Sorry, Microsoft. Damage Done

I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that yesterday’s reversal was unprecedented. Games companies have gone back on unpopular policies before, of course, but for a hardware company to withdraw its plans for new DRM features that until yesterday had been trumpeted as essential to the new system, that had only been codified less than a fortnight ago, and all only a week after E3 – by far the biggest opportunity they’ll get to set out their stall before the consoles actually arrive

Now I don’t necessarily hold such a reversal as a mistake in itself. I see many, particularly in the States, where the suggestion of ‘flip-flopping’ can torpedo a politician, saying that this makes Microsoft look weak. There’s value in admitting one’s mistakes and rectifying them, and it’s far better than a dogmatic refusal to change course.

But this DRM snafu is only the latest in a line of missteps that have shaken my faith in Microsoft and the Xbox platform. Although this makes the Xbox One a far more attractive – and, once the price drops and Halo comes out, far more likely – purchase for me, I’m still jumping on the PS4 train for my primary console this generation.

As superb as the first few years of the 360 – and, indeed, the original Xbox – were, Microsoft hasn’t represented my interests for some time now. There’s the complete dearth of interesting first-party titles, even compared to Nintendo’s increasingly token efforts and especially so next to Sony’s adventurous, technically world-class internal studios; the relentless focus on Kinect, once an avoidable annoyance and now “an essential and integrated part of the platform”; the backwards inability for indie developers to work outside the traditional publisher-developer relationship when it’s a dinosaur in these days of digital distribution; the twice-exhibited inability to close out a console with software support up to its successor’s release.

Mainly, though, it’s the inability to see me, as a consumer who has spent hundreds on Xbox games every year since 2002, as anything other than a walking wallet.

I actually didn’t mind paying for Xbox Live Gold and have done since the beta in 2002, as it provided by far the best online gaming experience around. Even today, after innumerable updates over years of development, PSN can’t compete in terms of the integration of the whole system. But PSN is now good enough, and its premium service offers far better value for less money. I don’t care that the PS4 locks online play behind the paywall now because I stocked up on PS Plus membership when it was £20 for a year in Game.

Microsoft, meanwhile, arbitrarily locks features behind the paywall to justify the cost, when most of them – Netflix, Sky Go, et al – require separate subscriptions and are free elsewhere. Why would I pay to use Netflix on my Xbox when my PS3, Blu-ray player, laptop, iPad, phone and DVR all have it integrated at no extra cost. Hell, why should I? This inflexibility famously kept the BBC iPlayer off the 360 because Microsoft didn’t want to give away access and the BBC wasn’t allowed to charge for the same thing.

The attempt at matching PS Plus’s Instant Game Collection gave us free Assassin’s Creed II and Halo 3, from 2009 and 2007 respectively, while Sony has recently given us top-class games from 2012 like Uncharted 3 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Rumour has it August will bring DmC: Devil May Cry, which is less than six months old, to PS Plus.

Even as I’ve dropped money on Xbox Live, year after year, Microsoft pushes out dashboard updates that seemingly do little but create more advertising space. It’s a company whose idea of generosity ends up looking insultingly miserly. That Mojang had to fight to allow the free content updates to Minecraft that have come to every other platform without issue. That simply doesn’t give most publishers the option of offering free DLC, even if they want to.

Well, a week from now on the 27th, my ten-year-old Xbox Live subscription will lapse and won’t be renewed. The Xbox One will be the first Xbox that I’m not picking up on day one. While I applaud Microsoft for reversing this disastrous policy, what it has lost over the last few years has been the benefit of the doubt. I should buy an Xbox One? Prove it, because you’re getting as little for nothing from me as I get from you.

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