CI’s Vik Iyer, an avid video gamer himself, looks at what the Xbox One fiasco says about digital consumer rights.
Imagine this scenario for a new computer game.
You are a member of the ‘consumer’ tribe and, now and again, you like playing games which enable you to shoot things or pretend you are Lionel Messi.
But your world is controlled by two rather sinister entities - Microsoft and Sony. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find a way to keep playing your video games without getting ripped off or duped by small print.
OK, so it’s not really a game idea but the real life challenge facing the millions of us who like our video games.
In the past week, it’s been Microsoft who’ve been cast as the bad guys after they announced a raft of new rules to accompany their Xbox One release including restrictions on selling old games and being forced to be online to play any game.
But the consumer backlash forced one of the most comprehensive u-turns seen by a tech giant in recent memory, with the aforementioned bones of contention all withdrawn.
So does that suggest people power still holds sway in the digital era? To some extent yes. Sony are a powerful rival and their decisions to make its new Playstation 4 console cheaper and offer games with less restrictions pushed Microsoft into a corner.
But you only have to take a look at our direction of travel in digital rights management (DRM) to see gamers may have won nothing more than a stay of execution.
The campaigners (though most would simply see themselves as gamers I suspect) who slated Microsoft said the policies were devastating for consumer rights and suggested it meant that they don’t ‘really own’ what they’ve bought.
But this is already happening in other sectors where competition isn’t working. Amazon famously removed
George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles in truly Orwellian fashion while Apple happily likes to dictate what you can do with its music and more.
And as far as the PC games world goes, being ‘online all the time’ is already close to a reality. Some games, either physical or downloaded, force you to play via an online platform called Steam.
Apparently, Steam has an offline mode but during a recent house move I found that mode to be highly ineffective while I waited to get my broadband started up. And trying to get any support wasted hours of my time.
All this hassle, for something that I’d already bought and paid for. No wonder some consumers look for ways round these digital restrictions.
There is also the phenomena of asking gamers to ‘buy’ things during the game to enhance the experience. Can you imagine watching the Godfather movie, only to be told you had to pay extra to see a ‘better’ ending?
CI's digital expert Jeremy Malcolm says: "If you pay money for a game on disk, your rights should be those of a purchaser, including the ability to play the game with or without an Internet connection, to lend it, sell it, or give it away.
"Whilst Microsoft's decision in this case is a victory for consumers, the direct cause of its about-face was competition from Sony, which was making much milage from the fact that their upcoming console did not have the same restrictions as Microsoft's.
He adds: "This is heavily ironic, given that Sony has hardly been a paragon of concern for consumer welfare in the past. Amongst Sony's wrongs against consumers were removing advertised functions from their PS3 console after purchase, and refusing refunds for purchased content that was unusable on the consumer's console due to Sony-imposed regional restrictions."
The entertainment industry constantly bemoans the billions of dollars it loses to piracy. But rinsing digital consumers of their cash at every possible turn, and them blaming them when they don’t play along is not the answer.
The Xbox One fiasco shows consumers do still have power. But the behaviour of other big tech companies suggest that strong consumer law will also be vital to protect people from the increasingly complex arrangements which you consent to from the simple act of buying a video game, ebook, movie or album.
CI campaigns on digital rights issues and also publishes in-depth analysis on the Access 2 Knowledge network.)