling that.  Apple's App Store has a DRM friendly, digital only model.  It is also the only choice for iOS users, and with the Xbox One having a big fat Blu-Ray drive ... Microsoft was not selling that.

If consoles are going to go to a DRM friendly, digital only model ... gamers must be sold something.

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